I BLESS U.S. EVERY DAY

I’m sitting at the Denver airport, delayed enroute to Santa Barbara, California.

Three seats away a tall man, around my age if not older, is talking on his iPhone. He wears jeans, a black cowboy hat, and black boots. He makes one phone conversation after another while I finish my coffee, talking to friends and real estate agents, telling them he’s coming over for a week and plans to buy a home, so please show him everything they got. Doesn’t mention where, or at least I never hear it. Hangs up, dials again, same message, hangs up, dials again.

Some 70 feet away a woman announces the flight to Shreveport, Louisiana. Two dozen people board; these are small planes. She announces Last call for Shreveport! After that she calls out the names of three people who haven’t boarded yet and asks them to come quickly. Three seats away the man continues talking on the phone. Then she announces once more: This is the last call for Shreveport, doors are closing. Finally the plane leaves.

Five minutes later the agent at the gate in front of us announces that the plane for Santa Barbara has arrived and we will board soon. My cowboy neighbor gets up and walks over. What happened to the plane to Shreveport?

The agent tells him that the plane to Shreveport just left.

Why didn’t you make any announcements?

They made announcements, the agent says patiently, and when the man asks what he should do now, the agent recommends he book another flight and directs him to Customer Service.

I shake my head—others around me do, too—but I’m relieved at the same time. For the agent is Latino, and an hour earlier I’d witnessed an ugly scene of an inebriated passenger yelling racial slurs at another agent, clearly not born in this country, till airport police arrived and took him away.

Ever since Donald Trump’s remarks about people from shithole countries, I watch and listen more carefully. I’m also more proud than ever of my own shithole roots.

In Denver I had sat down at a small airport eatery. The man at the next table opened up a potato chip bag, it burst into a big hole with a loud WHOP! and the chips fell on the floor. Immediately a small, dark-skinned woman approached with a new potato chip bag. She opened it for him as he apologized, then brought out the broom and pan and swept the floor.

She rested a bit on a nearby chair, a shade of red down one side of her long, dark hair, and we started talking. I thanked her for taking such good care of us. She said she was Tamil from Sri Lanka.

How does she feel here, I asked her. She smiled bashfully, said she felt good.

After talking a little more, I pressed her. Did she feel welcome here? She is here legally, she assured me.

Were things all right? That was my vague way of saying: You’re clearly an immigrant, not Norwegian, not white, in fact you’re not even 5 feet tall and very, very thin, so are you alright?

She understood. People very nice, she assured me. Much nicer than Sri Lanka, she added.

It reminded me that many immigrants, coming from the countries Trump despises, have faced far worse things than verbal abuse. For now, the Tamils are finished in Sri Lanka. Villages burned, families destroyed, people disappeared. And she’s legal here in the US.

I bless US every day, she said.

Still, out of caution, I didn’t ask her whether I could take a photo.

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WE SIT

Yesterday, we sat.

In Zen, when you do sitting meditation you often skip the word meditation and you say you just sit. And that’s what we did, a monthly day of sitting.

Outside, temperatures climb and the snow melts. Birds fly. Cars run on the road. The post office opens for the morning two houses away, then closes.

We sit.

A dog barks, a woodpecker knocks on a tree. The heat comes on, goes off, comes on again. Door opens, people come in, leave some hours later, someone else comes in.

We sit.

During a short break I look out and see a man walk across the large icy pond below. The ice is thinner now, I think, he might fall in. A memory of the neighbor who lost her husband and son that way. A friend gave them a sled and he took the little boy out on the frozen pond. They went around in circles, the ice cracked, and the boy fell in. The father jumped in to save him, and both drowned. The friend never forgave herself for giving them the sled.

We sit.

At home a lovely woman comes to help out. She makes breakfast and lunch for Bernie, cooks dinner so that I won’t have to think about it when I come home, hangs up laundry, walks Stanley, feeds the birds.

We sit.

