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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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
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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.

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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.

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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?

 

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MOVING PRACTICE

After Bernie had his stroke he was taken to Franklin County Medical Center, and from there down to Bay State Hospital in Springfield, 45 minutes south of us. I still remember driving down US 91, telling his daughter and my brother the news and seeing the ambulance transporting him in my rearview mirror, veering to the right lane to let them pass. Once in Springfield, he was taken to Emergency, then to Intensive Care, then to Neuro-ICU, then down to a regular bed, and then to Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital—all in 6 days.

Some 7 weeks after his stroke he came home. He moved downstairs to an office turned into a bedroom, then two months later upstairs to our bedroom, with a layout and furniture that we have reconfigured time and time again. And at some point during this time I began to think of my life as moving practice.

I had a few modest, nice homes in my first marriage, but in the interim years between that and my marriage to Bernie I traveled light. At times I owned furniture, at times I didn’t. At times I had a car, at times I didn’t. Never a lot of clothes, always a basic amount of cookware; books were a problem, and I parted from them in major waves over the years, and now use the Massachusetts system of libraries.

After I married Bernie I came not just into larger quarters but also into Buddhist art: Japanese sculptures and calligraphy, Chinese paintings, Tibetan thankas, portraits of ancestors, Indian sandstone Gandharas, not to mention plentiful urns of ashes, including the ashes of various dogs, which only this year I finally emptied by the roots of a welcoming maple in the back yard. They’ll be happier there, I told Bernie. Once we mislaid Maezumi Roshi’s ashes for about a year, only to find them in storage.

I don’t want to live in a mausoleum, I also told Bernie; in fact, I don’t want to live in a museum. I would fantasize about several rooms, fully carpeted for weak legs, with no stairs, white walls with only one thing hanging on each, the picture straight rather than askew, clean rather than dusty, and just the right lighting. For years I felt that anything I owned had to be maintained, otherwise I didn’t want to have it. For this reason I do rigorous monthly cleaning of our fancy coffee machine, regular car check-ups and sewer inspections—and never, ever own silver I have to polish (my mother’s lifelong remonstrances notwithstanding).

All this is part of moving practice—where do I live? Under what circumstances? And can I, laden with stone and wooden Buddhas, five or six altars in the house, photos and urns and even gorgeous Japanese kesas, still be light on my feet?

And what about the living Buddhas in the house? When someone walks on two legs and a cane, moving very slowly from room to room, the house feels bigger, the stairs taller, the furniture obstructive. Bernie walked in the back yard yesterday for the first time since winter and sat at the picnic table that just emerged from the shed. Do we really need this much space, I wonder as I look around me, if it’s just Bernie and Stanley, me, squirrels, chipmunks, and hundreds of goldfinches, with occasional visitations by wild turkeys?

In September we will have lived here for 13 years, and still I feel like we’re always moving. Things have a temporary feel. On weekend evenings we settle down to watch a movie on a 50” screen (I know, I know, not portable at all), go to sleep, and the next morning I’m surprised to see the familiar apple tree outside the windows. Even asleep, I expect to be in flux.

Always feel at home, my friend M from Florida told me long ago, when I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Manhattan. And off she took me to Roche Bobois to buy a gorgeous sofa I could not afford, but somehow I knew what she was talking about. It wasn’t about sofas, bookcases, or a massive manzanita dining room table. How do you feel at home while floating in the air? How am I solid in times of uncertainty, of illness, old age, and Donald Trump?

M, who always had beautiful things, has herself done lots of moving lately. From her Vineyards condominium to independent living to assisted living to a psychiatric hospital to a memory care unit to a hospital to rehabilitation—all in six months. At the age of 91 she can’t figure it out. At the age of 67 I can’t figure it out either.

I should call her more often.

 

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WHEN YOU’RE VULNERABLE, YOU’RE AWAKE

Some 10 days ago my friend, Genro Gauntt, came to stay for the weekend and on Saturday morning spoke at the zendo about the street retreats that he’s led all over the world. These are days when you go to live on the streets with no money or change of clothes, sleeping on park benches or in subways, finding food in food pantries, relying on the generosity of strangers. I did such retreats a number of times myself, but it became Genro’s ministry. He has led these in San Paulo Brazil, in London England, in Detroit the US. Not an easy thing for a man approaching 70.

