BLOODSHED IN THE US SENATE

Yesterday the Republican voters of the State of Alabama voted for Roy Moore to go to Washington to represent them in the Senate, a man who proclaims that he knows exactly how God intends for people to live.

The media, of course, predicted all-around bloodshed in the U.S. Senate. It quoted lots of voters, and the one that stays with me was the woman who said that this is a scary time for this country and we need God’s message in Washington.

The voice of absolute authority in a city designed for negotiation and compromise? The wagging finger of the old man with the white beard telling us to shape up or ship out?

Not for this lady. Not only is my life a journey, every moment is a journey, and I don’t plan to turn tail and hide in drugs, somebody’s words, or in an Armageddon cave eating canned foods for the rest of my life because the world is ending. Each moment’s journey begins and ends in a flash, and I intend to show up. No liberal screed, no Constitution, no Bible, no word of God, no dogma, no Heart or Lotus Sutra will replace that plunge for me.

I love words—mine, Shakespeare’s, or the Bible’s. But I gotta have mystery!

 

 

 

 

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NAZIS, ANGELS, AND KWAN YIN

It’s not even noon and already I’ve heard from a few people this morning about their fear of a conflagration with North Korea.

I don’t spend much energy on bemoaning Donald Trump and his divisiveness, bullying, and all-around ignorance. But I can’t ignore the impression I have that he, like so many other heads of state, can stumble into a completely avoidable war. If that happens, he will trumpet how necessary it is for our very existence and hope for a rise in his ratings.

The Jewish part of me, the one that’s concerned with survival at any cost, gets flinty hard when it comes to Trump. There is no question that he has provided legitimacy to racists, anti-Semites and white supremacists that they haven’t gotten in this country in quite a while.

I remember clearly a scene from the film Cabaret of a picturesque German village, people relaxing in a cafe against an Alpine setting, and suddenly we hear an angelic voice singing. The camera pans over to an equally angelic face, obviously of a very handsome young man, blonde and blue-eyed, singing a heavenly German song with a heavenly voice. You’d be proud to be this young man’s mother. Then the camera backs out to give us a bigger picture of him, and we see he’s wearing a brown shirt. It goes back even more, and we see the entire group known as Brownshirts, all handsome, fervent men, with loving and doting mothers, who acted as paramilitary to help bring Hitler to power, intimidating, brutalizing, and destroying anyone who stood in his way.

Angels can do some very bad stuff. They’re not Satan’s angels, they have good intentions, they want to be proud of their country once again, and they can do some very bad stuff.

The Jewish side of me gets frustrated with those who argue for nonviolence and inclusivity. I studied Gandhi’s teachings for a long time and deeply admire him. Gandhi actually respected soldiers because, he said, they are disciplined and ready to give their lives for what they believe even if he disagrees with them. He knew very well that nonviolence activists had to have equal discipline and training, so that they too would be ready to give their lives in the cause of nonviolence, and he trained his people accordingly.

That’s a far cry from many white people here, in good old safe USA, who announce they’re into nonviolence with no idea of the sacrifice that entails. I have a baseline litmus test for anyone telling me they’re into nonviolence: If people come with clubs and knives to beat and stab your children, what will you do?

At the same time, I know people change. The story of the Kwan Yin standing in our yard is that of a young man, a neo-Nazi carpenter, who asked his teacher who had helped him a great deal if there was something he could do for her. She, a Buddhist, asked him to carve for her a Kwan Yin, the female manifestation of compassion seen throughout Asia. This is the Kwan Yin that you see in the photo. The teacher died and we got the statue, and the story behind it. I have no idea what happened to the young man. Caro, who works on our garden, has put rocks around it and is in the middle of putting in plantings.

But today I read a very moving article about George Wallace in the Washington Post. If you lived in the 1950s and 1960s, who doesn’t remember George Wallace? His was the widely televised face of hatred and bigotry, screaming in favor of segregation, egging on his white supporters to fight for their rights forever. People lost their lives, often brutally, because of the hate he stoked. To many Americans, he represented the very opposite of Kwan Yin and I didn’t know too many who mourned when he was shot and doomed to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

But I also didn’t know about the latter stage of that life, when he publicly asked for forgiveness of African-Americans many times. I especially was moved by his words quoted in this article: I have learned what suffering means. He was referring to what it was to lose the use of his legs and to the tremendous pain he lived with to the end of his life.

People change. The circle must always remain open. And at the same, vigilance.

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GIVE ME MY CONDITIONING, OR GIVE ME DEATH!

Stanley, why are you chasing that man?

Because he’s running. Anything that runs, I chase.

