RELIGIOUS ARTIFACTS

Just before being packed.

From the Security station at Hartford airport:

“What’s this, Miss?”

“It’s a monk’s bag.”

“A monk’s bag?”

“You see how it says Zen Community of New York on the flap with an image of a paulownia leaf?”

“A what?”

“Zen monks used these bags to carry their worldly possessions. The bag belonged to my husband.”

“He was a monk and your husband at the same time?”

“Yes, it’s a contradiction in terms, part of the confusion of Buddhism in the West. Part of his personal confusion, too. Careful how you open it.”

“DON’T TOUCH THE BAG! And these were his worldly possessions, Miss?”

“Yes, along with a 50” TV set which didn’t fit inside the bag.”

“What’s this plastic?”

“He took this bag with him when he wanted to live on the streets for a while. The plastic was for protection against rain.”

“And the small umbrella, I guess. This?”

“A roll of toilet paper. You see, public bathrooms—”

“Yeah, yeah. A rainhat. And this?”

“A small pillow. He still liked his creature comforts.”

“I don’t know, Miss, this is very suspicious. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, we gotta check everybody carefully, I’m not sure I can let you board—”

“I have to bring them down to Maryland, sir. You see, this bag and the jacket I’m wearing—”

“Why are you wearing two jackets, Miss?”

“This threadbare, falling-apart-at-the-seams blue jacket from the Greyston Bakery is also from my husband, and both are going to the Smithsonian Museum.”

“The American Smithsonian Museum?”

“The very one. The curator for religion has asked for religious artifacts belonging to my husband to be on display there.”

“These are religious artifacts? Toilet paper, stained yellow pillow, a whistle—what’s the whistle for, lady?”

“To summon help in case he gets into trouble.”

“Not to whistle at pretty women? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’ve never seen religious artifacts like these. And a bakery jacket? What’s so religious about that?”

“He thought that creating jobs for people with no jobs in a blighted neighborhood is very religious. So was talking with street people.”

“And these things are going to be at the Smithsonian to lie surrounded by crosses and stars of David?”

“And Muslim and Native American and Hindu and–”

“Do all you people from Asia have such religious artifacts?”

“He was from Brooklyn, sir.”

“Lady, I can’t let you take these items onboard.”

“Sir, I have to bring them down to Maryland so that my husband’s daughter could bring them to the Smithsonian.”

“Don’t bullshit me, lady. No way these things are going into the Smithsonian Museum. What kind of fool you think I am?”

“No kind of fool, sir.”

“Try checking them in, but you can’t take them into cabin.”

“Okay, sir.”

“I’ll say one thing for you, lady. You tell a good story.”

“Thanks, sir.”

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MY OLD FRIEND BILL

I am usually up at 6, go downstairs for a glass of water and a cup of coffee, and then sit. Take the mundane and rare opportunity to explore this moment and nothing more, this moment that includes all moments and is still uniquely this moment.

Yesterday after sitting I lit a candle for my old friend, Bill. I’ve done this annually since the mid-90s, when he died quite suddenly around the age of 50.

Bill came to meditate almost daily with the Zen Community of New York all the way from Long Beach, New York. He would have had to have left his home sometime after 4 each morning to make it on time. He was a big, bearish man, grunted rather than spoke, and was prone to sudden, wild bursts of laughter, a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining only Bill kept his lips closed, so that the laughter sounded like a nasal tickle of his throat.

We talked a little from time to time and it didn’t take long to find out that he was a great fan of Leonard Cohen. Also that his wife had just left him, taking their small son with her, and that he hated her. I also liked Leonard at the time, though not as much as I would later in the coming years.

One morning I was taking a bath in the antique tub of my small apartment in Yonkers, NY, on the third floor. It was around 6 in the morning when the intercom rang to tell me someone was at the door. I jumped out of the bath and answered. It was Bill.

“Bill,” I shouted into the intercom, standing stark naked and dripping all over the floor, “what are you doing here at this hour?”

“Heh heh heh,” says Bill. “I brought you something.”

I toweled myself quickly, slipped on a bathrobe, and went down two flights of stairs since there was no buzzer to let him in. I opened the door and he held up a CD right in front of my nose as though this was the key to the kingdom. “Heh heh heh,” says he.

I let him in and he came upstairs. “What is it?” I asked again.

