SPRING ON TOP, BROKEN PLANTER AT BOTTOM

Every spring, after changing the clock, I look out after dinner and see the sunset west of the house, retiring over the Berkshire Mountains. We don’t have much of a view where we live because we’re in our own little valley in the Happy Valley, surrounded by trees. But I love that early evening light.

This time I also caught below the broken big planter that has been out in front of the house since we moved here more than 13 years ago. One of two big planters out front, it’s finally been done in by the snow and ice this winter.

Spring on top, broken planter at bottom.

I didn’t go to the zendo this evening. Bernie needs care after his radiation treatments, and I was so focused on other things I didn’t even notice till around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when it hit me: What am I doing in the zendo when I’m needed right here?

There isn’t a day that this thought, in some form or other, doesn’t come up at least a dozen times: What am I doing writing when I need to see to the wounds on his face? What am I doing on my way to a yoga class when I need to talk to him as he gets up? What am I doing working on this or that in my office, talking to this person or that person, when I need to put a cool wet towel on his painful eyes?

No, don’t call it Jewish guilt. It’s holding contrasts together, keeping each opposite in a separate hand, fist closed tightly around it, and saying: So where is it now? Where is it now?

That’s what I thought of when I looked out at dusk and saw the spring sun, and the broken planter in the garden. But, too, the sun sets and the planter can mend. As Roshi James Ford wrote me, quoting Hemingway: The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But I also love how Wendell Berry described the sycamore not far from his house:

Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. . . .

It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.

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THE TRUTH IS, YOU’RE OLD

Going out with Leeann in warmer days. Photo by Leeann Warner.

What’s with the Man’s nose? Stanley asks.

He’s been sniffing around the Man’s face when the Man’s resting. Lots of smells there to attract his attention.

Bernie finished his radiation treatments, which have left his nose very red and swollen, with small blisters opening, bleeding, drying, then opening again, tiny envelopes of skin expanding then flattening, a crack above the flap covering the surgery that has opened, bled, dried, etc. over the past few months, and swollen tissues round the inner eyes and lower corners of his Bodhidharma eyebrows.

Toughest are the eyes. He wore a mask during the radiation, and they also piled up small lead objects over his eyes for additional protection, and still the eyes hurt and tear for much of the day, he dabs at them all the time, and as the hours progress he finds it harder and harder to keep them open. They say this will ease in a few weeks, but the distance between the doctor’s office in Springfield and the upstairs bedroom in a home surrounded by bare maples dipped in snow feels long indeed.

We wait, we joke, we talk, we try ointments and salves and eye drops. All the stuff that other people needed, but not us.

The winter is a long one this year and outside, everybody’s hungry. For the first time big black crows are coming to the birdfeeders, chasing away the smaller sparrows and even the squirrels, and the other day a deer patrolled the fence’s perimeter, looking for food. These are the days when they starve, late winter, trying to make it till the first shoots finally arrive.

Everything outside is so much at the edge, Stanley, it’s easy to miss all that when you stay inside a warm house with a full refrigerator.

What full refrigerator? I’m starving.

Actually, you’re leaving food in your bowl. I think you’re losing your appetite, Stan.

And why am I not on an outing with Leeann today?

She wrote me that you’re having a hard time with the snow outside, Stanley. It’s not easy walking in all that snow in the woods, so she wrote me to keep you home for a few days.

That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I can run with the best of them, I’m as loose as a moose.

Actually, you’re now mostly in back of the pack, Stanley, and since you can’t hear anything and your vision’s bad, they have to keep a special eye on you.

That’s not true, I’m part of the herd, just like a bird.

Not from what I hear. It’s getting harder for you to catch up.

I have the spunk of a skunk. I’m a hunk like a—like a—

Chipmunk. The truth is, you’re old, Stanley!

I have the flair of the bear.

You have denial up the aisle, Stan.

I’m a running force, like a horse.

With verses perverses. You’re old, Stanley, accept it.

Aware as a hare. Clear like a deer. Alert like a – like a – like a–

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LEAVING EVERYTHING BEHIND

Do you think you could feed me now?

