JOY POINTS TO SENILITY

Stanley, what are all these holes you’re digging in the ground?

The enemy is hiding there.

What enemy?

Rabbits, moles, and groundhogs, to name just a few. To you it’s just some surface with grass, but I know different. Evil lurks inside the earth, but don’t you worry, I’m on it.

What can such small things do to us?

They can eat up our vegetable garden.

We don’t have a vegetable garden. We’re probably the only ones in Western Massachusetts who don’t raise vegetables. You know what I think, Stanley? You’re getting senile.

Good for me.

You’re shitting under the laundry lines with the fresh wash hanging from it, we saw two horses with riders on the road and you didn’t so much as blink, and a deer stopped 100 meters in front of you, froze, and you didn’t even move. But when we stopped for take-out food the other day you barked like crazy at an ill-tempered Chihuahua, whom you’d have ignored completely when you were younger.

Chihuahuas affect me like that. Except for Godzilla.

Godzilla that terrorized Tokyo?

No, Godzilla the Chihuahua who’s part of Leeann’s gang. Leeann-rhymes-with-Stan takes us out on the best outings. Leeann’s gang is my gang.

I believe they call it a pack.

You humans are nitpickers with words. If you’re part of Leeann’s gang, you’re my friend. Otherwise, fuggedaboudit.

And here’s more evidence of your senility, Stanley. You’re just too happy!

Rae is making Shepherd’s Pie and I love the smell of ground hamburger meat.

You’re running round and round the table getting in her way! You’d think peace has come to the world.

No, just ground beef and mashed potatoes.

You start running up and down the stairs come 10 am because you think you’re going for a walk or to Leeann. How can you be so bloody happy? Don’t you know you’re deaf?

Yup.

Don’t you know you’re half blind?

Yup.

Don’t you know your back legs collapse on a wooden floor?

Yup.

And you can still be happy under those conditions?

Thrilled!

You see, I told you you’re senile.

 

 

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BOIDS OF A FEATHER

The birds are now singing, screeching, and creating avian turmoil at 4 am, as if demanding of all of us to get out of bed. Several hours later, walking with a friend in the increasing heat, we saw all that remained of a bird—my friend thought it was a baby owl—that had been devoured as prey. And I remembered our time with birds and Peter Matthiessen in Africa.

We had the privilege and enormous fun of being with Peter on safari in Tanzania some 10 years ago. He offered it as a service and fundraiser to Zen Peacemakers, and a group of us went to Ngorongoro Park, Lake Manyara, Tarangire, and Ruaha National Parks. Everyone in the group, except for Peter, Bernie and me, brought expensive cameras, some costing more than the entire safari, and of course they all knew that Peter was a great bird man.

One gorgeous morning in Ruaha we set out in four jeeps, all coming to a halt because a green Boomslang snake, highly poisonous, slithered across the road. The driver told everyone to stay in their seats, but Peter, who had loved snakes as a boy, and who had once traveled on a small plane over Africa sitting next to the pilot while holding a large basket on his lap with a very large and deadly cobra inside (the pilot was anxious), instantly got out for a closer look. I still remember how tense the driver became as he pleaded with Peter not to get any closer, to please, please come back inside.

Soon after that everybody got excited over birds. Out came the cameras.

Look, Peter, a wagtail!

A blue-headed wagtail, Peter responds, nodding approvingly.

From another jeep: Hey, is that a kingfisher? Everybody peers through their binoculars.

No, warbles the ornithologist, it’s a Lilac-Breasted Roller.

What’s that one, Peter?

That is a Yellow-Crowned Gonolek. See the large red breast and the yellow crown?

Is that a red-whiskered Bulbul? a young, knowledgeable birder asks.

I believe it is, Peter nods approvingly.

I see a bee-eater!

Is that a starling?

That’s a Hildebrandt’s Starling. See the iridescence on the belly and the sides?

Bernie and I are feeling a little out of place.

Peter, I see a boid! Bernie shouts, pointing up to a limb on a tall tree.

A boid, eh? Peter says gruffly, looking up with his binoculars. From Brooklyn?

Peter, there’s another boid! There’s another one, Peter! And I see another boid! What do you think, Peter? There’s another boid! And another boid!

Peter contemplates his teacher from the other jeep and shakes his head sadly.

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A JAZZ MUSICIAN

Photo by Leeann Warner

Hey Stanley, you know your friend Raven?

I hate him.

