QUARANTINE!

“Guess what, Aussie? We are in quarantine!”

“What does that mean, Harry?”

“Actually, I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you what it means, Harry. Being in quarantine means that you can’t go wherever you want whenever you want.”

“So what’s new about that, Aussie?”

“My point exactly, Harry. Humans are beside themselves when it happens to them, but they’ve been quarantining us FOREVER!”

“Does that mean no walks, Aussie? No rides? No marrow bones?”

“Walks in the woods are fine, Harry. And I hear the Boss telling people it’s important to get food from other places, otherwise everything will shut down. That may mean more car rides, not less. That’s all they talk about now, Harry, quarantine breakfast lunch and dinner.”

“You mean you can eat quarantine? I knew I’d love it!”

“Not exactly, Harry.”

“Where will the Boss be all this time, Aussie?”

“With us. That’s the bad news.”

“What happens if you break quarantine, Aussie?”

“To us, nothing. First, we’re dogs. Second, we’re young. The Boss is decrepit and her lungs ain’t great. Hee hee, she’s the one that’s got to worry.”

“I hope she’ll be okay, Auss.”

“As long as she’s okay enough to feed us, Harry.”

“Are we in any danger, Aussie?”

“Of course not, we’re the superior species. Do you see us getting sick and dropping like flies? We’ll last long after these humans are gone. Probably have to change some behaviors, that’s all.”

“Like what, Aussie?”

“Once they’re gone we could stop protecting them, hunting with them, or working with them, Harry. Best of all, we’ll be free of their eternal moods and nagging: Come! Lie down! Go pee! Of course, we’ll have to do all that for another species.”

“Like who, Aussie? Bears?”

“Bears are independent, Harry; they can eat anything, they’re fast and strong. No, it has to be a needy species, like humans.”

“Ants?”

“Ants know how to sacrifice for the whole, Harry, unlike humans.”

“Crows?”

“Too bossy.”

“Squirrels?”

“I don’t serve no squirrels. Matter of principle.”

“Bats! Moose! Frogs?”

“Harry, it has to be somebody that’s needy, like humans. Otherwise, why should they take care of us? In fact, you know something, Harry? I ain’t calling the Boss Boss anymore.”

“What are you going to call her, Aussie?”

“Miss Needy.”

“Why, Aussie?”

“Because bosses are strong, Harry. Bosses are tough. Our Boss is no boss. Our boss needs too much for a Boss.”

“What does she need, Aussie?”

“She needs companionship. She needs chocolate. She needs sugar. She needs us!”

“But isn’t that the point,, Aussie? Humans need us, and we need humans.”

“She needs us a lot worse than we need her, Harry. When I run into the woods I can catch me a couple of squirrels for breakfast. There’s lots of water and small dens for shelter. I am the Boss, Harry. She’s Miss Needy.”

“Are you sure, Aussie?”

“Of course I’m sure. Bosses are always sure, it comes to them naturally. Do you see what she does first thing in the morning? She comes down to make the house warmer, opens the dog doors, then comes to us and starts petting and talking to us, wakes us up just when we’re trying to sleep. She needs love!”

“Is that so bad, Aussie?”

“Do you see Donald Trump needing love? A boss is just what we need in these times, Harry. Someone to take charge, tell us not to worry, and keep on eating out. Do you see our Boss acting like that?”

“No. She’s careful and thoughtful, sometimes a little anxious and lonely.”

“Just like I said, Harry. Miss Needy. That’s her name from now on.”

 

 

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WHAT TO DO WITH USED TISSUES

It finally happened: Bernie’s Greyston Bakery denim jacket and the monk’s bag he used for street retreats were formally accepted by the Smithsonian Museum, “on behalf of the people of the United States,” as the thank you letter indicated.

His daughter and family brought the items over. I’d taken them down to her in Thanksgiving, perplexing the airport security people that such tattered items were going into our national museum

It was an official presentation. The staff woman accepted them wearing gloves (I don’t blame her one bit given where Bernie had gone) and folded and put them on a cart, at which point no one from the family could touch them anymore. There were official photos, too.

Bernie loved the denim Greyston Bakery jacket and wore it everywhere. He would have been happy to forego a tuxedo and wear it to his son’s wedding. It tore up in many places, the pink inner lining ripped almost to shreds. His dark brown monk’s bag contained everything you would need to live on the streets, including a small pillow, folded up plastic against the rain, a small umbrella, a rain hat, and a roll of toilet paper.

I saw Bernie not just through illness but also through years of arthritis, when he could barely walk with the dogs and me, and it’s a wonder to remember now that we used to start those street retreats by walking 10 miles from Yonkers through the Bronx and upper Manhattan till we got to Central Park.