“Leonard’s latest,” he said. “Just came out—only in Tower Records. I stood in line to get the first ones.”

“For whom?” I asked stupidly.

“You,” he said. “You and me both. I got you one,” and he put it in my hand.

It was Cohen’s The Future, which contained what would become some of his most famous songs: The Future, Closing Time, Waiting for the Miracle, Be for Real, Anthem (The crack is where the light comes in), and  Democracy.

“This is it,” said Bill, waving his copy in front of my face, “He’s really done it now.”

I wasn’t clear what exactly Leonard had done, and I was still dripping water on the floor and feeling a little uncomfortable, so I thanked him and explained that I had to get dressed. He immediately understood and left.

A short time later I heard that he’d died. It was sudden and I never discovered how, I only knew that he was in a lot of pain from the divorce and the loss of his son. Perhaps for that reason I made a point of lighting a candle every year at his memorial.

As I did that yesterday, seeing his face in my mind, I suddenly thought of Bernie many years later. Bernie got a hold of the CD Bill had given me and loved the songs. A friend got us a DVD of Cohen’s concert in London and we watched it more than once, the last time when Cohen died some three years ago.

Right after his stroke, I got Bernie a CD of The Best of Leonard Cohen and it had a permanent place of honor in his car. I’d take him for breakfast to a diner in Hadley, and from there go on to do some food shopping, leaving him in the car. I would return with the shopping bags and hear Leonard singing in top volume before I even opened the doors. He heard those songs over and over again; I think they gave him comfort.

Yesterday I remembered Bill at my door at 6 that morning waving the CD at my shivering face. He knew Sensei (as Bernie was called them) and was in awe of him; the two probably rarely spoke. But that CD followed karma’s mysterious squiggly path, making its way to Massachusetts, and eventually to a sick man sitting in his blue car listening to those songs more than two decades later, waiting for his wife to get back from the store, finding solace in the voice of a troubadour facing the end of his lifetime.

Bernie told me he never met Leonard Cohen. It didn’t matter, Bill connected them.

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MEMORIAL

My father and me when he turned 80.

Today is my father’s memorial. He died 4 years ago, at the age of 91.

He was very lucky in his last quarter-century. He left my mother after more than 40 years of a miserable marriage, married someone else, and proceeded to live a different, more peaceful life. His second wife loved him very much, proof of how much a person can change when he’s really loved.

My father had been physically brutal with me as I grew up. As the oldest, I became a scapegoat for everything that went wrong in his life, and especially his disappointing relations with my mother. Neither of them had had it easy in their early years, surviving World War II, getting to Israel illegally and meeting in a refugee camp, surviving active fighting in Israel’s War of Independence, immigrating to the US with two small girls and barely a word of English between them, and finally, 15 years later, going back.

I remember well the terror in my heart, when I was a young girl, each time the front door opened in the early evening as he came home from work. I would stay in my room, trying to avoid him as much as I could. When he was angry or had had a bad day, none of this mattered. I didn’t want to be close to him, avoided him at all costs. When two oceans came between us because I lived in the US and he’d returned to Israel, he seemed quite happy.

This changed. When I was in my 30s he began to write me letters apologizing for the past. I saw strong parallels between how I’d grown up with him and how he grew up with an unrelenting, sadistic father who had no patience for a free-spirited, sports-loving son. My father could hardly wait till I came to visit and for the rest of his life he mourned the distance between us.

At times I did wish I had been closer, if only to enjoy the gentleness that had grown between us. Whenever I was in Israel I’d see him every day. We’d joke around and tease each other, but the emotional bond between us tended towards silence. His love for me was strongly tinged with regret, and though I often told him to forget the past, I think mine was, too. There was a sense of having missed the boat, that we couldn’t undo the karma of that long-ago past. Phone calls and visits weren’t enough to do the trick. Like many men, he had very little language for emotions; for anything complex, he relied on me. The Jewish custom in these memorials is to light a yahrzeit candle the evening before, a small candle inside a plastic container that stays lit for at least 24 hours. I had a box of these candles, had ordered it for his first memorial and had lit the candles every year, but last night I couldn’t find them. I went through the hall closet, then opened drawers in the living room and my office, looking for them everywhere. They were gone, and though I have another candle always lit in front of my Kwan-Yin, I felt very bad about not lighting a yahrzeit candle. It was something he would have wanted me to do.

