THINKING ABOUT LOVE-2

Outside my brother’s home

I have never loved Jerusalem, as so many people do. I’m repelled by the fanaticism that feeds on old conflicts and visions of Armageddon, the Apocalypse, and various other forms of final reckoning. But I love to walk here, even in the great desert heat, and the hot stones of buildings and streets, along with the fragrance of wisteria, continue to talk to me about love.

Nothing points to our essential oneness more than that we are always working on some level or other to heal something, to mend something. That seems to underlie our time here on earth.

Some of the time I work on how I am with my family of origin and the conflicts that tore us apart long ago, which seems to be my major work when I come to Jerusalem now. Some of the time I work on how I am with friends and lovers, the endless back-and-forth that needs to be owned and gently held. Some of the time I work on leveling inequality, poverty, and discrimination. Some of the time I pay attention to how some have so much while others have so little. Some of the time I bear witness to catastrophe, such as when I listen to my mother and her stories of the Holocaust or last week when the Zen Peacemakers spent a week in Bosnia.

When I walk these streets I look at both the yellow butterflies and the trash on the ground, the ancient, gated walls in the distance along with the rich, modern malls up close, the Museum of Islamic Art across the street and the crumbling Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the valleys of ancient, entwined olive trees and the wall I will encounter this afternoon going into Bethlehem, in the West Bank, to see my friend Sami Awad.

The psychiatrist Dan Siegel has said that the purpose of the mind is to experience, and then integrate. Isn’t this what oneness is about? If separation is what truly defines us, then what causes this constant, relentless need to understand, to make whole, to create a narrative that somehow contains all the opposites and the contrasts, that can even contain—and soothe—experiences of the deepest loss? Wouldn’t it be a lot more natural to avoid all that, to just live in our own self-containment without trying to reach out towards what’s different, what’s changing, what’s not to our liking, what hurts?

There are certainly areas I back away from: children, money, thunderstorms, walking in the dark. But even the most profound withdrawals—into gloom, apathy, or depression—can contain stirrings of curiosity and awakening. We want to integrate, we want to consciously be part of some great functioning, we want to write the story of how it all works even if that story contains contradictions and uncertainties, even if the price we pay for it is relentless, sometimes overpowering doubt.

I still want to write that story, I think, because that’s the story of love.

Make A Donation

THINKING ABOUT LOVE

I’m in Jerusalem once more.

I had a choice: Join 55 Zen Peacemakers in Sarajevo, Bosnia, or go to visit my 89 year-old mother in this old, old land, with a history of blood and stones that’s way older than the events in Bosnia.

Last night I talked to my mother, as I always do when I visit her here, about her experiences in the Holocaust. Or rather, she talked and I listened. We’ve been doing this for 64 years.

This morning I couldn’t sleep so I got up and went for a walk. The city is hot and busy in the day, but there are few people and cars about now as the sun rises in the east over the Judean Desert and Hills. I walk past the Jerusalem Theater and down towards the center of town, pause at St. Andrew’s Scottish Hospice where Bernie and I used to stay when we were here, then veer left towards Yemin Moshe, a 19th century neighborhood of artists and writers that looks across the valley called Gai Ben Hinom, sometimes referred to as the Valley of Death, towards Mt. Zion in the Old City. In the early hours it’s quiet and fragrant with the scent of roses and wisteria.

What do I think about, walking these streets? Mostly, I think about love.

No, there is nothing ironic about thinking of love in a land of milk, honey, sand, a Dead Sea, memorials to martyrs, Via Dolorosa, checkpoints, occasional stabbings in the Old City not to mention the occupation mentality that is everywhere. In fact, it’s as if they’re all whispering to me: We may look and feel terrible, but beyond everything, beyond beyond everything, it’s all about love.

You can’t see anything from there, says the Arab construction worker as I try to peer through a hole in the fence to have a better look at an immense construction site across from the Theater, come here! And I do. Only construction workers start working this early, and most are Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

What are they building here?

A mall, he says. You see below, and he points to the immense hole in the ground, there will be five stories of parking and shops there. He talks in a painful Hebrew and I remember years ago when I was working here that I began to learn Arabic. Now I can barely say shukran, thank you, before walking on.

Time marches on and Jerusalem marches with it: More fancy apartment buildings and stores, less of the golden sky at sunset. The doves are cooing, the white roses open after a night’s slumber, the workers eat their sesame pretzel-like rolls and take the final gulp of coffee before returning to work.

