MORTALITY IS AN IFFY THING

You know, Stanley, I sometimes watch you as you age and my heart breaks. You huff and puff in the hot summer days, you walk slowly, you groan and pee like an old dog, and you have trouble catching up.

Big deal.

You were once such an energetic, sneaky dog. Remember those first couple of years? You’d watch me when we were in the woods and if I turned away for a moment off you’d run to terrorize the doctor’s cats half a mile away. I never knew anybody so sneaky in my entire life.

I was a wonder.

And now I think you’re losing it.

Losing what?

Your sharpness, your clarity, your mind.

I don’t think I ever had them.

Sure you did, Stan. How else did you manage to sneak away in the woods like you used to? How did you manage to get out of the fenced-in yard and run up to the road? How did you manage to unzip my pocketbook and dig out that Swiss chocolate bar?

I didn’t need any mind for doing those things, I just did them.

Just just did them? You mean, like a Zen master?

Look how hot it is now. So where am I? Standing in the water, where it’s cool. Where are you?

On the bank, where it’s hot.

Don’t you want to cool down?

Yeah, but I don’t want to get wet.

You’re full of considerations and wishy-washy thinking.

Woody Allen said mortality is an iffy thing, Stanley. Knowing that one day you won’t be here changes everything.

Like what? I love standing in the water when it’s hot, I love going to Leeann and the other dogs, I love to eat. So what’s new?

Don’t things get more precious for you as you age?

Nope.

Doesn’t it bother you that you can’t hear and barely see?

Nope.

What about knowing we will part soon?

What about it?

 

 

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WHY CAN’T YOU BE LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE?

I had fun in the three days I was in London. Since decades had passed since my first sightseeing trips there, I took the double-decker tourist bus that goes all over the city to check out how the city had changed over the years.

When we passed Marble Arch, the guide mentioned that this is the site of the original Tyburn Tree, where public hangings took place for centuries. These were great spectacles, with lots of merry-making, family get-togethers, pickpocketing, and all-around fun. In fact, so much drinking took place that many couldn’t get up the next morning to go to work; hence we have the term a hangover.

Also, it was customary to invite the condemned, making the 3-mile trip to Tyburn from Newgate Prison in an open cart or wagon, to make a stop at the nearby Bowl Inn for some wine to help them through the ordeal. If they got off the wagon it meant they were going to have a drink, but if they stayed on the wagon it meant no drink. Hence stay on the wagon and get off the wagon.

That same day, walking along Oxford Street, I saw a teen-age girl crouched on the street. She had clearly fallen on the pavement and her two friends, of the same age, were right there. I could see pain on her face—she clearly had trouble getting up again—but when a few passersby offered to help she just looked away. In the meantime, her teenage friends were practically doubled over in hysterics. They laughed and laughed, and she too smiled wanly, so that the lower half of her face smiled while the upper half grimaced in pain.

It hit me again how ashamed we can be of our wounds, how strongly we want to merge with the herd and not ever stand out, not take risks and fall, not be pointed at and draw attention.

In his early years, my father wanted only that his children be like all other children, that his family be like other families, and that we do nothing to provoke sidelong glances or scrutiny. He didn’t even want us to excel. I recall how conflicted he was by my winning the English prize given at my high school graduation for the best writing. The announcement came as a surprise and somewhere inside he was proud, but you couldn’t miss his misgivings when I was called on stage to accept the prize and shake hands with the principal, with whom I didn’t get along: Oh no, they’re all looking at us. What is she going to say? And privately he’d tell me again and again over the years, Why can’t you be like everybody else?

There are many reasons we don’t wish to stand out, but what struck me that day on Oxford Street was how much we want to conceal our wounds: Nothing happened, don’t worry.

Is it a knowledge we get from animals? Zebra and wildebeest know that predators go after the weak, the old, and the wounded, so they stay away from them, keeping them on the edges of the herd. Do we humans, too, fear to be vulnerable and in pain because we fear being pushed to the edges of our herd, where we will be alone and unprotected?

