WHAT KIND OF CONNECTION IS THIS?

Bernie began radiation treatments yesterday and Rae (his caregiver) and I meticulously monitor his nose almost hourly. Is there a tiny blister here? A skin break there? In Santa Barbara a gardener friend packed up seven very large aloe vera leaves to take home with me. I take one, slice off a portion, and rub the thick, jelly-like extract on the Man’s nose a few times a day.

We were supposed to teach at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas in the week of April 16. I wondered if Bernie would be able to make the trip, but after some discussion we decided to move forward with it. Since we’re going to participate in a peace conference, they interviewed both of us on the subject of Zen and peace.

The interviewer asked what does peace mean, and Bernie recalled that his sense of peace came from the Hebrew equivalent, which is shalom, derived from shalem, which means whole. Peace, he said, refers to being whole, or realizing wholeness.

The interviewer digs further: What does it mean, to be whole?

Bernie looks straight into the camera. We had a big glass vase here, he tells the interviewer, and it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Was it whole before it broke?

I guess so, she says.

And what about after it broke?

She brightens. Well, I guess now it’s whole as a broken vase.

More than that, he tells her. Every single broken piece is whole.

He continues to look at the camera. I can tell he’s getting tired because his speech is getting slower and more labored, but he goes on: Two years ago I had a big stroke. People told me before the stroke that I was whole. Tell me, he says, his mottled face bearing a round patch of skin on the bridge of his nose and the red remains of a circle in the forehead (we call it his Third Eye), am I any less whole now after the stroke and with the cancer than I was then?

She says nothing.

Two things come up for me that moment. The first is: Son of a gun, I want to say to him, you’re always at your clearest and most spontaneous when you’re teaching, that’s never changed.

And the second is that the practice is all about connection. Not the usual my-concept-of-me connecting with your-concept-of-you connection, but connecting with something surprising, unsettling, discombobulating, even alienating. There’s nothing new, challenging, or refreshing about the usual me and the usual you, everything lives up to expectations, so the connection is rote and mechanical.

Now something’s changed. There’s a black eye, or no eye at all. There’s a scar or tattoo, an eyebrow has gone up to the forehead while one edge of the mouth sags down to the chin. The face rattles and disturbs.

Tell me, what kind of connection is this?

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BE SUSPICIOUS OF URGENCY

Hurry Stanley, come on!

Slow down, will you. What are you getting me up for? I’m old and I like to go back to sleep after breakfast.

If you want to get a good walk in before the snow, now’s the time.

It’s 7:30 in the morning and snow is predicted to begin anytime between 8 and 10. Not to mention the 10 minutes it takes me to prepare to go out in this weather: gray I climbed the Great Wall dog-walking sweatshirt my mother brought me from China many years ago (Probably made by prison labor, I complained to her), burgundy dog-walking jacket I got from the Salvation Army 16 winters ago, gloves, one of Bernie’s gray wool hats he’d wear to the Auschwitz-Birkenau bearing witness retreat, a scarf, boots with spikes on the bottom, my phone in case something happens back home, and two apples for the white horses in the pasture.

Stanley groans. Anything else? All I need is my collar, jacket, and leash. You look like an Eskimo. He’s not known for his patience.

Shut up and come on. I’m not known for my good humor in the early morning. Out we go.

First, to visit the horses, who canter to the fence to get their apples. Stanley, of course, pretends they’re not there. I usually try to hang out and stroke them a bit, but I’m in a hurry today, so we turn back and enter the woods, walking up the hill to the gazemple, the tiny gazebo temple atop the hill that looks out to the west, where the snow is coming from. The road isn’t snowy but full of ice; by the end of today it will be covered with snow once again.

I hate it when you take pictures of me.

I know, Stan, you run away as soon as you see the camera.

The ice crackles underfoot. I feel the temptation to get cracking, there’s so much to do today even though we’ll be closed in by snow and not go anywhere. A list of things to do unfurls inside my head like a Torah scroll, I seem to see it wherever I look: laundry, noon Zoom meeting, half a dozen phone calls, pay bills, upgrade computer, financials for 2017, prep for Thursday zendo stewards meeting . All that in addition to writing.

