THE HORSE WILL CARRY YOU

 

Photo by Michel Dobbs

The riders arrived in late afternoon Saturday.

There were some 6 of them, mostly young people without the proper riding shoes and even, someone pointed out to me, without socks. The day was freezing, with gusts close to 40 mph, and they rode their horses on snow while covering the bottom half of their faces with scarves for protection against the cold. They tied up the horses and brushed them before coming in for a meat soup, some fried chicken, salad, and chocolate chip cookies. Later they would take the horses down to pasture.

Still later, an hours-long talking circle.

During the meal I heard whispers of a young rider living in a van for 2 years, someone else in very mean circumstances in a trailer park. The horses are their salvation. The horses are in their blood. “I did everything in my life,” one man tells me. “I did 12-step programs, psychotherapy, hypnosis. The only thing that helped me were the horses.”

This was a short weekend with our Native American friends at Bear Butte, South Dakota. I got there fast, and got home fast. My travels are usually like that; after doing what I came to do, I rarely stay anywhere an extra day or two to rest, I prefer to get back home as soon as possible. But this was too fast, leaving me not so much tired as confused, carrying in my stomach a rich meal I haven’t yet digested.

We arrived in the aftermath of snow, and while only several inches had fallen, the gusts blew hard all Friday and Saturday. The snow was enough to make travel difficult, especially on the reservations. As a result, only a few people showed up. It was but a momentary disappointment for we sat together with Renee and Manny Ironhawk and a few others, descended from survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre, and the intimacy of the group helped us plunge into stories and discussions. Mostly, I bore witness to how gallant, humble people try to save their culture, language and tradition against so many odds.

My husband, Bernie, felt that we had to awaken to the fact that we’re all one, all one unity. That was as close as he got to a concept of God. Buddhism has the archetype of the Buddha, who sat alone till he had a full experience of this, but Bernie believed that we need others to awaken.

I feel the same. I sit alone or with other meditators practically every day, but my gut tells me that awakening to the deepest essence requires me to meet the Other. And one of those Others (there are many of them) is the Lakota Nation and other Native people who were massacred by white people, whose land was stolen and plundered by white people, whose children were stolen from them and put in boarding schools by white people, and whose strong culture and spiritual traditions were prohibited and taken away by white people. That karma continues to this day.

I, a white woman, has to bear witness to those on the other side of things, people who are minorities in this country by virtue of skin color, religion, gender, or ethnicity. I need this other side to show me things I’ve ignored and am blind to, otherwise what challenges my habitual way of thinking and the assumptions I make, safe in a zone of comfort and entitlement?

Traveling to the Black Hills helps lift the gauze from my eyes. The sky is big, the stars many, and at night the almost-full moon rose behind Bear Butte and shone in the darkness. Buffalo roamed here once. People rode here once, not just a few but many. The earth felt their hooves, and the earth responded.

Joan Halifax wrote: “Start to realize that transformation isn’t an adornment to your existing life, but its complete unraveling.” Back home I study and read books, I gain adornment after adornment till I feel heavy and slow, unable to respond nimbly to life. Out here with the Lakota something begins to unravel.

“Even with all your worries and afflictions,” an elder told the young riders on Saturday evening, “don’t forget your horse. The horse will carry you with everything that you carry.”

photo by Michel Dobbs
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PUT IT ALL IN SERVICE

Photo taken at Takini School, Howes, SD

Every time I look at the photo of the wonderful Violet Catches holding the hand of Greta Thunberg between the two of hers, I want to cry and cheer and tell everyone: Yes, there is hope for us!

And I hope to see Violet this evening.

Yesterday it snowed in Rapid City, South Dakota, part of a big snowstorm to hit the Great Plains. Luckily, I’ve arrived there today in the afternoon and will only have to contend with swirling snow and winds as we find our way to Bear Butte and a weekend gathering of the Descendants of Wounded Knee. Three of us (Zen Peacemakers) are going at the express invitation of Manny and Renee Ironhawk, a quick but packed weekend returning us to the East Coast very late Sunday night.

I have no idea how to support a gathering of families descended from those hundreds of Lakota, over a hundred years ago, camped below that low ridge with the big Hotchkiss guns blasting away at what were mostly women and children. The firing power was so lopsided (the Indians were previously disarmed) that it’s assumed that most of the 25 US Cavalry dead were also killed by their own fire.