And in teenagers who want desperately to fit in, one moment of clumsiness, of losing balance and dropping to the sidewalk will provoke mountains of laughter rather than immediate offers of help and sympathy because no one wants to be associated with weakness and pain, it’s too risky all around.

They didn’t laugh because they were bad, but because inside they were afraid.

 

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THE LIST OF MORE

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Raymond Carver’s verse continues to work on me.

What do I want most of all? What do I want in the deepest place inside? What continues to quiver hungrily under all those protective blankets that keep the temperature steady but can also choke the air out? And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth. To be received, heard, held precious beyond words.

Immediately the inner psychiatrist begins to whisper: That’s a child’s need for mother, to be told that s/he is the most important person in the entire world. Grow up already, find and take your place among responsible people, think of things beyond you.

I’ve thought of things beyond me for a long time. Even now, in the early morning, there’s a handwritten to-do list by the computer: call re drives for illegal families, arrange Reflection on Precepts for Saturday, discuss Native American retreat, hang up the third load of laundry, don’t forget hummingbird feeders, give the dog his monthly meds, consider fall and winter study programs, make travel arrangements to see family, two calls to friends who’re ill, zendo summer retreat. Thinking of things beyond me is something I’m good at.

Those of us who work hard for the universal good—what private cherishing do we lack? Who is there to embrace us fully? Citizens of the world, who stands with you in that small circle made for two, or did you nimbly skip over it because, after all, it’s close, it’s intimate, its time has gone, it may even feel a little narcissistic and immature. So much better to love the world, or God.

We meet ourselves, someone recently wrote me, when we’re truly on our own. I agree. But we were also made for love. You look in the mirror and see the signs of time moving on and of things past, and what you want more than anything is for someone else to embrace all of that, the past, present, and future of you, promises fulfilled and unfulfilled, and most of all to hear the quiver of the violin that’s still playing inside. Then you know, yes, really know, that you are beloved on the earth.

I can write of woods and trees, of the nuzzling and licking of the dog, of the nest nestled behind the drain pipe right outside my window, of a world that was my first birthday gift 67 years ago. It chirps, scampers, hoots, flies, and waves, as if telling me: This came to you for free, how could you possibly want more?

The List of More has shortened considerably, but it hasn’t yet fully disappeared. And of the few remaining items, there’s one that’s not a noun but a cry.

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ANOTHER BOSSY FEMALE

Stanley, you’re sniffing me up and down.

Stay still.

What is this? First up one leg, then down, and now—

Stand still, can’t you see I’m busy?—

Up the other leg, then down, then against my—

You’ve betrayed me.

What?

You’ve been with another dog.

I have not!

I can smell her all over you.

How do you know it’s a her?

I know everything. She’s not as tall as me, she ate tuna and broccoli today, short-hair, likes to fart, moves slowly, poor blood circulation—

I should have called you Sherlock!

And she’s old. Almost as old as me.

That’s amazing, Stanley! Your nose tells you all that?

At least she’s not a Chihuahua. I would bet a Pit Bull.

[Gasp!] That is something your nose couldn’t have told you!

Elementary, my dear Eve. Ever since Bubale left the canine realm of existence you’ve had a big fondness for Pit Bulls.

That’s true, Stan. And it’s true that Rosie is a Pit Bull. We went to our friends in Leverett for the holiday and there she was. She moves very slowly and heavily, can’t walk long distances like you, but she’s a great Pit Bull. I always wished you two could be friends.

Oh good, another bossy female. You know how many I’ve had in my life? To start, Bubale for 10 years.

She was a doll. That’s what Bubale means in Hebrew, doll.

Oh yeah? You know the first conversation we had here, right after you brought me home? “Guess what you should call me,” she says after chasing me around for 8 hours. “Boss?” I suggested. “Despot,” she said. Then there’s Leeann’s Kaya, who stands on top of the big rock in the center of their dog enclosure like queen of the mounntain, and now I have to deal with Ruby the German Shepherd down the road.

She’s a little young for you.

An overbearing female who wants to play no matter how often I show her that I don’t want to, leave me alone. I’ve never met a quiet, humble female in my entire life.

