WHAT NOT TO DO

Bernie loved to tell this story:

He was at the 70th birthday of Swami Satchidananda, who founded Integral Yoga in this country. The two had served together as members of the interfaith Temple of Understanding, begun by Dean James Morton, at that time the dynamic head of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. There was a dinner honoring Satchidananda at Yogaville, Virginia, and at some point Rabbi Joseph Gelberman got up to speak:

“I have been privileged to know Swami Satchidananda, and because of him I have done a little yoga, but certainly not much. One day, Swami calls me over and says: ‘Joseph, I want to make you a yoga teacher.’

I was stunned. I stammered: ‘Me, a yoga teacher? But Swami, I don’t know what to do.’

Swami thought for a minute, then brightened. ‘No problem, Joseph. You will be a teacher of what not to do.’”

I myself met Rabbi Gelberman much later. As a young man he had left Vienna for New York just before the Nazis marched in, preparing to bring over his young wife and baby a few months later. They never made it. Fifty years later, when he told me the story, and even after building a new life in New York, he never forgave himself. Like Bernie, he liked to do interfaith work, often officiating in Jewish weddings where either the bride or the groom wasn’t Jewish. For a long time, and to this day, many rabbis won’t officiate in such weddings, but Rabbi Joseph saw only blessings in those couples.

I thought I’d write a little update about Aussie, who was clearly a teacher of what not to do for a long time, slipping through dog-made holes in the fence and running in the woods for hours.

I brought her to a trainer who had seen her when I first got her, and  she immediately remarked that Aussie seemed thin. “Maybe she runs away to hunt for food,” she told me.

I didn’t think so, I’m careful about my dogs not gaining weight and incurring problems. But when she mentioned this a few times I decided to feed Aussie more and take her to the vet. Almost overnight she seemed better. She didn’t have that restless and edgy—maybe hungry, I think now—look that she’d had before. To my surprise, the vet concurred. Aussie didn’t have parasites, but maybe in winter she needed more food. So Aussie has been eating more and putting on weight. She has clearly settled down more rather than staring out at the forest above our house as though that’s her true home.

Our fence was completely fixed again several days later. In fact, the last few times Harry slipped out he did it alone, Aussie standing in the doorway, watching him but not joining him. Tim covered up every place with old loose wiring that the dogs used to slip through, and the result is that they haven’t slipped through the fence in weeks.

Finally, Aussie was trained on an electronic collar. I resisted this approach for a long time, but realized that, with a hunter like Aussie, this may be the only way she’ll walk in the woods unleashed. After 4 days of training I took over. The collar has three settings, one a beeper, one vibration, and one electric shock. I turned off the electric shock completely, use the vibrator slightly (oh no, that word!) and only after trying it out on me, and use predominantly the beeper to get her attention. And it works.

Beep Beep! Eve to Aussie. That’s far enough.

Aussie runs back, tail wagging happily, to get the treat in my hand. You use lots of treats in these trainings. I watch her going off with Harry in the distance, and when I know that soon I won’t see her anymore: Beep Beep! Eve to Aussie. Come back where I can see you. Aussie doesn’t hesitate and bounds back joyfully.

That’s a sign for me, she’s positively joyful about being off-leash. She is happy when I put the collar on, knowing that a walk is imminent, and doesn’t seem to mind reaching the distant perimeter and then being alerted to come back—as long as there’s a treat in my hand.

I never use the beeper or the vibrator (there’s that word again) if she is out of eyesight; at that point I accept that she’s gone and I can’t correct her. That’s happened twice, my own fault, and after a while she came back.

As usual, when I train her I learn more than she does. I learned that she was much more content with more food. I also learned that Aussie is not some wild hunting dog who just wants to run. She can be very happy with fast one-hour walks off-leash, free to run in a very large space, sniffing the bushes all she wants, smelling the scents in the air and still staying with me. We’ve become a family. We enter the woods together, and we walk out together. This doesn’t disappoint her at all; she seems comfortable and happy.

She’s also happier with me. We had a few bad months and she must have sensed my anger and frustration. Those are gone, and she is sweeter and more loving than before. Probably because I am, too.

Finally, rather than being a teacher of what not to do, Aussie is teaching Harry what to do. He comes racing back with her when she returns to me. At first I could see he was puzzled—“How come we’re not running away?” But now he too likes to circle back to me and collect his treat.

“You know, Auss, hanging around Eve is not so bad after all.”

“Isn’t it amazing how she’s changed?”

 

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HARRY PRACTICE, AUSSIE PRACTICE

“Look at the yard, Aussie. It’s so big, it almost circles the house. You know what that means?”

“No.”

“It means that when somebody walks along the road we could bark at him from the shed, then run all the way to the other side beyond the laundry lines and keep on barking the entire time. Isn’t that fun?”

“We have a fence.”