He snaps and growls at everybody, takes a few bites out of people’s ankles, and has a basically terrible temperament.

What can you do, he’s a Chihuahua.

You know what Jean, his human companion, told me? He was acting out so badly that she took him to a psychic, and guess what? In a former life he was a jazz musician.

That explains it?

Some jazz musicians can get ornery, want to do things their way, play their way, just do their thing.

Sounds like you were a jazz musician in your former life.

You, too, Stanley. Now I know why you insist on shitting under the laundry lines, especially after I hang up the wet, clean, white sheets.

I smell that detergent and it instantly causes me to—

And now I know why you insist on pushing your head between my legs when I brush you. Not to mention all the embarrassing stuff you like to dig out of the trash can, like those burgundy panties you found the other day and were ripping into shreds. Jazz musicians liked sex. You’ve become a regular sex maniac as you’ve gotten older.

Old age is a bitch.

I have a poem for you by Michael Robbins.

I don’t like poems.

It’s short:

I act like I know it all. But you,

          you act like you know it all.

          We can’t both be wrong. Still,

          neither of us should have children.

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MARZIPAN

Bernie, my brother-in-law likes marzipan, could you imagine? How can anyone like marzipan?

I like marzipan. I just never told you.

All these years I never knew you liked marzipan! How come you didn’t say anything?

Because I knew you’d think I’m stupid.

So why are you telling me now?

Because now, who cares?

I bought See’s Marzipan as a gift for my brother-in-law, who was born in California, home of See’s Chocolate. I also bought Bernie a box of their chocolate because we both love it, and in the course of this discovered a secret he’d kept from me all these years. Not infidelity, something much, much worse. All these years, he liked marzipan.

You live with a man since 1998. You know him long before that as a Zen teacher. He was your boss for years developing Greyston. We traveled together, had adventures, met wonderful people, tore our hearts out, got into painful fights, made up, fought again, sulked for days, argued about movies, saw our dogs die, moved from place to place, watched people leave and then come back, stormy days, moon-filled evenings, giggled together at late-night jokes and went through long, hard bouts of loneliness.

And I never knew he liked marzipan.

 

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WE PRAY FOR THE HEALTH OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP

Stanley, you know what I do on Saturday morning when I leave the house at 8?

Go hunting?

I go to the zendo and sit, and then we chant. You know what we chant as part of the service?

“We pray for peace in our community and country; for the health of President Donald Trump and all members of our government. May they serve the people with wisdom and compassion, and promote justice, harmony, and sustenance for all beings everywhere.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I know, it ain’t easy. We started doing this in the early years of Obama’s presidency.

Well, of course, that was Barack! I loved him. He had a dog in the White House. Trump is anti-dog. I’m not praying for his health, I want him dead.

Stanley, that’s a terrible thing to say for a dog like you, the canine mascot for Zen Peacemakers. Our practice is to include as many people as possible in our actions, to work for the whole rather than for a part.

Pe-lease!

We don’t just pray for his health, but also for his learning to serve everyone and sustain all beings everywhere.

You mean like the medical care plan they just put out that will cut off millions and millions of people from medical coverage? You know how many dogs it will cover? Zero.

Terrible, Stanley.

The travel ban, re-instituting the Dakota pipeline, deporting undocumented immigrants who’re not criminals, pulling out of the Paris—

 

I know all that, Stanley. Believe me, every Saturday morning when the chanter chants this I get a lump in my throat. How can I pray for the health and wellbeing of Trump, Ryan, McConnell, and all the others? But what I’m praying for is their developing more wisdom and compassion.

How is that different from a Born-Again Christian praying for you to one day recognize Jesus as your savior?

Touché, Stanley.

What’s that?

French for right on target.

I don’t talk no French.

The point is, whether I like it or not, they are the government leaders right now. Can’t I wish them well, as I wished the previous government well? Can’t I wish them an opening of the heart, a widening of their perspective, a greater understanding that all of us are together in this beautiful, murky soup called earth?

I love green pea soup with marrow bones.

Precisely. Our life is murky like green pea soup, but there’s marrow in it, essence, beauty. Nothing is ever lost.

I love chicken broth, too.

But we’re not a clear chicken broth, Stanley. Everything feels messy and muddled right now.

Like the bathroom floors after I empty out the trash cans: used Q-tips, floss, tissues, toilet paper, yum!

Exactly. I pick one thing up, only to find something else on the floor. I pick that up, and now it’s something else in the other bathroom, and then something else. It never ends!