“You can just hang out with them and listen,” said a friend who has spent years bearing witness at Pine Ridge.

I am certainly ready to listen to stories. At the same time, I think about my mother. I must have heard my mother’s stories of living through the Holocaust literally hundreds of times. Unlike other survivors who didn’t like to talk, my mother couldn’t stop talking. She’s also an excellent storyteller, and to this very day, at the age of 91, continues to be invited to speak in front of groups, especially around Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day.

But in all the years of watching her do this, I never got a sense of healing. She gets dewy-eyed in the same places of her narrative, cries in the same places, pauses while overcome with emotion in the same places. I feel that she relives the trauma again and again, though in milder form. She clings with greater ferocity than ever to the label Holocaust Survivor, and as her mind begins to fade she yields to frequent bursts of paranoia, telling me on the phone that the Nazis are coming back to hunt everyone down.

Telling your story is crucial to healing, but it’s often not enough. Some people get stuck in the same cycle of telling and reliving things again and again over an entire lifetime.

We had a number of survivors at our Auschwitz retreats in Poland in the early years. Some relished telling their stories in front of large groups, clearly enjoying the rapt attention. Others were more reticent, refusing to speak until a space of trust had been created. None were given center stage. Small council groups continued to take place at 7 each morning where other people told their stories: The Belgian woman who bitterly regretted not talking to her father for decades before he died; the Unitarian minister remembering the death of her daughter; a man crying over his wife dead in an accident, German participants recalling the silence that enveloped their upbringing.

Many times people said it was crazy to bring this up at a place like Auschwitz, but to me it wasn’t crazy at all. Auschwitz wasn’t just death, it was everything.

The Great Plains aren’’t just about death, either. We’ll find snow, buttes and mountains, the motorcycle city of Sturgis, past and present melting into one. I call it a Mix and Match. Listening to stories of suffering, bearing witness to life now on the reservation, but sharing our lives, too, smoking cigarettes outdoors while speculating about the weather. I think pain and trauma heal when you start mixing them up with life.

There’s heaviness for me these October days before Bernie’s memorial, I can feel the extra layers. But these sensations are mixed with the sunlight and the dogs scampering among the colorful leaves, digging up dahlias, and a return to South Dakota to take in other people’s loss and catastrophe.

Pain is healed when it gets placed in a bigger context, in birth and death, jokes and the play of children, the frolics of new dogs, tears over what we had and didn’t have, and the sense that something continues even when you don’t.

And when a Lakota elder holds the hand of Greta Thunberg and blesses her. There they are, reaching across continents, cultures, and generations: the young Swedish teenager who can’t rest thinking of all that is dying around us, and the Lakota elder at Cheyenne River Reservation, encouraging us all to be the voice for those who have no voice. Both don’t look away from the suffering inside and out, and then put all of it in service of life.

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WHAT’S BIG AND WHAT’S SMALL?

“Do you love me?”

“Yeah-I-love-you.”

“It’s fall here again, so beautiful, can you see it?”

“You-know-I’m-color-blind.”

“Who’re you talking to, Boss?”

“I’m talking to Bernie, Aussie.”

“Does he answer?”

“You heard him.”

“I hear you.”

“Well, Auss, Bernie wasn’t much for personal communication even when he was alive, so I have to make this easier for him.”

This morning I said hi to Miss Compassion in the back and noticed she wore a green earring. I wonder if the caterpillar plans to stay there, attached to Kwan-Yin’s earlobe as it spins its chrysalis. Not the worst place in the world for a metamorphosis.

Bernie couldn’t talk. He loved, but couldn’t express it directly. Things were fine as long as I worked with him and joined his efforts. The minute I stepped out into my own work, he couldn’t find the bridge to me. We either talked about work, or else we didn’t talk.

Much of my private life with him I felt lonely and even invisible. When it came to appreciation, I got used to a radical diet. Even after his stroke, which turned both of our lives upside-down (differently for each of us), I didn’t hear anything like “What would I do without you?” (Answer: not much.).

After his death people told me that he talked to them a lot about me and what I did for him, and how he wouldn’t be alive if not for me. His caregiver told me that if she cooked something good for him he asked if there was enough for me, too, when I came home. But he couldn’t say those things to me directly. He thought them, but couldn’t speak them.

We had a small blowup about this once. I turned from the kitchen counter, looked him straight in the eye and asked, “Why can’t you say something to me?”

