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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DON’T POOP UNDER THE LAUNDRY LINES

“Please don’t poop under the laundry lines.”

Of course, that’s exactly where the dogs wish to poop. With so many interesting smells around, why shouldn’t they add theirs?

Bernie loved to clean up dog poop in the yard. I wish I had a photo of him doing that. There are thousands of photos of Bernie, yet there isn’t a day when I don’t think of some episode or other and say to myself, I wish I had a photo of that. The photographer Peter Cunningham followed Bernie over decades in different realms of his life—street retreats, Greyston Bakery, Auschwitz, family occasions, searching for traces of his family in pre-Holocaust—and death (Bernie’s body lying inside the oven of the crematorium seconds before I pushed the button, and before that family members writing him messages on the cardboard casket in which he lay).

But did he get that all-important photo of Bernie cleaning up dog poop? No, he did not.

So let me do this with words. Imagine the man in his daily robes: blue jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, suspenders, and sneakers, with his iPhone, cigar, and a pen in his breast pocket. A voice calls from upstairs: “Bernie, don’t forget the dog poop!”

“Oh what a good idea!” says he.

“Scooper is in the garage.”

Who else but Bernie dresses for collecting dog poop? He searches in the closet for his red beret and the proper outdoors vest. Then he opens up a cigar, trims the edge, and plops it into his mouth as he gets the scooper.

Outside, he takes a few extravagant puffs, watching the smoke go up to heaven, and makes his way to the laundry lines, home base. He’ll always find something under the laundry lines. After that it’s a slow circle to the northwest, checking the perimeter, around the chair on which he likes to sit during the summer, under the forsythia, around the Kwan-Yin who smiles at all the gifts the dogs have laid down for her, then further down to the shed, and back again.

He collects a few piles, then pauses, leans against the blue scooper, and contemplates the air. It’s dangerous to send Bernie to collect dog poop because his brain gets busy hatching new devices and plans. Once, long before we were a couple, we both sat at an airport waiting for a flight. “What are you thinking, Roshi?” I asked him after he hadn’t talked for a while.

“I’m thinking about the AIDS center,” he said, “and about the application for funding that we sent in to HHS. I like to follow each scenario in my head. Scenario A, we get the funding. If we get the funding, 3 sub-scenarios about how to use the money. Each of those have different scenarios, too, so I like to follow that in my head. I think I can do that till about the 8th sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub scenarios. Then there’s Scenario B, if we don’t get the funding. That too has sub-scenarios: we stop the work completely, we just do the building, we limit the number of people we take to start with, we cut down on something else in order to keep this going. Each of those has sub-scenarios, too, and each of those sub-scenarios has sub-sub scenarios, and I like to see how many I can keep track of in my head.”

I never asked again.

Cleaning dog poop is the best place for him to do his endless cogitations, and I think of him standing in the middle of the yard, leaning against the scooper, forgetting what it is he’s supposed to be doing, puffing on his cigar, watching the smoke disappear into the air like so many of his ideas and plans.

Did it bother him that they disappeared like that? I don’t think so.

“No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”

You could find the no-trace in the piles of dog poop I’d find after he came home, leaving a stump of unfinished cigar at the bottom of the garage stairs, taking off his red beret and vest.

“There’s still poop out there,” I’d point out.

“You have to leave something for next time,” he’d tell me.

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REKINDLING THE ROMANCE

I opened up the blog after a week’s break and got an earful.

“You don’t call, you don’t write, not even a postcard!”

“Hey, Blog, I didn’t know you could talk.”

“You thought I was an extension of you? I have my own causes and conditions, my own life, just like you, only we’re somewhat intertwined. So what happened, Eve? The only time we haven’t danced for a full week was when Bernie died.”

“I needed a break, Blog.”

“From me? Is this what you call a committed relationship?”

“First there was the quarterly retreat here, and then I went down to New York to see my niece’s graduation and spend time with a good friend.”