White clouds don’t move all day. Crows caw. Mild protests from my shoulders and lower back. I would scratch where it itches (not for me the Don’t move! Don’t scratch! Be still!), only I’m not sure I can find it. Maybe what scratches are the man’s footsteps on the ice, or the fluttering edges of a dry leaf on the ground.

We sit.

A hawk’s shadow. Man and dog walking on the path towards the church. Fragments of a past, imagined future, suddenly gone as if they fell into a hole.

We sit.

Get up. Extinguish oil lamps. Put away coffee, pack up cheese, crackers, apples, ginger snaps. Drive home, feed Stanley, go upstairs. How was it? Fine. Anything new? No. Here? No.

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ONE LONG STEAMY SMOOCH

Early this morning I went out to turn on the car and get the heat going before driving to Greenfield. The cold gave me such a bite that my body contracted. But then I flexed the hand open and took in a big breath of freeze, and I tell you, there was love there.

The love of icy winters with squirrels playing on the slope, swinging along the bird feeders, and even the tufted titmice surprising you by how they survive it all, flying in for pecks of sunflower seeds. Once I asked Peter Matthiessen how birds survive through our long, dark, icy New England winters, and he shrugged and said, Don’t worry about them, they have so much down.

One day you come to your senses and realize that it’s all love.

After all, whatever it was that exploded in the Big Bang and expanded and expanded over billions of years into planets, suns, pine trees, hawks, raccoons, Bernies and Stanleys, it could have just stayed still and never given rise to anything at all. It could have remained just some highly compact mass on the head of a pin, hoarding all that energy to itself, stayed in bed, so to speak. It could have said it had a headache, everything (or rather, nothing) was just too much for it and it couldn’t do anything more.

Instead it expanded and gave birth endlessly. That’s not an act of generosity, it’s an act of love.

And you realize that each moment is a gift not deserved by you or anyone else. I’m not quoting Rumi or Hafiz here, I’m talking about receiving life without doing a thing to deserve it. That’s when you start seeing the morning frost as a love bite and the summer heat as the great sizzle, with everything in between the grand buffet.

The big condition was that each new form came at the expense of another, which meant that we all had to die sometime, and maybe that’s where fear came in, along with judgment, greed, stinginess, and war: No! no! no! no! I want more!

A teacher of mine told me the other day that she had met a man she really liked who really liked her, after years of being alone. A month later he had a stroke and she said: Already? We just started! Couldn’t it wait a little?

I felt like telling her that that’s exactly how I felt when Bernie had his stroke. Already? We’ve only been together as a couple some 18 years, and teacher/student for the previous 13. We only got started! Couldn’t it wait?

It feels like moments, even when it’s years. Even when it’s a century or even an era. And all of it—the sun, the shade, the in-betweens—one long, steamy smooch.

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BORING! YAWN YAWN! SNORE!

Stanley, what are you doing, all asleep at 8:30 in the morning!

It’s raining outside. Clearly I’m not going anywhere today. No walk, no Leeann, not even a short jog to give apples to the horses. On days like today I don’t know why I bother living. So I do the next best thing: I sleep.

You were up two hours ago to eat, Stan!

Of course, especially since you added some of that gravy you made last night with the roast beef. You could have added some actual roast beef, but did you do that? No, you did not, because you’re a miser. But that’ll probably be the high point of the day, at least till supper.

Oh Stanley, if we really pay attention, there is something alive and enlivening in every moment.

Like going on an outing with Leeann and all the dogs, or digging up an old marrow bone full of mud and dirt, bringing it into your office, and watching you get mad. That’s what I call fun! Only I’m not going to Leeann today and I can’t find any old marrow bones under all that snow. So I might as well go to sleep.

Wrong, Stanley! The trick is to find life in every moment, even a moment of rain and gloom, when there’s nothing to do.

Boring!

If you really pay attention, Stanley, really pay attention, you’ll see there’s a lot more going on this moment than you realize.

Like what?

I’m sitting on the floor talking to you.

I can’t hear nothin’.

There’s closeness between us, even intimacy. Think of it, between two different species, Stanley! Isn’t think incredible?

Yawn yawn.

