OUR REVELS NOW ARE ENDED

In two hours I will leave to New York.

The back seat of my car is full of Bernie: a red beret, cigars, suspenders, a Greyston Bakery jacket, his bag for street retreats, photos, a colorful drawing of him cooking (referring to his book Instructions to the Cook) ,even an old notebook from 1973 containing his notes on the ango (Zen intensive) at Zen Center of Los Angeles and the various attendees and their roles.

What I did was, I went all around the house and my left hand reached for this and the right for that, anything that had his flavor, that conveyed a piece of the man.

On Saturday I will go into the Founders’ Room at Greyston and, together with friends, set it all out.

On Thursday and Friday we will have two day-long meetings with other teachers regarding the Zen Peacemaker Order.

On Sunday will be his big memorial.

On Monday I will go home.

On Tuesday I will start moving things around to make room for someone who is coming here to share this house.

A few people have emailed me saying, in essence, not to live in the past, not to let grief have so much sway, and to welcome the life I have now. My answer to that is: You grieve in your way, and I will grieve in mine.

What will probably come up over the next days is the contrast between the public and the personal. This relationship between the public and the private has accompanied me for a long time. There are things you keep to yourself, there are things spoken of publicly. I’m not talking of bad things you keep private, it’s just an entire sphere that belongs to you, to you and him alone. But the line between the two isn’t always clear.

As a good Zen practitioner, I was trained to ask myself only one question: What serves? Before you open your mouth, what is of benefit to those around you, and what is not? Those were my guidelines over many years. But there is magic in transparency, there is vulnerability in unveiling.

In the end Bernie seemed so indifferent to others’ impressions of him. I think he dwelt in the verse from Shakespeare’s Tempest that a friend sent me yesterday:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

I think Bernie badly wanted to sleep, and that’s a comfort to me now.

So where is our private sphere now that he’s sleeping? In a quiet, deep, internal space. In looking out at the snow, in shutting the door behind me when the public sphere is over and being alone.

This blog will be silent till next week.

 

 

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GRIEF ASKS FOR NO PERMISSION

Early this morning I sat down for meditation. The door wasn’t firmly closed, Harry came in, and without the slightest hesitation jumped up on my lap, curled his reddish body, put his head under his tail ,and went to sleep.

Ordinarily I never let the dogs interfere with meditation. They know that, sometimes come in, see me sitting on the corner chair, and you could almost see the quick grasp in their eyes: Oh oh, can’t bug her. No fun or breakfast yet; maybe time for a nap.

But this time Harry jumped on my lap in a second flat, as though he knew it was the right thing to do. And I? I let him stay there. I knew that was the right thing to do as well.

Bernie’s memorial is coming up on Sunday, and the heavy weight of it returned last Thursday evening when I received some photos. It was as if my entire system was suddenly shifted to face that date, February 17. As if someone was saying: That’s where you’re headed for the next 10 days, don’t bother looking elsewhere. Yes, you have emails to return, a lovely student staying with you to do some study, preparations for different things, but you might as well forget about them. That’s not what’s up for you right now.

And once again, I have no voice here; no say in the matter. The nights are different, the dreams are vivid, and I open my eyes at 6 and feel I have no control over my life.

Grief asks for no permission. It doesn’t say May I, or Please, it just does what it wants. The best you can hope for is that you have the common sense to let it have its way, that you don’t fight it with resolution, schedules, or to-do lists, that you don’t wish it was over. That you lose whatever purpose you thought you had in life and let it course through every vein and cell, like the winds we’ve had here for a couple of days.

You’ve convened a meeting to discuss the Zen Peacemaker Order with some two dozen senior practitioners and teachers, and even that will yield to the embers still searing inside.

So you apologize to everyone you made commitments to, you stop your studies and preparation, you don’t go to yoga, you stop talking to friends who reach out and don’t know why you don’t call or text back, you even ask someone else to take the dogs out.