At some point, as he described what it is to look for food, to find out where one can sleep undisturbed by the police or the weather, begging for quarters, he said something very simple: When you’re vulnerable, you’re awake.

Money is a funny kind of barrier. Once, when we needed things, we brought things to market, we bartered and bargained, we joked around and talked with people. Now we go to a store, take out our wallet, put some green paper on the counter, and walk out with what we need. We don’t even have to say hello to the other person, and many don’t, they just pat their pocket as if that’s where the relationship lies.

Nevertheless, that feeling of vulnerability I used to have doing street retreats is dwarfed by what’s faced by immigrants, legal or not. I thought of that when driving Beatrice and her small son, Pedro (not their real names), yesterday. She’s pregnant and hardly speaks any English, and as she sat in the front seat of my car I could start seeing things a little through her eyes. I would have loved to get her story, but couldn’t because of language difficulties. I also honor her privacy and need for safety. But she tensed each time we passed police cars along the highway.

As a white American woman, I never feared the police (though I was mistreated by them twice in my life, once severely). But that’s not how people of color experience the police, or immigrants of all kinds. It’s not how they experience teachers, social workers, and the bosses at the farms. If they are abused by anyone, they don’t trust the system to help them. If they’re hurt by someone in authority, they know better than to go and file a complaint. Instead, they hide.

ICE agents were recently sighted in a nearby town. A text message went out and for four days nobody left the house. Children didn’t go to school, adults didn’t go to the farms, farmers didn’t get much-needed help and their workers didn’t get much-needed money. They hid out. They’ve been hiding for 15-20 years, a social worker told me.

But these are far grimmer times; the razor blade of fear is everywhere. These are not white people taking to the streets for several days, getting into conversations with street people, feeling the cold and wet at night, grateful for the smallest food, the fewest pennies—and always knowing there’s a home to go back to. For several days, life is raw. But for immigrants, their vulnerability is dominated by fear. And that makes all the difference.

The closest I can come to feeling that was when I was 7 years old and we arrived here in this country as immigrants. Legal, yes, but still immigrants who didn’t talk the language, didn’t walk and dress the same as the others. I looked around me wide-eyed at the streets of the Bronx. American children were more out there, more confident, than those I knew from the past. I was a stranger in the wilderness, trying my best to fit in by turning invisible, unable to make any sense of this loud, rambunctious culture. It didn’t help that I was a white minority in a mostly black neighborhood, for I hadn’t seen dark-skinned people in my entire life till then, including not on television (which we didn’t have) or in movies (of which I’d seen 1-2 by that age).

My parents felt no differently. It’s hard to understand that sense of being lost and misunderstood, that the best you can hope for is to be ignored, until you’ve been there. And, I remind myself, we were legal. We had papers. We weren’t afraid of being split apart with one or both parents deported, we weren’t afraid of knocks on the door in the middle of the night.

Was I awake? I was certainly wide-eyed, but with fear, which constricts one, narrows the horizons, causes you to wish to stay home with the door locked behind you. Safety was being shut in at home, where it was boring but you could at least speak your own language and eat your own food, where no one would laugh or point at you, where you wouldn’t stand out, in fact no one would even know you were there.

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FORSYTHIA

Another pickup today. Of Beatrice, let’s call her, along with her 9 year-old son, Pedro, let’s call him. It feels odd to create pseudonyms for a 9 year-old boy and a pregnant young woman looking out the window of the car at the policia lying in ambush on the highway. But the policia leave us undisturbed because I drive slower when I have undocumented immigrants in my car.

She speaks almost no English, relies on Pedro to translate for her. But Pedro has fallen asleep on the back seat and I am reduced to trying out my toddling Spanish learned from Pimsleur tapes I downloaded from the Internet.

So I finally ask her to help me out in Spanish. Como se dice car en espagnol? Como se dice drive (she doesn’t drive)? Es el dia caliente, I mumble, meaning it’s warm today. No, she disagrees, frio. And it is cold, a lot colder than I thought. I seem to have misplaced my jacket and I wonder if I left it in the zendo.

But the highway has blazes of yellow on the median between North and South. Como se dice forsythia? I ask Beatrice. She doesn’t know, but for the first and only time in our rides together she smiles.

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