Back in Santa Barbara, a friend told me what his psychiatrist long ago told him: Be suspicious of urgency.

It’s as if that long-ago doctor is looking straight at me many years later. Be suspicious of urgency.

What is urgent in my life? What will they say in eulogies of me, if any? She did laundry like clockwork every Wednesday. She paid her bills on time. She knew how to update apps. And she wrote, yes she wrote. So what’s urgent?

Be suspicious of a life in which every day is full of urgency, as if what you do is of inestimable importance to the world. It’s the Golden Calf of our technological age: You can do anything—and it’s IMPORTANT! In fact, it’s urgent.

It’s probably not.

The snow comes down now, covering all my deficits and transgressions, covering up the failures of attention, the mishaps of forgetfulness, the sins of neglect and distraction. Don’t worry about it, it seems to say. Inside your head it’s a mess, but outside, see, it’s buried under, all white, forgiven.

Walk with Stanley on the icy, gravelly path. Spot the yellow on the horizon, be grateful for full bird feeders and a full refrigerator. Bernie will be getting up when you get home, you’ll take his blood sugar numbers, have breakfast. Sit and watch the birds, sit and watch the snow wiping everything away.

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CHICKEN MAKES ME SO HAPPY!

 

Photo by Leeann Warner

It’s so great to see you. Did you bring back any food from California?

I did not, Stan.

But you’re such a terrific hunter! Look at all the food you hunt down each weekend! I love being in the kitchen and sniffing it when you bring it in, though I don’t know why you bother putting it in those bags.

That’s what I love about you, Stanley, you’re such a dog!

Of course I’m a dog.

I mean, your feelings are right out there. You can’t hide them. Even with the cataracts covering so much of your eyes I can see the sparkle when I come back from the store or when it’s time to go for a walk. When you go to Leeann you’re grinning in the back seat of the car as soon as we make that turn, and you wave your tail so gaily when she comes to get you! When I came home yesterday from California you whimpered and nuzzled me. Things are right out there with you, Stanley, there’s no hiding anything.

Why should I hide?

Humans do, Stanley. We hide our feelings, not just from others but from ourselves.

How do you hide your own feelings?

By not experiencing them, not going fully into the sensations, Stanley. When we’re babies we feel things strongly, but as we grow up many of us submerge things.

You mean you go swimming?

No, Stan, we learn that it’s better not to feel certain feelings. Say you want to play with someone and there’s no one to play with. Say you want to cuddle with someone only there’s no one to cuddle back, in fact they even make fun of you for wanting to cuddle. After this happens a bunch of times, you don’t want to play and you don’t want to cuddle.

That’s terrible.

In fact, Stanley, that’s what happened to you when we first got you. You didn’t play and you didn’t cuddle. I’d pet you and talk sweetly to you, and you’d go sit by the glass door in back and look out for people or animals.

That’s because I was a guard dog. I’m retired now, so I can play and cuddle.

The point is, Stanley, when humans have a hard life and they’re just trying to get by, just trying in their own way to survive, they forget to feel. In fact, half the time they don’t know what they’re feeling because they’re rushing around so much. We learn to pretend, we learn not to care. Stanley, where are you going?

I’m running downstairs. Rae is sautéing chicken, can’t you smell it? I’m so HAPPY!

It’s only chicken, Stanley, what’s the big deal? And you just ate.

I’m not hungry, I’m HAPPY! I’m so SO HAPPY!

Tail wagging, he scrambles down the stairs to the kitchen so fast his legs collapse under him and he slides down the bottom four steps.

And what do I do? I return to Barking to the Choir, the terrific book by Fr. Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries for gang members ready to give up gang life, and look again at a line he quotes from one of his homies: We got authenticity beaten out of us.

 

 

 

 

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TENDERNESS

How many times can you take a photo of the ocean?

How many times can you evoke tenderness?

That’s what this big Pacific Ocean brings up for me when it’s quiet and pond-like, waters whispering like massage.