Stanley, that’s Doctor Dave, who lives a mile down the road. He’s not running, he’s jogging. He does that every day.

Looks like prey to me, only a little slow-moving.

And the two bicyclists who just swooped down the road? Are they prey, too, Stanley? Is that why you chased them also?

‘Course. I chase prey. Isn’t that–whatddyacallit–my conditioning? You run, I chase. And if I get lucky, I’ll catch you and eat you.

Stanley, at your age you won’t catch any cyclists. You won’t even catch Doctor Dave. And even if you did, you won’t eat him.

I will if I’m hungry enough. The way you’re feeding me—

And you’ve got it all wrong, Stanley. The whole point of conditioning is to let go of it.

You’re kidding! Let go of conditioning? Why?

Because, Stanley, conditioning causes you to act in the same way all the time.

What’s wrong with that? Saves thinking.

What’s wrong with it, Stanley, is that nothing stays the same, every day is different, every situation is different. If a small animal runs away from you, it’s probably afraid you’ll chase and eat it. But Doctor Dave doesn’t run from fear, he runs for his health. Beside, he’s too big for you to eat, not to mention that you’ve already had your breakfast.

You call that breakfast?

The idea is to free yourself up from conditioning, Stanley, not keep repeating it.

How do I do that?

See each moment as new, Stanley. When something runs across your path, don’t just run after it, contemplate the situation. Look at who it is, ask what possible good comes out of chasing it.

If I do that I’ll never catch anything. And I won’t have any fun. I love to chase. Beside, how do you know that you’re conditioned?

Because you’re doing the same thing again and again even when it makes no sense, Stanley. Even if it works against you. Remember how mad Dr. Dave got many years ago when you chased him?

That was great!

He sent Animal Control over, Stanley.

And I snarled at them so loudly and showed them teeth that they were afraid to come in the house. Those were the days!

They could have taken you away, Stanley, all because you did the same thing again and again, chasing after humans and scaring them half to death even though humans are not prey. It was dumb and harmful. It was conditioned behavior!

It was fun! I want more conditioning, not less.

You exercised no discernment, Stanley, no freedom of choice.

Give me conditioning or give me death. But I prefer conditioning.

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IT’S ALL WRITING!

What are you doing?

I’m writing, Stanley. I always write in the mornings.

Is that what you call sitting there and staring at the screen?.

My fingers can’t just fly over the keys all the time, Stanley, sometimes I have to think.

So you’re thinking, not writing.

Sometimes I have to look out the window, Stan, and check out the leaves.

So you’re looking out the window, not writing.

You’re missing the point, Stanley. Writing isn’t just writing. Writing is thinking, questioning, getting frustrated, deciding you don’t know what to say, looking everywhere except at the white screen.

All that is writing?

I’m afraid so. When you’re lucky, writing is knowing exactly what you want to say and your fingers dance on the keys. But sometimes, Stanley, writing is thinking that you’ve never been any good and you’ve wasted your entire life.

That’s writing, too?

That’s the hardest part of writing, Stanley, the critical voice that just says “no, no, no, no.”

So when I beg for food and you say “no no no no,” is that writing also?

No, Stanley, it’s not remotely writing. You’re getting all mixed up.

Is getting mixed up part of writing?

Sometimes, Stanley.

So am I writing now?

You can’t write, Stanley, you’re a dog. And this conversation is another distraction from writing.

What’s distraction?

Once, Stanley, writers constantly sharpened pencils. That was a kind of distraction, only I think pencil sharpeners have disappeared. We now have new distractions, like emails, Trump, and Stanley. Pencil sharpeners were better.

So when do you write?

I write a lot, Stanley. I think about what to write, I try this, get rid of it, I try something else, get rid of that, I look out the window for inspiration.

Yes, but when do you write?

At some point something breaks through and I start writing, Stanley, but many times it looks like nothing’s going on. It’s all part of the creative process.

When you’re talking to me right now, are you writing?

Stanley, whenever I have a conversation with you I’m acting crazy, not writing.

What about when you feed me, is that writing?

Don’t be silly.

Car rides, cuddling, running around in the woods? Those are not writing?

Of course not, Stanley.

So how come everything is writing except me?

 

 

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ROCKET MAN AND CRAZY HORSE

Donald Trump has called Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, Rocket Man. If I was Kim Jong-un I’d ask all my friends and family to call me that.

Can’t you just hear the solicitous wife? Rocket Man, how was your day in the office?

Or the kids: Rocket Man, you’re home! Come let’s play Rocket League on Xbox.

Or his advisers: Rocket Man, when’s the next rocket?

Can you see it on billboards? Rocket man, who makes you safe.