A big question came up: What to do with the used, snotty tissues that they found in the pockets of Bernie’s Greyston jacket? Anyone who met Bernie remembers that he sneezed constantly, always reaching in his pocket for the thousand tissues he kept there. If no trash basket was around, he’d put them back in his pockets and empty them later, but sometimes he forgot. These used tissues, believe it or not, may now be catalogued.

Which leaves me musing about what happens now and what happens a moment—or a year—later. When I look at the jacket and the bag, they remind me of Bernie’s free-spiritedness and spontaneity. As years went by, he clowned more, improvising his response to the moment. When he led organizations his love for improvisation bordered on recklessness, but in day to day action and conversation he made people laugh and shake their heads.

“He was the freest man I ever knew,” one friend told me.

The jacket and monk’s bag that remind me of all this will now be catalogued and handled carefully with gloves; they will become artifacts to be shown behind plexiglass. Perhaps it’s human nature to capture and codify the free spirit in all of us, making it into something palpable and solid, something people will read about and could try to copy in the future—but it will never catch the craziness of that response in the immediate moment. I guess museums are designed to do that; it’s when our consciousness does that that it becomes a problem.

Wendell Berry once wrote: “Nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”

Some of us don’t dare risk self-discovery, so we rely on others to discover the world for us. I don’t believe that works.

Around a week ago I wrote of a friend of mine who came to the door asking for help to pay funeral expenses for her daughter, who died suddenly at the age of 51, leaving two children, and all this after a catastrophic fire had gutted their home two years previously. A number of readers asked how they could donate to this, a wonderful surprise for me.

I wasn’t able to contact her till after my return from Chicago. She’s clear she doesn’t want her name to be made public. She’s nervous about going public in this day and age, she said; she’s also abashed at having to ask for money.

The first I can understand, and feel bad about the second. Why are we embarrassed about not having money to cover the costs of such an emergency?

Recently I wrote my nephew to tell him that I can’t come to see him and his family in Nashville, Tennessee because a 2-day visit would cost me at least $700, which  I can’t do right now. He called to say he understood perfectly, and added he was surprised that I felt free to admit this. Most people he knew wouldn’t, instead using euphemisms like: “I’m not set up for that right now,” or “It’s not a good time,” or just “not right now.”

I asked her how people could donate to her and she said that if they would send me the money which I could then give her, she’d be glad. So that’s how it is, generous readers. You could send funds through PayPal to me (using the “Donate” button below) and make sure to add the note: “For friend’s daughter’s burial.” Or else send a check to me, at POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, indicating same on the memo line. $108 has already come in, for which I—and she—are very grateful. If you’d rather not do this, that’s fine too.

 

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AUSSIE NATURE, HARRY NATURE

“Come on Aussie, let’s play. You pull on the bear in one direction and me in another. It’s time to get all the stuffing out!”

“Good idea, Harry, but I have an even better one.”

“What’s that, Auss?”

“Let’s do this in front of the statue outside, the Boss’s favorite place. We’ll rip the bear into shreds and all the white stuffing will fall out. She will be so happy to see that!”

“She will, Aussie?”

“Sure, Harry, it’ll be the first thing she sees when she opens her office door to look out at the back yard. Whenever the Boss is gone she likes to go out to the back and see what’s happened in her absence. Could you imagine her face when she sees all the white stuffing surrounding her favorite statue? Hee hee hee! I can just hear her.”

“What’ll she say, Aussie?”

Aussie, I know it’s you. You’re the culprit, Aussie, only you! That just makes my day. And you know what’s even better, Harry?”

“What, Auss?”

“She’ll have to go down on her knees and clean everything up right after she returns home when she’s still tired.”

“Aussie, why are you such a troublemaker?”

“It’s my nature, Harry. It’s my nature to be a pain in the ass.”

“The Boss likes to talk about Buddha nature, Aussie. She says it’s uborn, undying, unconditioned, –”

Un un un un. Who cares about anything that’s always un-this and un-that? I like Aussie nature.”

“What’s Aussie nature, Aussie?”

“Aussie nature was born when Aussie was born and will die when Aussie dies. It’s completely conditioned on whether or not she gets treats and food, gets lost, loses the Boss (even better), or manages to run away, in that order.”

“Does that mean that you’re only happy at those times, Aussie? What happens when none of those things happen?”

“Then I’m unhappy, dummy. Uncheerful, unfortunate, basically un.”

“But Aussie, that means that your happiness only depends on things going your way. Nobody has a life like that.”