“What about the long train rides? Couldn’t you find some time then to open me up, rekindle our old romance, and work together for the benefit of all beings?”

“For the benefit of all beings? Who do you think you are, Blog?”

“An expression of a life on a particular day, at a particular moment. Nothing less, nothing more”

“And that makes you hot shit? You know how many lives there are on this planet? How many days, how many moments? You know how many blogs there are, podcasts, and videos? You’re barely a blip on the screen, Blog.”

“That’s not true, I’m hot shit.”

“If you lost your voice, Blog, nobody would notice.”

“Does a bird lose its voice? Does the wind? Does the ant?”

“I don’t think ants have voices, Blog.”

“I bet you they do, only you don’t hear them. You want to know what your problem is?”

“Not really.”

“You don’t think you have anything to blog about. You don’t think your life’s interesting enough.”

“Nonsense.”

“You think: Here I am, somewhere in the woods of New England, a widow—“

“I hate that word, Blog. I feel ancient when someone uses it, as if my life is over.”

“Now that’s something to blog about. Two dogs, a house that feels too big, a Zen teacher—“

“I never felt like much of a teacher alongside Bernie, Blog.”

“That’s something else to blog about. Solitude that becomes loneliness, becoming solitude becoming loneliness ad infinitum—“

“I don’t want to write about that.”

“Wrong. That, too, is something to blog about. And one more thing.”

“What, Blog?”

“Love.”

“You want me to write about love, Blog? You mean, love for my husband?”

“For anybody.”

“Like family?”

“Like, wouldn’t you like to fall in love again?”

“I lost my husband less than six months ago, Blog.”

“Love always goes with loss, but loss also goes with love. You think that’s all done and finished with?”

“I don’t know, Blog.”

“Don’t you want to find out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Blog about it. That’s how you discover who you are. Sit in front of the empty screen, ask Who am I right now? and out will come the entire kit-and-caboodle.”

“You know, Blog, y dog Stanley used to talk about the entire kit-and-caboodle.”

“Good old Stanley. Lots of laughs, that one. Blog about love. Blog about how you miss it, how you still want it.”

“I’m closing you down, Blog.”

“Close me down all you want, but I’ll keep on coming back and reminding you. You can’t run forever.”

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IF WE HAVE THE TRUE MEN . . .

Like so many others, I saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame burning. I’d been there a number of times, always followed by a stop at George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop. I admired its architecture and size, and always I would look up in search of its famous inhabitant, the Hunchback.

But I can’t say I was moved to tears like so many other people. I looked at the pictures of the burning cathedral and whispered: It’s the people, don’t forget. It’s the people.

Maybe it’s my Jewish heritage. Jews were usually not permitted to build synagogues during the time they were in the Diaspora, certainly not big ones, and they got accustomed to creating more modest dwellings for God. We grew up knowing that if the big temple was gone from Jerusalem, angels still visited every home on the Sabbath Eve on Friday night, and that God dwelt in tiny shtiebel-like shuls as well as the larger synagogues. They couldn’t combine art, architecture, engineering, glassmaking, frescos, sculpture, tapestries, etc. to make anything like a big cathedral. They had to lie low, be humble.

I’ve sat in Notre Dame and in its cousin, Chartres, as well as the Cathedral in Cologne and St. Patrick’s in Manhattan, and admired the big elephants coming down the nave of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan on St. Francis Day. What I most remember were small lunch breaks spent sitting in the back of Trinity Church at the top of Wall Street and walking on the paths of the adjoining cemetery.

When I read of all the hundreds of millions of dollars promised to rebuild Notre Dame, what came up for me was: What about the people?

Early this morning I returned to the basement to search for the elusive title to Bernie’s car. I had already gone through many boxes, but they feel like sand in the Sahara, there’s always more. In one box I opened a folder marked Personal and out tumbled aerogrammes. Aerogrammes, for you younger citizens of the world, are letters written on thin blue paper that went by air, getting to the reader within some 10 days, a big deal in the age before emails and Facebook Messages.