I spot more white in your muzzle, Stan. You are getting older before my very eyes. I see your entire lifetime in this one moment.

Snooooooze.

Stanley, the One Body functions at every instant, alive and dynamic—regardless of whether we’re happy or sad or bored. That’s why we must wake up!

Do yourself a favor, don’t talk about that this evening, you’ll put everybody to sleep.

George Saunders wrote that love is attention, and vice versa. What do you think about that? Stanley, stop snoring! Stop snoring! Stanley? Stanley?

 

 

 

 

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AN EARLY CHILDHOOD BACKGROUND

I went to the First Congregational Church of Leverett today to hear Gillian Budine talk about impoverished families living in our area.

Gillian works for the Community Network for Children, and has the job of visiting parents with a new baby to make sure that over the next several years they’ll be ready for school. But she spoke to the fact that this is a much bigger web, that in fact for a child to have some good early childhood, the family needs to be stable—a stable and warm home, healthy food, and lots of attention from devoted parents.

What she runs into instead are families with minimum-wage jobs, if any, worrying about whether to pay for food or for rent or for heat this terrible winter, with no cars and little access to public transportation so they can’t bring their children to Head Start or other enrichment programs, parents so stressed by the business of living they can barely take care of themselves, never mind their children.

Pastor Lee Barstow introduced Gillian, in part, by saying: Gillian has an Early Childhood background. He was obviously referring to her education, but I laughed inside. Don’t we all have an early childhood background? Aren’t we supposed to?

A woman joined me on my walk to my car afterwards and told me it’s hard for her to hear such stories. I have so much in comparison to these families, she said. Hearing about them depresses me. Doesn’t it depress you?

No, I told her. Once it did, but not for a long time. Now I actually feel fortunate when life brings me to the margins of things.

At that we parted ways, and I’m not sure she understood what I meant.

Life feels at its most raw when people have little, when they worry about paying rent as opposed to paying for heat, covering the grocery bill as opposed to buying their children new winter coats. They are closer than me to that most basic instinct of all, survival.

It’s why I like to talk to street people, especially this freezing winter.

Where are you staying tonight? I ask a panhandler by the Greenfield Co-op.

Me and my friend gotta tent we put out behind the park, but if it gets too cold we could go indoors somewhere, she says vaguely. She looks 50 and I’ll bet she’s a lot younger. Her hands are red, chapped, and swollen as she takes off a woolen glove to unwrap a cigarette. I ask her about food, about staying warm—and though I myself don’t have those challenges, the conversation returns me to what’s essential, reminding me of what it is to be human.

When we prosper, when we’re healthy, well, and full of energy, our life playing out the way we think it should, we’re on top of the world. As in above the world, attaining an unnatural height from which we can look down at things far, far away, like we do from the window of an airplane.

When we’re close to the margins of life, when we see how easy it is to lose it all—health, home, friends, jobs, lovers, children, and yes, early childhood—we’re brought back down to size, our true size, our human size. We remember that just living without giving offense, just taking care of ourselves and our family without adding substantively to the quotient of suffering in the world, is a big deal.

The most heroic people I ever met were the single mothers in Yonkers whom I’d see standing with their children waiting for school buses on the other side of the park from Greyston. Often their children wore warm winter coats while theirs were shabby and worn, they were hatless and gloveless from rushing out even as their children wore hats and gloves. Some worked two shifts a day, and they’d stamp their feet to keep warm and banter with each other while their children played, craning their necks for a view of the orange school bus coming up from Ashburton Ave.

Just before Gillian began her talk, the choir sang Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name. To hear yourself be called, to hear your true name, there often has to be some kind of absence. But remember to turn towards it rather than looking away.

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BUT I CAN SMELL PEE!

Do you ever think of death, Bernie?

Sometimes.

And what do you feel when you think about it?

That it’s okay. It’ll be fewer headaches.

Like what headaches, Bernie?

Well, I think I should be doing things.

Are people asking you to do things?

No, people aren’t. But I think that if I’m alive maybe I should be doing more.