What about me?

Nah.

Did you ever think that maybe that’s your karma, Stanley? That maybe you like dominant females?

No, I never thought that.

You’re becoming a real curmudgeon in your old age, Stan. All you care about is food and walks.

Focused, is what I call it. When you don’t have too much time ahead of you, you focus on the important things. Speaking of which, why does Rosie get tuna and I get dog food? You can hold the broccoli.

She’s much weaker than you are.

I bet I’m thinner.

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CATHEDRALS

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

One reason I occasionally go to the Leverett Congregational Church is the propensity of the minister, Lee Barstow, to quote poetry.

Life is so diaphanous. You hate one moment, you love the next. You sit down with a heavy heart, and you rise with light. To bear witness to the frailness of this boundary, the way you cross from one side to the other quickly and lightfootedly, teaches—what? Not sure, but I don’t mind resting here awhile.

It’s energy, except that at times it takes one turn or else another. Right left right left. When I was younger my body was thinner and bouncier, but when my spirits went down they tended to stay down. Now it’s my body that tends to settle while the spirit has grown nimbler. Maybe Zen practice is like calisthenics for the spirit—stretch this way, then that, look at things upside down. And MOVE! Stay in flux.

Lee said that the above words are on Raymond Carver’s tombstone. I remember reading his stories in The New Yorker, and who can forget the tale of the blind man who wonders what is a cathedral? What does it look like? And the seeing man—not a teacher, not a guru—trying to describe it, describe it.

Only what he–and maybe all of us–really want is to feel it.

I visited Chartres twice in my life, the second time for several days. But it was that first time, a day trip, when I found myself leaving the Cathedral on top of the hill with a friend, descending to town, and there found the path to La Maison Picassiette. It was raining and they were closing early, but they let us walk alone along the tiled walls and gardens, on floors made of shards of colored glass and tiles.

What possessed a French graveyard sweeper, just released from a mental hospital, to build such a house for his family more than half a century ago, to go day by day to the local dump and collect tons of broken tiles, glass and crockery, and over a period of 30 years create his own cathedral? How did he convert housing into art?

Did he have a vision for what it would finally look like? Or did he just stubbornly and meticulously, day by day, put together one shattered piece of world with another—this can go here, this goes there—with no concern for the bigger picture, looking only at how tiny shards of brokenness can still hang together even without a vision of a whole, even without a vision of God.

The big picture is the cathedral, lolling there on the hill like the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth, built by generations of craftsmen who lived and died for a great idea. La Maison Picassiette is so much smaller and humbler: Let me just heal one thing, let me bring just two fragments together. Then add another. And maybe yet another. And tomorrow one more, and maybe one more.

 

 

 

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KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

I got home from London and received emails and calls: Was it safe? Is everybody panicked? Are they staying home? Are there terrorists everywhere?

Staying home! I can’t believe the questions. The streets are jam packed, I tell them. The bridges and restaurants are crowded, you can’t get a ticket to an evening performance of a good play, and everywhere there are bags like this one saying Keep calm and carry on, or else they say: We’re all in it together. Maybe only gullible tourists like me buy these, but the spirit is everywhere, unmistakable. Nobody is driving these Brits out of their pubs, and certainly not out of their shops and museums. The theater is terrific, as always.

What about that terrible fire in the Grenfell Tower that killed at least 80 people living in public housing? Are they all in it together there?

Forget the government, my friend L. said in London, forget the Council. The people almost voted down the Conservatives, who were getting too greedy for their own good, and when the fire happened three women in the area decided to do something. They did what women always do: They started making phone calls to family and friends, they organized and created networks, obtained a warehouse and filled it up with donations of furniture, furnishings, kitchen appliances and goods, everything you need to start a new home. Donations of over 1 million pounds are pouring in. A call goes out for something, and ten times the amount comes in.

It’s no longer the government, it’s the people. When they start showing up, you can’t stop it.