“A yard by definition has a fence. I mean, there’s a limit to it, right?”

“That’s what I mean, there’s a fence.”

“Aussie, how come you see a fence and I see a yard?”

For a long while there I felt like Aussie, seeing constraints, limits, and definitions so narrow I felt I could hardly breathe. And there are my Harry times, when I experience space, cold air entering deep into my lungs, and the clarity of sky regardless of what color it is that morning. I could bark all day at the people walking up on the road.

Last Thursday I woke up in the morning and felt different for the first time in months. There was no anxious edge, no looking out at gray, threatening outdoors, and most of all, no fuzzy mind trying to recollect the day, the place, who am I. No weight of what’s ahead, of what I can’t do or won’t get to.

I wrote last week that I got a prescription for antidepressants. It takes a while for it to work, I was told, as many as six weeks for full effect. But Thursday morning, 9 days later, I could feel the difference. Confidence began to come back.

For most of my life, when challenges came up, I had the sense that if I wasn’t afraid to lean into them, I’d find a creative entry through the side door. Going through the side door has been my practice for quite a while. My brain instructs me on how to get in through the front door: Go down the path and up 3 steps, open the front door (the lock jiggles a little), shut it before the dogs run out, hang up your jacket and scarf, take off your gloves and boots, etc. Do this and then this and then this and then this.

Unexpected things take me sideways. They require a side-door practice, finding an opening which isn’t so obvious, has no path or steps, no big number on the door, no whining dogs at the entrance. Either you find it, or it finds you. Creativity’s there.

I go in once I find the side door. Maybe I’ll see a corner I hadn’t seen before, maybe I’ll crash into it. Probably,  I’ll dangle from it for a while. My feet will feel like they’re on air, I’ll miss the sense of solid earth under me. Dangling is an important practice.

In his later life, Bernie didn’t mind getting hung up by corners. During the Greyston years there were too many to bear at times, but later he seemed to enjoy them.

“I like a good heckler,” he used to say after giving a talk and someone would interrupt or ask sarcastic questions. It took him out of his spiel and into the moment.

I remember one heckler he didn’t enjoy so much. In the early Greyston years we attempted to get control of an abandoned school, School 6, and convert it into temporary housing for homeless families. The Republican mayor of Yonkers, Angelo Martinelli, was all for it, but local community leaders rebelled. So Bernie would go every evening to a different gathering in churches and auditoria to advocate for School 6. In the end community opposition was too much and we had to wait another two years to actually buy a property to develop into permanent homes for homeless families.

To this very day, School 6 is abandoned, homeless people sleeping against its asbestos walls, drug exchanges happening in the yard. The gray stone on my altar is from School 6, a symbol of what happens when people don’t find a way to work together.

He talked one evening in a school auditorium to a predominantly African American audience about our plans to build housing. Somebody started heckling him, calling our plans garbage and much worse. This went on and on, Bernie ignoring him, describing the plans, the arts center we wanted to open, the meals we wanted to share with the community.

Then the man yelled: “I know what you honkies want. You’re not giving anybody a place to live, you’re going to put the men to work in your bakery for no money, they’re going to be slaves!”

Bernie tried to go on, but the man wasn’t finished: “And you’re going to pimp the women coming in with their children, that’s what you’re going to do!”

Bernie lost it. “That’s f—ing bullshit!” he yelled back.

It was the only time I heard him curse in public. Even in private, you could count on one hand the number of times I heard him use a four-letter word. The same man years later sent his daughter to train and work at the Greyston Bakery.

The corner I really wanted him to get caught up on was our relationship, just him and me, the couple. He didn’t wish to spend much time there, which caused conflict at times. Now I think back to it and shake my head: Just how much did you expect from the guy? He had such a vast view of practice, was ready to include so much. Not just teaching or talking about the mandala of life but actually practicing in its different aspects. The corporate life, the service life, the political life—all these were practice realms. He wouldn’t denigrate any of them.

He could have just taught in a zendo. Instead he was ready to go sideways into different realms and get hung up on corners, searching always for the creative potential, developing new practices continually. He was like Harry, finding a big space in every yard.

“Most people out there think you’re crazy,” a Buddhist professor once told him.

He just listened quietly, didn’t say a word.

 

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WHYNNNN! WHYNNNN!

“Harry, why do you always whine in the back seat when I drive?”

“I’m not whining, I’m eager.”

“Eager, nervous, anxious, whatever it is, it sounds like a whine. Every time I take you for a drive you whine right into my ear and it makes me crazy. Nnnnn! Nnnnn!”

“It’s more like whynnnwhynnn. The first whynnn goes up and the second whynnn goes down.”

“Shut up, Aussie. You’re not much better, with your back paws on the back seat and the front paws up on the armrest between the passenger seat and me.”

“How else am I supposed to see up front?”

“Whynnn Whynnn! Whynnn Whynnn!”