“I do the best I can, Harry. Right now the best thing I can do is tear the bear apart right in front of the statue and get the Boss upset. That’s Aussie nature. She likes the statue, you know.”

“Why, Auss?”

“The Boss calls her Kwan-Yin, Buddha of compassion. Nothing seems to rile Kwan-yin. Doesn’t go up or down, doesn’t get upset with anybody, just does her best all the time.”

“Is that bad, Aussie?”

“No, it’s boring.”

“When does the Boss come back, Aussie?”

“Later this evening. We’ll run into the garage and act as if we’re happy to see her, she’ll bring her things in, unpack, and then you know what she’s going to do, don’t you, Harry?”

“See the mess we’ll leave in front of Kwan-Yin?”

“Nah, it’ll be too dark, that’s for tomorrow morning, I can’t wait. No, tonight she’ll take us out to the back, remember? Harry Aussie, come out to pee! It’s the last thing the Boss does before shutting off the lights and going upstairs. She likes to give orders, that’s Boss nature.”

“Only you don’t pee, Auss.”

“We always have the same conversation, Harry. She says: Aussie come out to pee before I shut the dog door for the night. And I say: I don’t pee on call, sorry.”

“But Aussie, you get treats if you pee—and treats are part of Aussie nature.”

“I meander over to the forsythia bush and crouch down, and she can’t see anything in the dark so she thinks I’m peeing and I get treats just like you. But I don’t submit, Harry. I never submit. That’s Aussie nature.”

“Harry nature is to get along.”

“Harry nature is to be a wimp.”

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RETURNING TO CHICAGO

Zen Life and Meditation Center

I’m teaching householder koans at Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago this weekend. I deeply appreciate the members practicing together with me, not to mention hanging out with old friends like teachers Robert Althouse and June Tanoue. We began Thursday evening and I will finish on Sunday, returning home to Massachusetts early Sunday evening.

My host, Zen teacher and hula master June Tanoue, asked me to come early and take the opportunity to see Chicago with her, the Art Institute and other places. I thanked her and said no; for some odd reason I like to leave home and arrive somewhere just in time, and return as soon as possible. It’s probably a recipe for a boring life..

The only time I’d visited the Chicago Art Institute was in December 1984, when I was a writing fellow at the Ragdale Foundation and took a day off to see the city.

The Ragdale Foundatiion is in Lake Forest, a very wealthy suburb of Chicago where many of the 19th century robber barons built their mansion homes (the movie Ordinary People was filmed there). Usually in mid-day I’d put on my coat, leave my work in my room, and walk up and down those streets. I never saw anyone outside those grand houses other than men from Latin America doing landscaping and repairs, and it often occurred to me that if a Martian had landed in Lake Forest s/he would conclude that they were the immensely wealthy people who lived in those homes.

I remember two things from my day in Chicago proper. The winds off the lake  gave me a raw and immediate hit on one reason why that city is called the Windy City (there are more reasons). Walking around was no joy.

The second thing I remember vividly was making my way to Lincoln Park. By then it had started to rain. I saw a bookshop and thought to go in, but saw it was crowded with people talking among themselves, crowded around an elfin figure seated at the table signing books and talking to people with the most expressive face I’d ever seen. I started crying because I recognized James Baldwin.

I should have gone in, bought a book, made prostrations. Instead I stood out in the rain and looked at him through the windows sitting in the warm, lit-up bookstore. Streams cascaded down the window and I got soaked.

It was during those two months at the Ragdale Foundation that I began to sit.

In Zen practice we don’t invoke the bright sun as signaling enlightenment, but rather the hazy moon. I think of that when I remember the woman standing in the rain and looking inside through windows streaming with water outside, misting over inside.

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YOU HAVE TO ASK

The dogs have the living room on cold nights

I was preparing my talk for last night’s schedule in the zendo, when the doorbell rang. Friends usually walk right in.

I opened the door, Harry and Aussie jumping up in excitement, and there was a woman I knew from the local community, someone I’d met when we first arrived in Massachusetts in 2002. I’d visited her and her husband briefly at home that year and would run into her at local events. Her face seemed ravaged and it was hard for her to meet my eyes.

“Do you remember me?” were her first words.

I assured her that I did and told her to come in. Instinctively I invited her to sit on the couch rather than in our dining room; usually the dogs have free reign there during weekdays. I sat next to her, reminded her of past meetings, and she got to the point.

“This is horrible,” she said. “I don’t know where to start. Call it a mission of mercy.”

She then proceeded to tell me that her daughter, an only child, with two sons of her own, had lost her home in a fire that destroyed everything some two years back. “The insurance helped, but not much,” she said. They worked hard to get rehoused.

