TORN DOWN THE MIDDLE

Music and dance at night in Jerusalem Suq

“We are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love,” said the poet William Blake.

Sometimes love doesn’t quite feel so sunny.

My mother woke up tired today; at 10 am I found her still in her pajamas. She got dressed, which tired her once again.

“Let’s go to the cheese shop,” I suggested. There’s a café half a block down from where she lives with excellent cheeses, sandwiches, coffee, and salads.

She agreed, put on her lipstick, picked up her cane, and we went out. It was a beautiful sunny day in Jerusalem (the prognosis for the next several days is upper 90s Fahrenheit). We walked carefully down two flights of stairs and then down the half-block of uneven pavement. When we passed a large drop on her right where five steep flights of cobbled steps take you way down to a street below, I put an arm lightly around her shoulder to make sure she didn’t stumble and fall.

At the café we sat outdoors in the shade, drank coffee for me and hot chocolate for her, and shared a piece of cake. A little later my sister arrived, bringing her dog, Piccolo (small like the name but heftier), and as we left she asked me to take him with us back to my mother’s home.

Piccolo is deaf, blind, diabetic, white-muzzled, and his added weight makes him look like a raccoon. My mother was once again tired and I knew she could use support, but Piccolo hung back, unwilling to follow.

“Come on, Piccolo,” I said to him, though he couldn’t hear a thing, “come on,” and pulled on the leash. My mother walked ahead of me, intent on getting home to rest and I worried that I couldn’t both give her an arm and pull up the stubborn little dog.

“Come on, Piccolo,” I pleaded again, yanking the leash, eyeing with concern the big drop of cobbled steps my mother was coming to.

For a moment it all seemed hilarious. I was stretching out one arm ahead of me in the effort to catch up with my mother and make sure she wouldn’t fall, while the other arm was stretched way back because Piccolo wasn’t coming till he was good and ready. Aged dog, aged mother, and me in between, spread-eagled in the air.

Story of my life, I thought to myself. Trying to do the best I can, torn much of the time.

I remember this conversation with Bernie last fall:

Eve in deeply-concerned mode: “Bernie, how do you feel? I can see you cringing as you move your leg.”

“I had a stroke,” says he. “I can feel that I had a stroke.”

Eve in her there-is-an-end-to-suffering mode: “What about the CBD salve I put on your body in the evenings?”

“Doesn’t do much.”

Eve in her here’s-how-to-end-suffering mode: “Will ibuprofen help?”

“I don’t think I need that.”

Eve in her I-never-give-up mode: “What about that special tincture?”

He looked at me and said, “Eve, I’m okay. As long as I can exercise and not get worse, I’m okay. At the end of the year I plan to start running.” He looked at my face and smiled, adding: ”but I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen, or if I don’t make it.”

Whew! What a relief.

 

 

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OLD TALK/SICK TALK-3: JUST TALK

Photo by Rami Efal

I flew to visit my mother. Arrived in Jerusalem after a long trip and hurried to her apartment.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Very well for my age,” she said, sitting up in her bed. “Only some evil spirits visit me here and there.”

What evil spirits, I wanted to know. Evil spirits are the hidden gems of such a conversation. When she didn’t answer, I prompted, “People around you? Family? The past?” She shook her head: I won’t say. Just like the Zen koan where a master and student encounter a corpse, and the student asks: “Dead or alive?” The master answers: “I won’t say; I won’t say.”

Earlier that day I flew out of Boston, getting to the airport after a car ride and two bus rides, followed by mind-numbing security checks (Who packed this bag? Was it with you at all times? Did anyone give you anything to take with you?) and lengthy boarding lines. When I finally got to my seat I saw that the couple next to me had filled it up by tossing there their pillows and blankets, not to mention her bag and water bottle, and shoes on the floor.

“We thought the seat would be empty,” they told me.

“I can see that,” I said a little snarkily.

They hurried to remove all their things. I made my way in and immediately began to build my own little nest for the 11-hour transatlantic flight.

It was a young, attractive couple, in their mid-20s or 30. They had their stock of power bars, snacks of seeds and nuts, and reusable stainless steel water bottles. They kept their personal headphones on almost for the entire trip, dozing off to music. I heard one ask if the other had remembered to bring this, and the other countered by wondering whether they forgot something else; it was clear that they were already veteran travelers.