If you’re smart—which I often am not—you let that typhoon blast you. It doesn’t matter that it’s done it in the past till finally you thought it had gone and you could pick up your life again, and then it surprised you once again. It doesn’t matter that the days seemed clear for a while and you felt safe. Grief lies in ambush; all it needs are some photos that you’ve already seen, Rami pointing something out in the basement, a little phrase someone drops in casual conversation, a tiny notebook falling from between the books you’re packing away—and it reminds you it’s there, blasting its way through every pore.

I think Harry understood all this before I did, and jumped on my lap. He knew what I needed better than I did: Forget your meditation, forget everything. Here I am, in your lap, against your belly. Put your hands on my hair and stroke me as I go to sleep.

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WHY AM I TALKING?

A friend who suffered a family tragedy sent me the following email: “On the whiteboard in my office, I have written, WAIT.  It means: Why am I talking?”

There was more, but this struck me deepest. Why indeed am I talking? Or perhaps for me it’s: WAIW. Why am I writing?

Our brains fire up so quickly with ideas and activity. Yoga, pack and move books out of a room, take care of unsettled dogs, plan the program for Bernie’s February 17 memorial, teach, write. Life goes on following its own momentum and most of the time I follow blindly, mindlessly.

And then the photos come. Photos of Bernie from early years when I didn’t know him at all, from when he grew up in Brooklyn, his many years in Los Angeles. Reminding me that I didn’t even meet him till he was 46, and that was years before we became a couple. He had a life long before me, just as I now have some kind of life after him.

You search that face in those early, early years for some hint of what was to come. Peruse the photo of the teenager hoisting his young niece on top of his shoulders or holding his children when they were small, see a happy, family-loving face. And then the photos of someone looking more in than out, someone following a deep inner vision, a quiet, personal voice. Or was it a question he always kept inside?

Did he know what was ahead for him? Greyston, the Zen Peacemakers, grief upon a wife’s death, hundreds of people joining him at Nazi concentration camps, grandchildren, a life of fame but no fortune, ending with a major stroke and mornings that began with him sitting up on the edge of the bed and looking out the window, causing me to wonder what he thought, what he wished for.

Of course he didn’t know what lay ahead. Do any of us want to know?

I tried to go on with the evening after seeing the photos as though nothing happened. Called a friend, but the talk got slower and more distracted, finally hung up and wondered, why am I so tired?

WAIT. Why am I talking?

Most of the time I don’t want companionship. I have zero tolerance for small talk and even less for nostalgia. I saw a friend some 4 days ago and that’ll be it for seeing friends till the end of next week. Rarely do I want to share about how I feel inside; often, I don’t even know how I feel inside.

So—why am I talking?

Walks in the woods are good, if only Aussie didn’t run away. Even better is cavorting with the dogs on the floor. Bypass the brain, bypass the words, bypass the need to express to someone something passing by so fast you barely see or feel it, only a gasp here and there, a small blow in the heart.

Like now.

A rainy day outside, brown leaves below, gray skies above. Trees motionless, though they expect big winds in the afternoon. Take my place among them, be nothing but a landscape, unobstructive and still, visible if you look, invisible if you don’t.

Leave it at that.

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PARTNERS IN MAYHEM

“OK, I want to know who jumped on the counter and tossed the big wooden spoon down on the floor after licking it. I also want to know who threw down the salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings. It’s either the Juvenile Delinquent or the Mafioso. Reveal yourself! Don’t run away, I know this is all your doing!”

 

“Got her beat, JD. Hurray for that dog door. Every time she gets pissed we just run out to the yard and there’s nothing she can do.”

“You’re such a coward, Harry, why didn’t you confess?”

“Hey, I may be young but I ain’t stupid.”

“You know you made the whole mess.”

“Of course I made the mess. There was BEEF STEW on the counter.”

“There was not, you mobster.”

“It was there all day yesterday when she cooked it slowly, the smell was driving me crazy and I was dying to jump on the counter, only she was home all day so I couldn’t. But this morning—ha! She left, so I made my move.”

“Too bad she’d already put away the beef stew, dummy.”

“Hey, you’re supposed to be the Juvenile Delinquent. You’re supposed to be my Assistant in Mayhem.”

“I’m nobody’s assistant, Cur. I create my own mayhem.”

“Excuse my ignorance. What mayhem is that?”