Rocket Man, who’ll take you to the stars.

Rocket Man, fastest man alive.

I mean, who needs Supreme Beloved Leader?

What bothers me is that in doing this, Trump takes a potentially deadly encounter, nuclear weapons deadly, and makes of it a game. Anytime you caricature an enemy in this way, anytime you belittle the stakes involved, you’re setting the stage for that loss of complexity and humanity that are the first steps in committing atrocities.

What’s in a name? That a look at the above plaque: Bobtail Bull, Bloody Knife, Red Foolish Bear, Pretty Face. I used to think that Native American names captured characteristics of the people bearing those names, till I was told that at least among the Lakota, men often got the names of their fathers. So for example, Crazy Horse was originally His Crazy Horse, the name given to the great warrior’s father on account of an unsteady horse he had.

This plaque is one of many in the memorial to the Native Americans who died in Little Big Horn, and it’s the only one there listing the names of the Indian scouts who worked for Custer and died alongside him, including Bloody Knife, Custer’s favorite scout and highly regarded by the US army. (Notwithstanding what the plaque says, I don’t believe they were only Arikara.)

So what were they? Warriors? Mercenaries? Traitors?

When the memorial was first developed during the administration of George Bush, was there argument about whether to include them there or not? Did somebody say they betrayed the Indian cause, that they sided with the enemy and shouldn’t be memorialized alongside the many names of the Indian fallen?

Can a name ever capture the complexity of life? Never. But it acts as a pointer to something, and the question is: To what? To a caricature? To a fantasy game? A superhero? Or to a human being?

 

 

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NEAR MISS

Beginning of fall

Last night I had dinner with a good friend to celebrate her birthday. We have to celebrate things as they come up, I texted her, even when we don’t feel like it. Beside, I love to celebrate birthdays.

Japanese Zen emphasizes memorial days, when people leave this sphere of existence, as they say. I love birthdays because that’s the day that brought a new special self into the world, a new unique voice. When I think of my brother or sister, or my friends, I am so aware of how distinctive they are as people, of how no one is quite like them and of the impact they have had on my life, that I want to celebrate the day that started it all.

We had dinner, laughed, compared notes on writing, books, marriages, family, and everything else, and finished close to 9. Where’s your car? She pointed in one direction. And yours? I pointed in the opposite direction. We hugged, wished each other well, and I started walking to my car.

It was three rows away, and I had to go across an exit from an underground garage. It’s marked by a heavy white line, a big stop sign for the cars exiting the garage, and a strong light aimed squarely at the place where one crosses.

A jeep had exited the garage and come to a full stop at the white line by the sign, and I crossed. When I was halfway through it jolted forward, paused, and then lunged forward with an even greater jolt. The whole thing took about two seconds. In the first instant I sensed the first push on the accelerator, came to an instant stop, the jeep came to a stop with me smack in its headlights, and then to my shock it jolted forward again. I leaped forward and then stumbled, feeling its front fender right against my hip and food rushing up my throat.

Are you all right? the driver, a young woman, asked through her window with terror-stricken eyes behind her big glasses.

Other than nod, I couldn’t answer because I was too sick. Do you want to kill me? I thought silently. Why else would you press on the accelerator twice when I’m right in front of you?

I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, she said, scared out of her mind.

All I could do was nod and she drove away. A second car was there and another woman called out, Are you all right? She saw that I was in shock, trying not to throw up, and again I nodded in a haze.

She didn’t mean it, the woman said. I know her, she’s very nice, she didn’t mean it.

She drove off and I sat in my car with the door open and my legs outside. I still didn’t trust my body, especially my stomach.

Had those two young women also come together to celebrate a birthday? Had they also, like my friend and me, parked in different places? Had they met at the intersection, smiled and waved goodbye, and one almost ran over an older woman crossing the road right in front of the headlights?

I, too, have had near-misses when I was behind the wheel. When I lived in southwest Yonkers, one Friday night when I left the office a car turned the corner and whooshed by so close my clothes blew out from the movement of air. But it was not like this.

At home Stanley pushed his head against my leg again and again, nuzzling against my calf, and my heart beat rapidly when I realized how close I’d come to never experiencing this again.

Have you ever thought that I could die before you, Stan? I whispered.

He said nothing, just buried his head even stronger against my leg.

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A MIDNIGHT CONVERSATION

It’s midnight and the katydids outside are making an awful row. That’s because the females judge the males’ merits as mates according to the quality sound they make. Sitting in the dark on the steps outside and listening to the dark reminds me that, first and foremost, I’m alive. I’m alive.