He looked back at me, bewildered, and said, “I don’t know.”

My father grew up in a shtetl where his father, the local rabbi, enforced a Method of Silence used by certain religious Jews to raise children, where nothing was expressed to children except for the most practical things (Eat your breakfast, go to sleep, etc.). When he finally left my mother after over 40 years of marriage, it wasn’t because his new wife was younger, as my mother thought, but because she was far more emotionally giving, even effusive, as my mother couldn’t be.

We want to be loved. Independent Aussie comes to me and leans her head against my leg, not for food or even a walk (it’s raining), but for attention.

I knew I was loved by my husband, but I didn’t feel loved. There’s a big difference. I know the stories—his mother died, his father and stepmother were uncaring—but those stories don’t nourish. You want to feel loved—not as a student, but as a wife.

A friend of mine, thinking of her husband after he died and their life together, said to me: “We invested a lot in our private life, so it was very beautiful. But we didn’t invest much in helping the world. You guys did. You led a big life.”

What’s big and what’s small?

I talk to Bernie quite a bit now, 11+ months after he’s dead. And since I know he wasn’t much for loving communication, I don’t hesitate to answer for him, using his tone and the slow pause between each word due to the aphasia he suffered from the stroke.

“Do you love me?”

“Of-course-I-do. And-I-miss-you.”

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WHAT DO YOU YEARN FOR?

I take a photo of the same place every year. It’s our destination in a forest that I have walked in for some 15 years. Once I used to walk there daily till the snow got too deep, not just for my boots but also for the Pit Bull who shivered gamely through it. Now I walk here with Awesome Aussie and  Handsome Harry once or twice a week.

It’s the best medicine in the world.

From my desk I look out at our back yard and see the yellow and red leaves fall. It’s a warm, drizzly morning that will turn into a rainy afternoon. The leaves fall like tears of forgiveness.

When I walked HERE on Saturday I heard a rustle. I turned around, thinking I’d see one of the dogs running behind me, but there was nothing. I walked again, again heard the rustle, again turned around, and still no dogs. Again the rustle, and now I was a little concerned as I turned, wondering what animal made that noise. That’s when I realized the animal was me. A yellow leaf had fallen on my hair just above my right ear, and each time I took a step it rustled.

But usually the leaves fall soundlessly, like forgiveness. Forgiveness of how much I take the trees for granted as I walk among them, how blind I can be even in wakeful moments. Each leaf that comes down is a story I don’t know. And like every single story ever written or told, it’s a gate into someplace else, an invitation to plunge into your own yearning.

On this October fall day, what do you yearn for? I don’t mean superficially (I wish the TV repairman would call back or my kingdom for a chocolate bar), I mean that famous gap between life as it is and life as you wish it to be. That’s the gap into which I tumble, a yearning no longer for everything I want but to fully get what it is to be alive without getting what I want, live a life I hadn’t planned or wished for, yet here it is.

Did someone else plan it? Is this my story, or someone else’s?

It’s just your story! In my old days of Zen training, that was the classic put-down. Who among us didn’t dread having that phrase flung at us as we talked our hearts out—ABOUT a failed love affair, an angry exchange with a child, the loss of something or someone treasured, or just some plain disappointment. Express it, give vent to some emotion, and that’s often what you heard: It’s just your story.

Now I know that every story has its gates. And if you walk through any one of those gates you’ll fall in and hang in the abyss between what you wanted badly and what really happened, between what you’d hoped for and how you’d messed up. Somewhere at the very bottom I’ve discovered a jewel that’s hard to describe, except to say that it has a lot to do with forgiveness. Usually, self-forgiveness.

I’m reminded of a story a friend of mine told me. Her husband died after five years of cancer. Years before that he’d go off on business trips to Asia and buy his wife jewelry. Once, before leaving on such a trip, he asked her what she’d like, and she, in that careless, carefree way we have when we think that life will never end, quickly sketched a brooch with a stone here and a stone there. “This color here, that color there,” as she described to me, hardly giving it a moment’s consideration. He took it with him, came back home without it, and she forgot about the whole thing.

He died in October. A few weeks later was her birthday and she got a call from a local jeweler whom they’d favored over the years. “Would you come over to the store?” the jeweler said.

“Are you crazy?” said my friend. “I just lost my husband, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Then I’ll come to you,” said the jeweler.

“Don’t even think of it, I’m not seeing anyone,” said my friend.