And it hit me that just as it’s important to keep old talk and sick talk in the conversation, it’s equally important to keep young talk in the conversation. They were traveling to attend a wedding, visit friends, and join them on a trip together. They were off to rent a car, have a good time. I was off to visit my 91 year-old mother.

I felt the older generation ahead of me, the younger ones behind, all of us needing each other to realize the wholeness of life time and time again. I saw my need for my neighbor, with her avid thirst for water, who demanded a big space even at the expense of others, confident that the best is always ahead, and the one who could barely get out of bed, who had little appetite during a terrific Friday night dinner, and spoke to me of evil spirits.

I knew at that moment, too, that somehow I also need the people who think very differently from me, who clamor for things I don’t want, who insist on changing this world into something I don’t recognize.

There’s no obstruction anywhere, Zen master Dogen wrote back in the 13th century. Oh yeah? I thought to myself, looking at my seat on the plane filled with the objects the young couple had thrown down to make themselves more comfortable.

But in some way it’s no different from the birds chirping loudly outside now at 4:00 in the still-dark, early Jerusalem morning, so loudly I can’t sleep. They have their specificity, I have mine, and occasionally it looks like we’re on a collision course. Instead, we interact and finally include each other. It’s all one big mountain, and what does it matter if we ascend or descend, if we meander right or meander left, when basically it’s all one mountain anyway.

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OLD TALK/SICK TALK-2

Photo by Rami Efal

I continue to be grateful to Jon Katz for opening up the question of how much to indulge in old talk, to which I add sick talk because illness is often intertwined with getting older.

Jon, a good friend, didn’t care much for my asking him about his health and wrote that he’s leery of old talk, that it shows people identifying him according to his age and health rather than with the fantastic things he’s doing, like writing books, a popular blog, his support of young immigrants, his devotion and care for the residents of an assisted living residence near where he lives, not to mention sustaining a good marriage and a farm.

On Monday I wrote that I don’t think we get enough old and sick talk. I think we fight tooth and nail against hearing that stuff, and when we’re stuck sitting near someone who talks about what ails him/her we nod politely and turn a deaf ear.

After Bernie had his stroke a whole new vista of illness and old age opened up for me. Like most people, I thought I knew about all that, but now it was as if another eye had opened, and something I thought I’d seen before now appeared much more meaningful and consequential. It was Bernie’s gift to me.

“How are you feeling?” I’d ask him.

“Okay,” was all he said.

“Okay what?”

“Okay okay,” he’d say.

He didn’t like to talk about aches and pains, he didn’t like to talk about tough nights. Tell me, I’d plead with him, tell me. Because I really wanted to know. Because when you can share with someone what is actually going on without hiding or complaining, you are revealing yourself, your vulnerabilities, your doubts and struggles, and I see that as a big gift. Moonlight glimmering through shadow.

The world of the sick and old is actually a very quiet one. People are afraid to talk because nobody wants to hear about it. I’ve had friends with serious chronic illnesses that caused severe pain and weakness. They had to stop working, ran out of money, and sometimes lost their marriages. Whom did they tell?

Someone recently said to me, “I tell the people on my message forum who suffer from the same thing I have, but most of what I experience I don’t post on my regular Facebook page. People don’t want to know. I’ve lost many friends since getting sick, and I’ve had to grieve over that in addition to grieving over my illness.”

I like to listen to folks describe the challenges they deal with as they get older or sick. Not just open to it, really interested. Why? Because they’re telling me how to live. Illness and old age are ahead for almost all of us. Don’t you want to know how to do it? Who are you going to learn this from, a healthy 25 year-old?

When I listen to old or sick people, whether they know it or not, that’s the question they’re answering: How do you do it? How do you live through this? How do you live when first thing you feel in the mornings is pain in your joints? When you have to get up and stand slowly because of blood pressure problems, or because you had a stroke and can’t feel the floor under your feet? Watching Bernie walk knowing that he couldn’t feel the floor under his right foot, couldn’t feel resistance, was mind-boggling for me.

Yes, some will talk in great detail about ailments, but if you listen closely enough, you’ll start getting the answer you are waiting for: This is how I do it. Maybe the answer has to do with their meditation practice, maybe it’s because they believe in God or a higher power, maybe it’s because they see it as part of the package. Maybe, like my father, all they can say is: “I don’t like to complain.”