Tenderness, ease, delight. Somehow they were never included in the wiring of my brain. You grow up on stories of hunger, concealment, and death, are told how lucky you are that you don’t have these things in your life, and suddenly problems like I have no friends or Someone said something very cruel to me or I don’t have a date for Saturday night seem pathetic and overindulgent. You’re not sick, you’re healthy, you’re smart, what’s the problem?

What I missed was tenderness. Being held, not just physically but emotionally. And I don’t blame anyone here, it’s hard to give what you ain’t got. But what you’re left with is a yearning for tenderness.

In the distance a sailboat cruises slowly away from us, toward the Channel Islands. In two months or so mama whales will take their babies north. I won’t see it, I’m leaving Santa Barbara in an hour, but I learned how to look for them when I lived here. Not their great leap, that’s a different thing entirely.

You look for a break in the surface of the water, a line that moves north rather than staying in place or coming to shore. At some point—and you have to be patient here–the water breaks a little more and you see an enormous shadow grazing just below the surface. Slowly and ponderously they travel north, living and letting live. Tenderness.

I told a friend this morning that for years Santa Barbara was not for me. Too easily beautiful, I told him. Of course there are divorces and deaths here, traffic accidents and poverty; there were terrible fires, homelessness, and mud slides. Still, I thought I had to be more at the edge of things, where life is raw and difficult, where even the small things will level you.

Here I find tenderness. A world that says you don’t have to do much, you’re not so important after all. Look west at the ocean and east at the Santa Ynez mountains, see the dolphins play and the dogs chase balls into the waves, all saying: When you go back East, don’t forget, there’s this too. This too.

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MY GLORIOUS ATTACHMENTS

I’m back in Santa Barbara, California.

We lived here for two years in a compound once owned by the Beach Boys. In fact, we lived in the Love house, once inhabited by Mike Love. A very generous couple gave it to us, to live and work in. Our neighbors were kind and warmhearted. Later, even New Englanders would wonder why we left paradise to go and live in snowy, cold Montague.

Santa Barbara was almost too beautiful. You caught your breath every morning coming out on the deck. We slept with the endless sound of waves crashing onto shore. There’s something about that feel of eternity that lulls you into insignificance, not just you but also the suffering of the world around you, the full catastrophe.

Yes, garden workers are here from Mexico, how can you miss them? And yes, Bernie and I went out onto the streets, walking down from the Mesa all the way downtown (did he really then walk that long?). A law had just been passed in Santa Barbara making it illegal for homeless people to sleep in their cars, and if you dozed off on the beach a policeman might wake you and tell you to move on. Of course, only if you looked a certain way. You have your old lady with you, they told Bernie, you’ll be fine.

We flew off from here and traveled to many places, returning to this place where day after day the ocean sparkled, surfers surfed, dolphins frolicked, and whales cruised slowly by between the beach and the Channel Islands.

Finally we left to New England, where the winters are really cold and the nearest ocean is 2 hours away, where folks told us we were crazy to come there from a place called Santa Barbara.

The photo above shows you where Bernie used to sit. He had an office indoors, but why bother? He sat on the deck 30 feet from cliff’s edge, looking out at the ocean far below. He wore jeans and Hawaiian shirt, and smoked his cigar while working on his computer or talking on the phone.

My office, on the other hand, was in back of the house, a middle room wedged between the bathroom and our neighbor’s studio. My view was of the lemon and cherimoya trees, and the world’s most colorful cactuses. Micro rather than macro.

The view of the ocean was too much, I told Bernie, who told me I was crazy. But I still feel that even now, as I write where he once worked. Some things are too big, too awesome, to be confronted head-on. I have to come up to them sideways, shyly, like an invited guest. Look out at infinity, but never lose sight of the young man in sombrero mowing the lawn, or another digging under the grass to put a wire contraption with which to trap the gophers.

Let me break your heart by telling you that there’s a hot tub right at the edge, where I go in at night and then stand by the railing and look down at the high tide. There’s danger there. When you look down at so much, it’s easy to feel you’re on top of the world, that perhaps you are the top of the world.