“And then my daughter died suddenly, in her sleep, five months ago. She was 51.” She looked up, almost forcing herself to meet my eyes. “I’m going to neighbors and friends asking for loans. We have to pay the funeral house for burying my daughter. I’m very embarrassed about this, but sometimes you just have no choice, you have to ask for help.”

She indeed was embarrassed. Her face had turned pink when she mentioned money. A moment after forcing herself to meet my eyes, she lowered them again.

For months she couldn’t find her feet under her, she said, she was in shock. Unlike me, who had the luxury of mourning the loss of a husband who lived a fairly long and rich life, she had to get moving. “What gets me going are my two grandsons; I try to be there for them. And then we have this large debt.”

I see her face in my mind now. I think of how sudden death hits people. There’s too much shock to even feel grief, no chance to take stock, to stay balanced. I’ve seen people plan catered memorials that they can’t afford. I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars on munificent caskets for a loved one who suddenly died, only to remember much later that the person really wanted to be cremated. I’ve seen people write long, laborious obituaries for the newspaper because they can’t think of another way to honor a son or daughter, only to be stunned by a subsequent bill for a couple of thousand dollars.

What do you say to someone who couldn’t afford to bury her daughter? She and her husband live 2 miles away. They have a house in the woods and wear the same clothes I do. They’re neighbors.

What most affected me was the courage it took to knock on the door and ask for financial help. In this rural area we see our way towards borrowing a cup of sugar or some butter, it seems to be the quintessence of what it is to be neighbors. But money?

I told her how moved I was by her ask. I remembered how the main part of a street retreat was asking for money.

“You have to learn to ask,” Bernie used to say.

Many of us, including me, were self-conscious because it was a street retreat, we weren’t truly homeless.

“It doesn’t matter,” he’d say. “Asking is asking. Always, always ask. Don’t look at the person’s face and assess whether they’re liable to give you something, ask everybody. Asking is the practice.”

My neighbor didn’t ask everybody, but she did ask me. And regardless of how much I gave her (I wouldn’t hear of a loan), she gave me back much, much more.

 

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TRUE PROPORTIONS

I was on a bus in Poland some 20 years ago, on our way from Krakow to Oswiecim, seated next to someone I considered an old friend. At some point he turned to me and said, “So are you hanging up your shingle?”

“What do you mean?” I thought the phrase referred to opening up a business and hanging up an advertising sign.

He made a funny noise with his throat, as if to say, Come on! “Well, you received dharma transmission, didn’t you? You’re now a Sensei.” He rolled his eyes.

Some 10 months before that I’d gone through a ceremony recognizing me as a Zen teacher and empowering me to teach. He knew that this kind of recognition usually comes after years of work. He may not have known how hard you work after such a ceremony, practicing and studying more intensely afterwards than before. Nevertheless, he talked about it as though I was opening up a grocery store or a restaurant, an accounting office.

Right then and there I realized he was no friend.

I have respect for accounting offices, one of which will be doing my taxes very shortly. I have even more respect for restaurants, and lots for local grocery stores that serve small towns like mine and are open for long hours every day of the week.

At the same time, I never thought of teaching as hanging up my shingle. I think of it as being a vehicle for disseminating teachings that are thousands of years old and that have completely changed my life. I don’t sell things; in fact, I downright discourage students from taking my word for it. Zen is about direct experience, not the reading of sutras or listening to inspiring talks and podcasts (though these have their place). If the Buddha advised his students to be lamps unto their own lives, always testing their life experiences against his teachings, I can do no less.

At the same time, when you’re listened to with depth and respect, when you lead retreats and receive bows, it’s all too tempting to think of yourself as something special, unique, and even important. When you study for a long time with any teacher you can see his/her failings and weaknesses, and you think to yourself: If I ever get to that position, I will never do any of that.

But often you do, because the very process of being a spiritual teacher, leading groups and teaching programs, contains egoic traps like anything else. I have been spared some of that because my group of students are incredibly dedicated and relatively few; I can’t imagine what would become of me if hundreds of people waited on my every word, I could well turn into a monster.

As the years go by, humility becomes more and more important to me, but I confess that it’s been an elusive quality.

On the other side of arrogance is insecurity (though the two are well connected). When the man sitting at my side on the bus said what he said, immediately my heart quailed: He’s probably right to make fun of me, who on earth do I think I am? It took me a while to see how this is just another form of self-involvement, another way to keep myself at the center of things. It’ll still come up on occasion, but when it does, I turn into an usher: Could we move along please? Your seat is H7, sit and pay attention.