No, Stanley, I have to feed the birds.

The birds! Again the birds! Excuse me, I know those feeders are only three-quarters full, which sends you into a panic, but I’m starving.

I’m sorry, Stanley, but this is what I was taught by my grandfather. The only thing I remember from all those reminiscences about the shtetl in Rumania is that before you feed yourself, you feed the animals.

I’m the animal around here. Not you, not the birds, moi!

They also had dogs, Stanley. They had two with Rumanian names, like Altu or Banu, something like that. Too bad they had to leave them behind.

They left behind their dogs?

When they went into exile. They were given 2 hours’ notice to leave their village of Stefanest and walk all the way to Botoshan, a city far away.

They left behind their dogs?

They couldn’t take anything with them, Stanley. I think they even left them chained,

I’m getting sick! They left their dogs behind, chained?

I know, it’s kept me up at nights thinking about it, but what could they do, Stanley? They couldn’t let the dogs follow them into exile, there was no food or anything. Beside, do dogs even go into exile?

They left the dogs chained? That’s who you learn your behavior with animals from?

They were refugees, Stanley! Like the refugees we get from Syria and Vietnam and Afghanistan. At least, we used to get them. When you’re a refugee you leave your home behind, your job, probably your family, you leave everything and everyone behind.

Did they shave their heads?

Why should they shave their heads?

Like those people in Asia.

You mean, Buddhist monks? That’s different, Stan. Buddhist monks want to leave things behind. Refugees don’t, and they aren’t given a choice.

Do Buddhist monks leave dogs behind, too?

Now you’re getting silly. You don’t understand anything about suffering, Stan. What could you possibly know about the Holocaust, you didn’t go through it.

Neither did you.

True, but there are things I just feel in my bones. You, on the other hand, Stan, have had it easy all your life.

I have not. I’m getting older, I’m stiffer, Leeann is dead—

Leeann isn’t dead, Stan.

She’s not? Then where is she?

On vacation.

What’s vacation?

Stanley, vacation is when you don’t go out on outings with dogs, you just lie around doing nothing.

See, I told you she died.

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TENDERNESS LOST

One of the reasons I write is to impose some kind of order on a very chaotic world. Another reason I write is to tear everything down and explore the chaos.

Zen practice is a way of letting go of the fear and the need to control, all those voices in the brain that want to make things fit according to some idea or story, getting closer and closer to the wild, unpredictable pulse of things.

I’ve been thinking about people who have a hard time meeting the world on its terms. Three young people have recently come to my mind. They are on anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds, along with many, many of their peers. This was unheard of when I was growing up; I guess the meds weren’t around then, either.

They have a hard time encountering the world. A few end up going into schools and shooting their peers and teachers, or doing the same in churches and bars, sometimes focusing on those with darker skin. We call it evil; we call it racist, because some get enamored of white supremacy groups. But when you actually listen or read what they say, when you look at their faces, they seem to be people who just can’t meet the world on its terms.

I have been remembering how I was as a teenager. I also had a very hard time meeting the world as it was. As soon as I had my own bedroom I retreated there and wouldn’t come out. I heard calls to meals as calls to join a difficult family scene that fed me physically but not emotionally. I’d hunch my shoulders self-protectively, take a deep breath and go out the door.

That’s how I went to school, too. I went to a Jewish school far away and a van would take a group of us there, so every morning I had to join this group of young people in the close quarters of a crowded van. This was an ordeal. There was a lot of teenage griping and pissing. When the girls talked about clothes, hair, and Saturday night, I felt a little safe because I didn’t have much to say about any of that. But it was just a matter of time before all that turned into malicious gossip, lions tearing into teenage Christians who stood out or didn’t fit in. I feared the moment when the banter turned nasty, when someone made a crack at my expense, then others joined in, and suddenly I felt torn into pieces for no reason other than that I existed, and that I was somehow different from others.