Complex relationships are a challenge. I always admire those people who describe coming out to the light on the other side, forgiving, focused only on the good, full of appreciation for what they had rather than what they didn’t.

I have never been able to relate to the word forgive. To me it implies that something was done to you in a very personal way, with a conscious desire to harm. My experience is that most people don’t mean to harm anyone; we get hurt because we’re seen as being in the way, obstacles to someone else’s happiness, anonymous reminders of suffering in the past. It’s enough to generate lots of harm, but even as a young girl I intuited that it wasn’t really about me.

I knew early on that people—including me—usually close their hearts for self-protection, to avoid hurt themselves, and that when they’re afraid they strike out.

But for many years, long after I “forgave” him, I felt a great emptiness in my heart. Today I feel tenderness, and sadness that we couldn’t do better. I promised myself that later today, at sundown, when the Jewish memorial ends, I’ll stop working and think back to our times together.

I’ll remember how he once came to visit me when I lived in southwest Yonkers, working at Greyston, and asked me earnestly to please leave that place because it wasn’t safe. He wanted me so much to have a nice middle-class life!

He loved to visit me when I moved up to Woodstock for 2 years, marveling at how I could live alone in the woods of upstate New York, tentatively stroking my Golden, Woody (he was afraid of dogs), walking alongside me on the promenade over the Ashokan Reservoir and shaking his head at the beauty. Like many Jews of his generation, he preferred cities because they felt safe.

Late one night we both couldn’t sleep and went out for a walk. It was winter and very cold, but we bundled up and walked down the road, just the two of us with the dog. He marveled at how quiet it was. He looked up at the stars and the black, black sky, and I think he found something there, some rest and quiet from his constantly anxious mind, as if the Promised Land wasn’t in Jerusalem but right there, walking with his oldest daughter on a snowy road lined with trees rather than parked cars. We talked and laughed softly though there was no one to hear us, he perhaps wondering how a Jewish man who’d started life in a disappeared shtetl in northern Rumania ended up walking with his daughter on a snowy road in a New York forest, and I wondering how a young girl who feared and hated her ogre father could now walk beside him, her hand clasped with his, both snuggled together deep in the pocket of his coat to keep warm.

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KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN

Photo by Peter Cunningham of Greyston Bakery staff in mid-1980s;

I went back to Greyston on Wednesday, and on the 3-hour drive down to Yonkers, NY, remembered how it all began for me.

I had started meditating around 1984 and started looking for a meditation group. Near me was a Zen center headed by a Japanese teacher following strict Japanese protocol, and it was hard for me to connect with them.

One day my friend, a Jungian analyst by the name of Walter Odajnyk, said to me, “There’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn teaching Zen up in Riverdale, wanna check him out?” A Jewish guy from Brooklyn was a little too close to home, I thought, and being an arrogant Manhattanite, I didn’t have a clue where Riverdale was. But a week later Walter called and said: “They have meditation this evening, I’ll pick you up and take you up there.”

When we arrived we discovered that there was no meditation; instead, the residential community was having a meeting in their large dining room. We entered tentatively, they looked up and invited us to join them. We sat in the corner of the large table and I heard things I didn’t hear in other Buddhist communities: cooking meals for the Sharing Community that served poor and homeless families in Yonkers, the entire Zen community leaving wealthy Riverdale and moving to southwest Yonkers, building homes for families with no homes and a child care center.

There would be much, much more later, but that was enough. I loved the dream; I loved the vision. I knew in my bones that there was something historical happening there that evening and I wanted to be part of it.

It was also my first view of Bernie, who didn’t say a word to Walter or me, and my first impression of him wasn’t favorable: He’s full of himself, I thought. But that didn’t dampen my ardor for the rest.

Walter had no interest in any of that and our paths diverged. I stayed while he went off to meditate at the Rochester Zen Center, years later sending me his very good book on Zen and Jung, and later joined the faculty of Pacifica Graduate Institute out in California. He passed away some five years ago.

So two days ago I found myself taking the Yonkers exit off the Sawmill River Parkway, winding my way down and up and then again down Ashburton Avenue.

The Greyston Bakery was surrounded by construction crews building “mixed housing,” which these days means that even the few affordable apartments aren’t very affordable. Along the Hudson River, Yonkers has gentrified, but that ends a block or two inland. There were the familiar shuttered stores, some storefronts with big signs promising Easy Credit, the groups of young men huddled on street corners. Lots and lots of churches. Many years ago, US HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) researched the prevalence of churches in this country and concluded that the number of churches per community rose as income went down.