“I thought that after a year you’d stop it already, Harry, but you just keep on. It’s hard to drive this way.”

“Whynnn whynnn! Whynnn whynnn!”

“It better change when you get older, Harry.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

Aussie’s right, you can’t bet on people or dogs changing. Change they will, but we have no say about when and how. I’ve made that mistake way too often.

I wake up at 3:30 this morning because my dry winter skin is itching. The humidifier in the bedroom doesn’t help much, nor does body cream or lotion. Half asleep, my fingers scratch my elbows, work their way down the arms to the wrists, go back up to the shoulders, and before I know it, I’m wide awake and wondering how I could reach my back.

Instantly I think of Bernie. “I don’t think you’ll ever divorce me,” he said. “You need me to scratch your back.”

Whenever we laughed at something while lying in bed, my back would itch and I’d ask him to scratch it. Even after his stroke, he would raise his unstruck left hand and stroke my back; by then he didn’t have the strength to really scratch it.

For years it was Bernie who suffered from dry skin in the winter, not me. I would buy the lotion and he put some on his skin if he awoke in the middle of the night. After his stroke I put CBD salve on his body every evening. What did my hands convey? Love? Sorrow? Tenderness? It was a sweet way to say good night.

Change comes in so many different ways, but practically never in the way you think it would or should.

I finally give up sleeping, go downstairs and open the front door. There’s a single-digit freeze, but a small moon hovers tall over the bare apple tree. Next to it lies what remains of the trunk of the magnificent oak that lorded it over our front garden, giving little light to the remaining plants. We finally had it cut down, the two of us sitting by the side gate watching the men wrap it in ropes as they coaxed it down away from the front of the house.

I think of that enormous oak tree and the apple tree that bloomed so fast in the ensuing light. In winter it looks scraggly, but come summer it will grow tall with leaves and fruit, and hover beneficently over the garden.

You think the other person will change. He’ll stop whining in your ear from the back seat. He’ll love you more, remember flowers and chocolate on Valentine’s Day. You think you will never stop putting CBD salve on his body in the evenings. Instead you’re the one now with dry skin in winter, as if he willed you his skin, his needs both filled and unfulfilled. You’re not two and yet not one, alone and intertwined all at the same time.

I look and look at the moon, the apple tree, and the shorn oak on the frigid, icy night. Virginia Woolf wrote: “Heaven knows why, just as we have lost faith in human intercourse, some random collocation of barns and trees or a haystack and a wagon presents us with so perfect a symbol of what is unattainable that we begin the search again.”

“Harry and Aussie, Monkfish emailed yesterday to say that The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up in the Land of Attachments is rated No. 1 New Release in Zen Spirituality by Amazon.”

“Does that make it a New York Times Bestseller?”

“I don’t think so, Auss. What do you say, Harry?”

“Whynnn Whynnn! Whynnn Whynnn!”

 

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BOXES OF BOOKS

“Guess what, Aussie? The book came out! It finally came out, Aussie, here it is!”

No human was around when two cartons of The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments arrived at the front door. Harry was on a chair in the living room, resting after an icy excursion into the woods, but Aussie was on the futon under the fichus tree in my office and she raised her head, half concealed by leaves, as I dragged the boxes here, opened one up and took out a book.

I wasn’t happy at first when I saw the two cases. It’s one thing to labor privately over the koans of other people’s lives—How Heavy Is My Mother’s Diaper? Shadows, What Is Best for You, My Child? The Infinite Black Abyss, Blaming God—making each koan your own, each situation from someone else’s life your own, always asking: How do I practice with this? How do I live this?

It’s a whole other thing to see one day, after years have gone by, a case of books and you know it’s now out in the world, out in public. It’s no longer yours.

All my insecurities came up: Is this any good? Will other people wish to read it? The practice of Zen koans has been around for well over a millennium, comprising dialogues between monks. Some years ago (can’t remember how many) I heard in the zendo a mother describe a tough exchange with her son, and it hit me that these are indeed our practice fields, the situations we face at work and at home make up the soil and grit of our practice.

“Let’s produce a collection of householder koans,” I announced without thinking to the group sitting there that evening.

And I did, I thought to myself as I unpacked the books. We did. The inspiration behind it was genuine enough, but will it reach people? Will others connect with it and see their own lives in these koans?

At first, I didn’t want to open the box. Then I did. I picked up the top book and brought it up to my nose to smell the pages, the words. Looked at the gorgeous cover art generously donated to us by the artist Helen Berggruen. And thought of all the people who’d made this possible, and especially the many Zen practitioners who took my request to heart and sent me their stories of edges and heartbreaks they face day in and day out.

I had a manuscript of close to 100 pages when I approached Paul Cohen, at Monkfish Publishing, and he agreed to publish it provided I created more content. That’s when Bernie had his stroke. Time passed, we went to rehab centers, the Taub Clinic in Alabama, the months turned fuzzy and many things went by the wayside. What now? I wondered. Is this going to be another project that I won’t finish, another good idea that won’t come to fruition?