“I disappear in the woods whenever I feel like it. She thinks she’s keeping an eye on me, but poor woman can’t help it, she listens to the birds, she watches her steps on the ice, looks at the shadows of the trees on the snow. Meantime I hang back slowly, take a few steps back, a few more, and before she knows it I’m gone. That’s my kind of mayhem, which, if I may say, Cur, is a lot more fun that jumping up on the counter and finding no beef stew.”

“True, but I had fun throwing everything down on the floor. And what about the horses yesterday, when she left the car to feed those horses she loves so much, leaving us in the back seat? Only it’s a warm day, and she left the car window open a smidgeon, and what did I do?”

“Probably the stupidest thing I ever saw.”

“The most colossal mayhem imaginable. I flattened myself, got over the window, and ran right under the fence and into the horse pasture. They should make a television series about me!”

“Do you know how close you came to being kicked to death by Gala?”

“That dumb horse missed every time!”

“She only had to connect once. Why did you bark at them like some maniac?”

“What did you think I was going to do, zazen? You run into a horse pasture and you bark! What’s the point otherwise?”

“You got Gala so riled up.”

“Getting everybody riled up is my purpose in life. See what happened to the woman when she came home and found all those things on the floor? Hee hee hee!”

“Funny, I didn’t hear any hee hee hee when she got riled up, I just saw a silly dog make for the hills. Or the dog door.”

“A hasty retreat is a strategic move in our general campaign to create mayhem in the house.”

“I heard her telling a friend that she’s not stopping to feed the horses ever again as long as you’re in the back seat.”

“Good. I hate horses.”

“But you know what else she said, Mayhem Harry? She said she doesn’t think she’ll open windows for us in the back anymore, not even a little bit, not even in the summer. What good is a car ride without open windows?”

“Don’t you worry about that, Delinquent, she’s too soft-hearted. You’ll make a couple of little baby whimpers, look at her over your shoulder with those dark, moist eyes of yours while you face the window, and how much you want to bet she won’t think: Well, maybe just a little bit for Aussie. She rolls down the window, I push you out of the way, and off I go.”

“I don’t know, Harry.”

“Partners in Mayhem, that’s what we’ll be from now on.”

“Okay, but I’m not your assistant!”

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THE PLANET IS EVERYBODY’S

This morning, after my usual morning conversation with Kwan-Yin in the back yard, I went to visit Stanley’s grave 15 steps behind the wooden statue. It was warm (35 degrees at 7 am!) and it was going to get warmer. The dogs’ nostrils quivered excitedly, they knew that a spring-like day was coming.

The snow covered Stanley as it has done everything here, and I was getting all spiritual and James Joycean about it till the dogs decided to do some canine desecration. The nipped and frolicked, leaped up on each other, I think Harry even peed. I could hear Stanley groaning underneath it all: No rest for the weary.

You danced around your grave when Tim and I were digging it, I wanted to remind him. You thought that big hole in the ground was so cool I had to make sure you didn’t fall in. The Spook said nothing back, but I have a feeling he’ll have a conversation with the Juvenile Delinquent and Harry the Cur pretty soon about respect.

Subsequently I looked online to see who won the Super Bowl and found it was our own New England Patriots. Again. Bernie was a New York Giants fan, but we happened to come to New England at the very time the Patriots’ dynasty was beginning, and he got a big kick out of them. If the game were on at night he’d record it because he was too tired to watch late, then get up at 4 in the morning and watch what he missed. When I got up he’d be shaking his head.

“So what happened?” I’d ask.

“Always the same thing,” he’d say. “Brady gets the ball, throws it, takes it all the way down the field, and they score a touchdown. When they get the ball back, Brady takes the ball, throws it, takes it all the way down the field, and they score a touchdown. Again and again.” I think that was the year they had their perfect season.

He enjoyed the Patriots and rooted for them, but fanaticism and orthodoxy were not for him. He loved being Jewish and Buddhist, but didn’t feel even an ounce of triumphalism in connection with either. What is triumphalism? Pretending to be liberal and open-minded about all faiths and traditions, but inside being certain that your way, your religion, will ultimately be proven to be the right way, the right religion. That was as far from Bernie as could be.