But oh, we pesky humans, with our forever needs and urgent moods. In unguarded times, like when we’re tired or despondent, they come up again and again.

Why can’t you be happy all the time? asks Stanley.

I don’t know. The Buddha said it was because things change.

What does he know? Let me ask you this. Did you notice what you had for dinner?

No,I did not, Stanley.

A turkey sandwich, that’s what. Do you know how happy a turkey sandwich makes me?

Yes, Stanley, I think I know how happy a turkey sandwich makes you.

And do you remember what you had for breakfast?

No, Stanley, but you obviously do.

Granola! Not just granola, granola with seeds and nuts. I LOVE granola with nuts, especially if you have it with fruit yogurt, not plain. So why aren’t you happy?

I guess granola doesn’t affect me like it does you, Stanley.

Did you see all those piles of deer turds in the woods this morning? I LOVE deer turds, especially when there’s a trail of them. And did you see me leave a small pile of my own right by Ruby’s house? Hee hee hee! I bet she growls about that when she comes home!

I’m glad that German Shepherd wasn’t around to see you doing that, Stanley. You know how she feels about trespassing.

I LOVE doing those things to Ruby, it makes me so happy. And did you see me sticking my head out the window of the car when you drove down to Hadley? The smells of the cows, and the wind!

I know, I know, you just LOVE car rides, they make you so happy, Stanley.

What else do you need in life?

Good work, love, meaning, a sense of being of some value in the world.

[Shocked] Those make you happy? Not turkey sandwiches?

Sometimes turkey sandwiches, too. You know what a friend of mine once said to me, Stanley? “Listen my dear,” she said, “there’s nothing so beautiful that it doesn’t have dirt in it. And there’s nothing so dirty that it doesn’t have beauty in it. We work and work to find some way to purify things, make the whole thing beautiful, and maybe that’s the work of alchemy. Regardless of whether we succeed or not, the expanding work of life and love is to go wider and wider and wider.”

And that’s better than following a trail of deer turds or leaving a pile in front of Ruby’s house?

It touches me inside, Stan,

Turkey sandwiches touch inside.

It’s uplifting, Stanley.

Who cares about uplifting? You humans are so strange. You got food, you got the outdoors, you have all the car rides you want, all the granola and turkey sandwiches. SO WHY AREN’T YOU HAPPY?

I’m not a dog like you, Stanley.

Certainly not as good-looking.

 

 

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DOES DIVERSITY INCLUDE CANINES?

Stanley, I’ve decided that spiritual growth is a horizontal thing. You know how Caro pruned the apple tree out front so that its branches are more outstretched, covering more ground and giving more applies? I also want to cover more ground, listen better to others, stop being critical and thinking I know what’s best. I want to grow wide, not tall like a tree.

You’re growing wide all right.

I didn’t ask your opinion, Stan.

You sure ate a lot last night.

It was wonderful, Stanley. Different people brought such different food: Italian lasagna, Middle Eastern hummus, Greek chicken and salad, French desserts. I love meals like that.

Did you give me some?

Of course not, you’re a dog.

So let me get this straight. Does diversity include canines?

Of course it does, Stanley, but diversity does not mean we’re all the same or that what’s good for me is good for you, and vice versa. There is equality in diversity, but also differences.

But who gets to decide?

Who gets to decide what, Stan?

Who decides that one member of your diverse and equal group can’t have Italian lasagna or Greek chicken?

I do. Look at it this way, Stanley. You’re a member of a pack of dogs. Tell me, are all dogs equal?

Of course not, one is stronger or bigger than another.

Exactly. Because they’re different, Stan. They’re diverse.

Let me get this straight. In our pack at home, we’re also different—you, Bernie, and me—but you’re the one that lays down the law.

Most of the time, yes.

I think this diversity thing is over-rated.

Stanley, if you eat too much now, when you’re older and stiffer your knees and hips will suffer.

So?

You’ll be in pain, Stan.

I’m in pain when my food bowl is empty.

That’s different.

Of course it’s different! Everything’s different. So let me decide how much I can eat and how much I can’t.

No, Stanley, I’m the human, you’re the dog. I get to decide.

So much for diversity. Tell me one more thing.

What’s that, Stanley?

Does diversity include Chihuahuas?

 

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LOST IN YONKERS

Photo by Peter Cunningham

I had a dream the other night, and in that dream I lost Bernie. Not that he died, he simply left. One moment we were living here in New England, having our regular routine of affection, squabbling, affection, squabbling, and then a sudden breach, a sense that it’s enough already, maybe even too much, and things as they are just have to end.