The small sign planted in the grass up the driveway to St. Andrew’s Scottish Hospice says: I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

But what I do as I walk is, I think about love.

Make A Donation

BIG TROUBLE FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP

The latest issue of the Montague Reporter, which I read breathlessly every Thursday night, had this headline on the front page: Leverett Votes to Purchase Vehicles, Impeach President.

OMG! I said to Bernie. Are they ever in trouble!

I knew that an emergency meeting at the White House was going on right then and there among Bannon, Kellyann, and Spicer, panic written all over their faces. They had prepared for a disappointment with the French elections, but got the President to calm down. He was even considering boarding Air Force 1 and heading out for the weekend to yet another scene of mass unemployment, terror, and natural disaster in a Trump golf course.

But the town of Leverett voting to impeach the President! That was another thing entirely.

What do they say? What do they say? He demanded to know.

Here’s the page, soothed Kellyann.

A full page and a half? Are you kidding? Who writes that much about a Town Hall meeting? And how am I supposed to read a full page and a half? What do I pay you guys for? Kellyann, stop with the yoga stretches against the sofa.

I think I have the important part, Bannon said. Look here: At last Saturday’s annual town meeting, the people of Leverett came together to discuss and pass the town’s budget, approve spending on capital items, tinker with the bylaws, and recommend that the nation’s Congress try to impeach the president. An attorney made the case for impeachment based on Trump receiving financial benefit from state and foreign governments.

I told Ivanka to stop selling that shampoo, the President mused.

Bannon continued: And then came the real drama: Leverett needs 75 registered voters to constitute a town meeting, and when a head count came up with only 74—a count that erroneously included one quietly worried out-of-town reporter—gasps filled the school auditorium. But another six voters were rounded up, caught either cleaning up from lunch in the cafeteria or attempting a getaway in the parking lot, and the show was back on. The impeachment article passed by a boisterous voice vote, followed by a round of applause.

The President gasped. They clapped! Is this a first? Did the House clap when they voted to impeach Bill? Where is Leverett, anyhow?

Western Massachusetts, Mr. President, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Call a press conference, the President instructed Spicer, and beat them up. What’s their name? Montague Reporter? They’re our Number 1 priority now. Forget the Afghans and Macron, just think Leverett, just think Montague Reporter. I’m depending on you, Spicer, to take them down. You know, fake news and all that.

Yessir, said Spicer. Only problem is—

What problem? What’s the problem, Spicer?

Well, sir, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them at our press conferences. AP, Fake News CNN, bad hombres and hobrecitas from the Times and Post, but Montague Reporter? Can’t quite place them. Maybe they come dressed up like Al-Jazeera.

Tell Sessions to get on them right away, the President instructed Bannon. I’m sure at least 50 of those votes were cast by illegals. I mean, who else cleans up school cafeterias?

Sessions is already on it, reported Bannon. FBI discovered there’s a Congregational church right across the street with a big banner welcoming everyone—

Everyone? Everyone? To a church? Unbelievable!-

And a small zendo where people do work with immigrants, refugees, and children.

What’s a zendo?

They garden, too.

They garden? Why? Don’t they have supermarkets? Listen, Bannon, how much money does Leverett get from the federal government?

$40.50 last year. Mr. President, I suggest a 50% cut.

Good idea. That’ll make them take notice. What about that lousy rag of theirs, Montague Reporter or whatever you call it. What’s their budget?

About the same amount, Mr. President.

Really? How do they survive?

I believe they use volunteers, sir.

The President shook his head. Probably Muslims, he mused, they’re big into charity and that kind of thing. He grew pensive, contemplating the challenges ahead. The town in Leverett voted to impeach him! But France would turn out okay. Nobody married to a woman 24 years older than him could win a bingo raffle, never mind the top office in France. The weekend wouldn’t be a total bust.

 

 

Make A Donation

IT’S ALL PLAY

It’s 7 in the morning and I just texted someone I know in California: Please tell me how you feel, who will probably not get the message till later unless she wakes up early because of pain.

She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known, and she has Stage 4 cancer. She keeps her boundaries close, especially at this time of her life. She won’t get on the phone but will do texts, and I gladly accept the terms she sets because of the messages she sends back to me.

It’s as if this Stage 4 of cancer, or Stage 4 of life, has become a new playground for her, one she’s designing as consciously as possible: Instead of The swings go there, it’s That’s where I sit to look out at the ocean. Instead of The sandbox goes there, it’s That’s my favorite garden, and instead of Hours Open, it’s That’s when I rest, when I see the children, when I read. And instead of No pets and no rollerskating, it’s No phone conversations, no visits from nonfamily members, and no social events .