Bernie gave the same answer: “What’s the good of complaining?” How I wish I could have succeeded in communicating to both men that I never heard it as complaining. I heard it as answers to the question, how do you do it?

Lots of Zen books talk about life and death; lots of teachings admonish you to prepare. But where is the wisdom by example? What vulnerabilities are we afraid of when we eschew old talk and sick talk? What fragility? What intimacy?

Jean Vanier died about a week ago. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. He turned his back on an upper-class, educated, well-to-do background in order to form L’Arche, a community where healthy people lived alongside and supported folks with developmental disabilities, a community that became a worldwide network. I never met him but devoured his books.

Vanier was clear that he received way more than he gave, that he learned what it is to be human from people with illness and disability, what it is to love and be loved unconditionally, and finally, what it is to touch and be touched by the very marrow of life, the one true note we sometimes call God. The theologian Henri Nouwen, who taught at Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools, spent his last decade, from his mid-50s to mid-60s, in a L’Arche community. For Nouwen, you couldn’t talk about what it is to be human without touching your deepest fear, and what greater fear do we have than that of incapacity and death?

For me, there’s nothing like the bright, bubbly, burpy laugh of a baby. Why else do we gesticulate like fools if not to hear that laugh again and again? But there’s something indescribable, too, about that special amalgam of laughter and tears that is life’s great gift to us many years later.

“Oh God!” I exclaimed one night after running upstairs and contemplating Bernie on the floor after he fell.

He looked up at me from the floor and said, “You know what’s another name for God? Go figure.”

 

 

 

 

 

And I feel bad for all the stakwart people who feel that bearing witness is complaining, that there is shame involved in feeling the constraints of your body and spirit and therefore do what everybody does who is shamed, keep quiet, disappear for a while, pretend nothing is happening..

 

 

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OLD TALK, SICK TALK

Photo by Rami Efal

I owe Jon Katz so much. First and foremost, he’s the one who persuaded me to start a blog, especially after my husband, Bernie Glassman, came down with a major stroke.

“I don’t have time to write,” I told him on the phone. I drove back and forth to Springfield every day and collapsed at night, staring out at the darkness and wondering what’s ahead for us.

“You can’t afford not to,” were his unforgettable words to me. Right then and there I decided to write a blog.

We then started a discussion about whether blogs are real writing (yes, Virginia, I think they are) and whether anyone will ever consider them fine writing (yes, Virginia, I think they will). Jon, whose blog is read by many, many people (I don’t have a clue how many read mine), is way ahead of most writers when it comes to technology, choosing to see the latest changes in the publishing world as a blessing rather than a curse, showing many ignorant and narrow-minded folks like me that the technology that took down so many publishing houses also makes self-publishing, photography, music, and art easier than before, democratizing creative opportunities for all of us.

“Don’t be such a literary snob,” he told me. Great advice.

Recently Jon wrote about how he reacted to a question I posed to him one night when we talked by phone: “How’s your health, Jon?” He told me briefly it was fine, but emailed me the next day wondering why I asked. I told him it’s a question I ask of friends, family, and students because they’re precious to me. Jon then wrote about it in his blog saying that to him it sounds like “old talk,” in his words, talk that enables our society to define older people according to medical health and age rather than accepting them as the full human beings that they are, and added that he didn’t wish to be defined this way. Thus began this dialogue.

I don’t just ask older people about their health, I ask everyone I’m close to. I started doing this very deliberately after my husband got his major stroke and I witnessed how catastrophic illness changes the rules. It doesn’t mean your life is over; it doesn’t mean work and love are over; but it does change many things. Whether that’s an opportunity or a curse depends on the person.

In the holistic system I call my body-mind, no one can tell me where the body ends and the mind begins, or where the body ends and the imagination begins, or where the body ends and the soul or spirit begins. Nothing gets compartmentalized. In some way or other, illness goes throughout the system, it doesn’t just stay is some small organ or other.

When the Zen group where I teach has meetings, we do a brief check-in first: How are you doing, how are you feeling, and what should we know about your life that affects your participation in the meeting. So if somebody had a bad night and is grumpy or impatient, we don’t take it personally. If somebody just heard that they’re losing their job or their daughter got a cancer diagnosis, that information provides some context for what may come up later.

Context is everything.