You could be walking me, suggests Stanley from the rug.

Bernie’s not listening; he’s too busy eating a slice of Carvel birthday ice cream cake shaped like a football. New England is crazy about its Patriots in this playoffs season and Bernie is no exception, though inside he retains a big affection for the New York Giants. Crowd-sized trays of lasagna and macaroni are sold everywhere, not to mention wings in a half-dozen different sauces along with ribs, as though everybody is hosting parties over the weekend.

We’re not, but when Bernie asked for an ice cream birthday cake I bought one shaped like a football. Chocolate/vanilla ice cream inside, chocolate crumbs outside with whipped cream to mark the seams.

It’s just the two of us cutting into it, with Stanley ever ready for dishwashing duty. Bernie didn’t want a party, didn’t want a fuss. This is not an important birthday, he told me.

What’s an unimportant birthday?

When I spent my 48th birthday at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Roshi Joan Halifax and other Zen teachers, Joan told me that on my birthday I should always call my mother to thank her for all the pain and struggle she went through to give birth, giving me life. I’ve tried to remember to do that every year. I am lucky, because my mother is still alive to hear those words of gratitude.

Bernie lost his mother when he was 7, so there’s no one he could call to say thank you. Instead we’re cutting into a football-shaped ice cream cake and discussing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and especially how long they can keep on winning, because though the team is a machine and Tom eats healthier than anybody, everything has an end.

Earlier this day I walked Stanley on the road. He pulled impatiently on the leash while I paused to examine a fallen tree that lay across the snowy white meadow.

Hold your horses, Stanley.

Why are you dawdling?

I’m examining the tree roots. Take a look, Stan, a tree fell and died, but new critters arrive to take shelter inside and under the tree, entire new colonies of things.

What a dumb reason to walk slowly.

Hey, you also slow down when you find interesting things to sniff.

Tree roots are not interesting unless someone peed on them. Did someone pee on the tree?

I don’t know, Stanley, I can’t smell it.

How do you walk around the woods without smelling pee? How do you learn anything in your life if you can’t smell pee?

I use my eyes—

You’re nearsighted.

I use my brain.

Forget your brain!

Hey, Mr. Dog, you’re at least half blind and all deaf!

But I smell pee! And you don’t! Poor girl, it’s not your fault you’re less intelligent.

 

 

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CAN’T HEAR YOU

 

Hey hey hey, where you going, Stanley? Who made this mess?

Can’t hear you.

Who went into the trash, took out the wrapper, chewed it up into little pieces and spat it out on the rug?

Can’t hear you.

Stop pretending you can’t hear me, you know darn well you shouldn’t be doing this.

Can’t hear you.

And what about when we’re walking outside and I call you to get back on leash?

Can’t hear you.

You know perfectly well that in the woods you can be without a leash, wander near and far, pee and smell at every bush, but on the road you go back on leash. You’ve been doing this for years!

Can’t hear you.

Only now you run away when I want to put you back on leash.

Can’t hear you.

You think just because you’re totally deaf you can get away with all these things?

Can’t hear you.

I’ve had it with how you can’t do this and you can’t do that. I’m trying to relate to both you and Bernie with compassion and understanding—

Can’t hear you.

The other night you scratched yourself against the small bed stand, down went Bernie’s cane with a smash, followed by the phone which beeped and beeped on the floor—all in the middle of the night.

Can’t hear you.

Do you know how many times I say something to Bernie and he tells me he can’t hear me?

Can’t hear you.

You do this, you do that, you take care of those you love, and nobody pays you any attention.

Can’t hear you.

You feed the birds, give them water, shop, cook, feed the family, do the laundry, change the bed linens, give you your hip medicines to keep you going, and does anybody notice?

Can’t hear you.

Move the rugs on the floor to help you stay on your feet, move your food bowls to the rug so that you can bend more easily, take you out walking in all weather, drive you over to Leeann, go to—

Can’t hear you.

I’m trying to do the best I can, damnit!

Can’t hear you.

One day one day, Stanley, you’ll be dead and then you’ll really not hear me.