The jeweler arrived in the early evening, carrying a small box. She opened it. It held the brooch my friend had thoughtlessly sketched out to her husband years before. She told my friend that her husband had looked for it everywhere and, unable to find it, had asked her to find the pieces and assemble it, and paid her in advance. She worked on this as he lay dying. On the day he died she’d called to tell him she had it, and he gave precise instructions that on his wife’s birthday she should give the brooch to her.

The jewel I’m talking about goes beyond life and death, though you could call it anything, including love, forgiveness, and eternity.

Bernie bought me no jewelry. In fact, he bought me almost no gifts except for See’s Chocolate which he would bring back from trips to California. But he knew about that jewel that lies at the very bottom of our yearnings. He didn’t talk of it as I do, with words and feelings, but especially after his stroke, he dove deep into murky waters in search of it.

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A BROKEN TV AND YOUR BEST BOOK

The Dogs of the KiskadeeHills: Hunt for the Lynx by Eve Marko

Yesterday was October 4, the first day of the last month before the one-year memorial for Bernie. And last night our big 50” Panasonic TV went on the blink.

It had turned a surreal red on two previous occasions, but last night it stayed that way. Instead of watching our Friday night movie, Tim and I looked at YouTube videos on how to fix a television set. There’s a very good chance it’s not worth repairing, and the big TV set will be gone; if so, I won’t replace it.

Bernie got the monster TV 12 years ago, when it was still expensive. I disliked it because of its size, it took up an entire wall, not to mention the big cabinet we had to get as a stand. I liked to keep things in balance. I didn’t like to spend a lot of money (“You have a mind of impoverishment!” Bernie used to tell me), I didn’t like big things.

But neither did I argue with him about this because Bernie’s needs and tastes were actually quite simple. He focused on work, that was clearly the most important thing to him. He could go out to dinner every night of the week but expensive places were not to his taste, he preferred neighborhood ethnic joints for Italian, Chinese, or Japanese food, and a diner for breakfast.

He liked to watch TV and wanted a big screen. He loved Macs and iPhones. He always bought the same old jeans and jeans shirt or jacket, and he wore black sneakers even on the most formal occasions (I don’t think he owned another pair of shoes). When we had money he liked to drive a Camry because it was heavy and reliable; the last one he got was a hybrid. He also liked traveling on United Airlines because he was a million-miler and they’d often give him a complimentary upgrade to Business Class.

That was it, he had no other interests or needs. Every once in a while he’d be invited to visit a friend or student somewhere interesting and he’d say, “That would be nice to visit,” but he didn’t make a big deal of it. He traveled a lot for work (“I’m not a nester” was his way of explaining why he could be on the road a long time while I couldn’t). He seemed perfectly happy working during the day and watching TV at nights. In that sense he was a very simple man.

So of course, when the 50” Panasonic turned red I thought to myself: The objects he loved are now breaking down as well. Soon I’ll have an empty wall. For years I muttered about the cluttered house we lived in that reflected a cluttered life. I could fill the empty wall with one trip to our basement, but I probably won’t. I will leave it empty for a while, see what comes up.

Nevertheless, when the big Panasonic turned red like blood I was unprepared. So early this morning, when the thermostat showed 31 degrees at 6:00 am (our first frost!), I came downstairs, sat on the sofa by Aussie who had signaled her wish for company by thwacking her tail, stroked her, and thought how much I missed my husband. How much I loved him.

When I think of the coming month I could feel my shoulders sag and the heart turn extra heavy. In November I will bring his ashes to our retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Before that, there is still the month to get through.

But my dreams show something else. Several nights ago I dreamt I was in an old used bookstore. The bookseller, an ancient, wrinkled man, seemed to know me and said: “I have your best book, the one that sold the most copies.”

“Really? Which one?” I asked.

“I can’t remember,” he said, “but you should write more books like that. Look downstairs at the very back and you’ll find it.”

Curious, I went downstairs. Was it my Book of Householder Koans coming out in February? Was it a couple of dharma books I edited of Taizan Maezumi’s teachings (Appreciate Your Life) or Bernie’s (Infinite Circle), or even Bernie’s and Jeff Bridges’ (The Dude and the Zen Master)? Was it Bearing Witness, which I wrote under Bernie’s name?

I looked and looked and didn’t find anything. I stepped back and searched the very low shelves. It was dark and I had to put on my iPhone flashlight; I also coughed because of the dust. There were spider cobwebs everywhere and the room was black and heavy as night, there was no one else there but me.