This place is full of love and recollection. We got married here, we fought here, left here, came back, left here again. A dog’s ashes were sprinkled here; we went vegetarian and made pasta dinners for our neighbors with a tomato sauce that Bernie nursed all day long.

A Buddha sits close to the edge of the cliff, but to his side stands the charred sculpture of a human being, one arm outstretched. Just one arm to envelop all my wantings and nostalgia, the fierceness inside that wants more and more and more. Yes, I practice Zen, shouldn’t grasp so much. But just look at this world, look at it! And then tell me about your own glorious attachments.

 

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I BLESS U.S. EVERY DAY

I’m sitting at the Denver airport, delayed enroute to Santa Barbara, California.

Three seats away a tall man, around my age if not older, is talking on his iPhone. He wears jeans, a black cowboy hat, and black boots. He makes one phone conversation after another while I finish my coffee, talking to friends and real estate agents, telling them he’s coming over for a week and plans to buy a home, so please show him everything they got. Doesn’t mention where, or at least I never hear it. Hangs up, dials again, same message, hangs up, dials again.

Some 70 feet away a woman announces the flight to Shreveport, Louisiana. Two dozen people board; these are small planes. She announces Last call for Shreveport! After that she calls out the names of three people who haven’t boarded yet and asks them to come quickly. Three seats away the man continues talking on the phone. Then she announces once more: This is the last call for Shreveport, doors are closing. Finally the plane leaves.

Five minutes later the agent at the gate in front of us announces that the plane for Santa Barbara has arrived and we will board soon. My cowboy neighbor gets up and walks over. What happened to the plane to Shreveport?

The agent tells him that the plane to Shreveport just left.

Why didn’t you make any announcements?

They made announcements, the agent says patiently, and when the man asks what he should do now, the agent recommends he book another flight and directs him to Customer Service.

I shake my head—others around me do, too—but I’m relieved at the same time. For the agent is Latino, and an hour earlier I’d witnessed an ugly scene of an inebriated passenger yelling racial slurs at another agent, clearly not born in this country, till airport police arrived and took him away.

Ever since Donald Trump’s remarks about people from shithole countries, I watch and listen more carefully. I’m also more proud than ever of my own shithole roots.

In Denver I had sat down at a small airport eatery. The man at the next table opened up a potato chip bag, it burst into a big hole with a loud WHOP! and the chips fell on the floor. Immediately a small, dark-skinned woman approached with a new potato chip bag. She opened it for him as he apologized, then brought out the broom and pan and swept the floor.

She rested a bit on a nearby chair, a shade of red down one side of her long, dark hair, and we started talking. I thanked her for taking such good care of us. She said she was Tamil from Sri Lanka.

How does she feel here, I asked her. She smiled bashfully, said she felt good.

After talking a little more, I pressed her. Did she feel welcome here? She is here legally, she assured me.

Were things all right? That was my vague way of saying: You’re clearly an immigrant, not Norwegian, not white, in fact you’re not even 5 feet tall and very, very thin, so are you alright?

She understood. People very nice, she assured me. Much nicer than Sri Lanka, she added.

It reminded me that many immigrants, coming from the countries Trump despises, have faced far worse things than verbal abuse. For now, the Tamils are finished in Sri Lanka. Villages burned, families destroyed, people disappeared. And she’s legal here in the US.

I bless US every day, she said.

Still, out of caution, I didn’t ask her whether I could take a photo.

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WE SIT

Yesterday, we sat.

In Zen, when you do sitting meditation you often skip the word meditation and you say you just sit. And that’s what we did, a monthly day of sitting.

Outside, temperatures climb and the snow melts. Birds fly. Cars run on the road. The post office opens for the morning two houses away, then closes.

We sit.

A dog barks, a woodpecker knocks on a tree. The heat comes on, goes off, comes on again. Door opens, people come in, leave some hours later, someone else comes in.

We sit.

During a short break I look out and see a man walk across the large icy pond below. The ice is thinner now, I think, he might fall in. A memory of the neighbor who lost her husband and son that way. A friend gave them a sled and he took the little boy out on the frozen pond. They went around in circles, the ice cracked, and the boy fell in. The father jumped in to save him, and both drowned. The friend never forgave herself for giving them the sled.