A good friend suggested: Find a collaborator. She reminded me, as I need to be reminded often, that I don’t have to do things all on my own.

I turned to Wendy Egyoku Nakao, the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the motherhouse to so many Zen centers around the world. Egyoku took her time. She reviewed what I had, sent me some initial thoughts, thought and thought some more. Finally, to my surprise (I knew how busy she was), said yes. “But it’s going to take me time,” she warned. “I can’t begin to get to this till winter.”

Monkfish, to their credit, agreed to wait.

During the winter some terrific koans began to arrive on Egyoku’s desk from students at the Zen Center. “I have to reflect on them,” Egyoku said. “You can look at each one from so many different angles.”

She was thorough and deeply respectful of the lives shared with her. Slowly, she wrote her reflections. Phone discussions were held. I flew out to Los Angeles for a week of work. “How’s it going? ” Bernie asked me. “Slowly,” I said.

That’s what I remember now, how slow it all went, how much patience it demanded from a very impatient woman. Moi.

We make our plans and God laughs. What we thought was something we could leap into without hesitation or delay becomes something you fit in between calls to doctors, talks with rehab counselors and physical therapists, research on the latest remedies to major stroke. It slips from top 5 priorities to number 25 when you can only get to number 3 on any regular day before calling it a day and going to sleep. Wondering if you’ll ever get anything of your own done again.

And the truth is, no. Nothing of mine got done again because nothing is mine. No effort here was only mine, it took a world to make it happen, not just the world now but the world of long ago, when Chinese monks began to record quixotic dialogues between Zen masters and students (What is Buddha? A shitstick, or The cypress tree in the garden), talked of golden fish that pass through the net and pointed at wild ducks, wondering where they went.

The entire universe manifests when you plunge into your own life. As Dainin Katagiri wrote, “If you do something wholeheartedly, all sentient beings come into your life.”

You can buy The Book of Householder Koans on Amazon here. Please also consider ordering it from your local bookstore.

 

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WE HAVE TO HEAL

I sat in the Rapid City airport not knowing when I’d get home. The plane to Minneapolis was delayed, which meant that I would most probably miss the last flight to Hartford, which in turn meant that I’d spend the night somewhere in the Minneapolis airport and get home only early afternoon the next day.

Why do we always travel to South Dakota in the dead of winter, I  wondered for the umpteenth time. I know the answer: To plan the summer’s bearing witness retreat with Lakota hosts. And yes, you can bet that it’ll be cold, there will be snow, planes will be delayed, I’ll drive home in a snowstorm, in short: it’ll be an adventure. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

This year’s retreat will probably center on the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming. It’ll take place on the anniversary of the Battle of Greasy Grass, sometimes referred to as Custer’s Last Stand, and there will be re-enactments of that battle nearby, but the big focus will be on prayer and meditation at the Medicine Wheel site. It’s premature to set out the details, these will be extensively scouted before we publicize them.

“We have to heal,” said Manny Iron Hawk sometime early evening on Saturday.

We were exhausted; I felt like my ears couldn’t take any more talk and discussion, and indeed skipped out on dinner later on. But Manny slapped the table with his hand and repeated: “We have to heal,” adding: “Not everybody is ready for that.”

He spoke of the many Lakota who choose to sit on the sidelines, not learning their language or their culture, staying betwixt and between. Manny and his wife Renee have begun a Lakota immersion school in Eagle Butte, Cheyenne River Reservation. The Lakota culture will survive if the Lakota language survives.

I’ll go further: We humans will survive if indigenous cultures, with their intimate connection with the earth, will survive. It’s in all our interest to make sure that the Lakota culture survives, and for that to happen the language has to survive. But not  enough children go to their LOWI School, parents are afraid it will undermine assimilation with white culture.

I remembered our 2015 retreat, the first one with Lakota elders, when so many white people came and so few Lakota. I also thought of our 25 or so retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where so many people have come from different parts of the world, the fewest being Jews from Israel. There were always reasons—We’re surrounded by Arab nations, we need to be strong—but the biggest of all was that so many don’t choose to heal.

It’s not easy to leave the role of victim and do the work of making peace with all aspects of your life, which in the large picture are all aspects of yourself. “I forgive, but I don’t forget,” Manny said.

Every day they encounter racism and discrimination on and outside the reservations. Two months ago we heard from Violet Catches of gang members running women in cars off the road on the reservation. Hundreds of women have been missing over the last few years, feared murdered. There are lots of reasons for anger, for withdrawal, for giving up.

“Don’t be angry, go deeper,” says Terry Tempest Williams. Stay with the source of the anger, the pain, the grief. “See it to the end, or its endlessness.” Don’t hide, don’t deny, don’t give up and leave it to future generations. We have to heal.