And then I found it. The photo of a golden retriever against a dramatic blue sky stared at me from the cover: The Dogs of the Kiskadee Hills: Hunt For the Lynx was a book I’d written for young readers, a fantasy about a world of no humans and lots and lots of dogs. My agents couldn’t find a publisher so I published it myself with very low sales.

This is my best book? I wondered. Is this what I’m supposed to do more of?

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AT YOUR SERVICE

“Who’re you?”

“Jewel.”

“The horse?”

“No, the dog.”

“I think you’re a horse.”

“My human says I’m a Great Dane.”

“I still think you’re a horse. Did you come around for apples? That’s what the Boss does with the horses down the road, she gives them apples.”

“I don’t eat apples. I don’t even eat regular dog food because I sometimes get stomachaches. Do you want to chase me?”

“Why should I want to chase a horse?”

“It’s easy to catch me because I don’t really run, more like scamper.”

“Then maybe you’re not a horse.”

“Who cares what I am? Let’s play.”

“I can’t play with you till I figure out what you are.”

“Why? I run—“

“You scamper!”

“Okay, I scamper, I chase, I sniff, I dig, I grab the other end of a stick if you hold on to one end, I love digging for bones, and I really love sniffing other dogs’ butts.”

“That last one probably means you’re not a human.”

“I’m a lot of fun!”

“Yes, but what are you? I don’t chase anything I can’t identify. Here in the back yard I chase chipmunks and squirrels. In the woods I chase deer and wild turkeys—they’re the best. Harry and I love to flush them out of the tall grass and make them squawk. Oh yes, I also chase Harry.”

“I met Harry before while you were running off somewhere. He chased me plenty; never asked for a formal introduction.”

“Harry’s young, also dumb. When we go out for walks on leash he and the Boss play tug-of-war. He pulls forward and she pulls back. Finally I tell him: ‘Dummy, don’t you feel the pressure against your neck?’ You know what he says back?”

“No, what?”

“He says: ‘It’s just life. Pressure, pressure, pressure all the time.’’”

“Sounds a little sad to me.”

“Harry’s a real comedian. Now you could run away with your human any time day or night. That must be grand.”

“I never do that.”

“With your size and weight? Why not?”

“I’m a service dog.”

“What’s that?”

“I am there to support my human.”

“Really? Let me ask you this: Who feeds you?”

“She does.”

“Who takes you for walks?”

“She does.”

“Who gives you a home?”

“She does. She also got me a giant bed.”

“Who brushes and pets you?”

“She does. Now can we play?”

“No, I have something important to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I got to find out how to be a service dog.”

“It took a lot of training.”

“I bet it did.”

 

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WHITE WINGS OF A MOTH

We did an all-day retreat on Saturday. I finished my talk, came back to my seat, and saw something small and white on the floor. Assuming it was a tiny piece of paper, I picked it up to put on the window ledge, but it felt like silk. As I stroked it absentmindedly I felt some of it dissolve and fall on my black pants. I looked down and realized it was a dead moth, and what I had stroked off were parts of its white wings.

The meditation bell rang that moment, I put the moth down, and felt a surge of sadness about its death. In our house I usually manage to locate moths and take them outdoors, but this one had gotten stuck in the zendo. Life felt fragile and diaphanous.

It was a warm fall day and sunlight beamed through the window on my left, creating a puddle of light on the carpet. Reflected in the light were branches of the maple tree outside and dark, squiggly shapes made by the madly rustling leaves. Occasionally, one or two fell in a swoosh against the window because of the strong wind.

The silky wings of the moth remained stuck on my fingertips. When Bernie died he left sheets soiled and in disarray; the first thing the ambulance crew did upon entering the bedroom was open windows. What kind of deaths are these? Is one a good death and one bad? There’s a koan in our Book of Householder Koans entitled Kanji’s A Good Death. Like many good koans, it points not just to an insight but also to a practice.

You can pre-order The Book of Householder Koans here.

A friend sent me a link to this superb interview with the African writer, Alexandra Fuller, who talked of losing first her father and then her son. It’s one of the most moving testimonies I’ve heard, and I urge you to listen to it. In the interview Fuller said that we’re born to grieve. And why not? In the same way that we’re born to grow and develop, we’re also born to weaken and fade.