A friend of mine died 6 days ago in California at the end of many years of struggle with cancer. This is not the time to recount her travails, only to say that, already in hospice care, she decided to declare victory and move on. I got a letter from her several days after her death. In that letter she wrote that she was ending her life and made two points: 1. Life is beautiful and glorious, and 2. We should repay this undeserved gift by being of service.

I’ve looked at this letter every day since it arrived, always imagining her as I saw her the last few times, twice looking out at the trees surrounding our house here in New England, or else looking out over the Pacific Ocean in front of her home, the big waves crested with surfers crashing on the beach, whales gliding up and down the channel, and pelicans flying low looking for fish. Skeletal and beautiful, she kept on saying again and again, even in the middle of incredible bouts of pain and nausea, that life is an indescribable gift.

Did those words affect me, and continue to affect me, way deeper than a healthy 21 year-old happily gurgling with plans for life and love and future? You betcha. I love hearing young people express confidence and optimism about their life, but the joy my friend expressed on the threshold of self-extinction is mind-boggling. She also deeply appreciated the opportunity to contemplate non-existence and unabashedly discussed it with her family.

I think “old talk” or “sick talk” can be mind-boggling. It can challenge our fears and anxieties, it can open up a whole new vista on what’s ahead. We always think that what’s ahead is for younger people, but my friend didn’t buy that at all. She knew a great mystery lay ahead for her, and talking about it was good.

I think we need more of that kind of sick or old talk, not less.

My husband, Bernie Glassman, knew many people. Only a fraction of them got to see him after his stroke when he could hardly travel anymore. I’d tell the others: You should have seen Bernie after his stroke, he was a whole other person. He didn’t deny anything, he didn’t pretend. He worked incredibly hard to achieve mobility from a half-paralyzed body and he knew his mind changed as well, becoming slower and denser. But feelings arose he’d never experienced before. He talked more about love in the last 3 years of his life than he did for the first 77. He showed more grace, vulnerability, and tenderness. He cared about human beings, not just about being.

Those who did get to see him, either in person or online, later told me that he made a deeper impression on them towards the end of his life, professing love and faith even as he lost his teeth, his right arm hung limply in his lap and his talk was labored, than in all the years when he’d been so vibrant and innovative, so full of ideas and life.

When you’re a lot younger, you’re a little like the sun, your energy and health blaze through even in cloudy, challenging days. When you’re older or sicker you’re more like the moon, with phases that conceal and reveal you in turn as the month goes by. Moonlight filters through those shadows onto the grass and the trees like diamonds. It doesn’t pretend to be the sun, it is what it is, but without the shadows, you lose the gleam and the magic.

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A FOND FAREWELL

Bernie’s car, a Hybrid Toyota Camry, came to its end today.

Toyota said we should stop driving it, the rust at the bottom was terrible and the car was coming apart at the seams. So today Tim drove it slowly to a junkyard while I followed in my car with emergency lights on. We got there safely, I gave them the title, they gave me a check for $100, and I bid a fond farewell to the “blue car,” as we called it, before pulling away with Tim. I also paid attention one last time to the orange Peacemakers decal on the back, with the insignia of a paulownia leaf.

Bernie got the car in 2007. Till then we’d been happily driving another Camry, a 1995 model previously owned by Maezumi Roshi. At 12 years old it was still driving pretty snappily, but not long distances, and in September 2007 Bernie was going to start teaching in Harvard every week, 2 hours’ drive away. That’s when he said that it was time for a new car.

“Why not the Prius?” I asked him, which was all the rage at that time.

“I want something heavy,” was his answer.

Sure enough, that fall and winter we seemed to have ice and snow every Sunday night, which the blue car took with stability and poise early Sunday mornings. Meantime, I drove the 1995 Camry till 2011 when, at 230,000 miles and leaking fluids everywhere, I took pity on our poor planet and finally scrapped it.

In addition to the orange decal, the blue car had lots of character: cigarette burns by the seat, a cigar-smoke swallowing machine on the floor, and about half a dozen packages of breath mints to make Bernie’s breath tolerable. The side compartment, of course, contained two old and stale cigars along with a cigar cutter, and small cellophane wrappings. Not to mention the seats that smelled of cigar smoke. Stanley and Bubale, our previous generation of dogs, decided to get into the act, poked holes in the leather seats and clawed at the upholstery on the inside of the doors every time they saw a person, dog, or best of all, a motorcycle on the road.

“Why can’t you take better care of your beautiful car?” I asked him.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“The back looks like it was hit by a tornado and the front smells like an incinerator.”