We sit.

At home a lovely woman comes to help out. She makes breakfast and lunch for Bernie, cooks dinner so that I won’t have to think about it when I come home, hangs up laundry, walks Stanley, feeds the birds.

We sit.

White clouds don’t move all day. Crows caw. Mild protests from my shoulders and lower back. I would scratch where it itches (not for me the Don’t move! Don’t scratch! Be still!), only I’m not sure I can find it. Maybe what scratches are the man’s footsteps on the ice, or the fluttering edges of a dry leaf on the ground.

We sit.

A hawk’s shadow. Man and dog walking on the path towards the church. Fragments of a past, imagined future, suddenly gone as if they fell into a hole.

We sit.

Get up. Extinguish oil lamps. Put away coffee, pack up cheese, crackers, apples, ginger snaps. Drive home, feed Stanley, go upstairs. How was it? Fine. Anything new? No. Here? No.

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ONE LONG STEAMY SMOOCH

Early this morning I went out to turn on the car and get the heat going before driving to Greenfield. The cold gave me such a bite that my body contracted. But then I flexed the hand open and took in a big breath of freeze, and I tell you, there was love there.

The love of icy winters with squirrels playing on the slope, swinging along the bird feeders, and even the tufted titmice surprising you by how they survive it all, flying in for pecks of sunflower seeds. Once I asked Peter Matthiessen how birds survive through our long, dark, icy New England winters, and he shrugged and said, Don’t worry about them, they have so much down.

One day you come to your senses and realize that it’s all love.

After all, whatever it was that exploded in the Big Bang and expanded and expanded over billions of years into planets, suns, pine trees, hawks, raccoons, Bernies and Stanleys, it could have just stayed still and never given rise to anything at all. It could have remained just some highly compact mass on the head of a pin, hoarding all that energy to itself, stayed in bed, so to speak. It could have said it had a headache, everything (or rather, nothing) was just too much for it and it couldn’t do anything more.

Instead it expanded and gave birth endlessly. That’s not an act of generosity, it’s an act of love.

And you realize that each moment is a gift not deserved by you or anyone else. I’m not quoting Rumi or Hafiz here, I’m talking about receiving life without doing a thing to deserve it. That’s when you start seeing the morning frost as a love bite and the summer heat as the great sizzle, with everything in between the grand buffet.

The big condition was that each new form came at the expense of another, which meant that we all had to die sometime, and maybe that’s where fear came in, along with judgment, greed, stinginess, and war: No! no! no! no! I want more!

A teacher of mine told me the other day that she had met a man she really liked who really liked her, after years of being alone. A month later he had a stroke and she said: Already? We just started! Couldn’t it wait a little?

I felt like telling her that that’s exactly how I felt when Bernie had his stroke. Already? We’ve only been together as a couple some 18 years, and teacher/student for the previous 13. We only got started! Couldn’t it wait?

It feels like moments, even when it’s years. Even when it’s a century or even an era. And all of it—the sun, the shade, the in-betweens—one long, steamy smooch.

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BORING! YAWN YAWN! SNORE!

Stanley, what are you doing, all asleep at 8:30 in the morning!

It’s raining outside. Clearly I’m not going anywhere today. No walk, no Leeann, not even a short jog to give apples to the horses. On days like today I don’t know why I bother living. So I do the next best thing: I sleep.

You were up two hours ago to eat, Stan!

Of course, especially since you added some of that gravy you made last night with the roast beef. You could have added some actual roast beef, but did you do that? No, you did not, because you’re a miser. But that’ll probably be the high point of the day, at least till supper.

Oh Stanley, if we really pay attention, there is something alive and enlivening in every moment.

Like going on an outing with Leeann and all the dogs, or digging up an old marrow bone full of mud and dirt, bringing it into your office, and watching you get mad. That’s what I call fun! Only I’m not going to Leeann today and I can’t find any old marrow bones under all that snow. So I might as well go to sleep.