Just be a mensch, is what he said. Don’t be a Buddhist, don’t be a Zen master. Don’t ever think that what works for you works for everybody. Just be a mensch.

So I thought of him when I read this passage by E. B. White, on the day before Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address and maybe even invokes emergency powers to build his wall:

“Before you can be a supranationalist you have first to be a naturalist and feel the ground under you making a whole circle. It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the by-laws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members. A club, moreover, or a nation, has a most attractive offer to make: it offers the right to be exclusive. There are not may of us who are physically constituted to resist this strange delight, this nourishing privilege. It is at the bottom of all fraternities, societies, orders. It is at the bottom of most trouble. The planet holds out no such inducement. The planet is everybody’s. All it offers is the grass, the sky, the water, and the ineluctable dream of peace and fruition.”

 

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REMEMBERING THE ZEN MENSCH

Yesterday the issue of the Buddhist magazine, Lion’s Roar, arrives.

Later I will find inside a wonderful article on Bernie written by Deputy Editor Andrea Miller. For now I put the magazine aside, but my eye keeps glancing at the cover, where, in small letters on the left, are the words: Remembering Zen Mensch Bernie Glassman.

Bernie Glassman is in bold, but the letters seem to back away from me. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. At the same time, they’re a big distraction. The magazine lies at the corner of the desk, away from my computer, but I keep on looking at that cover, at the words, and finally just stop what I’m doing.

Harry the Cur sees an opening and jumps up, front legs on my lap. Ordinarily I’d make him go back down. Instead, I pet him absentmindedly, thinking irrelevant thoughts like: Why do they use such odd photos of Bernie?

Of course, the old ones of him in Chiapas, at Greyston, in Poland, are classic. But the ones that just catch his face always seem to be off to me. That’s when I realize that I can’t look at photos of him all on his lonesome. I can see photos of him teaching in a crowd, on the streets, fooling around with his grandson. Not alone.

It’s hard to read a story of Bernie’s life, even when it’s pretty comprehensive and well written like this one. The story of his life is not much different from the photo above, when we used to write up his daily schedule every morning. It says something, and it says nothing.

Funny, coming from a writer. And one who wrote more stories about him (and attributed to him) than anyone else.

Bernie knew the value of a good story. He had a talent for providing the content that every newspaper person wants, the perfect quote. We didn’t talk about it, but I’m sure he knew what made for good copy, that in fact he was good copy, that he made for great photos with his beret and cigar, the unkempt Brooklyn look. Once his Japanese teacher died, no shaved head and robes for him.

But he also saw through stories all the time, didn’t believe a word, especially after the stroke. He might do an interview on Zoom, and when it was over he’d ask, “Was it okay?” He knew his thoughts came slower and his speech was more laborious.

Stories were upayas for him, skillful means to make this point or that point. They weren’t real, they were stories, once-upon-a-timers. If they weren’t useful, what good were they?.

I have lots of photos of Bernie after his stroke, and it’s hard for me to look at them, especially those showing the wounds on his forehead and the top of his nose from his cancer, like the one below. It was carcinoma, not the worst cancer by any means, but one that was still dangerously close to his brain.

As I look at them it hits me how he never minded being photographed with them, even when they were big protuberances, raw and ugly. For him, they were also stories, no different from photos of him on the streets or teaching or clowning. If people, like me, prefer the latter over the former, well, that’s people.

Friends nod and say, “You miss him.” If I were to reply, I might say: How do you miss someone who’s so inside you? The one has to become two for A to miss B. Occasionally there’s a creaking, as if the two are slowly and painfully coming apart, like chemical elements disengaging one from the other. And of course we were so different one from each other, with unmet needs and provoked reactions, that’s no secret. It’s not that after death all that disappears and you remember just the good stuff, nothing as facile as that. It’s just that the two are still entwined, even embedded.

Remembering Zen Mensch Bernie Glassman. I don’t remember a thing. It’s just him/me looking out at the white yard, so self-revealing, so simple.

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THAT DOG DON’T PLAY!

“Harry, you’re making way too much noise in this house, go away.”