So what do we do with our own government’s threats to the poor, the immigrants, the elderly, the unemployed? What do we do with the tweets demeaning women? Don’t waste time in anger or rolling your eyes, or in Facebooking all your friends to see if they’re as outraged as you are. Keep calm and carry on. Find out who’s suffering in your neighborhood and organize. Bring the kids for their first-time-ever visit to a farm, as we did here. Maybe a trip to the beach next time? Give rides to those afraid to drive. Educate yourself on health care. Find out who’s hungry in your town, who is sick, which single parent needs help with the children.

Keep holding up the bar for our government that seems to represent only the wealthy, it’s time to remind them again of the 99%. But get active, get organized, do!

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SIPPING TEA IN LONDON

I spend a few days in London, on my way home from the retreat in Switzerland, with a hospitable and generous old friend. As soon as I walk in the door the two of us sit at her dining table and resume the conversation we left off a couple of years ago. That’s how it is with my women friends.

In England all the directions are topsy-turvy. Even today, on the morning I leave, I still go to the wrong side of the taxi, forgetting that the passenger seat is on the left. Going down to the Tube I’m confused whether I should stand on the left or right. In intersections I consistently look in the wrong direction for approaching cars and buses even though it says very clearly right at my feet where to look, with an arrow in case, like me, you’re directionally challenged.

And then there’s levitating Yoda. On Tuesday we went to Leicester Square to see The Ferryman, a terrific play about love, family, and the IRA playing at the new Gielgud Theater. When it was over we sauntered in the rain, no umbrella, to a restaurant for turbot, I looked up, and saw Yoda floating in the air. How does he do that, I asked my friend, but she’d gone on ahead of me. I stared at the mime, who by now had beckoned to a young woman with a flowery umbrella to come over for a photo.

Left, right, up, down, can’t find my way in London. But after living in New England since 2002, I love all the different faces and clothes: the waiter from Hungary who serves a formal tea, the young woman in hijab supervising the security line in Heathrow (haven’t seen that yet in good old USA), the man from Trinidad who helps me negotiate the ticket for the Tube. Masses and masses of people flooding towards me, all so different from me and each other, and I feel joy in being engulfed by this wave of humanity.

Regardless of the different backgrounds, the stories are the same.

The Hungarian waiter left his girlfriend back home. She says she wait for      me, he assures me, then shrugs. Maybe.

The taxi driver from Ghana whose wife left him after 40 years of marriage, at the age of 55, because she fell in love with a man of 70. We have children and grandchildren! What madness!

The Sikh airport employee wearing a heavy gold bangle that glitters on his wrist. The men buy this when they get married, he explains to me. I am not married but I buy this anyway, why not, it costs $8,000.

The Japanese lady sitting alone two tables away, drinking her tea with lips so pursed it’s a wonder anything gets in. Her daughter finally arrives and looks at her nervously as she sits, and the mother says nothing, just sips her tea.

 

 

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A LAND OF MILK AND HONEY

I went to St. Gallen in Switzerland to lead retreat and do a public ceremony making Franziska Scheider a dharma holder. The evening before the retreat she, a friend, and I went to dinner after hours of preparation and set-up. It was around 8:00 with a lot of light because, as in many cities in Europe, it doesn’t get truly dark here before 10 pm.

The walk to the restaurant took us alongside 3 small lakes where people swam and lounged about. We passed sunbathers and soccer players, and I stopped here by a group of teenagers sitting on a wharf by a lotus pond.

I thought of how secure so many people were here even as Switzerland has accepted so many immigrants and refugees over recent years that they now make well over 20% of its population. How even in the poorest areas, no one is homeless except by choice because the government provides every single citizen with housing, including the immigrants it accepts. I thought of the free medical care and the high level of care for the elderly.

Things that are huge issues in my country are barely specks on the horizon here. A level of social responsibility is taken for granted, not haggled and fought over like it is in Washington, where Congressional leaders even balk at saying that yes, everyone should have some food to eat.

Some 15 years ago my orthodox Jewish mother went with friends to Switzerland, and when she returned to Israel she told me on the phone, My goodness! In the Bible it says that God gave us a land of milk and honey, but look at this country. It’s desert for much of it. Every inch seems like a struggle to make green. And then there’s Switzerland! That’s the true land of milk and honey. Couldn’t He have given us Switzerland?