The first half of the trajectory of our life is all about getting bigger, taller, gaining weight, obtaining skills and resources, getting a job, a partner, a family. The arc is all about increase and accumulation.

This is the part of the trajectory that our culture loves. It worships hard work and success, it worships rewards like large and fancy cars, eternal sunlight destinations, and lines of sportswear for the eternally young.

But the trajectory at some point starts its downward curve, all part of the natural lifespan, and that’s the part our culture pretends is not there. And we pretend, too. We’ve grown so accustomed to the prospect that things will keep on getting bigger, it’s hard to make the turn.

”Hey man,” a friend recently said on his 60th birthday, “I’m only getting started.” Well, since every moment is a starting point, you can say that you’re getting started every single morning, including the morning of the day you’ll die.

I couldn’t miss it about me after Bernie’s death. Last spring I finally went to the doctor to talk about the pains in the left side of my body, especially shoulder and hip, and she said it must have been going on for a while only I didn’t notice before. My energy is certainly not the same. I used to fly a lot, arrive in a different country and start teaching that very day or evening, or else return and go right to work without a rest. I can’t do that anymore.

Instead, I look at ads about beautiful retirement communities with spacious condos (who cleans those big rooms?) and a blue bay with sailing, swimming, and kayaking, the retired couple tanned and healthy, with white teeth I didn’t have as a child. You’d never know from those photos that their bodies show the effects of wear and tear and that their minds aren’t as clear or quick as before. That beautiful older couple can’t jump out of bed with joy in the mornings; if they’re like most others, they get up slowly and may be especially careful with those first steps. They may suffer from low blood pressure first thing and be unstable on their feet, like Bernie, who would sit up till he felt he was strong enough to take his first steps. But the ads don’t say anything about that.

Small reminders abound every day, preparing us for bigger losses. We have to practice a little ahead of time. I think that’s why I love the fall so much.

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BRATTY TEENAGER

“Aussie, how come you had a fight with Marlowe?”

“Because she’s a big bully!”

“Marlowe was always like that in the Sunday dog gathering, Auss, and you didn’t mind. She always wanted to be chased and you chased her. She growled at times and you didn’t care.”

“Yeah? Well, now I mind, Boss.”

“I think that since you turned 2 different things are coming out, Aussie.”

“I don’t want to be bullied by Marlowe. If anyone is in my face I’m going to be in their face.”

“Aussie, can’t you just let her be a little dominant? I mean, so what?”

“No way.”

“Don’t you see what happens? The two of you get into a fight that makes no one happy. She’s leashed by her boss and even goes home. I have to leash you up so that you can’t play freely and sometimes we have to leave, too, including Harry who did nothing wrong. Nobody wins, Aussie. See what I mean?”

“Nobody’s getting into my face.”

“And what’s this new thing with terriers, Auss?”

“I don’t like ‘em.”

“What about the miniature poodle we ran into yesterday? I told the man you and Harry were friendly and the next thing I know you begin to growl. “Friendly dogs don’t growl,’ the man says, and instantly I put you on leash.”

“She reminded me of a terrier.”

“Trainers say that when little dogs run fast bigger dogs like you might think they’re prey so you go after them.”

“That miniature poodle prey? Don’t make me laugh. No prey looks that weird. You humans think you’re so smart. You analyze us and think you got us all figured out, but you don’t.”

“And another thing, Aussie. Leave Harry alone when he tries to play with other dogs. He’s interacting so nicely, he has such good manners unlike you-know-who. But the minute he starts chasing somebody else you grab him by the back leg and pull him away.”

“I‘m his older sister, Boss.”

“He wants to play with other dogs, Aussie, give him a break.”

“How much of a break did you give your younger sister when you were growing up? Your friend, Jon Katz, told you that dogs reflect their humans. See what I mean?”

“I don’t think that’s what he—“

“Did you let anybody tell you what to do when you were growing up?”

“Now that you mention it, no, but that was different, Aussie. I grew up in a religious Jewish home and I couldn’t get with that program, see what I mean? So they got angry and I got angry right back.”

“Just like me and Marlowe.”

“Not the same thing, Auss.”

“And did you boss around your sister?”

“A little bit.”

“She told me that when both of you were growing up you kicked her down the stairs one night. I tried it on Harry. He fell down one stair got back up on his paws, said that was fun and asked me to do it again.”

“Aussie, this discussion is going no—“

“I’m your past coming back to haunt you, Boss.”