When I do that you don’t pray for my health, you yell: “Stanley, what did you do this time!”

And we yell similarly at Donald. Only that’s one thing he has in common with you, Stanley.

What’s that?

You’re both deaf.

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I AM NOT A ROBOT

All I can say is, bless Donald Trump.

When have I last felt so energized about my values and lifestyle? When have I last felt so impelled to examine our choices relating to how I live, how much I drive, what I eat, and who suffers from all the conscious decisions I make (or more likely, the lack thereof)?

Yesterday, before Trump announced his withdrawal of this country from the Paris Climate Agreement, I sat with a friend for tea. He shares an apartment with another family and no longer owns a car. That’s not easy in this neck of the woods because of the lack of public transportation. Not owning a car, he explained, makes all the difference in terms of what jobs he can go after, what forms of entertainment, how he spends his weekends, how much he’s in nature rather than in movie theaters, and the slower pace of his life.

He told me that for people of his generation (I don’t know his age but would guess mid-30s), the American Dream feels financially more and more out of reach. For people of my parents’ generation, he said, buying your own home was no big deal, everybody did it. For many of us, on the other hand, that feels increasingly like a wistful dream.

You can say that he’s not ready to pay the price. He’s not ready to take on a job he doesn’t care for, travel 40 minutes each direction to work (which he once did), or be forever in mortgage debt. He seems to have a clearer vision of the cost of the American Dream for individuals like him, society, and the world than I ever had.

Donald Trump can pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, but can he pull you out of it? Can he pull me? Can he pull this town, this state? I think of the states and companies that are already defying him. I am confronted with the challenge of staking my own individual position, creating a personal mandate—and implementing it.

Who did this when Obama was President? He was a good guy, many of us felt, he’ll take us where we need to go while we go to sleep. But who can sleep with Donald Trump at the helm? Who can afford to shut their eyes, take a vacation, leave it to Washington? By dismantling our basic social contract, he leaves it to me to redefine my basic code of values, how I choose to live, and what will I do about it.

I have long wished for a radical awakening on the part of this country, and with President Donald Trump we may finally be getting it. No Gandhi, no King, no hero, not even an anti-hero, just plain people on the ground like you and me realizing, with a vengeance, that it really is up to us.

I will finish with this: Last night I started researching implications of the Paris Climate Agreement for how individuals and families live, specifically for conservation metrics that Bernie and I can use as goals. I found a website that asked me to register, and when I did I got the following request: Please prove you’re not a robot.

How do I do that? I wondered.

The site had the answer: Check the box that says I am not a robot.

I hit the key, and instantly the screen said: Thank you. You are now registered.

Wow, thought I, it’s that easy! Who knew? What about all that therapy I did after a kind friend suggested that my talks with him hit the same funereal bell again and again? Years of practice to loosen up that relentless pattern of identifying with this or that? The walks in the woods where I let go of those dreary, repetitive feelings? The morning sittings where the new light and the birds create welcome havoc in my well-oiled mental machine?

None of those were necessary. All I had to do was check the box that says, I am not a robot.

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MAKING OUR WILLS

Photo by Rami Efal

Stanley, Bernie and I have been making our wills.

Are you going anywhere soon?

There’s so much to dispose of: a house, two cars, Buddhist sculpture and art, clothes, zendo articles, books, the list goes on and on. So here I am, with pencil and paper in hand, to ask you this: What would you like me to leave you when I die?

Everything in the refrigerator.

The contents of the vegetable bin?

No, not the vegetable bin. But don’t forget the bread and chicken in the freezer and the pint of Bart‘s Sea Salt Caramel ice cream.

[writing] All contents in refrigerator. Got it. Anything else?

The biscotti on the top shelf over the microwave, Simply Naked Pita Chips, and the black sesame brown rice snaps above the sugar. Also, both jars of MaraNatha peanut butter in the pantry, doesn’t have to be organic.

Biscotti, Simply Naked Pita, rice snaps, peanut butter. What else?

The birdseed in the bin in the laundry room.

You can’t eat sunflower seeds, Stanley, your stomach doesn’t digest it, it goes right through you.

How do you know?

I see what I’m stepping on when I walk outside!

Speaking of outside, leave me the squirrels.

I don’t own the squirrels. What else?

The mice in the basement?

Stan, you create a will to dispose of all your possessions. The only animal that I technically own is you.

Me! You don’t own the squirrels or the birds, not even the mice in your basement, but you own me?