Bernie helped me see things in proportion. He asked me to take charge of our large retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in November of 1999 with 150 people. I was woefully unprepared, felt lots of pressure, and at the end was sure I’d done a terrible job. When he heard that he laughed and said: “You really think you could ruin a retreat at Auschwitz?”

I never forgot those words. He pointed out my true proportions in that vast killing land, full of blood and ash but also strong healing energies.

He also told me later of a conversation he had with his Japanese teacher, Maezumi Roshi. They talked about the importance of creating new Zen teachers in the West, and Maezumi Roshi pointed out the challenges. He told Bernie that it’s hard to have dharma successors: They will be excited by the dharma but other things will happen. They will get a job on the other side of the country, or a new relationship in a different state. They will have to go to take care of their children or their parents. Life will call them elsewhere, or else they will die.

“You are just one of many things in their life, not the only thing,” he said.

And still, you take a vow to continue the Buddha’s teachings, to make sure they are not extinguished. I’m not sure that can happen; if they come to an end in one form, they will reappear in another.

So I will be teaching in Chicago a workshop alongside my dear friend, Zen teacher and hula master, June Tanoue, at Zen Life and Meditation Center starting Thursday evening and continuing through Saturday. I will also give a morning talk in the Sunday schedule.

And leaving Zen and entering the world of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan teachings help us work skillfully with emotions. My friend, Ngakma Yeshe Zertsal (known for many years to me as Wendy), a Vajrayana teacher in Nyack, New York, is offering a morning workshop on March 21 entitled: . Are you overly emotional? Have you been told you’re neurotic? I have been accused of both. The good news is that we can use our emotions to wake up. I can’t say enough about this approach, so if you’re anywhere around New York and are ready to invest 4 hours (there is no fee, just a request for donations), email: arozertsalling@earthlink.net. The names may sound strange, but emotions are emotions the world over.

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LOVING THE WORLD WITHOUT OUTCOMES

The goldfinches arrived today. I looked out the window to the left of my desk and there they were: one, then another, then another and another. In our house, at least, goldfinches are a sign of spring.

I can’t forget how we finally brought Bernie home after his big stroke at the end of February, having set up the downstairs office as a bedroom. Almost immediately hundreds of goldfinches arrived. I surround the house with birdfeeders and there were at least ten at each one. I’m not sure he noticed much at that early time, but everyone who visited him in the room ooh’d and aaah’d as the finches created a storm of gold dust as they flew by the hundreds up to the sky.

Maple syrup buckets have been around now for two weeks. Chipmunks and squirrels are hungry—this is the hungry season for many animals, just before spring—and I watch them as they tip the birdfeeders over, gather the seeds on the ground with both paws and gobble them up. They should be careful; last year Aussie killed three of them, the only dog I’ve had who could do this.

But Aussie has changed; she’s no longer such a killer, slinking behind the corner of the house and waiting patiently in ambush. I haven’t won her over completely, though I give her lavish treats and praise. Most of our outings work fine, but this morning she strayed far from me in the woods, and while I was checking the ice under my feet she vamoosed across the creek. By the time I looked up she was gone, only to arrive home two hours later.

It’s as if her life, once the life of a wanderer and hunter, is now split in two opposing directions:

Straight ahead: Boring but bountiful Eve.

Across the creek: Fun and games.

Going back up the slope when called: Discipline and training, rewarded by treats.

The other way: Great mishigas.

Two days ago, a friend arrived for mid-afternoon tea and both dogs slipped out through the open front door. Harry dashed up the driveway as if chased by a pack of coyotes: Free at last! Free at last! Free at last! Aussie was slower behind him, undecided.

“Aussie!” I called.

She actually paused. I’m thinking about it.

“Aussie, come!”

But temptation won over and she chased after Harry. I’m sure that if she had the e-collar on, with vibration and beeps for emphasis, she would have returned home. Eventually, she’ll come even without the e-collar, just not yet.

I went to Stone Soup Café several days ago, which feeds the community each Saturday with the best lunch in Greenfield. Each week they celebrate a different holiday from different nations and religious traditions. Take a look at the Indian menu celebrating the Lord Shiva that day:

Ginger carrot bisque (fabulously seasoned!)

Raita

Tadka Dhal

Vegetable Biryani

Curried Fish

Coconut Pie

It doesn’t mention the fruit drink, ice tea, water, coffee and hot tea available. It’s unlike any soup kitchen I’ve ever been in. The tables are set up with mats, napkins, cutlery, menus, and flowers. In the morning farmers bring their extra produce fresh from their fields.

Zen Peacemakers started this in Montague, but our location wasn’t ideal because people needed to drive to get there, so we’d be chauffeuring people back and forth. When Ariel Pliskin re-opened the Café in Greenfield, at the Unitarian Church, it took off. People could walk there from their homes, from the streets, from the shelter where they were staying.