I had to survive those trips in the van twice daily. Often I preferred to miss the van and take 4 subways to get home, not to mention a long walk home in the dark. My parents, who had to scrounge up the money to pay for the van, told me to toughen up. The driver, who ran a laundromat and dry cleaner and was a real mensch, was often laughed at by the richer, middle-class kids, and I would cringe in my seat even as I grinned alongside the rest of them, trying hard to belong.

I think of this when I read of these young shooters. Their parents and friends say they were okay, just real quiet, preferred to stay in their rooms. Just as I did.

I think of Donald Trump. He impresses me as the kind of guy who also had trouble meeting the world on its terms, and decided he was going to meet the world on his terms, nothing less, and became a bully. He learned to say to the world You’re Fired! every time he felt insecure.

I think most of us did that, too, only we did it to ourselves. We “fired” ourselves, or parts of ourselves, the sensitive parts that loved life without reservation, that wanted to live it according to our own individual rhythms, like squirrels making their own paths in the soft snow. But the world wasn’t soft snow, and in the process we lost many things, not least of all our tenderness.

Tenderness, yes. Dylan Thomas wrote:

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

I knew just what he meant from the first time I read that great poem. And what could he do with his lost tenderness, poor poet, but drink himself to an early death?

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OH, HUSH!

Digging up a marrow bone

What’s a hush agreement? asks Stanley

A hush agreement,  Stan, is when someone pays you to hush, to be quiet.

So you must get a lot of money because you’re quiet a lot, says Stanley. You’re quiet all night, you’re quiet right after you get up, and then you’re quiet at your desk.

That’s because I’m a meditator and a writer. That’s a lot of quiet, Stanley

Well, all that quiet is finally paying off. I never understood what it was good for, I love a little more hoopla myself, but now you could finally get paid for that quiet. The way you go, you’ll become a billionaire!

That’s true, Stanley, but nobody’s paying me any hush money.

Why not?

Because I don’t have any secrets to tell. You see, they don’t pay you to be quiet, they pay you to not tell a secret.

I have a secret, says Stanley. I know where I buried that marrow bone you gave me after Rae made that vegetable soup. Nobody else knows it’s buried behind the big rock under the green birdfeeder. How much will they pay me if I agree not to tell anybody?

You buried the bone? Instead of enjoying it you dragged it out and buried it before a snow storm? What a smart dog you are, Stan.

So what do I get for not telling you any of that?

Nothing, Stan. Nobody cares about the whereabouts of a marrow bone, they care about important things, like whether the President of the United States had sex with a porn star or not.

They care about that and they don’t care about the whereabouts of a marrow bone?

That’s right, Stan.

You are a dumb species.

Not as dumb as dogs that get juicy marrow bones and bury them right before a 10-inch snowfall. Stanley.

I have contacts in the animal world, see, and every single one of them agree: there’s no dumber species than humans.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. And I’m not arguing with you anymore. No money to find a marrow bone! Humans are just too dumb to argue with.

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A SNEAKY BUDDHIST

We had a big snowstorm Wednesday that went into Thursday. I woke up early, did the usual, Bernie slept (he tires out more and more as the radiation treatments continue), and at 8 am I looked out at our snow-laden driveway and thought to myself, no radiation today, our driveway isn’t plowed.

Two minutes later I heard familiar scraping sounds, walked to the window on the other side of the house, and there was the plow, cleaning up the driveway, giving us a fresh new exit out of the house. I called the hospital. Yes, they were open for business, so finally there was nothing left to do but wake up Bernie. He could barely open his eyes.

But it’s snowing, he moaned, sounding a little like a child who feels cheated of a snow days because he has to get up and go to school..

I know, sweetie, but we just got plowed, the hospital is open, Rae is coming down from Greenfield, you can go for radiation.

He groaned, then got up.

The previous day I’d spoken to the radiation oncologist. Bernie’s nose is purple and swollen and his eyes hurt so badly that in the evenings and first thing in the morning he can barely open them. We douse the nose with aloe vera, bee balm, and an anti-inflammatory cream where the surgery took place, not to mention drops in his eyes. But by now, as the treatments are coming to a slow end, everything hurts.