We had a meeting with senior bakers and crew chiefs, and senior administrative personnel including Mike Brady, the President. I felt right at home among the folks wearing white, with white caps to cover their hair and snoods to cover their beards. They work in 12-hour shifts producing brownie products for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as well as the brownies that appear in high-end food shops like Whole Foods.

And here is a plug for holiday gifts. If you’re looking to give delicious and beautiful holiday gifts to family and friends, please look at the Greyston brownie packages and boxes going out around the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The product is mouth-watering, the packaging elegant, and the gift changes the lives of people hired with no questions about possible criminal records or time spent in prison. Greyston has become a national spokes-company for Open Hiring, hiring anyone you have a position for without inquiring into their past or possible incarceration.

I asked them how I could help, and then just listened. They wanted to hear about Bernie and the beginnings of the Bakery. “What caused Bernie to start all this?” asked me one baker who’d known him well, and I found myself awash with memories and stories of those times. We talked about meditation and the practice of awareness, how conscious breathing helps to deter stress, how one can keep one’s feet on the bottom of the ocean and walk steadily even as the waves buffet you on the surface.

They were excited about that because stress is so prevalent in their lives, and we agreed that I will start in January and return month after month. I was deeply moved by their enthusiasm, by their beginner’s mind. I’d planned to meet with residents of Issan House, the residence for people living with AIDS, but that will wait till January.

Mike Brady hosted me for an overnight stay at his home in Bronxville. As he drove me there, I remembered going to Bronxville’s Dutch Reform Church to make a presentation about our Greyston with the hope of getting some financial support for our work there. I was so young and uninformed then, had no idea how to strike the right note, how to get those well-to-do people who wouldn’t step foot in a poor neighborhood 15 minutes away to support homeless families, mostly single mothers with children. I was clueless. I gave them the right numbers and statistics, but mostly I relied on my own passion and enthusiasm, which didn’t bring much success that night.

We made many mistakes. At the same time, there was so much excitement in all those ups-and-downs, in that I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-but-here-goes mentality. Now I feel I know much more, maybe make fewer mistakes (maybe not). I know what to do, I know what people want to hear. But those shots in the dark, shooting for some distant horizon you had no idea how to reach—it was full of possibilities. It was full of life.

I came home and had a brief conversation with Aussie:

“What’s my vision, Aussie?” I asked her.

“What do you mean, Boss? Don’t you know how to open your eyes?”

“I mean what’s my vision, Auss: My dreams, my plans, what I want to focus on in the life I’m given now without Bernie?”

“Just keep your eyes open, that’s what I say.”

“Is that enough, Aussie?”

“Stop thinking so much, Boss. Wait, watch, listen. You humans!”

“Okay, Auss. I’ll just keep my eyes open.”

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IS GOD A DOG?

“Are you off again?”

“ I’m sorry, Aussie, I’m going down to Greyston in Yonkers, New York, to meet with some of the bakers in the Greyston Bakery and the general staff.”

“What for?”

“I want to see what’s needed and how I could help. The Zen Community of New York started Greyston 40 years ago. Back then we were so naïve. All we could think about was how to be enlightened. Bernie, of course, had other ideas and he brought us to southwest Yonkers and that became our practice instead. Greyston has deep spiritual roots, whether they know it or not, and I’d like to see it up close.”

“Do they have dogs there, Boss?”

“I don’t think so, though I used to bring my dog, Woody, there.”

“If they don’t have dogs, who cares?”

“You know, Aussie, for a while we had offices in a nunnery of Sacramentine nuns and—”

“Are nuns dogs?”

“No, Aussie, they most certainly are not.”

“Then I don’t care—”

“Just listen, Auss. The Sacramentines were a cloistered order, which means they couldn’t go anywhere.”

“They couldn’t run and play? They couldn’t chase deer?”

“They had to stay in, Auss.”

“Could they roll on their backs to be petted?”

“I’m not sure about that. My point is, Aussie, they couldn’t talk or be with us, a fence separated us from them. But sometimes during lunch I’d go out with Woody and approach that fence. They’d be on their side of the fence and we’d be on ours. They’d be wearing their all-black habits, which many nuns don’t wear anymore—”

“Their breed was all black, Boss?”