“So what’s wrong with it?” he’d ask, puffing on his cigar.

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WALKING ON GOSSAMER

My mother—91 and a new immigrant to the Land of Dementia—is getting married.

“He’s my lover,” she tells me on the phone.

“Where did you meet him, mom?”

“The place I go to twice a week [a senior day center]. We sit and talk, people see us together, so I thought—why not? I don’t want people to talk. This way we do everything openly so there’s no reason for gossip.”

I would be surprised if her lover is aware of these plans—or even that she refers to him as her lover. It’s the word rather than her marriage plans that give me pause: lover. Me-a-hev, in Hebrew. Since when does my religious Jewish mother refer to any man as her lover?

Attractive and divorced for some 30 years, she never wanted to remarry though men were clearly interested in her. She was proud of their attentions, proud of her looks and strong personality, but after more than 40 years of marriage, she was clear she wasn’t going to do it again. No interest in dates, none in romance; she’d laugh at the very notion.

He’s my lover.

I think of all the years she frowned at the word, its suggestion of passion and anarchy. Not on her planet. But the boundaries of our known world seem to shrink all the time. Just when I would have wagered a million dollars that lover is not in my mother’s lexicon, not even when she was much younger, it surfaces like some ocean creature long thought to be extinct.

It’s not just dementia that does it. Old age can make you outrageous rather than wise, pushing you to pop the cork out of every champagne bottle you own because—why wait? A spring day like today can take you beyond yourself better than meditation because you come face-to-face with the ultimate Zen master: unconditioned beauty. In that encounter, the self has nothing to say.

“Anything can happen in dementia,” people tell me, “don’t pay any attention to it.” Of course I pay attention. Last week I called her and she informed me that there were no eggs anywhere in the world; she could no longer count on eating her one egg a day. Other times armies march across the city threatening humanity’s survival, worlds are coming to an end. Those scenarios I’m used to coming from a woman whose primal aspects were impressed during the Jewish holocaust.

But now there’s something new, she has a lover, and she wants to marry him so that people won’t talk. Tomorrow she may forget she ever said this; it doesn’t matter. Life unfolds and unfolds, and I follow in a daze, feeling like I walk on gossamer.

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THE END OF THE STORY

A few days ago, during a break in the rain, Tim and I took Harry and Aussie to the woods. It had been a while since Aussie’s latest escapade and I was hopeful that she would stay with the pack.

Fat chance. A deer’s white tail gleamed in the dark trees as it ran across the path up ahead and down the slope towards the creek. Both dogs ran after it. We heard some excited barking as we followed them down the embankment towards the creek rushing white water, but by then they’d rushed up the other side and were gone. Way, way gone.

We waited and waited, my spirit low, mind full of accusations: You know that May is a bad month to let the dogs go free, what with the new animals and smells, what were you thinking of?

“Harry will come back first,” I told Tim, trying to reassure myself. “He always comes back first.” He was the one I worried about because he didn’t have Aussie’s nose. Aussie, I felt, could find her way home from Alaska.

Sure enough, 25 minutes later, a brown bundle rushed down the slope. Gone for a moment, then at our feet, muzzle white with spittle, panting so hard he could barely raise his head. “Where’s Aussie?” I asked him. “Harry, where’s Aussie?” But Harry was so happily beat he just lay down on his belly and shut his eyes.

“Maybe we should go,” I told Tim. “Aussie could take a couple of hours before she shows up.”

“She always finds you, right?” said Tim.

We turned to go back, but I looked over my shoulder one more time up the slope and there she was, a black shape hurling down at warp speed. She splashed through the white water and rushed up to where we were.

So many things going on at the same time: relief, anger, joy, a bedlam of emotions. This is no way to train dogs, to make sure they’re safe, teach them the rules of the game. But—the life in them, the black radiance in their eyes that proclaimed This is us! This is who we are! Running not just after prey but for the joy of running, full of spittle and passion! I could almost see the throb of heart and lung, foam at the edges of their lips, chests bobbing back and forth. Later they would go through the bathroom trash and take out teeth floss and used Q-tips and tissues, get into all kinds of domestic mischief, but they’d had their mad dash down the slope and through the creek that was their world, their forest green, their young life.

You shouldn’t have gotten them so young, people told me. They were both pups. You’re 69, your husband just died, why adopt dogs who need so much and cause trouble? One even told me to return Harry.