“Thanks, Aussie. Do you have any more surprises for me now that you’ve reached the ripe age of 2?”

“I’m gonna be the toughest, brattiest teenager you ever saw. Just like you, Boss.”

 

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THE LIGHT IN THE LAND OF PLENTY

Two days ago I wrote about my return from Santa Barbara, California. I called Santa Barbara home. In the blog, I wondered whether I knew we were in heaven in those early years.

I had left New England a week ago in summer and I came back to fall. It’s raining now and a few yellow leaves are drifting earthward. Ahead of us is sublime October, a heaven of its own.

The truth is that when I was in heaven I didn’t like it. Santa Barbara, with the ocean waves below and the whales making their way down the channel in January, felt too perfect. “It’s full of blonde, thin people,” I complained to a friend who lives there.

It had its hidden parts, such as the homeless people and the many service employees who couldn’t afford its rents and lived in adjoining areas like Goleta and Carpinteria, or farther away in Ventura. But we were offered heaven, and it was hard for me to accept it. A neighbor greeted me every morning without exception (Santa Barbara prides itself on having 300 days of sunlight a year) with the words: “It’s another beautiful morning, Eve.”

Another morning in paradise, I’d groan silently to myself.

My name notwithstanding, I didn’t believe I belonged in paradise. I belonged in low-income neighborhoods of southwest Yonkers, at street retreats, in bearing witness retreats at concentration camps or in places of massacre. I couldn’t relate to bliss. I felt (and still feel) called to spend time at places of great suffering.

Long ago my mother was a hero, saving her own life and the lives of others in the Holocaust. I heard those stories from babyhood and it became my measure for life, as though no one had a right to live any other way except the way she had, through unending service to others.

Before flying to Santa Barbara I spent three days in Denver, Colorado, in the annual conference of Healing Beyond Borders, with its focus on Healing Touch. I was asked to give a keynote talk. They said they got a lot out of my talk; I got even more out of them. I never sat with a group of such open and connected people. Everywhere I felt a heart beating strongly and fervently, connected at one hand to the healing hands of a practitioner and on the other to the deepest place of earth.

“What I’ve learned here all these years,” said the first Healing Touch therapist I met, “was not just the healing I bring my clients, but first and foremost to stay in deep connection with my heart.”

Others said to me: “I’ve learned that I have to heal myself first before I can heal others.”

Bernie might have said: I have to heal myself as I heal others.

We all know this, don’t we? Nothing very original here, I’ve heard this all my life. And yet the temptation to run out the gate to do more, witness more, save more, wins out time and time again.

October is no month to leave New England as the earth puts on one of its most spectacular shows, and I have a front-row seat right in my own back yard. And yet I am already considering leaving for a long weekend to attend a gathering of the Descendants of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I haven’t yet settled on my feet, or on my seat, and already I’m looking to fly again.

One voice says: “They’ve asked for our support. They’ve asked for witnesses, even for help.” Another says: “And what about you? What do you need?”

I never felt that last question had much legitimacy.

But now something prevents me from booking that flight, and it’s not just finances. Rather, it’s a wish to settle close to my heart and hear its whispers: Good idea, go! Or: No, you have your work here, and you need to rest.

The decision doesn’t matter, more and more I want to keep the channel open to that beating organ inside, the one that pumps oxygen and blood throughout my body and sends me messages that I don’t listen to in the rush and stumble of saving all sentient beings. The one that says: Wait. Listen. Just listen.

There is a Hebrew word: oneg. The closest English translation I come up with is enjoyment. Deep enjoyment. I hear it in the hum of bees still collecting nectar from the waves of goldenrod at the entrance to the woods. The exquisite pleasure of getting into a warm bed with Toibin’s The Master. Running my fingers through Aussie’s black hair and never checking the watch, not even once.

Most of my life I chose not to live a life of oneg, but this is slowly, so slowly, becoming my very own private frontier.

And what about climate change and the demonstrations scheduled for tomorrow? And the immigrants that need rides for doctor appointments in Greenfield? And yes, our Lakota friends in the Black Hills?

My widower friend in Santa Barbara sent these Leonard Cohen lines to the widow in New England:

May the light in The Land of Plenty
May the light in The Land of Plenty
May the light in The Land of Plenty
Shine on the truth some day.

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DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN HEAVEN?