“Harry the Cur to you, Awesome. Back down South they sometimes called me Harry the Goon, but I prefer Harry the Cur, that’s my moniker.”

“What’s a moniker?”

“And I demand my payoff.”

“Payoff for what?”

“For all the protection I give you and the demoiselle in the kitchen. I sure hope she’s getting my dinner ready.”

“What protection?”

“Awesome, talk truth here: Who defended this home and its two defenseless females from the one-eyed monster early this morning?”

“What one-eyed monster?”

“The one with yellow flashing eye that came roaring down here before dawn, crunching up the road. Who defended you from a fate worse than death?”

“That, Harry—“

“The name’s Harry the Cur—“

“Was the snow plow. It eats up snow, Harry, not us.”

“It didn’t swallow you up because I packed up some heat there.”

“You stood on the bed and made a lot of noise!“

“I gave you protection, Awesome. I risked my life!”

“So what do you want back, Cur?”

“Three things, Awesome. Obedience, obedience, and obedience.”

“That’s only one thing, Cur. Repeating something three times doesn’t make it three things, it’s still just one thing.”

“Are you challenging my religion? Don’t get too philosophical with me, Awesome, I can’t stand philosophers!”

 

Later that evening Aussie comes for a little talk in the kitchen.

“OK, you can bring him back now. I’ve had my fun.”

“Who, Aussie?”

“Who do you think?”

“I’m sorry, Aussie, but I can’t bring Harry back.”

“What’s the problem? Put him in a box and send him back to Mississippi. Or let’s trade him in for someone else. I’d like someone a little smaller this time around.”

“Can’t do that, Auss. We’ll have to put up with Harry as best we can. I got him as a playmate for you.”

“That dog don’t play! That dog just tries to boss me around. Anyway, I’ve decided I want to be an only dog.”

“Too late, Aussie, we’re keeping Harry.”

“This peacemaker home will become the headquarters for Organized Crime! How long do we keep him for?”

“Forever.”

“How about you get rid of him next week?”

 

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CALL AAA!

Bernie and I had at least one thing in common, and that was a dislike for any show of weakness or vulnerability. For different reasons and in different ways, each of us stood ready to tough things out.

After his stroke Bernie changed; there wasn’t much choice. I went the other way. “The slower you go, the faster I go,” I used to tell him. There was always so much to do, so much to plan ahead for and take care of, and I would do it all. Early each morning I worked out the day’s plan so that we all knew what had to happen once Bernie got up and the caregiver arrived, all in addition to what had to get done in my own life. If it felt like too much, that was too bad, I would do what had to be done.

Yesterday I went with Harry and Aussie down to the local preserve to gather with other neighbors and their dogs for the weekly Montague dog-in. It was Harry’s first time joining this gathering of dogs of all sizes on a cold, blue-sky day, but I needn’t have worried. He mixed in with everyone, ran and chased, and had a whale of a time. Aussie, as usual, was in heaven; she’s always in heaven when she’s with other dogs.

The long, downwards-sloping entrance to the preserve was icy, broken into large patches of black ice or else full of white shards and slippery mounds. Ice everywhere. Only when we got fully inside, where the river pools and pauses, pond-like, closer to the woods, did the earth turn to snow and sometimes back to yellow/brown soil.

The dogs frolicked and chased one another, the humans talked neighbor and dog-talk, and after an hour several of us with our dogs began to walk back.

I was older than the others and have never felt safe on ice. I got nervous as I struggled to keep my balance. The others, more confident on their feet, walked ahead along with their dogs and mine, and soon the distance between us widened as I slowed down, till finally no one was with me at all, everyone else making their way up the slope towards where the cars were parked.

I was alone, and I felt alone. Unstable on my feet, I felt a sudden weakness in my legs. Please, I thought to myself, I don’t want to fall.

I looked up and saw Aussie. She, who loves canine company better than anything in the world, had left the others and come down looking for me. She watched me from a distance, at times turning to sniff this or that, but then turning again to watch me. And she stayed there till finally, with legs shaking from effort, I made it up to the cars. I worried that Harry may have run down the street, but they had kept him there by the cars till I arrived.