This is Stage 4 play, and she’s playing it like a child going to the park. It’s so liberating to live for the short term, was the last message she texted me.

We’re spending the afternoon in the park.

Remember what happened then? When we imagined the friends we’d meet there, who would get on the swings first, the new slide we’d be able to use on our own because we were big enough? How we anticipated the feeling of kicking off our shoes and getting into the sandbox, settling king-like on that soft, warm throne, billions of grains of sand falling away on both sides of our legs and doing our royal bidding, more tender and fluid than Lego?

With all this to look forward to in an afternoon in the park, did we ever think to ask: And then what?

This is the gift she is giving me. It’s play, she tells me. There is nothing scary about a blank, white computer screen in the early morning, it’s play. Not because you don’t really have to blog, but because you have to. Not because you don’t really have to write, but because you have to.

Feeding Stanley as you’ve done twice a day each day for over 12 years—it’s play because you have to feed Stanley. Because now he’s less inclined to eat than before, because he sniffs the food instead of inhaling it as he did years ago.

Brushing him, as you’ve done more than 4,380 times, is getting to be more fun and intricate for he, too, has finally entered the brushing playground after years of resistance, and he plays it now, wiggling around your legs and pushing his head in between so that you could get to his back easier, wagging his tail while baring his black-and-white chest to the turquoise brush, trusting you not to forget the area around the base of his earflaps, not to mention the most important of all, the very back where his tail begins, because that’s the place he can’t reach.

Out in California, on a sunny mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a woman will open her eyes, be grateful that there’s less pain than there could have been, and plan her day in the park till the sun goes down and she goes home. Here in New England it’s a cool and rainy morning, but already the small vase of mums on my altar hiccuped and fell over—how did it do that?—and the computer keys are clicking a melody that sounds like the ice cream truck.

Make A Donation

THE COURAGE OF THE TULIPS

Coming home the other night, I found fragments of a dinner plate on the kitchen floor. I went upstairs and Bernie confirmed that he tried to bring his plate back from the table to the sink after supper, and dropped it.

At night I can’t walk without my cane, I’m too tired. So I walked with the cane in my left hand and the plate in the right [his weak, stroke-afflicted hand]. There was a fork there, too. Suddenly it just dropped. I didn’t even feel it drop. I let it go, Eve, and I didn’t even know I let it go.

That’s a very powerful practice, Bernie, I tease him. Letting go and not even knowing you’re letting go. Wow!

The next morning I peer at the tulips growing in back. They are so obscenely open, begging, demanding, showing off, waving seductively in the wind. I almost cry. They’re alike and unlike, displaying their essence as though everything else is a waste of time.

Not for me the Chinese landscapes with mist and distance, evoking uncertainty and lack of definition, the passage of time. Too much ambiguity there, too many places to hide. For me it’s the courage of the tulips, baring all though in a few days their colors will fade and their petals will fall, and we humans will shake our head and say too-bad-it’s-over-but-what-can-you-do-everything-dies. We’ll take refuge in our abstractions, in jokes and irony. Secretly we may even feel it’s better not to go the distance, not to live so vividly only to lose it all.

But the tulips run the race; they run it hard.

 

Make A Donation

GAME OF BILLIARDS

Photo by a kind, unknown man

Bernie and I like to go out on Sunday mornings to the local Hadley diner for a breakfast of blueberry pancakes.

We park in a Disabled parking spot and walk in together, he leaning on his multi-colored blue cane. The staff, who already know us, make sure we have a booth not too far away. But he always needs to use the restroom, so off he goes down to the other end, passing booths on one side and the counter on the other.

I used to accompany him each way, but no longer, he can make it on his own, which leaves me free to watch him as he comes back. He walks slowly and carefully, favoring his left side. There is an occasional wobble, but he’s usually focused, clear, and strong, very slow, often surrounded by young people entering the diner, mostly students from UMass and Amherst College full of Sunday morning vigor and excitement. They take care around Bernie, falling in waves on both sides and letting him through, and I’m grateful that they don’t brush rudely by him, or worse, elbow him aside in their haste for huevos rancheros and French toast and cause him to fall.

At the same time, I can’t help but notice how easy it is for us to occupy our own small world, our own small moment. My horizons are often so narrow, my center so self-defined, barely aware of anything other than what I want and what affects me.