“If you look down on your left you’ll see Bryce Canyon,” the pilot announces on my flight from Santa Barbara, California, to Denver, Colorado, enroute to Chicago and home. “And in 15 minutes, Lake Powell.”

I have flown coast to coast many times, and continue to be awed by the vast splendor of this country. Visitors from other countries often express their amazement in the same words: “It just goes on and on and on!”

I was in Santa Barbara for a memorial to a beautiful woman, a beautiful soul, who put an end to her life a few months ago using California’s Physician-Assisted Suicide law after enduring 15 years of dogged cancer-induced pain. She loved life like almost no one else I knew. I last visited Santa Barbara in January 2018, and day after day, at dusk, she’d walk over to the bluff overlooking the Pacific and look out towards the setting sun. She cried inside over the beauty of it. She also spent much time “contemplating self-extinction,” as she put it.

“How do you feel when you do that?” I asked her.

“The greatest peace in the world,” she said back.

The memorial, with meditation, music, tears, food, and laughter went on for two days. Hundreds of people came and went. Bernie and I had lived in this cliff-side home for two years. I sat with the family in the same room where he and I had gotten married; in fact, she and her husband had witnessed our marriage, and then the four of us had gone out for lunch.

She’s gone, and Bernie’s gone. Bryce Canyon isn’t gone, but that was small comfort for me as I sat on the dark sofa in silence, remembering that once the sofas were all purple, her favorite color, remembering, too, a tall vase of sunflowers on the coffee table, Bernie’s desk in the corner which he never used, choosing instead to sit on one of the Adirondack chairs on the veranda (also purple) and look out to the ocean, his laptop, phone, and cigar nearby.

Did we know we were in heaven? Do you know you’re in heaven? We did at times, not at others. What does it take to fully inhabit your life? To nest unconditionally in what you have and who you are? This place, this home, continues to heal me. I went back there for five days two years after Bernie’s stroke, and now went back there 10 months after his death. And with all the death in the air, I continue to call that place home.

The living room was so long it seemed to extend right over the Pacific. When we lived there we filled its very long wall with our books. When we left, our friends used the white brick wall to memorialize homeless people who’d died in the streets. Across the room, in a smaller alcove containing far fewer bricks, is a short list of “Heroes.” Bernie’s name is inscribed there.

When we came to Santa Barbara in 2000, this exquisite jewel of a small city, so God-favored, had laws against people sleeping on the warm sand of their beaches, walking aimlessly up and down the main shopping streets and even sleeping in their cars. No matter how hard you work for a living or a home (and it’s expensive to live here), it is impossible to think it’s all yours, solely a reflection of your efforts, your dollars and cents.

“Where are you from?” a white, pink-skinned man asks me in a café on State Street.

“Massachusetts,” I tell him.

“So you must be a liberal,” he says immediately.

“We call it progressive,” I say back.

His smile disappears. “Do you know how many migrants we have here?” he demands.

“We have a nice-size community of immigrants, too,” I tell him.

“Yeah?” he asks suspiciously. “Where?”

In Turners Falls, I want to tell him, leading hidden, invisible lives. And you and I are migrants too, in my case one generation removed, in your case maybe a few more.

We parted amicably, but my mind still raced. Your dollars and cents don’t create the ocean, it wanted to tell the blue-eyed, pink-faced man. They didn’t create the whales that cruise up and down the channel or the dolphins that frolic behind the tourist boats. The Santa Ynez Mountains did not arise out of your hedge funds, they were given to us and other living beings, and instead of being humbled by the gift and overwhelmed with gratitude, some choose to reduce it into something bought and sold, hoarded like Silas Marner’s gold.

You can say that the cosmos laughs at those folks who think they own everything in sight, but people have died on the streets of Santa Barbara and elsewhere, abandoned and alone.

So our friends began to write their names on the white bricks of the living room. There were seats everywhere in the large room for the people who came and went, but none hid the memorial wall of white bricks. In that way the names on the white bricks were included in the fabric of the memorial, even as we cried and laughed and sang, much as in a Jewish wedding the groom crushes a wine glass with his foot to remember the destruction of the Jewish temple 2000 years ago. Joy is always mixed with tears.

I thought of the woman who’d died there a few months earlier and of Bernie who died in New England in November, and the people who’d died homeless and alone on the streets of this country. Below, the Pacific Ocean roiled with surfers eagerly anticipating the next big wave, and the next day Bryce Canyon sparkled in sunlight far below the airplane.

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