I was ambushed by the recollection even before I drove away. One Sunday some five years back I’d gone 15 miles away for a meeting, and during that hour icy rain had pelted the Valley. When it was time to drive home the roads were slick arteries of black ice. I didn’t even have boots on.

It took an hour to drive back those same 15 miles, the car shuddering and careening from side to side, other cars dotting the sides where they had fallen from the road. Finally I got to our street, turned slowly, and started the last mile home. I managed to drive the car uphill on the ice. Closet to home the road turned, I turned with it, lost control, and the car careened towards the steep drop on the right. I think I screamed in terror as the car went off the road, but it was stopped from falling all the way down by a ditch at the edge. There it rested, finally stopped.

I called Bernie’s phone and he, safe at home all this time, picked up. Panic-stricken, I told him what I had just gone through, about the terrifying hour’s ride and what had just happened.

“Call Triple A,” he suggested.

“Call Triple A!” I repeated. “You think I need you to tell me to call Triple A? That’s not why I’m calling you!” I hung up the phone.

Why did I call him? The house was below me, I’d have to torturously make my way down the hill and down the driveway, but I’d make it. I called him because I needed someone to hear the terror in my voice, the fear of doing these things alone, of being so close to the sharp edge that was just a few feet away from me.

And he had told me to call Triple A.

I opened the door, gingerly stepped out, and slowly started the slippery way down, convinced I’d slip and fall any moment. I looked down to the right and saw Bernie walking slowly up the driveway. He’d always been much more secure on ice than me. He made it up to the road, lurching a few times to the right and left, then turned and came up towards me. He held out my boots that he had in his hand. Leaning back against a tree, I put them on. Then, holding on to his arm, we both came down together, he slowing down to keep his strong steps in pace with mine.

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THANK YOU FOR TENDERNESS

an icicle in one of the long ears of Kwan-Yin

I went out to dinner with a dear friend, and sometime towards the end she mentioned saying good night to her partner as he went to sleep at night, pretending in fun to tuck him in. And there it was, the monster emerging from the shadows. Instantly I saw Bernie lying in bed, receiving CBD salve on the right side of his body from me before he turned to go to sleep. Afterwards, as I went around the bed I’d pull down the bottom edge of the blanket to cover his right foot, which usually stuck out and got cold because he couldn’t feel it, and did the same to the thin right arm that lay outside the blanket. He always felt cold on his unstruck left side, and felt nothing on the right.

What hits me then is: Thank you for tenderness. Thank you for every single small moment when I made Bernie coffee, asked if he needed help cutting the food, took extra time massaging him with the salve, smiled and asked, for the fifth or tenth time that day, How ya doing? Small moments, no big deal. Thank you, thank you for all the small things it’s easy to overlook in regular life, and which I miss so much when he’s not here.

But it is here in some way, even without him. I drive Aussie home after her outing with Leeann, she sticks her head close to me and licks my upraised palm. It only lasts seconds, but oh, that touch! That sweet, palpable, physical connection! It’s over almost before it begins because Miss Aussie is not into excess except with other dogs, but so much flares for just a moment. Joy. Love.

People say: It must be nice not to have to take care of anyone anymore. I say: Not really. Yes, it’s important to return, after almost 3 hard years of caregiving, to that unfamiliar room called yourself, see what’s changed, what new furniture is there, what’s the temperature. It’s never a good idea to absent yourself from there for too long.

But you could also get trapped in that room, for in some ways, grief is as self-limiting as anger. When I get angry it takes over the world, attracting enormous energy and reactivity and reducing everything else to miniature. When you grieve, the rest of the world also shrinks to become your own very private tower of sorrow. It’s why at times you grit your teeth hearing people laugh or a truck driver honking his exuberant horn. Those things threaten the walls of sorrow you’ve built around yourself; you don’t want to be reminded that other things exist, too.

Ondaatje wrote, “The self is just a small part of it, you know.” Grief, too, can finally become self-serving.