Last Sunday, we returned to the car and I began to I back out of our special parking spot. Behind us a group of college kids laughed and fooled around, barely noticing the heavy blue car edging out slowly and carefully. One or two pranced like ponies just a foot away from the rear fender, and I wanted to cry: Don’t you care about your lives? Don’t you know how quickly they can end?

How fragile we can be when we come together, when my small world intersects with yours and others’, like billiard balls on the green felt going in all directions, bumping into one and ricocheting into another, so innocently and obliviously. What a delicate balance it all is. To someone looking from the outside or from up above, it may be some beautiful new emergent behavior, but when you’re in the muddle of it you sometimes wonder how anyone comes out alive.

We had some local rallies here when the Occupy Movement began. Some of us walked with them, or else sat in the middle. I admired the spirit but not necessarily the message (or the name), so above is the sign I drew for myself when I joined them. And this is the sign I carry now wherever I go: climate change last Saturday in Greenfield, May 1 celebrating immigrants on Monday in Turners Falls. It’s not colorful, has no vibrant images, perhaps not specific enough. But it saves this highly unartistic woman the effort of creating new banners on each occasion, and it feels more and more relevant all the time.

 

Make A Donation

KEEP FAMILIES TOGETHER

Photo by Rami Efal

Many Americans see May 1 as a radical day. It’s associated with the cause of socialism and Communism, workers’ right and even revolution. It’s celebrated in a big way throughout the world, and looked at askance by many in this country.

But look at the photo above and tell me what’s radical there. You see families, mostly mothers pushing perambulators and strollers with infants, and young children holding on to their hands. As the little boy below says, Stop Deportations. Keep Families together.

They and we walked up and down Avenue A, the main drag of Turners Falls, with people of different races and cultures, with drummers and signs, with social workers, nuns, ministers—and yes, the families themselves. I wondered how many would show up. It’s not easy to show up for anything nowadays if you’re Latino, even if you have documents. People look suspiciously at you, you wonder what they’re thinking, you wonder at the labels, you wonder if they wonder when ICE will come to get you.

It’s courageous for these families to show up at a May 1 rally where they are photographed by people they don’t know. Rami Efal, who took these photos, asked—con permiso—and got permission to take photos, but they had to wonder about others, and who was poring over photos and planning a foray into Turners Falls. So I was thrilled to see them there.

For us in this tiny corner of New England, May 1 became a day with a simple message, like the one below.

Photo by Rami Efal
Make A Donation

I OPEN THE DOOR AND YOU SHUT THE DOOR

My sister-in-law and husband were here recently, very eager to visit Bernie after his stroke and see how he’s doing.

We were imagining the worst, she told me in a whisper loud enough to be heard downtown. I told my husband that we’ll say hello, go upstairs, shut the door, and cry. And none of that happened. Bernie looks great!

You weren’t going to let him see you cry.

Of course not. And anyway it’s unnecessary because he looks so good. He’s worked so hard! And I’m left to thinking how much we try to withhold from others, and end up withholding from ourselves most of all.

They’re staying in the guest room, which really belongs to the 50-inch television and only occasionally hosts guests, and whenever they shut their door Stanley opens it. That’s because our upstairs doors don’t bolt shut anymore, so he can open them with a butt of his head. His snout appears in the doorway, he sniffs, and backs out. I close the door after him while he continues to our bedroom, opens the door, sniffs, backs out, and I shut the door. We follow this routine all day.

He doesn’t even come in, Bernie complains.

Sometimes it feels as if I follow Stanley all day. He opens the bathroom door and I shut it, he opens Bernie’s door and I shut it, he opens my office door and I shut it.

What are you doing? I finally say to him.

I open the door and you shut the door.

I know that, but why do you need to open the door all the time?

To see what everybody’s doing. Why do you need to shut the door?

For privacy.

What’s that?

Privacy is when you want to be alone.

Why?

For resting, writing, meditating, for the bathroom.

Why?

Because sometimes we like to be alone, Stanley. Life is busy and distracting; I can’t deal with everything, so I give myself a break and shut the door. Or get up early when others are still sleeping.

You know, when you’re hiding from others you’re also hiding from yourself.

Pe-lease, Stanley, I just need some privacy. Beside, it was not too long ago when you would sit all day and half the night looking out the French doors at the back yard and the road.

I had my job, I was guarding the house.

And in the process you turned your back on all of us. God help the person who tried to touch you.

Now you’re the one who shuts the door and looks out the window all the time. Our jobs have changed. I open the doors and you shut them. I open the doors and you shut them. We both have our jobs to do.