The oncologist hmmm’d some, said that of course it was our choice, but if it was up to him he wouldn’t stop now but would finish the radiation treatments. Bernie, knowing he only had five more to do, agreed. I drove him back, remembering what the surgeon had said over the phone to me a month ago: Cancer berates the body.

Berates? I fumed inside. Who taught you English? You mean hurts, don’t you? How about harms? How about torments and tortures?

Sometime during that slow, snowy drive home I realized that there are times that just feel like shit, plain and simple. Because of pain, because of illness, because of grief, because of failure, whatever. And I also understood, somewhat shamefacedly, that I continue to have that sneaky feeling that Zen practice will spare me suffering and hurt, that I’ll find a way out.

Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be more of a way through rather than a way out, that it’s about being fully present, blah blah, but you see, that’s what’s so sneaky about it. Anytime I think of a way out of anything—by going through, going around, meditating, bearing witness, being fully there, whatever—I’ve fallen into the trap, made practice a kind of crib sheet which I could use to cheat on the exam of life. There is no way out of anything.

I knew that, but I’m a sneak, see? I knew there’s no transcending anything. Still, I thought, there are different ways of going through things. But different can also be a sneaky word, a voice says, so stop sneaking around and thinking that if you’re quiet enough, stable enough, present enough, gentle enough, etc., you’ll find the way out. You won’t.

And actually, when I get to the bottom and see that clearly, when I stop fighting, that’s when things feel lighter. But I have to be careful not to be a sneak and try to use that as a way out, too.

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MAN OF NO RANK

As the snow began to come down more heavily in the early evening, I left dinner to take a photo of the front of our house. On the right is a low, flat stump, all that’s left of a magnificent oak that loomed over the house for years till it was cut down this last summer. Next to it is the scraggly apple tree that will soon get the sun it needs to grow bigger.

When we’re too big and gorgeous, we sometimes get cut down to size. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Life shows me my true proportion, which is usually a lot smaller than what I think it is.

Speaking of our true proportions, I think of our friend, Bob Lee, and the memorial service that will take place later today in San Francisco. We were in Israel together once, he, his wife Jane, a Japanese couple, and Bernie’s cousin George Plafker, renowned for his work with tsunamis and earthquakes that confirmed the theory of plate tectonics under the earth’s crust.

George and Bob decided to join a one-day tour of the great city of Petra. The rest of us bowed out, so the two men got up at dawn and joined a tourist bus group that crossed the border into Jordan and drove south. They came back late at night, tired, and in the morning, over breakfast, Bob took out a few dusty old coins and said, These are ancient, Eve, they date back hundreds of years before Christ, and I’ll give you a good deal if you buy some..

George at his side started laughing uproariously and we looked at him. What?

It seemed that the bus arrived in the parking lot of Petra, discharging the tour group that immediately began to walk the long road into Petra itself. But a young boy came around purporting to sell old coins found in the ruins of Petra. He was waved off by everyone, except Bob.

Well, let me look at them, said Bob in his deep bass, lugubrious voice. He found a seat somewhere and began to examine them closely.

George waited politely, but Bob was in no hurry, so George left and walked to Petra. Bob sat there with the young boy, bringing each coin up to his eyeglasses to look at it more closely. In the process he got lots of information: the boy’s name, where he came from, how many brothers and sisters he had, what his father did for a living, how long he’d bee peddling coins, was everybody in the family healthy, and did the boy go to school.

The boy stayed with him, convinced he’d hooked himself a dumb American tourist, and as Bob slowly examined coin after coin he kept on asking his questions: When did the boy drop out of school, could he read, what did he want to do when he grew up, and so on. He haggled carefully over each and every coin, and as part of the negotiations got the boy’s life story and the story of his family as well.

But what about Petra? I asked over breakfast. Did you ever get into Petra?

A little bit, he muttered. Didn’t get to see too much of it, but got lots of ancient coins. Made my fortune.

Ever since then, whenever he saw me,he’d say, I got a coin to sell you, you rascal. I was waiting for it when I visited him in Zen Hospice a little over a month ago.