I think that’s because you’re viewed as a domestic creature. Now, let’s find out your wishes for after you die. How would you like me to dispose of your body?

I’d like you to leave me on the sofa. No more “Stanley get off the couch.”

For how long?

Forever.

What about when your body turns to bone and even dust?

Leave it on the sofa.

Got it. What kind of memorial service would you like, Stanley?

Any Buddhist service will do, but I prefer Tibetan.

Why?

Because it has the most offerings, not necessarily vegetarian.

Any particular offerings you have in mind?

Slices of roast beef forget the ketchup, rice but no soy sauce, anything deep-fried, and cashews. Forget the tea. Also don’t need flowers and candlelight. Or chanting for that matter, since I’m deaf.

Okay. Now for your possessions. Who gets your warm, furry, circular bed with the ridge for a pillow?

Any one but Kaya, Leeann’s dog. Whenever I stay at Leeann’s Kaya steals the bed from me.

What about the red collar that says Stanley with my phone number on it.

Burn it.

Your leash?

Cremation.

Medical paraphernalia? Ear drops, turmeric for joint problems, anti-worm and tick pills?

Ditto.

Dogfood? Greenies? Biscuits?

I ain’t leaving any.

Your food bowls? I’d like to use them for our next generation of dogs.

Only if you leave your clothes for Bernie’s next wife.

Got it. Now, I’m your medical proxy. Is there any time you’d like to call it quits? When I call Dr. Brown—

The House of Horrors!—

I won’t take you to her office but I might need to call her to end your life if you’re suffering too much. When would you like us to end your life? Cancer?

Nope.

Kidney disease?

Nope.

Heart?

Nope.

Painful arthritis?

Nope.

When you can’t walk and can’t eat?

That’ll be the day.

[Writing] That’ll be the day.

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LOVE AND SELF-REPROACH

In the early mornings I meditate, then sit at my desk and blog. Always I begin with a blank screen, and in staring at that white vertical rectangle I ask myself, Who am I today? What am I now?

I recognize there’s no final answer to that question. And yes, I know that the Buddhist answer is emptiness at the core, that there’s no there there. For years I practiced—not with Manjusri’s sword that cuts off delusion—but with a dagger, plunging it again and again into yet another veil, yet another layer, yet another story. Stabbing oneself in this way is the stupidest thing you can do, for each of these sheaths and wrappings are like gossamer, with their own life, their own reasons for being. Kissing them away is far more effective than stabbing them like a lunatic.

If we could surround all our mistakes with tenderness—the bad career decisions, the bad relationships, the surrender to practicality on the one hand and the vapid voyages into fantasy land—then perhaps the beauty of this one life, which is the true meaning of emptiness, will reveal itself to us equally tenderly.

Some time ago I wrote about my friend, Mary Rose, who spent over 30 years of her life looking for her daughter’s killer, the man who also killed at least two other young women. Her story was aired over a full hour at Investigation Discovery last Monday night. The cable TV program, with its combination of interviews, photos, and enactment, will be aired again on Sunday, June 4, at 9 am, and we’ll record it.

Maria Elena Salinas interviews Mary Rose about the mission she took on after her daughter’s disappearance and the hunt she pursued relentlessly even after the police and FBI dropped the case, including how she connected the dots with two other disappearances of young women in two other other states. But more to the point, she asks Mary tough questions about her relationship with her daughter, Annette, and decisions she made letting her young daughter go away with a much older man.

I flinched as I listened to those questions. It felt like putting a spotlight on the sharpest pain, on the deepest regret, on those intersections where I could have gone in one direction and instead chose another, and having to contemplate the price. Mary didn’t flinch as she looked into the camera and said, again and again, that with hindsight she wishes she’d done things differently, but I wondered at her courage, at what it takes to face an interview like that, to look into a camera that will lay bare your soul to people who know nothing about you, who won’t even notice the devastation behind the steely replies and the powerful will.

Emotions aren’t everything, spine and resilience also count. At least two other women were killed in addition to Mary’s daughter and their families didn’t know what to do when the police dropped the case. Mary is the sole parent of one of these young women who is still alive, and it’s hard for me to imagine what it was to be their father and mother with this big hole in their heart, go into old age and death not knowing what happened to their daughter, imagining the worst. Love and tenacity often go hand in hand.

For my mother, who went through the Holocaust, love meant toughness and very little else. It meant you did everything you needed to in order to survive, and I mean everything.