When I’m dead I won’t be deaf anymore because I won’t be me anymore. Then maybe I’ll hear you a little better.

Yeah, maybe.

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THE RED THREAD

Yesterday a friend of ours sent me this photo from Santa Barbara.

How long was that? At least 16 years. Bernie’s sitting on the porch of the house we lived in then. It was called the Love house, because the Beach Boys’ Mike Love had lived there years ago. You sit and look over the Pacific Ocean, often at whales and dolphins leaping and disporting from the joy of being alive.

And Bernie, too, shows confidence and even exuberance as he sits there with his beloved computer, iPhone in the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt probably concealing a cigar, his eternal jeans. When you wear the same general clothes day in day out, you get pretty comfortable.

It’s a good time, a good moment, and our friend passed by and clicked a photo I knew nothing about till he sent it to me earlier today. Was he cleaning house? Opened an old file and this photo fell out?

And like two arrows meeting in mid-air, yesterday too someone posted a photo of Bernie just a few years ago with Krishna Das. How strong he looked, how ruddy, how full of health! I inhaled sharply, as though I’d been slapped. As though the koan of my life had just hit my head with the weight of 10,000 earths and sent me flying through space as I yelled at the top of my lungs:

What is this? What is this?

I’m returning from a conference of lay Zen teachers. Sounds dull, right? But do you know what we talked about? Do you know what was our koan this long weekend?

Why can’t the Bodhisattva sever the red thread?

Why can’t a person dedicated to the complete awakening of the entire world, each and every inhabitant, vowing to return lifetime after lifetime to accomplish this impossible task, why can’t that person drop love and sex? Why can’t s/he just let go of all that nonsense, the confusion, the regrets, the desires, the silly posturing and postures, the messy, deluded, insane energy of it all? Forget about it finally, give it up, sit in some grass-roof hermitage among the coals and ashes of advancing age and encroaching loneliness, and do some serious work. Never again make a fool of yourself, never again laugh and cry, never again obsess about the love you want and the love you get. Give up frenzy, give up tears, give up the maddest madness of them all, the madness of love.

Why do this again, and break your heart? And again, and break your heart? And again, and again?

I’ll arrive home in the very early hours of Tuesday morning and he’ll be asleep, as the past is asleep. And I’ll tiptoe quietly so that neither he nor Stanley wakes up, and slide into bed. But when he turns over and says sleepily—You’re home!—I’ll say Yes, I’m home, and give him a strangled kiss in that swiftly passing darkness.

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I’VE NEVER PRETENDED TO BE A MOUNTAIN

I travel to the annual conference of the Lay Zen Teachers Association that takes place every Martin Luther King weekend in January. It means waking up at 3:30 in the morning, which means not sleeping much, which comes on top of a few other sleepless nights. We land in a Chicago of rain and heavy fog, but when we take off the plane lifts up, breaks through the ceiling of clouds, and waiting for us is the sun.

How many of you out there also feel at times that you have no idea what’s happening in your body-minds? That energies come up, shake up your system, and you have no idea what they have to do with you?

Yes, I know the psychological stories of the past, I have some sense of the seeds of my confusion. And maybe if I went to a psychiatrist s/he would dangle a few more diagnoses I never considered or even heard of, labels to frame the turmoil and anxiety that often go through me like a tropical storm, Category 3 or 4. You know, you’re walking in the woods, weather looks fine, you feel collected and calm, normal so to speak, and a sudden wind starts spitting out twigs and branches all around, a waterfall crashes on top of your head, and you say: What the — ? Where did that come from?

And none of the stories of your past or, for that matter, the present seem to connect to this. You look around for the familiar triggers—after all, haven’t we studied ourselves for years?—and don’t find a thing.

Just the previous night at dinner Bernie teased me by calling me by my Hebrew name, Chavale, in that old Yiddish intonation from East Europe, and I made a face. I like the light Israeli Hebrew way of saying that name, I told him, but not the East European, which is heavy and drags; in fact, I don’t relate much to my East European roots. But now I think again because back there, they knew of dybbuks, maniacal, occasionally destructive souls that take over your psyche and act out their own life in you rather than letting you live your life.