“In a manner of speaking, Aussie.”

“Most of me is black. Am I a nun too?”

“Don’t be silly, and stop interrupting. They couldn’t talk to me—”

“Why not?”

“Because they were cloistered, separated from the world.”

“They didn’t play even among themselves, Boss, like me and Harry??

“I think they could say a few words to each other, but not much. Mostly, Aussie, I think they talked to God.”

“Is God a dog?”

“Some people think so because God is supposed to be all about love.”

“I’m not all about love, Boss.”

“Truer words have never been spoken, Auss.”

“Did you see me frightening that black bear away in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t see the bear, Aussie, but I sure heard you, as did half the town, I’m sure.”

“I don’t want the bear to bring down the birdfeeders.”

“Because you love birds, Aussie?”

“No, because the birdfeeders attract squirrels, and then I could kill them.”

“I’m trying to tell you this story, Aussie.”

“Get to the point.”

“So the nuns couldn’t talk to me, but whenever Woody approached the fence their hands would go through the bars and stroke his golden fur, and they would make these cooing sounds.”

Coo-coo? Not ruff-ruff?”

Coo-coo.”

“And then what happened, Boss?”

“Nothing. That’s the story.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. I still remember their pale thin fingers because they spent most of their days indoors praying.”

“Are there still nuns at the place you’re going to?”

“They moved out years ago, Auss. They’re probably dead by now. Their order was dying out.”

“Don’t worry about the house, Boss, I will protect it. No bears tearing down birdfeeders in my watch. Did you see the rainstorm we had? Didn’t stop me from rushing out the dog door and barking like  crazy, while Harry barked from behind the door. What a wimp!”

“Aussie, try to be careful around bears.”

“They should be careful around me! I’m not afraid of anything. Not bears, not foxes, not rain or snow, nothing. I got soaked to the skin, but who cares? Once the bear ran for his life I came back in, jumped on the sofa, and fell asleep. Made that sofa awfully wet, though.”

“Try not to destroy the sofa, Auss.”

“It’s all worth it, Boss. Have a good trip.”

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TREE OF LIFE

Don’t tell anyone in the Zen world, but I meditate on a rocking chair.

Strange, I know, but see here: It doesn’t rock when I sit. It stops the minute I settle in, and I feel like I’m poised between heaven and earth, between pushing forward towards all the things I want and pulling back from everything I dislike and fear. I seem to sit right on the edge between the two and it feels very stable. The chair doesn’t move.

This morning a card on the adjacent windowsill fell on the rug. I picked it up and saw it was an old card someone had sent me from Europe after Bernie became ill. She wrote beautiful words of encouragement. I turned the card over and it showed a tree on the other side, entitled the Tree of Life. Bernie often referred to the Tree of Life. In the Old Testament, there were two trees: the Tree of Knowledge, which helped you discriminate right from wrong, and the Tree of Life. Adam and my namesake, Eve, chose to eat the fruit of the first tree, but it was the second, the Tree of Life, that was in the center of the Garden of Eden.

Last September, in Santa Barbara, I met a couple. Both were 74 years old. He had lost his wife some 8 months earlier, met an old friend, the two fell in love, and confided to me that they’d just gotten married. They hadn’t done this publicly because of concern over what his children would say.

“I don’t know how you could do something like that so fast,” I told them. We were all in Santa Barbara for a memorial of a close friend, and it brought up Bernie and our 2 years together there. “I’m not judging you,” I said, “I just can’t imagine it.”

He explained that he’d nursed his wife through 5 years of Alzheimers. By the last two years she couldn’t even recognize him.

He left the room for a short while, and his new wife said to me: “You know, it takes courage to fall in love at our age. We’ve had our losses, and we know that ahead of us lie more losses. It’s very different when you fall in love much earlier, and ahead of you stretch many years of loving and planning and building. But what are you going to do?”

What, indeed? Not fall in love? Not go on like that red dahlia that only bloomed in September, living fully in the face of decreasing sunlight and cold nights, evidence that its lifespan was going to be short?

Soon I’ll be 70. I don’t know what love is ahead for me, only that life is. And short and pockmarked as that may be, I want to do it fully.

 

I will lead a Zen meditation retreat from Thursday evening, December 5, till mid-day of Sunday, December 8. Please see here for details if you are interested in attending.