We didn’t go anywhere, we did what we do year after year, sit for long meetings at the Quality Inn in Rapid City and walk 15 steps to the nearest Millstone Restaurant for lunch and dinner. Not much chance to see the big sky of South Dakota, though in early morning  I saw the full moon for some 10 minutes before it sank into the black clouds. Breakfast’s at the motel, and that’s when Manny’s, Renee’s and Violet Catches’ children and grandchildren join us before going into the motel’s indoors heated pool while we assemble around the tables and start our long meetings. At lunch time Manny, Renee, and Violet rush out to get food for their families before they join us at the Millstone.

“All of us have children who struggle with alcoholism,” a Lakota friend said to me that weekend. “All of us have at least one child who is in serious trouble.”

“Who are you?” Manny recounts that he asked his grandson. When the boy gave no amswer, Manny asked him: “Are you an Indian?”

The young boy said no.

A week later Manny asked him the same question again. This time the young boy said that his father was Indian.

“That’s better,” Manny said.

I arrived home today at 2:30 in the morning. Snow flakes slammed against the windowpanes  like shards and Interstate 91 was a vast, white wasteland, no cars driving north but mine..

 

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SUCH A GOOD BOY

The day before I leave to South Dakota brings a little snow and lots of ice, so I give the dogs their weekly marrow bones as consolation for the lack of walks; I won’t be around this weekend.

Harry’s been a guard of resources since the day I got him. That’s the name for a dog that goes after all food, including the food of other dogs (or humans, for that matter). Harry’s the only dog I had who jumped up not just to the butcher block table to get at an egg salad sandwich, but also up on the higher counter where I’d left a pot of soup to cool.

More seriously, he’s attacked Aussie three times over bones and rawhide, twice causing her serious injury. He hasn’t done this in nine months, but I still manage them carefully, separating them not just at food time but also when they get snacks, shutting my office door on Harry after giving him his bone.

After an hour he’s finished his marrow bone and looks up. He can hear Aussie’s teeth grinding away at her bone in her corner under the dining table three rooms away. She likes to take her time and be extra loud about it. He’s already gone to drink from the water bowl and now sits back on his haunches next to my chair, looking up at me with great significance. I stop what I’m doing at my desk and look down. He eyes me, then looks over his shoulder listening to Aussie chewing away on her bone, then turns and looks back at me again, and I know.

He’s showing me that even as he hears Aussie grinding away on a marrow bone that he’d love to take away from her—he’s not doing it. He’s not going after Aussie, he’s not going after her bone. All year he’s heard me say on these occasions, when he’s finished with something and she’s not: Leave Aussie alone. I don’t say it now, I don’t have to. He looks over his shoulder again, then back at me as if to say: See? I’m not going after her.

And suddenly I’m so moved by how much he’s learned in the 13 months he’s been with us, how eager he’s been to find his place. He’s young and intense, without Aussie’s poise and planful intelligence, not a cunning bone in his body, he’s way too straight and explosive for that. And he’s learning. We’re all learning.

“You’re such a good dog, Handsome Harry,” I murmured to him as my hand fusses over his forehead and he closes his eyes with pleasure. “You’re such a good boy.” I give us both a few precious moments to appreciate the dance we’ve done together, the way we took a chance on life together. One more disturbance, I actually thought last May, and he’s gone. I’ll find another home for him, a family that will adopt him as an only dog. But I also worked with him, shutting the door on him though he whined a bit at that, warning him to leave the other alone when he finally got out.

You work and you work, and you have no idea what will come out in the end. Will he finally learn (“Once a resource guard, always a resource guard,” one trainer warned me)? You think you know what the point is, but really you don’t. None of us know what the point of anything really is. We think we might be alive for a reason, but in the end we might just be machines for producing carbon dioxide.

About timeless eternity, I have nothing to say. But I can take a few minutes and look into Harry’s brown eyes. His earnestly ask me to pay attention, while mine are filled with gratitude. “Such a good boy,” I tell him again and again.

 

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DEPRESSION AND THE POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN

The Buddha angel where I sit

I burn incense downstairs at various altars on different occasions: new moon, full moon, memorial days, important days. But in my bedroom, where I sit, I burn sage right under the big, red angel Buddha. Alberto Mancini, an Italian painter, gave it to us years ago. It looks mostly like a Buddha Charlie Brown with wings. Some people didn’t like it; I loved it, especially for the red color, and kept it close.

After Bernie died I found a large packet of sage among our things, and began to burn it. Sage purifies and heals. It doesn’t last as long as incense sticks (it’s common to do Zen meditation for at least the length of one incense stick) and the fragrance fades quicker. But my nostrils have learned to quiver like my dogs’, and long after it’s burned out I can smell traces. My room, too, smells a little like sage.