But I prefer to look at it differently: What was I really looking for, I wonder. Beyond dogs, there was something I wanted and needed at this time, I knew it intuitively and gave it the name dogs, but what was it? What is it now? Bernie always said there’s no such thing as mistakes, so what was I looking for? What do I still need?

Harry’s just over a year old, spontaneous, affectionate, still responding out of a narrow range with anxiety on one side and eagerness on the other. Aussie’s half a year older, still trying to work out who I am and who she is. More independent and aloof than Harry, she never jumps up on the bed when I’m there. She thumps her tail first thing in the morning when she sees me, asking for a belly rub, but when I lavish her with affection she turns away, as if saying Get a hold of yourself.

But there is something between Aussie and me, I can tell. She’s the one Bernie and I both chose at the shelter, he sitting in his wheelchair and observing her from a distance because she was so afraid of him. She will always carry a little bit of him for me. Will I get to see the full arc of her life as it unfolds ahead of me?

I want to be on the other side when she grows up and see what became of the dog that sat nervously in her cage, watching him. She’s like a teen-ager now, challenging me, trying out the rules and boundaries, working out relations with Harry and with me. I’d like to see the end of the story, or at least much of it. I’d like to see how she grows, what emerges on the other side of all those trials and efforts.

I think the reason I got them so young, against all advice, is that I still want to see the arc of life, the arc of love, with a question mark that stays open to the very end: What are you going to be like as you grow? What am I going to be like as I grow? What will we be together?

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SIX MONTHS

Today, Saturday, May 4, marks 6 months since Bernie died. What surprises me more, that so much time has already passed or that so much time has passed and the world hasn’t yet come to an end? What did I expect would happen?

Here’s the thing, same old koan about loss and love. By now I have certainly uncovered irrefutable proof that loss comes with love. One day you will lose the person you love, either because you died or because (s)he died. What I still don’t get is: where’s the love that comes in loss? Is the love gone? Is there just absence, lack, emptiness?

This is not a gettable joke, Marc, Bernie’s son, used to tell us whenever he said something and burst out laughing, only to find us looking at each other, puzzled, saying: I don’t get it. That’s because it’s not gettable, he’d say, and laugh uproariously.

That’s how I feel right now. The joke’s on me because I don’t get it. Maybe if I look at the late-budding lilac trees outside my office long enough, or the water running wild in the culverts this rainy spring, I’ll find an answer. Do something physical, like reseed the grass in back and plant the dahlia bulbs out front. That’s what I tell myself in the daytime when I feel sane and steady.

And then comes the night. These past 9 days I’ve been ill with a bad cough and asthma, barely able to talk. It’s exactly what happened when Bernie had his big stroke in January 2016. The cough wakes me again and again, and as I look up at the dark ceiling the voices begin. For example:

Where is the beautiful death that people describe when their parents, partners, spouses, friends died? My mother went quietly, she was so peaceful at the end. Or: The entire family was with him that last day, he said goodbye, we thanked him for everything he’d done, we told him we loved him, it was like magic. Yes, I’ve heard that word, magic, used just recently.

No magic in Bernie’s death, not much peace or beauty. It was messy, literally and otherwise, leaving lots to clean up. No pretty candle light, no favorite music, no holding hands.

We had no idea it was coming. How do you beautify a final scene when you don’t know it’ll be the final scene? Did he know, I ask myself in the middle of these nights. His body was in septic shock so he perhaps was no longer fully conscious, but before that—did he know? If he did he certainly didn’t say anything to me. I didn’t know it was happening till the doctor told me it was happening a minute or two before it happened.

A lifetime of over-reliance on my cognitive brain has taught me very nicely how to torture myself, and I have proceeded to do just that these past nights: What did he know? Couldn’t we have communicated? Couldn’t we have touched more, said I love you and thank you for everything? Or shared a beautiful final silence?

The voice rages: Why not? Yes, just like a child. Why them and not us? It’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair. Why couldn’t he have had a better death? And sometimes I catch myself saying: Why couldn’t we have had a better death?

My sister took my 91 year-old mother, who’s making lurching advances into dementia, for an evaluation. At the end the psychiatrist turned to my sister and said: You take care of yourself. When I heard this I thought: It’s as if he’s saying, your mother is well along her path, whatever will happen will happen, but you are on a different path and you must take care of yourself.