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I DON’T WANT THIS WINDOW TO CLOSE

My friend, the Zen teacher Myotai Treace, wrote the following in her terrific book, Wake Up: How to Practice Zen Buddhism: “After a shared tragedy, people are washed clear for a while, after the wringing grip of intense grief. We are left with this sparseness—a tenderness that is practically edgeless. When the mental clutter begins to reassemble, many find themselves grieving not only for the dead, but also for the passing of that quality of spare tenderness. Daily routines can heal, but they can also put our hearts to sleep.”

When Bernie’s second wife, Jishu Holmes, died suddenly, I watched the teacher I’d known for over a dozen years turn into bare bones. He was raw, aching, without the confidence and even swagger that often characterized him. He was a different person, and knew it. His beard grew, hair gone wild, confronted by something bigger than himself, and he knew better than to fight it. He plunged into an immense lake of grief, and it held and sustained him. He was full of wonder at this change in himself.

And then he seemed to change back, the old personality returned, altered somewhat but bearing old patterns I knew well.

“What happened?” I asked a friend of ours, a Zen practitioner and psychiatrist. “He was so different!”

“The window’s begun to close,” he said.

I don’t want my window to close. This skin that grew so thin, even diaphanous, since Bernie’s stroke, that opened itself up to fear (How will I take care of him! What will happen to us!), sadness, and infinite alteration—I want that skin to remain as it is. I want the sparseness that Myotai talks of so eloquently to stay.

Not that my life is sparse. I still love the cappuccino I make in early mornings and drink from a blue cup I bought at an Armenian pottery store in Jerusalem. I love the hot baths at night, films on television weekend evenings.

But relationships have gotten spare. I’ve no patience for small talk, for conversations that remain on the surface, for connections that don’t connect. It’s not that I’m sad, not at all; I can get pretty frivolous with a couple of good friends, talk and laugh and gossip like anyone else. What I’m talking about is wanting to be real, stop with the yada-yada, make sure my words reveal what I think and feel. Try to come from a place deep inside, not just the hi place. Not talk about the man in the White House and what’s wrong with half the country or the rest of the world.

I don’t want this blessed window caused by illness, death, and grief to close. I don’t want to stop being tender and raw. I don’t want mental chatter to return, the old veils seducing me out of grief and back into routine. I never cried so easily as I did this past year, and though at first I felt like a silly child, now I kind of like it. It means I break down more easily, and that’s a good thing.

I don’t want the old veneer, I’d like to shiver when it’s cold. There’s so much going on around us, and all of it needs tenderness. It’s all dharma, pure reality, and my practice—and what I love—is to sit with it, pay attention, appreciate every single tiny moment. The time I waste on nonsense is really and truly wasted. Sleep nourishes m, but not petty, depthless moments.

Reference points? Three years of mornings when Bernie would finally wake and sit up. I’d sit on the edge of the bed with him as he looked out the window, contemplating another day of life as it was, not as it had been.

“How did you sleep?” I’d ask.

“Fine. And you?”

“Fine.”

All of heaven and earth were in those few words.

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HEAR NO EVIL

“It’s mine!”

“It’s mine!”

“It’s mine!”

“It’s mine!”

Actually, it isn’t like that at all, at least not when my dogs are playing tug-of-war. They know it’s a game; in fact, Harry shakes the stuffed orange turtle right in front of Aussie’s face, inviting her to play. Later he’ll settle down on the rug and tear the poor animal to pieces, taking the white cottony stuffing out and spitting it onto the rug, but at first he wants Aussie to play. They’ll growl, snarl, pull hard, give it everything they got—and they know it’s a game. They carry no malevolence towards each other.

Food is something else, at least for Harry. He came to me last January leaping and pawing for any morsel he could get into his bony body. In the first couple of days he literally jumped up on the butcher block table to seize a pound of ground beef and thought that the plates on the dining table were just more food bowls for dogs, requiring a little more agility. He attacked Aussie for every marrow bone and rawhide piece. Vigilance and training have paid off and he hasn’t done that in six months. But even in the worst times, it was clear there was nothing personal there, he didn’t carry an ounce of malevolence in that brindle, white-chested, thin body. He was just hungry.