Bob was a man who knew his true proportions.

Peter Cunningham took the photo below after a ceremony of recognition for Bob (who received dharma transmission from Bernie). Our custom was to include the giving of a bouquet of flowers to the partners of people being recognized and honored, gratitude for their support of their loved one. In this photo you see Bob, the Man of No Rank, or as we say in Zen, giving flowers to Jane, his wife, and then making three full bows to her.

She gets full prostrations, he grumbled as his knees hit the floor.

Photo by Peter Cunningham
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AN OUTING WITH LEEANN

 

Okay, since so many people want to know about my outings with Leeann, let me show you.

Comes 10:15 in the morning several times a week, Eve wraps the red collar around my neck (yes, the one that says STANLEY in big black letters just in case I forget my own name), says Come on, and when I pretend not to hear her she pushes me out the door and into the garage, and after a show of resistance the French would be proud of I jump onto the back seat.

Fool that she is, she opens the back window so that I could push my head out and gawk at the scenery, as though we haven’t done this drive week after week for almost three years. As though I ain’t freezing my kishkes off in this cold winter.

We drive up the hill to Leeann’s house, she opens the back seat and leashes me, otherwise I’ll make a run for Leeann’s chickens or the turkeys by her big garden. Along comes Leeann, whom Eve loves dearly. I’m heading back to the car but they don’t care what I want. Instead, Leeann takes the leash to bring me to her dog park while Eve waves happily and tells the world she’ll be back at 1:30 to pick me up.

And this is where Leeann brings me. I barely get my nose inside when I’m mobbed by hoodlums, all dying to smell each end of me.

Shove off, I tell Minnie the dachshund.

Get out of my face, I tell Daisy Lou the malamute.

Kaya, Queen of the Mountain because she’s Leeann’s dog and likes to stand on a big rock and survey the world, comes through shoving everyone else out of the way, overjoyed to see me as usual. It’s you, she says. How can you tell? I growl right back.

I have no idea why Eve thinks this is a good idea. She says I miss canine company. Do I sound like I miss canine company?

This time there’s a new dog around: Charlie, a young German Shepherd. He shivers nervously when the news goes around and the others crowd around him—Hey, new guy in town! Leeann’s coaxing them away to give him breathing room and even I feel sorry for the guy, so what does he do? How does he reward my empathy? Who does he choose to hang around with? That’s right, moi.

Why? Because he knows that I don’t care about him, I don’t want him, I don’t want to play with him, get him out of here! So I’m the one, of course, he chooses to get friendly with. The others already know my predilection for monkhood—Leave me alone!—but Charlie doesn’t, so I have to do my best to educate him. I growl, I snap, I run out back to take a shit, and I can’t shake him off.

Finally Leeann takes everybody out on one of those long hikes up and down Mt. Toby and half a dozen other hills, always telling me to catch up. It’s a miracle I don’t get a heart attack. To make matters worse, who’s at my side? You guessed it.

Please gift your company to others, I tell him.

I want to be with you, says he.

You’re younger, why don’t you run up ahead?

I want to be with you, says Charlie.

You don’t understand, I’m not playing hard to get, I am hard to get.

Finally we get back to Leeann’s dog park and a line of cars is already waiting to pick us up. All I can say is Eve better be on time. Just one more minute with canine company, one more minute with Charlie, and I’ll roll over, pretend I’m dead. That’ll teach them all.

 

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TIME TO GET BACK TO YOUR FOREST

Yesterday I took Stanley back into our favorite woods, the forest above the Montague Farm where we lived and worked. I’ve taken him there for 13 years but always stop when the winter snow gets too deep. Most of the snow has melted, and yesterday a voice whispered: Time to get back to your forest.

He knew it as soon as I let him off the leash by the barrier on the road. I’m sure these particular woods are home to him, his territory; nobody else knows it like he does. He wagged his tail with joyful vigor—he looked five years younger—as he rounded the barrier and walked up the road, first towards the Farm itself, and then further up towards the upper pasture and the woods behind them.