Kirsten Levitt, who has served as Head Chef all these years, is now the linchpin for the Café (she’s also chief organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign in Western Massachusetts, leading the rally the evening I was at their gathering). Her cooking work done, she circulates among the people eating her food, calling them by name, giving them hugs. The Café not only serves some 130 people a day, they make enough food for seconds and for taking home. They require at least 25 volunteers every single week—and they get them.

It was so good to sit there after a long time being away.

Over the many years I worked with Bernie, we started lots and lots of things, and I learned that you never know which of your many plans and projects will work, and which won’t. Only a few seem to work right away; many take a long time to come to any fruition; and some don’t seem to come to fruition at all. But you never know. Someone once nudged me at a bookstore to tell me how much she loves Greyston cookies.

“Greyston hasn’t made cookies in many years,” I told her.

She never tasted them in Greyston in Yonkers, she said, she tasted them at a Trappist monastery where she did a retreat and was told that long ago Trappists had trained at Greyston to make cookies.

We think we know who we are, the body that defines us, the skin that closes us in, but in truth we don’t know how far we reach, much like the goldfinches that become a long, golden flying carpet when they swoop up to the sky.

The Zen teacher John Tarrant wrote: “We must love the world without knowing the outcomes, because it is the only world we have, and because we never really know outcomes, just our own hopes and fears.”

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PROPHETS AND KINGS

“Unable to love themselves, violent reactionaries fall in love with something they call America. But they don’t want to share her with blacks and Jews and bureaucrats. They want freedom in terms they can understand, not in all its wild unpredictability. They want to erase what can’t be erased; the messiness and contradictions of a democratic society, the unruliness of their own lives. They love America the way wife beaters love marriage.”

Sy Safransky, publisher of The Sun, wrote the above, and it was the last sentence that grabbed my attention. Men who perpetrate domestic violence on their wives want marriage and life on certain terms (usually with themselves at the center), and are unable to live with the subtleties of relationship, its crazy dark and light, ups and downs, all the mystery and lack of control you usher in when you live with another human being.

Safransky drew a parallel between that and violent reactionaries (mostly white supremacists), and their lack of tolerance for diversity and the large measure of chaos and unpredictability built into a society like ours. Even Europeans often shake their heads at the chaotic nature of American politics, the seeming lack of continuity and the many upheavals.

Now many  Americans shake their heads at the same thing, too, as if the end of times is upon us. Maybe it is. And maybe it is the death that precedes awakening, the fading that precedes renewal. I think the Buddhist equivalent to other traditions’ faith is our trust in impermanence. Not impermanence as in: I know I know, everything changes (groan groan!), but impermanence as in: Wow! What I thought was this isn’t exactly this at all. It’s this and it’s also something else at the same time, fluid and changing, a stream with an unknown destination. Well, isn’t that interesting!

It’s that flavor of curiosity that I carry with me into this political landscape. Yes, I see what’s now, and I’d like to do my part in the course correction we need. At the same time, I wonder what’s around the corner.

Massachusetts will have its primaries next Tuesday. The lawns here have many Bernie signs, but I’m pretty sure I won’t vote for Bernie Sanders. For me, he’s a prophet.

In Biblical times, Jews had their prophets and they had their kings. Each had his (it was usually, but not always, his) function. The prophet knew the truth because he spoke to God. He would tell this truth to the king, warn him that God’s wrath was upon him, that he would lose his throne, maybe even his life. For this reason the prophet often had to hide, but he would take any risk because that was his job; he was a prophet. He never changed his mind, he never compromised.

The king had to make it all work. He had to appeal not just to God but also to the people, he had to fight, to build, to lead, slay giants. He made lots of mistakes, promised one thing and often delivered another. He was all too human.

I think of Bernie Sanders as our prophet; I don’t think of him as president. “Truth is truth!” he asserted, waving his arms up and down in talking of his admiration for Castro’s Cuba. That’s the talk of a prophet.

Like so many people, I’m torn between idealism and pragmatism (knowing that the former may well be the most pragmatic of all in the long run). I will probably vote for Elizabeth Warren, our highly intelligent, fearless senator.

I continue to be deeply disturbed by the different standards women candidates are subjected to in comparison to men. They’re allowed to be passionate but not raise their voice. Nobody likes them when they interrupt to get more debate time, as do their male peers. The New York Review of Books referred to an article that noted, among other things, that “early broadcast mikes were designed for male voices and distorted the female voice so profoundly that women learned to alter their speech by lowering the tone, something Margaret Thatcher apparently did to project authority.”