I went to my doctor on Monday morning and asked her for a prescription for antidepressants. It feels awkward to write about this, but I’ve learned long ago that it’s the very things that feel awkward or raw that are best to write about. It’s not hard to record moments of clarity and even exhilaration; to admit that for the past two months your spirits are hitting lows morning after morning, and that at 6 am the world looks like a fearsome place, that’s something else.

Depression feels a little self-indulgent. I know, I don’t have much control over when it hits, but the voices are there: Do you know what’s happening in the world? Do you have your eyes open to the suffering of so many? How could you be concerned with just yourself? How small, how petty. Get up and do things. Help people and forget yourself.

And indeed, last night I went to a gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign, one of 25 stops they’re making across the country. I was disappointed that Rev. William Barber had to cancel, but I was deeply moved by this rebirth of Martin Luther King’s dream, another big gathering in Washington, DC in June. And as I listened to stories of struggle of those who work hard and are still poor, including health care workers, the poor with disabilities, those in recovery from opioids, and those without homes–right here in my own backyard–a voice whispered to me: You don’t have time for depression. Get over it.

It didn’t work. I do many things during the day without reflecting on how I feel, but it feels like climbing up solo, without ropes or carabiners, each step grinding and uncertain. My brain feels foggy and I make mistakes, overlook things, forget what I’d decided to do just five minutes ago. Small setbacks and challenges loom like gigantic tornado clouds about to set down right on top of my home and destroy it.

I’ve never minded winter in New England before, I actually loved the bad roads that forced one to stay home if possible, sink into things, go deep. It’s when you get below the mental dialogue, story and memory, deeper still under the currents and whirlpools of everyday events, then go deeper still, you often find the universal pulse, the one that reminds you that we get born and we die, and shit happens in between. When you get through your personal karma you find that when it comes to the basics, you’re part of the human and nonhuman community, always were, always will be.

Only I haven’t been able to get there these past two months. My mind is distracted and vaporous. It’s not stuck in stories, it’s just plain stuck.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a good marriage or a bad one, you merge like two trees that feel it’s ultimately more nourishing to share one big-size trunk than relying on two separate cores. Yes, you have your own, but you also have the shared. Till you don’t. And you can’t know what that feels like, having the shared roots torn from under you, till it happens.

So many voices:

You’re a veteran Zen practitioner. If your meditation hasn’t taught you how to deal with suffering, fear of the future, with being alone (I lived alone for many years between marriages, and lived quite well, but that memory offers me no reassurance right now), then what good is it? If you can’t do it for yourself, what are you teaching?

Shouldn’t you just rely on your practice?

And where’s your sense of gratitude for what you continue to have? Where’s your appreciation for your health, your home, your dogs, the love that so many friends and family give you?

Beside, when you love life, you love life absolutely, not on condition that nothing bad will happen.

All those voices are there. And also my sister’s practical voice over the weekend: You’ve been stuck for a few months. Take something to help you get over the hump, and then leave off. Get help. You need help.

I need help.

We used to put it like this: Years of meditation, dharma transmission, leading this or that—all this plus $2.75 gets you into the New York City subway. Or is it $3.00 now? You’re no different from anyone else. Know this at the deepest core of your being, take comfort there: In essence, you’re no different from anyone else. Your mind does its games like other minds, you back away from loss because it hurts and from uncertainty because you’re afraid—like everybody else.

Sit, be as present as you can be, use all you know and don’t know to arouse compassion for yourself and others, and still remember: You’re not different from anyone else.

 

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FRIGHT TIME

The mail brought a brown envelope from an unknown name in New Jersey. I opened it up and out popped a book cover (just the paper cover) that was a little familiar: Fright Time was the headline, showing a boy and girl, faces somewhat scared, underground using a flashlight to light their way. Under the title were the names of three long stories (length of novellas) contained in the book: The White Phantom, Nightmare Neighbors, and Camp Fear.

I wrote The White Phantom. Long ago, circa 1993 or 1994.

A letter accompanying the book cover informed me that the writer, a young man in his 20s, was a huge fan of scary stories, and that one of his favorite stories when he was a child was The White Phantom. Recently, he reread the story and still loved it.

The footprints were big. Real big.

I noticed them right away because it rained last night. They were animal  prints in the hard mud, the biggest I’ve ever seen.

This is crazy, I thought. If I didn’t know better I could swear some gigantic animal had stood here last night and looked down at our house!

The young man asked me what was the inspiration behind the story. I stared at that sweet question and thought: I don’t know. I barely remember the story.

So I did what any forgetful author does, who gave away the last copy of her book ages ago: opened up Amazon, found the book, took a look inside, and found the above quotes. Also rediscovered the heroes, a plucky boy and girl (aren’t they always plucky?) named Andy Baker and Jenny Humphreys, a/k/a Shades on account of her sunglasses.