Once in the forest he goes off on his own, never bothering to check up on me like he does elsewhere; we know the trail very well, and if he is diverted by a smell I know he’ll find me soon enough. He knows that if I wish to take a photo or examine certain animal prints on the ground, eventually I’ll end up where he’ll end up, at the pools at the far end, wide and large now due to the rain and snowmelt.

The rock is there, where for years I’ve sat and looked far out to the other side of the pools in search of my Arctic wolf. I know it doesn’t make much sense to sit on a rock in Massachusetts and look for an Arctic wolf, but I’ve done that all these years ever since the time over a decade ago when I saw what looked like a white wolf far out in the clearing. And if it was just my imagination, my imagination is just as real as some naturalist’s facts.

So what if I look far out for the impossible, the unnatural, what makes no sense? I will keep on sitting on that rock and stubbornly gaze far into the distance. Perhaps it was a unicorn, not an Arctic wolf at all.

On the way to the pools there we see trees that fell this winter (photo above). They obstruct the path and we have to circumvent them, going around splintered trunks and flattened limbs, creating a new path along the way. So much life and death happening, and almost no humans to take notice.

Stanley was overjoyed. He and his Pit Bull friend, Bubale, played here for a decade, chased a coyote pulling them away from his den, and were in turn chased by a big mama bear all the way down to the creek. They’ve chased down deer and growled at a large moose on the other side of the pools. They’ve splashed after ducks and were almost mauled by a low-flying ruffed grouse eager to get them away from its nest on the ground. They leaped over fallen tree trunks never thinking once about what died there, and they raced down in hot summer days to drink from the creek.

Stanley practically danced all the way. At his age it’s not clear he’ll survive the winter long enough to make it back here in spring. His companion Bubale took her last walk here one warm March day, the first walk since fall, and never again; she died 3 weeks later. Stanley will have more than this one jaunt this springtime, and it seemed as though he’d lost five years of age as he trotted happily, tail wagging without stop, in his old hunting grounds.

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WOMAN ON A STOOL PAINTING

The other day I walked on the road and saw a painter seated on a stool inside the woods and painting on the canvas she’d set up. I thought briefly about taking her photo—we don’t see many painters at work around here though I think ours is a beautiful area—but didn’t wish to disturb her, she was so deeply and quietly working.

But I was curious to see the scene she was so intent on capturing, so the next day I walked off the road to where she was sitting and looked around, and the above photo is what I saw. I was sure of the place where she sat, knew it was by a small culvert just before the road curved taking us to the horses.

I stood there, surprised. We have so many pretty views here, what is it that drew her to this spot? There’s the rivulet of water across the middle, and a very small glen papered with dried leaves. Still, a turn of the canvas would have captured the curved road and the bigger woods on the other side. I tried to recapture her perspective, the ground and figure, and couldn’t. And realized that once again, people have their personal views on life and landscape that are plain bewildering to me.

They have their stamp collections they’ve painstakingly accumulated over a lifetime, whereas I can hardly be bothered specifying which first-class stamp I want to buy for our regular mailings.

Recently I got two gold coins and the husband of a friend sold them for me. He sat down and told me how all his life he loved coins and learned all about them from an old coin shop owner he’d hang out with after doing his paper route as a boy. He would have happily spent days in our home talking about coins, and when he left I wondered to myself: Who would think someone who worked in the business of package delivery could have such a private, lifelong passion for coins?

Something calling you out of yourself and saying: Look here, look here! No one else responds to that particular call except for you.

If the woman is a good artist, she might convey to me and others what it was that drew her here, what it was she saw that needed painting, and a private vision becomes shared. But she may also leave it hanging privately at home, her private secret, unsure herself whether anything can truly be captured. Like many writers I know with hundreds of pages of unpublished books and stories sitting in their cabinets or computer files.

We respond to those calls, do the best we can, and leave it. When we die it’ll be recycled in no time flat, without leaving a trace–except the memory one woman has of seeing another seated on a stool and painting in the woods something only she saw, no one else.

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