Is that true for me too, I wondered. Did our paths begin to diverge back in January 2016 only I couldn’t see it, couldn’t accept it? There was so much love there, but the split had already begun, slowly, irrevocably. You have to take care of yourself. Maybe there’s love right in the split, right in the crack.

How? I don’t get it.

Maybe it’s not gettable.

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EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS WITH ONESELF AT ANY TIME

Dear Bernie and Helen,

“I have just returned from meeting Yasutani Roshi. He is fine and in good health. On the contrary, I’ve caught a cold in last few days. In Japan very bad cold is spreading. I went to the doctor and got a shot. It will be okay very soon.

Thank you very much for your letter. I am very glad to realize that you are firmly enthusiastic about supporting and expanding the Center. I’ve received a few letters from Grant and John, each time they mention your help and I greatly appreciate it. My study is going along very smoothly, only the matter of time and plan, by the end of this year I may be able to finish without difficulty if I can come back early summer. We’ll talk about it when I return.

Regarding the Berkeley Group, I think it is good idea to sit together. When Koryu Roshi goes, we can take him and have one evening for zazen evening. One thing we should be careful is that since there is one group in Berkeley (SF Center), Peter’s group should not be appeared to be antagonistic toward SF Center Group. Don’t you think? Better avoid unnecessary frictions as much as possible. Take it easy and go steadily, slowly and yet firmly. Everything is always with oneself at any time.

Same thing would be said in looking for a land. When time comes, we can do it, accomplish it without difficulties.”

There’s nothing quite like the new green of an early New England spring. In Jerusalem, my brother told me, the green is already turning yellow; their spring barely lasts several weeks before the blasts of summer heat arrive. Not so here, where spring is green and fresh, full of optimism and glory. By August it will turn darker and heavier, laden with experience. Now, the leaves arrive full of hope and wild expectation.

And that’s how it was in those few fledgling dharma centers 50 years ago.

The past pulls on me. These 50 year-old letters pull on me. Maezumi Roshi casually mentions Koryu Roshi and Yasutani Roshi, two of the great Japanese Zen masters of the 20th century. I don’t have Bernie’s letters to him; I don’t need them. In every word I can read the sense of something important going on, the youthful joy of participating in history, the lure of the big adventure.

I wasn’t there in those early years of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, but I joined Greyston early enough to remember the excitement of developing socially-engaged Buddhism, the confidence and exuberance, wanting to give it your all because you think it’s so important and because you love it so much.

That’s the thing, you love the Dharma. Some of those early pioneers loved it more than they loved their families, far more than they loved their jobs and friends—most of the time they gave up their friends for their companions in the Buddhist sangha. See the excitement about looking for land in Santa Barbara for a new monastery—and that’s just a few years after the City Center was formed. But they have no doubts, they look to expand, get bigger, stretch out.

“Take it easy and go steadily,” Maezumi Roshi warns Bernie. Is he already wary of Bernie’s pushy energy?

But I remember what Bernie told me once or twice about his teacher: People think that I was the ambitious one, the one who pushed ZCLA to buy properties on the block even when others objected, the one who went to New York and built Greyston and businesses and bought more property for an AIDS center, then founded Zen Peacemakers. But let me tell you, I had lots of quiet talks with Maezumi Roshi when there was no one else around, just him and me, and his ambitions for the dharma were far greater than mine. They would be amazed if they heard what I heard about what he wanted to come out of ZCLA.

They loved the dharma, they loved Buddhism, they loved Zen; there was nothing they wouldn’t do to help it take root and flower. In fact, they were in love with it like a young couple is in love, oblivious to what the grownups said, to reminders to look around them and not take so many risks. To warnings about how life turns out. I was one of them; I was in love, too.

And in fact, life did turn out. Spring became summer became autumn like it always does, the sun rose and fell. And after enough hard years and deaths you look at that exciting past and wonder if it was all a dream, and whether it was really all that important.

It’s easy to criticize looking back. Easy to criticize how they neglected their families, ignored boundaries, dismissed constraints. They did all that—and we owe them. They didn’t do this for money; nobody made millions and accumulated a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes. Many lived and continue to live simply and humbly. They basically felt that a good star brought them into an unforgettable encounter with the dharma and they had no choice but to follow that star till the end.

A verse is chanted in Zen meditation halls before a teacher gives a talk:

The dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle,

Is rarely encountered even in millions of ages.