If broadcast mikes have changed, the minds of many have not. Don’t be loud, don’t get technical, don’t dominate. What does it matter if you’re more intelligent than most, have put in the time to work out some good solutions to our problems, and feel ready to take on the world? That’s fine, just don’t show it, know what I mean? Don’t show off your intelligence. Be girlish rather than professorial, lighthearted rather than grave. Show how relational you can be. Learn from Bill Clinton (never from Hillary).

Above all, never be angry. Never raise your voice. Never grow indignant.

“Why are you angry?” my husband, Bernie, used to say to me in the middle of an argument.

For years I took that as a serious rebuke. I was aware of my tendencies to quickly get upset and impatient, to not listen. I was aware of the energy that anger brings up, the feeling of relief when this energy courses through your body and you feel in charge. And I was aware of the harm that can be done when we unleash that anger.

But in later years I’d pause and ask myself: Am I really angry? I care about what I’m saying, maybe even passionate. Am I remonstrating? Expostulating? Arguing? I must have heard Bernie remonstrate, expostulate, and argue many, many times over the 33 years that I knew him. No one ever said to him, Why are you angry?

 

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STILL GOING THAT HARD WAY

Photo by Clemens Breitschaft

“Hey Aussie, can you smell the deer?”

“You bet, Harry.”

“Then where are you going?”

“The Boss wants me back.”

“What’s happened to you, Aussie? We used to disappear for hours together.”

“You didn’t think it was that much fun the one time we ran off and stayed out all night. Did you ever complain!”

“After sleeping for two days everything was fine, Aussie. Anyway, I can feel the end of winter and the animals are calling, so let’s go!”

“Why don’t you go by yourself, Harry?”

“It’s not that much fun without you, Aussie. You’re the leader of the pack.”

“I think the Boss is the leader of the pack, Harry.”

“Boy, have you changed.”

Aussie has changed. In fact, change is in the air. It’s close to 50 degrees today, and while some areas, shrouded by trees, continue to be snowy and icy (like our back yard), others show brown earth covered by brown leaves. Who would have thought we’d welcome so much brown!

Maple leaf buckets have been dangling from the trees for over a week, but even before that the sun returned to New England; I greet it as I would a friend who left to the other side of the country and is now back.

And of course, Aussie doesn’t change alone; the whole pack changes with her. Without his elder sister leading the way, Harry, too, comes back quicker and doesn’t wander very far. I’m more relaxed and happier. There’s no changing alone; the minute you change, the world changes.

I’ve been thinking about love.

When Bernie had his disabling stroke, I often wondered about love and what happens to it when relationship changes from one of equally abled people to one where one of the couple is disabled, both in body and mind. An idea for a film came to me, a story of a couple who’ve worked together for many years, and he’s struck. She continues the work while taking care of him and ends up falling in love with another man. What does she choose? Where does she go?

More general questions came up, too: Where is love in an era of illness and old age? It’s different from when we’re younger, but our culture rarely shows us or promotes examples. What happens to sex? What happens to our self-image? When does one stop being a woman and starts becoming a nurse? How do you reconcile the two?

The lover in question is himself in a relationship with a much younger woman. How necessary is that for men as they grow older? I know what the biologists say, but in my vision the lover actually turns away from his much younger wife and falls in love with a woman his age. How plausible is that?

This idea never appeared to me as a book, always as a movie. So last spring I called an actor friend of mine and suggested that he make a movie about this:

“I know they say that it’s the much younger crowd that makes up the majority of movie theater audiences,” I told him, “but I think there’s an audience for such a movie. I think its explorations of love could be relevant to many people.”

He heard me out and said: “I agree with you. Write the screenplay.”

“I don’t write screenplays,” I told him.

“Write this one,” he said.

I thought about it. I was still very raw from Bernie’s death, unable to pick up other creative projects I’d been working on before he died, but this felt different. It would be my way of working out the many rich challenges we’d faced as a couple.

Adrienne Rich wrote:  “An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”

Bernie wasn’t one of the few people ready to go that hard way, but the process didn’t die just because he died; in some ways it’s still left to me. And the only way I know to do that on my own is through story, invention, fantasy.

I’ve been working on this screenplay—something I’ve never written before—since then, returning to it now after a hiatus of some 2-3 months. I’ve made the couple radio astronomers, and the lover a high-tech computer guy. For me, the creative world is no less real than the melting snow outside and chipmunks feeding under birdfeeders. No less real than Harry’s conversation with Aussie:

“Do I have to change just because you’re changing, Aussie?”

“I’m afraid so, Harry.”

“You were once so crazy, so restless, so wild!”

“I changed, Harry.”