How often do I carelessly brush by Aussie, step on Harry’s tail that’s slipped off his dog bed, or just  saunter right on top of Aussie lying  on the landing because I couldn’t see her in the dark! If it really hurts they’ll give a brief screech, but otherwise they’ll go on as though nothing happened, as though nobody was hurt. They can’t credit me with any kind of ill will or bad intention. Instead they look at me quizzically, I tell them I’m sorry, and they go back to doing what they were doing.

Not humans. Things happen, someone does something, somebody else gets hurt, and it goes viral. We yell and scream, we blame, we shame, call them evil. We compete with each other as to who could make the sharpest, most humiliating rejoinder, who could pack the most scorn and disgust in an online comment, laughing uproariously at how we one-up each other in vilification.

Why does the smallest cur have more compassion than we do? They can’t credit bad intentions, don’t even understand what they are. They know what to stay away from, when a situation or person is dangerous or confusing, but they don’t know evil.

Is their understanding–that no one means to do bad but harm still happens, including predation, stealing, killing, and hurting—so much deeper than ours?

Harry once jumped up at me as I lay in bed reading a volume of poetry by Seamus Heaney. The book had a wooden, painted bookmark a South American friend had given me as a gift, with a sharp point at one end. When he jumped up on the bed the sharp, pointed edge of the wooden bookmark grazed him an inch from his eye.

He squealed and fell; I looked down at him on the rug, heart in my mouth.

He looked up at me with perplexity at the strange turns life can take.

I was a basket-case full of guilt and recrimination. “How often do I say NO JUMPING!” formed, ready for shouting at the small dog. But I looked down at his eyes that carried not an ounce of accusation and I stroked him instead (not good training this time), while his eyes stayed wide open, one ear flap standing up in attention, not crediting me or the world with any evil at all.

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THE KOAN OF CHICKEN JERKY

“Boy, do you look dumb in that skin. Where’d you get it?”

“The Boss put it on me today because it got so cold. Makes me feel warm, Aussie.”

“Makes you look stupid, Harry.”

“Warm.”

“Stupid.”

“Warm.”

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in a skin like that, Harry.”

“It doesn’t matter what it looks like, Auss. I feel really comfy in it.”

“But it’s not your skin, Harry.”

“Stop arguing, you two. Harry’s absolutely right, Auss. I put that sweater on him because it’s freezing today. He doesn’t have your fur, but he’s warm and comfortable. You can be in your skin regardless of what skin you’re wearing.”

“Huh?”

The Book of Householder Koans has a koan that’s just about what it means to be in your skin.”

“How could you not be in your skin, Boss?”

“Precisely, Aussie. You really can’t not be in your skin, but humans feel prickly and itchy in all kinds of situations, and they tug on this or on that and don’t feel comfortable.”

“That’s because humans are dumb.”

“Aussie, I’ve seen you scratch and roll in the summer. I’ve seen you uncomfortable.”

“I hate bumble bees.”

“We all have things we dislike, Auss.”

“Who said anything about disliking? I hate the buggers!”

“The koan is called Old Bear and it goes like this: “Chosui would sing the following refrain again and again: ‘Old Bear, are you in there? Old Bear, are you in there?’”

“Bear? Is there a bear around? Where? Where?”

“Get a hold of yourself, Aussie. It’s a koan, and he’s asking: Old Bear, are you in there?”

“So what’s the answer? Is he in there or not?”

“It’s a koan, Auss, which means there is no one right answer. The point is that he’s asking: Are you in there? Are you living in your skin?”

“How could he not be living in his skin?”

“True enough, Auss, but so many of us feel basically wrong in our bodies, wrong in our minds, wrong everywhere—“

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!”

“We’re filled with self-criticism and self-reproach, we feel we can’t get anything right—“

“Right and wrong have nothing to do with it, Boss!”

“Precisely, Aussie.”

“Right and wrong, good and bad, yes and no—they have nothing to do with who you really are!”

“That’s absolutely right, Aussie. You surprise me.”

“It doesn’t matter what others think about you. It doesn’t matter if Penelope and Eubank growl and chase me around in the park, I don’t need anyone’s approval to feel in my body and in my skin!”

“I’m proud of you, Auss.”

“But if I don’t get my chicken jerky then something’s wrong.”

“Can you feel basically okay regardless of circumstances, Aussie? Regardless of whether or not you get chicken jerky?”

“That’s taking things too far, Boss.”