Several came from H. Maezumi and they started: Dear Bernie. I did a double-take; Maezumi Roshi, one of the Zen pioneers who brought Zen from Japan to the United States, never addressed his student by the name Bernie. That’s when I realized how old these letters were, they were written before Bernie’s ordination in 1970, when he became Tetsugen. And in fact, in one of the letters Maezumi Roshi wrote that he is getting the tokudo (priest ordination) papers ready for the ceremony.

In that very letter Maezumi Roshi discussed at great length Bernie’s search for “a New Center,” which I believe referred to Bernie’s search for a retreat center site in Santa Barbara. Responding to Bernie’s letter to him in which he described all these efforts, Maezumi Roshi talked about the road that needed to be added, blueprints for the buildings, rooms for staff, bringing a special architect from Japan, the correct time to fundraise in Japan, etc. But at the end of the letter he writes the following:

“HOWEVER, PLEASE DO NOT FORGET [caps are his] that my major concern is to have the handful, even less, truly awakened dharma successers [sic] in the United States before I leave this world. In order to do so, if it is necessary, I do not mind to sacrifice even a new center. Do you know what I mean? We should make future plans along with this very fundamental and important requirement. If we have the true men, necessary things will follow them. Big harvest will come in hand if the seeds are carefully taken care of for necessary time to ripe. It is a very simple fact.”

The blog is on retreat till early next week.

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DIALOGUE WITH DOGS

“Do you ever notice, Aussie, how things emerge from the darndest places”?

“No.”

“For instance, sometimes I feel deep loneliness and longing, and you’d think that would feel terrible, right? And it does, only I also notice that if I stay with it long enough something else takes form that actually feels good. You understand?”

“No.”

“It’s like you, Aussie. You lie by my desk, get restless and bored, so you go out into the yard and there are these interesting new smells and you start digging after moles and you see our first purple and yellow crocuses which are good to pee on, and little by little you discover new possibilities in the spring that’s finally arrived, your first spring in New England. The point is, unmet needs aren’t just some black abyss into which we fall and see only surrounding blackness and a light that is far away and out of reach, quite the opposite. From our deepest needs and unfulfilled desires something new comes up, new and more life. You get what I mean, Auss?”

“No.”

“It reminds me of Israel. It always annoyed me when people said that the founding of the modern state of Israel was the silver lining of the Holocaust, that in fact it was a miracle from God. What kind of God, I asked, would require the death of 6 million people as payoff? But you can’t deny that new life comes out of terrible loss. See what I mean?”

“No.”

“Of course, that caused all kinds of suffering for the Palestinian people, a whole chain of events that has spread everywhere and continues to this very day. But new forms of life—whether we label them as good or bad—emerge out of everything, Aussie, see?”

“No.”

“I know we’re at an age of massive extinction of species, but from what I see, Auss, life keeps on multiplying and recreating itself into newer and newer forms and greater and greater complexity all the time, even now. There’s no way we humans, or you dogs for that matter, could ever catch up. We’re not wired to understand or even perceive it. See what I mean, Aussie?”

“No.”

“I’m remembering Bernie, Auss. He wasn’t much into speculation. I would describe all these thoughts to him, he would get this funny look in his eyes and say, That’s nice, or, That’s an opinion. And I’d say back: That’s all you have to say, Bernie? And he would say: Yup. And I would say, You’re not listening to me. And he would say Of course I’m listening to you, and then we’d both laugh. You get it, Aussie?”

“No.”

“That laugh was the main thing. We thought differently, we talked differently, sometimes it felt like a lost cause, but there was that laugh in the end that somehow made everything okay and brought us to a different place. Bernie admired Dogen, the Zen master, but the words he quoted most often were: Beyond these, there are further implications. Everything has further implications. Understand?”

“No.”

“That’s okay, Aussie, you’re not a lost cause. Nothing is a lost cause. Everything has further implications. Get it, Auss?”

“No.”

 

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