“I’m leaving home. Somebody has to.”

On another note, Buddhadharma, the Buddhist magazine, said this about The Book of Householder Koans: At every turn, the authors warmly urge us to reengage with our ordinary circumstances through an extra-ordinary lens. The book provides no pedantic solutions, instead offering itself as an open workbook with which to navigate the problems that come with being human.

I’m so glad they said there were no pedantic solutions. Amazon sends out its orders tomorrow, as do independent bookstores. I deeply encourage you to buy the book, preferably from your neighborhood bookstore so that it survives and thrives.

For those of you living near Chicago, I’ll be doing a workshop based on householder koans with Sensei June Tanoue from March 5 to 8 at Zen Life and Meditation Center.

I keep busy because it’s my nature, and also to provide myself with an income. I don’t have a vision for my blog, other than an effort to peel away veil after veil, come closer and deeper to what’s  inside. If I find nothing that’ll be more than fine. If you enjoy reading these posts, please consider making a donation. Any amount is welcome, monthly or one-time. You can do this using the bottom below, or else, if you prefer not to use PayPal, you can send checks or correspondence to:

Eve Marko

POB 174

Montague, MA 01351

Most important, thank you always for reading.

 

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WHO AM I IF I’M NOT A BALLOON?

“What’s your true nature, Aussie?”

“Being a balloon.”

“What?”

“My true nature is being a balloon.”

“For a while there, Auss, I thought you were a wild hunting dog. For months all you seemed to want to do was escape, run to the woods and chase prey.”

“Those were the days.”

“And then things changed. You’re not so wild anymore, Aussie. You don’t go out to sniff out holes in the fence—”

“You and Tim took care of that, didn’t you?”

“But you were different even before we re-fenced the areas where the wires were loose. You seemed more settled, Aussie, more at home in this home.”

“That’s because you fed me more, Boss.”

“Was that it? I can’t keep on increasing your food, Aussie, I don’t want you to get fat.”

“That’s going against my true nature.”

“Which is what, Auss?”

“I told you, being a balloon. That’s what I want to re-discover, my balloon nature.”

“Aussie, every Buddhist knows that our true nature is not being balloons.”

“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?””

“Aussie, our original nature is to be empty of an imagined self.”

“I mean, without clothes. Those jeans and sweaters hide so much!”

“Our original nature, Auss, has nothing to do with jeans and sweaters or the body underneath, and certainly nothing to do with what our brain tells us is us. That’s just an imagined construct.”

“Well, my brain tells me that in reality I’m a balloon. And I know that’s true.”

“How do you know, Aussie?”

“Because the more I eat, the better I feel. I’m becoming my real self, I’m growing into my real skin, bigger, better—”

“Fatter—”

“More beautiful. My real self is balloonness.”

“Define balloonness, Aussie.”

“The state of being a balloon.”

“Your true self is not balloonness, Auss. Your true self is empty—”

“A balloon is empty—”

“Not that kind of empty, Aussie. Emptiness refers to not having ideas about who and what you are, which restrict your basic freedom. So even insisting that in reality you’re a balloon already limits you.”

“A balloon flies in the air. Do you fly?”

“No, Auss, and neither do you.”

“I run a lot faster than you. A balloon is light as a feather. Are you light as a feather? Don’t make me laugh.”

“Aussie, your original nature is not balloonness.”

“I say it is. I don’t care what your books say, I don’t care what the teachers say. Aren’t you the one who says we should depend on our experience?”

“Let me ask you this, Aussie. Now that I feed you more, you say you’re a balloon. What were you before I fed you more?”

“Unhappy.”

“Not a balloon, Auss?”

“Not a balloon.”

“But your true nature shouldn’t change depending on circumstances, Auss, that’s what makes it true nature. We say it’s empty because everything else we can point to—being righteous, being a sinner, being a writer, even being a dog or a human—depends on circumstances. Right now you’re a balloon because you get more food and more treats.”

“Food and treats are my path to realizing my true nature.”

“If you keep on eating your true nature will be a busted balloon.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll get hip dysplasia and kidney disease, you’ll get arthritis. Believe me, Auss, it’s not worth it.”

“So what should I aspire to be?”

“True nature has nothing to do with aspiration. Be yourself, Auss.”

“Who am I if I’m not a balloon?”

“That’s your koan, Aussie.”

“Tell me the answer.”

“Can’t do that, Auss. Zen teachers never give answers. Answers are the death of our practice.”

“I don’t like this practice.”

“Where are you going, Auss?”

“To steal Harry’s food. He’s sleeping so maybe I’ll get away with it. Being a balloon feels a lot better than an empty stomach.”

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