I was pretty sure the White Phantom was a gigantic dog (who else do I write about?), maybe inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles (now that’s a scary story!), and I thought I remembered that it had something to do with the villages that had been destroyed to create an enormous reservoir in the valley below. At the time I was living in Woodstock, above the Ashokan Reservoir that feeds water to New York City, and villages were destroyed to create that Reservoir, just as villages were destroyed to create the nearby Quabbin that sends water to Boston.

But I was wrong.

“It’s a spirit,” she whispered. “A spirit that takes the shape of an enormous white dog. A monster. It protects the Indian burial grounds on the hills above the ridge. Years ago the Seneca Indians lived in this valley. They buried their dead in the hills right above us. The White Phantom protects the Indians who are buried there.”

I wrote about Indian burial grounds? Did I even know at that time that a more proper name was Native American? What on earth provoked me to write about that? Here I am, just four days away from leaving to South Dakota for our winter meeting to plan the summer’s Native American retreat, and I discover that some 26 years ago I wrote a story for young children about an enormous phantom dog that protects native burial grounds.

You can say it’s a cliché. You can wonder how deeply I delved into what burial grounds and ancestors mean to Native Americans. I wonder, too, because I no longer have the book and don’t remember what I wrote. Still, I believe in karma, not coincidences.

“Go figure,” Bernie liked to say. That was his favorite name for God: Go figure.

I was very moved by the letter that related to something from long ago. Back then, a close friend of mine and a very fine writer had been approached to write long mystery/fright stories for a series of books aimed at young teenage boys, around 12 years of age. He wrote one, submitted it to editor Rochelle Larkin, who didn’t like it and suggested revisions. He refused.

“The thing writers have to do to make a buck,” he muttered to me on the phone. “Want to give it a shot?”

“I hate scary stories, I won’t read them,” I told him. “And I won’t get within two blocks of a horror movie, otherwise I can’t sleep the entire week.”

Maybe I  couldn’t read them, but I could write them. I needed the money, so I spoke to Rochelle, she explained what she wanted, and I sat down and wrote a novella-length story. She loved it, published it, then published about two or three more. I got so good at writing them I could finish one up in 3 weeks.

I finally stopped a couple of years later when I began to write Bearing Witness for Bernie. Speaking of fright stories!

Over the years, every once in a long while I get a letter from a young reader telling me how much he liked the story, and I’m moved. Not because of what it says about me, but because of what it says about readers and how we are all different and need different things.

My writer friend loved Japanese and Chinese-style stories, wrote accordingly, and rarely published. I was passionate about good writing. But many boys have read my Fright Time stories and written to tell me how much they loved them. And now a young man in his 20s reread what he loved as an adolescent and wrote:

“I was blown away by the plot and also by how much I felt I got to learn about Andy and Shades in just a short amount of pages. The imagery and detail also added to the suspense. Thank you for writing this story, it was (and still is) one of my favorite short stories. I would be honored if you could autograph the enclosed picture.”

The picture he sent was the cover I found in the envelope.

 

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OUT OF THE BLUE

I was told that one of the major Buddhist magazines, Lion’s Roar, is publishing an excerpt from our Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment. There were delays with the printer proofs, but these are now in order and it looks as if the publication date is February 25 at the latest (3 weeks’ delay). So those of you who pre-ordered, you’ll get the book by the end of February—and thank you very, very much. Those of you who haven’t, you’ll be able to buy the book not just from Amazon but also from an independent local bookseller very soon.

Last night I held the first of a series of workshops on householder koans. I asked the small group of participants—seasoned meditators—to consider a specific occasion in their life which made an impact on their behavior. It didn’t have to be big, I said, it just had to show some kind of pivot into an aspect of life that you might not have considered or were comfortable with before. Often you can feel those turns stretching you—or at least stretching your story of yourself.

As I waited for them to write I tried to think back to such an event in my own life. I was tired and couldn’t think of something right away. I knew they were there, turning points in my life big and small, but they didn’t come to mind—till one did.

I remembered living in Woodstock in the early 1990s, the first time I ever really lived in the country. I rented a garage apartment next to a big, gray, stone house where my landlords lived, the woods on one side and the big Ashokan Reservoir on the other. I lived there alone with Woody, my Golden Retriever. The apartment had poor insulation, as I discovered the first winter I was there. I’d get out of bed in early morning, get hit by cold air, and hurry off to take a hot shower to warm up.

One morning I hurriedly pushed aside the bath curtain to put on the water and saw a small black spider on the bottom of the tub. Ordinarily I’d have ignored it and turned on the water; it’s what I’d always done. This time I stopped. I didn’t think anything, I don’t remember that much time passed. I just walked to the cold kitchen, got a piece of paper and a cup, retrieved the spider and took it outside.