“Then that’s your koan, Auss. You can show me your answer when we get back home and I give Harry chicken jerky but not you.”

“Watch me kill him.”

 

You can pre-order hereThe Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment  here.

 

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CHERISHING TAKES OVER

Walking with Bernie’s ashes

It’s a rickety flight out of Warsaw to London and then to Boston; a short delay due to fog in London.

“How are you doing?” my brother texted me yesterday.

“Well,” I wrote back. “Auschwitz was the best part.”

An odd thing to write, but as soon as we arrived on Tuesday to the gray, smoky skies, the smell of fertilized farmland, the train-crossings with barriers and clanging bells, dogs barking from the gardens behind houses, and finally the dark brown brick barracks behind the wires, it was the strangest thing, but it felt like home.

Not home at Auschwitz, home at the retreat in Auschwitz.

Disembarking at the Center for Dialogue, getting room keys, turning towards 90 warm faces from different lands. The many staff who come again and again, a humorous smile on their faces as if saying: Here we are again.

Andrzej Krajewski and I visited the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, which now gets well over 2 million visitors a year. I thanked him for his work.

“It’s you I must thank,” he said, not addressing me personally but the Zen Peacemakers. “Whenever November comes I remember that now the Buddhists are coming to do their work.”

What work is it that’s called us here so many times?

“Do the retreat for the souls that are there,” Reb Zalman Schachter, Founder of Jewish Renewal, told Bernie and me so many years ago when he gave his blessing for the retreat. Yes, but what is it exactly that we’re doing? It’s the koan of our retreat, I think, whose answer changes from year to year, an answer I present not just while I’m there but during the rest of the year as well.

You’re in a place of incomparable and incomprehensible horror, so it’s not unnatural to dwell on smaller, more bearable pains and losses. I recall a Belgian woman many years ago who wept the entire retreat over a bitter fight she had with her father. She’d refused to talk to him till the day he died. The resentful silence between an Austrian man and his SS father. Fathers seem to figure prominently in stories people have told during our years here.

When we’re in a place that dwarfs our own experiences of suffering, self-pity is replaced by forgiveness; the blame that till now was so important goes out the window. Instead, cherishing takes over—of life, parents, teachers, birds and grass, and even the gray skies over the Selection Site where we sit.

I, too, had the luxury of carrying out a small, personal errand, bringing and leaving Bernie’s ashes in Birkenau as he’d asked. It was as if this whole year since his passing pointed to this action in this place. He wanted his ashes to lie right in the middle of deep catastrophe.

A small group of us did this, the people I think of as his Auschwitz family, those coming year after year to serve this retreat. Indeed, December will mark 25 years since he and I made our first trip here as part of an interfaith gathering, when his eyes widened with recognition at seeing this place, and knowing it was his place. I never imagined that 25 years later I’d be bringing his ashes here. So much sitting there, right in the palm of your hand.

It was a very simple thing really. I held the box and person after person took a handful of the soft, grainy ash, said some words or stayed silent, and softly left it on the ground at different places: Selection Site, this crematorium, that crematorium, the spot where a friend, August Kowalcyk, successfully escaped Birkenau, the horrific White House. I thought we would run out of ash, but there always seemed to be more. We left the rest around the base of a tree he loved, and called it a day.

It was good weather, not warm and not cold, and the sun was out most of the time. “We try to preserve the neutrality of this place,” I was told. They don’t allow flags anymore, so Israeli flags don’t march in carried by school groups from Israel, nor are Polish flags allowed to be brought in, which, I gather, upsets the current Polish government exceedingly. It is sad that when narratives collide, instead of bearing witness to both we rid ourselves of symbols and call it neutrality. The best we can do.

In Auschwitz, every single thing you do feels meaningful. A cup of hot chocolate outside the Birkenau gates feels richer than anything else you possess. A warm down jacket feels more loving than your mother’s caress, and a smile against brutal cold air is a joy you never had in your life.

You return to the Center for Dialogue at the end of the day and experience the miracle of normalcy, of faces saying hello, searching for room keys, checking when will be time for dinner. All of life is smack in front of you, closer than the tip of your nose.

You’ll board a plane, fly home, the garage door will rise to greet the car late at night, dogs will wiggle their way around your legs as you pull the heavy valise across the kitchen floor to the hallway and finally look up at dark, sleepy stairs.

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