The Buddhist side of me shakes her head. There’s only one life, the voice says, and that’s the life of this moment that the words this moment can’t capture, it’s this that the word this can’t capture. What are you getting yourself tied up in knots for? And you call yourself a teacher!

But for me teacher has nothing to do with equanimity; I’ve never pretended to be a mountain. There is no Mount Eve in any land, I’m quite sure. For me teaching—and living, for that matter—have much more to do with a reshuffling of the cards, followed by another reshuffling, and another and another. Always a new deal, a new game, with some invisible players joining whom you can’t even see never mind check out their finances to see if they can pay up.

I’m off to Texas folks, wild country, but it’s even wilder inside. Winds of change blow through, and it’s my tough luck if they wait to do this till the middle of the night. Where do they come from? From my present? The past? My parents’ past? The dawn of time?

Sometimes they knock, but lately, maybe because they know I’ve put away my guns, they just walk right in.

You’re strangers, I tell them. I know my own ghosts and sorrows; you I don’t recognize.

Who cares, they say, just make room in the bed, we can all fit.

You know what time it is? You know I’m getting up in just a few hours?

You want us to stay outside in the cold? You wouldn’t do it to a dog.

I start sitting while lying down. I become mindful of my breath, the bed against my back, the sounds made by Stanley and Bernie, the heat coming up.

Stop fidgeting, they tell me.

You’re not letting me sleep. You’re too stormy and violent, please get out of this bed.

You’re sending us into exile, you of all people? You’re the Roshi, you’re supposed to know how to let us in. Let us in, let go, let us in, let go. So nu, Roshi, why can’t you help us find some peace?

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ALWAYS FEED THE ANIMALS FIRST

Our friends Grover Genro Gauntt and Krishna Das were here over the weekend, and on Saturday morning as I was preparing breakfast Genro asked what he could do.

I hate to ask you, I told him, taking out bagels to put in the toaster, but could you fill the bird feeders and give them water?

It was -8 Fahrenheit (-22 Centigrade) at the time, not including the winds, and we had 6 empty bird feeders outside along with a warmed birdbath that needed filling. The birds were eating up a storm, and who could blame them at the tail end of two weeks of historically frigid temperatures in New England. That morning we decided to close the zendo because of the cold, so instead there we all were, drinking coffee and planning breakfast in a warm kitchen, except that there were the birds outside to think of.

My grandfather used to say that one should always feed the animals first before you feed yourself, I told the guys.

He was the rabbi of a small shtetl in the very north of Rumania, bordering Russia, and after World War II he made it here to this country with his wife and one son, my uncle. I have very few memories of him, so it’s interesting what I recall. They had farm animals back in Europe—don’t know what kind—and they fed them before feeding themselves.

In 1999 I returned there with my father, along with brother and sister. The small house my father grew up in was still standing, empty and seemingly abandoned, looking more like a dark shed with 2 rooms, not all that dissimilar from the stalls they had in back for the animals only with a concrete floor and doors.

It was the shtetl world before World War II, impoverished and with few opportunities. The shtetl would have ended even without the Holocaust, my father used to tell me. Anybody with any brains and ambition got out.

My memory of my grandfather was of a bearded man who studied all day, was served tea with sugar cubes by his wife, and looked benignly at his grandchildren around the table without making much effort to communicate other than occasional comments that his wife, the grandmother is how he referred to her, liked to talk. I couldn’t relate to him.

What stayed? Always feed the animals before feeding yourself.

We don’t have sheep or cows, just dogs and lots and lots of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. So Saturday morning Genro layered up, put on hat, boots and gloves of a quality I’m sure they never had in Rumania, and took the big canister with birdseed out to the back. They were saying that morning that even 10 minutes of exposed skin could lead to frostbite, but Genro’s a warrior. Stanley went out with him for a minute—he loves to nibble on sunflower seeds–but came right back in.

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