Now we see it, hear it, receive and maintain it.

May we completely realize the Tathagata’s true meaning.

In my training we chanted this over many years. Finally, when I began to teach, Bernie joined us one evening and heard everyone chant this same verse that he had learned from his teacher. When we finished he turned to me and said: “That’s wrong. It’s not true that the Dharma is rarely encountered even in millions of ages. The Dharma is always encountered, but rarely perceived.”

Right then and there we changed the verse, and have chanted it this way since that evening. The Dharma is always encountered but rarely perceived.

They perceived it. We have benefited. The only way to repay that gift is carry it forward.

 

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AT THE DENTIST

May 4, Saturday, will mark 6 months since Bernie died.

This morning I’m in the chair of the dental assistant getting a deep cleaning (as opposed to a regular cleaning) of my teeth. When they do that they scrape down deep, even going into the gums, but I don’t mind. “Just numb me up,” I told Erica. “You can do anything to me as long as you numb me up.”

Erica, sublimely cheerful and chatty, not only discharges this duty conscientiously, but also alerts me to every single thing she’s going to do. “I am now picking up the water jet,” she informs me. Or: “Right now, Eve, I’m sitting behind you looking at your latest x-rays and chart.” I expect her shortly to give me a blow-by-blow update on her breathing.

But Erica and I see eye-to-eye. I don’t want to be surprised by a sudden jab of pain or the sight of a long, evil injection needle hovering over my captive, gums. I want to be forewarned about everything, and I want to be numb.

Last week she did a deep cleaning of the right side of my mouth, scraping at what felt like boulders of plaque, shooting the sharp water jet along both sides of side teeth while remembering not to use it on the more sensitive front teeth. I would trust Erica with my life.

I sat there last week thinking of Bernie’s teeth. They were so rotten that they fell out one after another. He had them all pulled after the stroke, but before that he used to do numerous deep cleanings because the gums and teeth were so infected.

“Another deep cleaning?” I’d say.

He made a joke of it. “They’re so bad they can only work on a couple of teeth at a time,” he said.

Today everything is proceeding hunky-dory. “There’s a deep pocket here, Eve, so you have to be extra conscientious here,” Erica says, jabbing at the very back of the left side of my mouth. I’m so numbed out I can barely tell if it’s up or down. I practically doze off to her high-pitched, reassuring dental patter:

Just a little build-up here.

The molars look good.

Here I am, by the implant.

And then the music filtered into the office changes. I know it before he even starts singing.

La note qui non torna più

dal giorno che sei andata via,

ed il cielo ha smesso di giocare

con le stele e con la luna,

Here the night hasn’t come back

since the day you went away,

and the sky has stopped playing

with the stars and the moon.

Not this, no, not this.

Two years ago I’d suddenly sat up from the same chair at the sound of arias. “What is this?” I’d asked Erica, and she cheerfully informed me that the disk belonged to the dentist. When he came in he wrote me the name: Ti Adoro, Luciano Pavarotti.

I bought the CD and one evening, as Bernie lay in his bed, we both listened to it from beginning to end. He had always liked opera, me not so much, but these arias were different. They were all about love.

He lay there listening, holding my hand. At some point I stretched beside him and he tried to stroke my hair with his good hand.

“Should I turn it off?” I asked him. “You could hear the rest tomorrow.”

“No, leave it,” he said.

We didn’t talk at all the rest of the time. I’d downloaded it onto his tablet, but I never heard him listening to it again. By then his once-acute mathematical mind had a hard time finding things on his tablet other than emails and news. He’d see Game of Thrones, only he’d see each episode three times in order to make sense of it.

Love is loss, but loss is also love. It’s not just absence, it’s also remembrance, it’s also recognition that there was something, that you had something.

So I sat on the dentist’s chair thinking of that evening while Erica sang her own aria, giving me full warning on everything that was about to happen:

OK, I’m going into this pocket now, I’ll be more careful;

Now the upper teeth;

Here is the water jet.

Now the hand instruments.

Got a few more small pieces there.

Got a big piece there.

Luciano, meantime, is singing his heart out:

Tutto è successo già e succederà,

Di un apparente vita senza nobilta,

Gli eventi mutano, mutiamo noi

Everything has already happened, and will happen again,

In a life without apparent virtue,

circumstances change, we change.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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