And I’m living communally once again in southwest Yonkers where I used to live when we built Greyston. A whole group of folks lives there together doing some very nice work, but all I can think of is where is Bernie. Is he really so angry with me? I have to see him, talk to him, remind him of things.

All around me people are doing beautiful work, happy in their idealism, wanting to improve the world, reminding me so much of me and others years ago, while I get more and more bewildered. What now? What should I do with my life? Gone is the usual routine; the usual answers—writing, teaching, Zen Peacemakers, family, community—none of it make any sense to me. I have no idea how to go on from moment to moment.

If only I could talk to him, I think. He may decide it’s not worth it, we’ve been through too much, it’s only natural at this time to finally let go and be alone. But I need to give it another shot. Only I had no idea where he is.

There’s a couple in the commune that’s very much in love, expecting a baby, and they’re the only ones who know his whereabouts. He’s living in the Lattimore Houses, they tell me.

You mean the projects? I ask. I know that cluster of big buildings but still have to ask for directions.

You go down to the [Greyston] Bakery, the woman says, and then you turn left and go on till you find the Lattimore Houses.

So I put Stanley on the leash and start walking with him down towards the river and the bakery, the road I know so well, and once we get there we’ll go south and find the huge Lattimore Houses, with drugs in the hallways and on the stairs, often surrounded by police cars, and in one of those tiny apartments I’ll find Bernie.

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SUSAN

I’m trying to see clearer what it is not to have a job, to lose your family, to feel that life has left you behind. I’m trying to feel what it’s like to lose your moorings.

It’s easier to shout political slogans from the rooftops than to face fear and breakdown. I try to remember when I faced those things in my life.

Yesterday I wrote about how people escape depression and self-blame by going into painkillers and alcohol rather than engaging in the political process and changing things. I mentioned France, where political engagement is year-long, not just something you do around election time.

Tea party activists 8 years ago and Bernie Sanders activists now show how much can be done between elections, the working out of priorities and the organizing that, come election years, help them make a difference. Whether I agree with them or not, I admire that stick-with-it philosophy and their ongoing dedication. The Bernie Sanders group is finally making it legitimate to talk of things we could only dream of a few years back: single-payer health insurance, health insurance for all, free higher education, all the things that help level the playing field and make society and government generous forces in our life.

And I recognize that many don’t see it that way, and I try to understand and feel things through their eyes, too.

People say that animals stay away from those who are wounded, sick, or dying because they’re the ones picked off by predators. I feel it’s also a natural thing for all of us, humans and animals, to stay away from those of us that are hurting, as if pain and depression are contagious and we worry we’ll catch them if we’re not careful.

When I was a high school girl I admired my positive and bubbly classmates, the ones who had so much to say and confidence someone would always be there to listen, the ones that chirped about clothes, hair, boys, and plans for the weekend. It was the energy of life, I see now, the energy of growth, flowers waving gaily in a happy wind.

There was someone else in that class I’ll call Susan: a small, mousy girl with glasses, dark, short, curly hair, a bad complexion, and a body like a small phone booth covered every day in a white blouse and an unfashionable skirt. She sat in front of the class, had the best grades for 4 years running, and ended up valedictorian when we graduated.

There was grief in her eyes. There was something at home, I knew, but I can’t remember what it was. A disabled father? A divorce? The Holocaust?

Susan made some tentative gestures towards me, wanting to be friends, and I avoided her like the plague. She found a few friends to hang out with, and I had mine who were louder, wise-cracking, and full of gossip, but often when I stood with them I’d look at Susan from the corner of my eye as though she was the one I should be standing near, she was my true companion.

From early on Susan knew she wanted to be a doctor, a rarity among us girls at that time (our big objective was to get married), and that’s what she became. At our 25th reunion she was there with her husband, as diminutive as her, still quiet but self-assured, and again I watched her from the corner of my eye and wondered how much she healed others, and how much she healed herself.

This is what’s on my plate. Start a revolution and you’ll see me there. It’s time to make changes, to pay more tribute to the we rather than the I, care for the whole rather than just a fragment or two, because—what choice do we have?

But more and more I search for Susan inside, and the many Susans outside.

Who is not Susan among us? Who has not felt deeply flawed, a wrongness that tears us away from others, that plants us on our own invisible island even as we shop for groceries and nod hello to the mailwoman?

Who does not know that deep loneliness, the failure in love and work that’s created a breach between me and the rest of humanity, between me and the rest of me?

Which one of us hasn’t reached for something—a single-malt scotch, an unaffordable new sweater, a one-night stand, a few beers, a piece of chocolate cake—to relieve the isolation?

And who among us has the courage to get up morning after morning, creep out from under that rock and stumble forward, one small step after another, and show ourselves to the world?

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