But when I listened to the self-reproach of that mother Monday night, when I look at the face of my own mother contemplating the end of life and autonomy, I want to take those faces in my hands and whisper, like the song, Try a little tenderness: It’s not just sentimental/She has her grief and care,/But the soft words spoke so gentle/makes it easier to bear. Yeah.

 

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A FOG CALLED DESTINATION

I love to walk in a fog.

Where are we going? I ask Stanley. Since his eyes are always foggy now, I figure he’s a greater expert than I am on what to do when you can’t see things clearly.

Live for the short run, a friend with Stage 4 cancer advised me.

In the short run I know what gives pleasure: the sun on bare arms, the walk in the woods, a book at night, new white irises that bloomed overnight. Stanley lives like that, sniffing the tree hollow that he passed before braking and making a quick U-turn, the tiny pellets the deer leave to help us track them down.

But I’m still drawn to a fog called destination. Where am I going? What will I find? What’s waiting out there?

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MEMORIAL DAY TODAY, AND SEVEN YEARS AGO

When Bernie woke up today he told me he had a dream. What’s more, he remembered it.

I developed a calculus that goes both forward and backward, he tells me. That means it could take me back in time. Whaddya think of that?

I’ve always wondered why people want to go back in time.

Maybe they want to go back in time to change the results of the election. You have to be very careful about things like that, he says.

Maybe to change themselves, I muse.

He nods. Yup, you have to be very careful.

A half hour later I’m walking Stanley on the road before the rains come. We’re the only ones around, no people, other dogs, or even cars. We cross the railroad tracks, I look to my right, and there’s a fawn on the tracks some 20 yards away. It’s walking away from us, but soon stops and turns around. Stanley has no idea he’s there but the fawn and I lock gazes. Then it turns around and continues down the tracks.

And it’s as if Bernie’s calculus works, for suddenly it’s Memorial Day 7 years ago. I have two rambunctious dogs on the back seat of my car: my current dog, Stanley, and his relentless mentor and Alpha boss, Bubale the Pit Bull. They’re a rowdy, high-spirited pack (Hey, Peacemaker Dogs, try living up to your name, I used to implore in vain) and it seems safest to drive them practically to the opening of the forest and then let them off leash.

We drive up the slope to the parking area, and there, coming down the path, is a young fawn. I have no idea how old it is, only that it’s alone.

I stop the car and get out. Its eyes sparkle, its tail actually begins to wag, and it approaches.

Behind me the dogs in the back seat of the car are going berserk, barking and snarling, making me nervous. What would it take for powerful Bubale to actually go through the window, I wonder.

Go away, I tell the fawn.

Instead it comes closer, eyes warm and friendly, as if meeting a new pal for a holiday brunch.

I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to my very core. I’ve had several intimate encounters with deer over the years. Once a family of them lay under trees in the rain and watched me curiously as I passed, first one way, then the other, not 5 feet away. On two other occasions they brushed right by me as they passed, as though I was a far lesser danger than something else. Now I want to call out to the fawn, slowly put out my arm, look at its big liquid eyes, and take in its incredibly sweet scent of youth.

But I’m afraid for it. It’s young, hasn’t yet learned to fear humans or dogs. Ahead of it is a hot summer of foraging and growth, but bow-and-arrow season starts mid-October and continues to Thanksgiving, and then the shooting season begins and goes on till Christmas.

Your life is so short, I tell it. You have to be vigilant; you have to run fast on those thin, spindly legs.

Go away, I tell him loudly, hands pushing the air in front of me. Leave, run!

It comes to a stop, an undecided look in its eyes.

Go, I tell it loudly, the dogs barking insanely behind me in the car, go!

And finally some look of understanding is there, as though he connects the snarling of the dogs and the waving motions of my arms. He turns around and saunters back up the path, turning to look at me one last time—have I changed my mind?—to which I respond even more aggressively, and then he runs.

When I know he’s gone I open the car door and the dogs rush up the path in eager pursuit, but of course, can’t catch up.

Seven years later I relive my encounter with that fawn. Was I right? Was I wrong? Instead of teaching it to be afraid, should I have slowly approached it and put out a tender hand, made contact with that ineluctable creature of the wild? Heart beating loudly, should I have murmured a welcome to this world, shut my eyes and conveyed some image of peaceful foraging for shoots and leaves, a dream of love and longing?

And if I’d done that, might it have given me a gift in return?

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