What exactly is your job, Stanley?

I’m your connection to the world.

You’re deaf and blind!

That’s the best kind.

Make A Donation

THIS IS JUST FOR ME

Ever since I was a young girl I’ve had the same fantasy:

I live somewhere in the country. One night I look out the window and see lights deep in the woods. I tell this to whoever is around—my husband, my friend, the dog—but no one seems to see this but me. I hesitate; I don’t see well in the dark and I’ve always been afraid of it. But this time I can’t resist, so I go out and plunge into the deep forest.

It’s very thick, I stumble and get scratched, push aside brambles to make a trail, depend on a very small flashlight. But now I don’t even think of giving up because I can see the lights out there, and they’re getting bigger all the time. I’m sure it’s some form of life from outer space that’s landed here on earth and I’m puzzled that no one else knows this. It’s hot and the sweat is running down my face and getting into my eyes. With enormous trepidation but also wild gladness I get closer and closer, weaving around trees and bushes, till I come out to the clearing and there it is, a spaceship in the center of a blaze, and I know: This is for me. This is just for me.

Mary Oliver wrote somewhere that all important ideas must include the trees, the mountains, and the rivers. We have them here, and I remembered this last night driving home from a dinner with someone I love. My red car went around the curves of the road, which was framed by dark trees rather than lights, but I knew the road well, including all the openings into the wild: the path to the Gazemple up on top; the shortcut to the Robert Frost Trail; and a passage bringing me, 30 minutes later, into a large grove of tall pines. But there were other, smaller openings and I didn’t know where these led.

Finally I got to the blue, green and orange road sign that says: No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor, drove down the driveway, pressed the button to be granted entry by the garage door, inched my way over an old thin hose and nestled the car close to Bernie’s old blue Camry that now lies unused most of the time. Came in, walked to the bottom of the stairs and shouted out, as I usually do: Bernie, I’m home!

He was still awake, waiting.

Make A Donation

WHO ARE YOU REALLY?

Bernie went to Vassar on Tuesday in his first real public appearance since his stroke. It was a big deal for him and me. He’d canceled various things after his stroke, but decided to hold on to a speaking engagement in Vassar in April 2017 as a benchmark. It would measure how far he’d come since the stroke, and how capable he would be of speaking and teaching in public. Rami Efal, Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers, accompanied him.

I didn’t go. Instead, I attended a workshop with John Tarrant on Zen koans (and for this reason also didn’t blog for several days). When the workshop ended yesterday, I drove to Lenox to buy gifts for my mother whom I hope to see soon, then to Hadley to buy some things for the house, and got home in mid-afternoon.

I walked to the back office where Bernie sat, along with Rami and Rami’s assistant, Jessie Zelisko, and stood by his desk. There are no more goldfinches at the bird feeders outside because we’ve stopped feeding them. How did things go, he asked me, and in his eyes was the knowledge of three days gone, three days of absence and change. I described my days to him: what I had learned about new ways of practicing with koans, the people, the weather both inside and out.

And how did things go in Vassar, I asked, and he told me. The trip was long, the first talk to a young class was fine, but there was no time to rest before he had to talk to a bigger and older crowd, then a late dinner, and by the end he was crashing. Luckily they stayed overnight, but yes, it went well, he’ll do more of these in the future.

He spoke slowly, unlike me, with more pauses to put words together. I watched the man sitting in his chair, right hand still close to his chest as if to hold his big heart in. And though we were talking lightly and easily, we were really looking at each other and asking: So who are you after these days away? Who are you, really?

And I realized that that’s really the question I ask every morning when Bernie gets up.

So much has happened, so much has changed. We spend most of our day apart. During the day he does his exercises and works some in his office. I put dinner out and we eat and talk together, I wash up, and he goes to bed to watch television or look at his computer while I continue to work at my desk. He’s usually still awake when I come to bed and we talk a little, laugh about Stanley wandering about trying out various beds, and strategize about how to get him to stop being the Great Obstructer, especially when Bernie needs to go to the bathroom at night. On occasion I help him a little with the blankets.

I get up while Bernie is still asleep, wash, feed the dog, meditate, and start writing right away. Till I hear sounds coming from the bedroom, the creaks of a bed and the scrapings of the heavy shoes he must put on to take just one step, and I hurry over.

How did you sleep? Fine. How did you sleep? Fine. But I look at the face, the body, the spirit, the man, and what I’m really asking is: So today, who are you? Who are you, really?

 

Make A Donation