That’s what I did from then on, day after day, especially in spring and summer when big and small insects come into country homes. By now I’m so organized that in warm weather I have a cup as well as a piece of lightweight cardboard on the bathroom counter, ready to take out the bees, spiders, crickets, beetles, ladybugs and dragonflies that seek out water and end up in my shower.

What I remember from that early morning in the early 1990s is that I just acted. Nobody talked to me about it, I didn’t think about the Buddhist precept of non-killing or anything like that. I just looked at a black spider at the bottom of the bathtub, stopped my hand from turning on the water and walked to the kitchen to find something to retrieve it and take it outdoors. No internal discussion, no feelings of empathy or compassion, no story around what a good person would do or not. My behavior just changed that morning, out of the blue.

We often think that behavior changes from story: I realized that everything is Buddha, everything is alive, that God appears in all things, so I saved the life of the spider. But actually, behavior can change with no story at all. One day you just see life in a different way.

David Whyte wrote “I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had … but on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself.”

I don’t think it’s about personal identity at all. One day, without warning, you leave yourself behind—your belief systems, your values, the mental scaffolding of your life. You see something fresh, not as a function of yourself but as it is, as if for the first time. And you do something differently.

 

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HOW’S YOUR HEALTH, JON?

My dear friend, the bloggerJon Katz, and I have a continuing disagreement. When I read in his posts that he’s been unwell I email him, “How’s your health, Jon?” Or “How’s that wicked throat infection, Jon?” And he invariably replies: “Don’t ask me about my health, that’s old talk.” Last time, he added, “I bet you don’t ask young people how their health is?”

We had an exchange about this some time ago. I wrote about the many people I know who don’t ever talk about being sick. I wrote that in our culture, not being in good health is often seen as some deficiency on the sick person’s part. If we’re not functioning at 1000%, we should just shut up and not tell anyone.

I know lots of people with chronic illness and pain who tell me of relatives and friends who don’t believe them, think they’re making it all up to get sympathy, to explain why they’ve had to work fewer hours at a job they love, or stop working altogether. Either way, they’re not believed. Almost as if: If it ain’t cancer, what are you complaining about?

I was no different. Long ago I worked with someone suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When he first told me about it, I looked at him, blinked, and said: “And that’s a disease?” It wasn’t a question to obtain information, it was judgment.

I replied to Jon that I actually ask everyone I see (if I hadn’t seen them in a while) how they’re feeling physically, including young people. Maybe especially young people because they run around more and take little time to check in and feel what’s going on. When I ask them how they’re doing physically they actually take a breath and try to reconnect with their bodies. I have a sense that they’re grateful for the question.

Young or old, physical wellbeing is the basis for wellbeing, foundational to seeing yourself as one holistic piece, body-mind-soul-spirit, all one thing. I actually don’t know where one ends and the other begins.

Like many others, I fall into the trap thinking: This distracts me from what I want or need to do. But is it a distraction? Is it secondary to other things? Or is it this moment itself, asking for attention and care? And who said that my work is more important that moment? It may not be the only thing, but it’s certainly no distraction.

Jon writes beautifully about the possibilities of renewing one’s life at any age, at meeting creative challenges and going into places we haven’t entered before now, when we’re older. But I’m troubled by how we use our will to overcome things such as illness.

Willpower is a big deal in our culture, it’s supposed to overcome everything. The world of work is fueled by willpower, to the exclusion of intuition and perception. It’s fueled by competitiveness rather than community, the objective goal/bottom line rather than the larger view. Don’t even think of bringing the personal dimension into a meeting or sharing what you’re sensing and feeling, you’ll be laughed out of the room.

That’s the outside world. Home serves as the refuge from all that, especially for men. They come home and want to find a woman that’s warm, loving, intuitive, caring—things they themselves have and value but can’t show outside. They leave the house the following morning and the mask comes on: rational, objective, unemotional, data driven.

The same is unfortunately true for many of us women who go into a world of work whose vocabulary and culture was determined by men a long time ago.

Have you ever seen them come home from work? They put their arms out, greet their children enthusiastically, show love and affection unabashedly. The mask has come down and they acknowledge a whole dimension of being that is strongly denied back in the office. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, we all suffer from this dichotomy of having to be effective, efficient, and will-driven outside, while back home we can be loving, caring, and intuitive.

I take this into the world of health. Our body, this blessed vehicle that enables us to live, gets sick, rebels, says NO! to us in so many ways, and what do we do in response? Get back in line. You’re distracting me from what I have to do. I need to help this person and that person—I DON”T WANT HELP FOR MYSELF.

My husband Bernie showed tremendous willpower after his stroke. He exercised every single day with persistence and determination. But now he was also listening to his body in a way he never had before. He’d come to the very edge of things, peered over, and didn’t find much space for will anymore. Something else was beckoning, telling him to surrender, and he did.

I don’t mean when he died, long before that. And I don’t think we have to suffer a major stroke to learn that lesson.

 

 

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