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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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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