Wrong, Stanley! The trick is to find life in every moment, even a moment of rain and gloom, when there’s nothing to do.

Boring!

If you really pay attention, Stanley, really pay attention, you’ll see there’s a lot more going on this moment than you realize.

Like what?

I’m sitting on the floor talking to you.

I can’t hear nothin’.

There’s closeness between us, even intimacy. Think of it, between two different species, Stanley! Isn’t think incredible?

Yawn yawn.

I spot more white in your muzzle, Stan. You are getting older before my very eyes. I see your entire lifetime in this one moment.

Snooooooze.

Stanley, the One Body functions at every instant, alive and dynamic—regardless of whether we’re happy or sad or bored. That’s why we must wake up!

Do yourself a favor, don’t talk about that this evening, you’ll put everybody to sleep.

George Saunders wrote that love is attention, and vice versa. What do you think about that? Stanley, stop snoring! Stop snoring! Stanley? Stanley?

 

 

 

 

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AN EARLY CHILDHOOD BACKGROUND

I went to the First Congregational Church of Leverett today to hear Gillian Budine talk about impoverished families living in our area.

Gillian works for the Community Network for Children, and has the job of visiting parents with a new baby to make sure that over the next several years they’ll be ready for school. But she spoke to the fact that this is a much bigger web, that in fact for a child to have some good early childhood, the family needs to be stable—a stable and warm home, healthy food, and lots of attention from devoted parents.

What she runs into instead are families with minimum-wage jobs, if any, worrying about whether to pay for food or for rent or for heat this terrible winter, with no cars and little access to public transportation so they can’t bring their children to Head Start or other enrichment programs, parents so stressed by the business of living they can barely take care of themselves, never mind their children.

Pastor Lee Barstow introduced Gillian, in part, by saying: Gillian has an Early Childhood background. He was obviously referring to her education, but I laughed inside. Don’t we all have an early childhood background? Aren’t we supposed to?

A woman joined me on my walk to my car afterwards and told me it’s hard for her to hear such stories. I have so much in comparison to these families, she said. Hearing about them depresses me. Doesn’t it depress you?

No, I told her. Once it did, but not for a long time. Now I actually feel fortunate when life brings me to the margins of things.

At that we parted ways, and I’m not sure she understood what I meant.

Life feels at its most raw when people have little, when they worry about paying rent as opposed to paying for heat, covering the grocery bill as opposed to buying their children new winter coats. They are closer than me to that most basic instinct of all, survival.

It’s why I like to talk to street people, especially this freezing winter.

Where are you staying tonight? I ask a panhandler by the Greenfield Co-op.

Me and my friend gotta tent we put out behind the park, but if it gets too cold we could go indoors somewhere, she says vaguely. She looks 50 and I’ll bet she’s a lot younger. Her hands are red, chapped, and swollen as she takes off a woolen glove to unwrap a cigarette. I ask her about food, about staying warm—and though I myself don’t have those challenges, the conversation returns me to what’s essential, reminding me of what it is to be human.

When we prosper, when we’re healthy, well, and full of energy, our life playing out the way we think it should, we’re on top of the world. As in above the world, attaining an unnatural height from which we can look down at things far, far away, like we do from the window of an airplane.

When we’re close to the margins of life, when we see how easy it is to lose it all—health, home, friends, jobs, lovers, children, and yes, early childhood—we’re brought back down to size, our true size, our human size. We remember that just living without giving offense, just taking care of ourselves and our family without adding substantively to the quotient of suffering in the world, is a big deal.

The most heroic people I ever met were the single mothers in Yonkers whom I’d see standing with their children waiting for school buses on the other side of the park from Greyston. Often their children wore warm winter coats while theirs were shabby and worn, they were hatless and gloveless from rushing out even as their children wore hats and gloves. Some worked two shifts a day, and they’d stamp their feet to keep warm and banter with each other while their children played, craning their necks for a view of the orange school bus coming up from Ashburton Ave.

Just before Gillian began her talk, the choir sang Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name. To hear yourself be called, to hear your true name, there often has to be some kind of absence. But remember to turn towards it rather than looking away.

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