So what to do? Start looking at other things: the dogs, the waning bright moon that has given us such illuminated nights of late. Maybe go to the Stone Soup Café tomorrow and see old friends, the people who cook a terrific community meal every Saturday in Greenfield. Do council, share my life, take a modest place in that circle of people who just live their lives. Because maybe, if you pay attention and listen enough, you’ll see that everyone has losses, that in fact your life is probably better than anyone else’s.

Do a small act of kindness every day, my friend Jon Katz wrote in his beautiful post on exercises for discernment. Yes, I’d like to do that every day, too.

Someone asked me: Who are you thanking when you say thank you for tenderness? Do you, a Buddhist, believe in a divine being?

We have a service we do monthly in the zendo to feed the hungry spirits, and there is a line I’ve contemplated for many years: “I further beseech you to sustain me day and night, and give me courage to fulfill my vows.” Over and over people have asked, Whom are you beseeching?

Over lunch at a diner, a friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t believe in God, but don’t tell Him I said so.”

I don’t know whom I’m beseeching, whom I am thanking. I just go into the deepest part of myself, the part that’s even beyond breath, and there is presence there. Whose presence, I don’t know, only that it’s fully alive and subtly responds all the time.

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ADOPTING A MAFIOSO

“Oh Stanley, I don’t know what to do.”

“How about getting off my grave for a start? You’re standing right on top me, can’t you show some respect?”

“I can’t see your grave because everything’s covered with snow. It’s all one big, white wasteland here.”

“Okay, so what’s the problem now?”

“It’s Harry the Cur, Stan.”

“I knew it!”

“He’s small, but strong and tough. He eats up my boots, jumps up on the bed in the middle of the night and lands right on top of my legs, has made the living room sofa his kingdom, and when I tell him to go inside the crate he just snorts. No answer, Stanley, just a snort!”

“Leave it to you to adopt a Mafioso.”

“I didn’t know they had Mafiosos in Mississippi. And you should see what happens in this house at mealtime. I put his food bowl on the washing machine and take down the bag of dog food, but Harry jumps up so high that twice he’s brought it down, food, broth, and all. No! I tell him.”

“What does that get you?”

“He’s ready to off Aussie, who’s bigger than he is, if she just eyes his food bowl and he pushes her out of the way so that he could go through the dog door first. She’s become a subservient female! When we had temperatures under 0 Fahrenheit a few days ago he had diarrhea. I shoveled him a nice path in back–”

“A bathroom path, how nice!–”

“But he said he’s no Eskimo and used the office in back. So what do you think, Stan?”

“I think you are one big dummy.”

“Me? Why?”

“You had a perfect life with Miss Awesome, no trouble at all. Awesome does what she’s told, goes where she’s told, never crazy or out of control. Likes to run away, true, but otherwise the perfect dog for you. A little too sweet for my taste—I like a little fight in my women—but very easy to live with. You could have lived with Miss Awesome peacefully for years, but was that enough for you? Did you count your blessings? No, sir, you had to bring Harry the Cur into the house. You want to know what I think?”

“Not really.”

“You like disruption!”

“I think that’s Bernie’s influence, Stan.”

“There you go, blaming things on the Man.”

“Just listen, Stanley. Bernie loved disrupting things. While other people liked routine, he hated it when things were easy and smooth, he needed to add another ingredient into the mix, otherwise it was not much of a mix, see? His favorite song was the one by Duke Ellington, It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

“That’s not just the Man, that’s you too.”

“Bernie could have been a regular Zen teacher, leading retreats and giving teachings. He gave great talks, till he decided one day it was time to build apartments for homeless families and the talks became all about construction estimates, deadlines, and new repairs on roofs.”

“You’re just asking for trouble when you do things like that.”

“Of course, Stanley, but Zen isn’t about just sitting comfortably on a cushion and staying inside your four corners.”

“It’s not?”

“No, Stanley, it’s about going full-blast into the mess of things.”

“Like Harry’s diarrhea?”

“Nothing’s excluded, Stanley.”

“Even a Mafioso?”

“I’m afraid so, Stan. Harry will change us, but we will also change him.”

“Good luck. Now leave me be, I need to nap; just listening to you gets me tired. Let me tell you, lying in the ground and rotting away under layers of snow is so much more peaceful than what you got up there.”

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