I remembered this Thursday evening, watching the carefree teenagers hanging out on the wharf over the water, backs turned to lotus leaves and buds, the sun setting ever so slowly during the long, hot days. I thought of American leaders assuring their people that our country is the greatest in the world, that everybody envies our lifestyle even as middle class incomes shrink, there’s little paid vacation and almost no maternal or paternal leave, and the most basic rights to food or medical care are fiercely contested. I’m not even mentioning the high poverty and incarceration rates.

It makes me want to weep at the great price we’ve paid for our go-it-alone rugged individualism. As a society we’ve come up with Facebook, Apple, and Google, we’ve sent folks to outer space and brought them back safely, but we’ve abandoned the people back home to insecure jobs, unattainable education, safety nets that look more and more like your grandmother’s moth-eaten wedding dress, and a scary old age. The country that once welcomed everyone barely accepts refugees, and new construction is targeted for McMansions and the Great Wall of Mexico.

 

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WITHOUT ME

Photo by Rami Efal

Here I am, in St. Gallen, Switzerland, beginning a retreat tomorrow. It’s warm and humid, very irregular, I’m told. A lot like a New England summer. Thunderstorms in the evenings, of which I have great fear.

Back home life goes on. I paid a special fee to AT&T to open up my phone for Europe so that I could be in contact with Bernie, but I know that things are well back home. There was a wonderful picnic in a farm for children and their families, some of them undocumented, with sheep, ducks, pigs, horses, a birthday cake, watermelon, home-made ice cream, and pizza. See the life, see the joy of encounter. Why should my absence even be noted?

Meals are being cooked, the dishwasher breaks, Bernie exercises, the zendo sits, the birds sing, Stanley gets older, the flowers bloom and wilt, the rain falls and doesn’t. The new refrigerator arrives without me, as does the mail. Everything happens at exactly the right time in the right way.

Leaving home is a great way to appreciate that no matter how you or others feel you’re needed, life goes on very nicely without you.

How are you doing, Bernie?

Fine. How are you doing?

Fine.

In Switzerland today, in London early next week, home late next week, and one day I’ll be everywhere, as they say of those who die.

And for the next few days of retreat, the blog goes silent.

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UPGRADED!

Miss Marko, we are upgrading you to Business Class.

Me?

I’m standing at the counter of Swiss Airlines going to Zurich.

Why?

We have a full flight so we moved some people to Business Class.

Wow, is all I can muster.

It was a delight. It was a relatively short flight, 6-1/2 hours in the air, which is like going from Los Angeles to Boston, and I decided not to go to sleep right away and instead have a Business Class dinner. But once I pushed the button that said Bed and found myself stretched practically level, with a lined blanket to cover me, I slept soundly for a few hours.

And remembered that when Bernie and I first got together as a couple back around 1999, we flew from Denver to Los Angeles. At that time Bernie had lots and lots of miles on United Airlines, in an era when airlines were much more generous. We boarded, I showed the steward my boarding card and turned to go right to Economy.

You go left, said the steward.

Left?

We’re in Business Class, piped up Bernie cheerfully behind me.

But I was worried. I’d never flown Business Class. So even as I turned left I looked over my shoulder at the folks crowded in Economy, the voice inside saying No! No! Those are my people, not the folks in Business Class.

Eve, Bernie said when we were seated, we’re not buying Business Class seats, we’re getting them on miles.

I don’t know . . .

Listen, when you have the resources, use them. When you don’t have them, don’t use them. It’s about not getting attached, not about whether it’s better to be poor than rich, or mile-less rather than with miles.

Hmmm.

Now, years later, I’m not complaining. It was my first time sleeping on a bed in flight, good enough to skip breakfast for. And when I woke up and looked out the window at a hazy sky over Switzerland, a narrow stripe of blue sky and white clouds opened up in the distance like a tiny, tantalizing crack in a curtain.

 

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