WE ARE NOT SISSIES

Temperature at 8:30 in the morning: 17 degrees (-8 Celsius). Feels like: 7 (-14 C).

Intrepid woman and dog on the road, stop by horses to give red apples, then go into the woods. Dog in terrific red winter coat, woman in long silk underwear, 15 year-old Salvation Army burgundy coat used only for winter dogwalking, shawl, woodman’s gloves, and Bernie’s Auschwitz retreat hat.

Stanley sometimes limps on the road because of the salt the plows use to clear the ice, and every several minutes I bend down to wipe the salt off his paws. But the minute we enter the woods with their fresh, unsalted snow he limbers and cheers up, tail wagging, body free and easy under the snazzy Eddie Bauer red coat I bought over 10 years ago for our Pit Bull Bubale, spending more money than I’d ever spent on a coat for myself. It’s furry warm on the inside, water-resistant on the outside, buckles rather than Velcro so the dogs don’t lose it in the woods, and it has served two dogs very well even in the hardiest of weather.

As for me, the question I face is not how cold it is outside, but how cold it is inside. How often do I get up in the morning and keep my guard even as I shower, make coffee, sit, walk around, do things? How sheathed is my heart from affection, humanity, feelings, love?

There are big questions nowadays as to whether artificial intelligence will advance into human intelligence and conquer the world. I’m more concerned with the opposite trend. I can turn into artificial intelligence on a dime, doing all the necessary things and even more, filling up the day with words and activity, doing an hour of this and 4 hours of that, checking the calendar and the planner, but not the heart as it meets the moment and says: So what’s up?

A friend said to me yesterday on the phone: Is there anything that defeats Eve?

Lots of things defeat Eve, I told her, but this is not for now. It was early morning, the best hours for writing and creativity. Personal reflection could wait for the evening.

What I could have told her was: I think I need more defeats. Less war, more concession. You get to a point when you know there is no point to fighting, there never was. You never had to be a warrior, at least not in that way. Yes, you had to do your best, sometimes go out in all weather, but at times also let yourself crumple up into a wet dishrag, make a stupid joke or take a minute to listen to one. No, take five minutes to really laugh, meet the eyes, maybe follow up with a variation, then ask, Is now a good time for coffee?

Recently I read in a post by Frank Ostaseski: The choice, the only choice we really have is to be open or closed. The rest, as they say in Jewish study, is commentary.

 

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REGALOS

I’m watching snow come down in this early Tuesday morning and feeling like the luckiest person alive. Outside even the squirrels aren’t swinging away at the birdfeeders, and the birds too have decided to sleep late. A hawk flew high over the trees before, finding no breakfast here; otherwise it’s motionless except for snowflakes raining down on the white ground.

The ground is white here, a friend told me on the phone on Sunday, white with ash.

She was talking about Santa Barbara, where I’d hoped to have vacation this week. Bernie and I had lived there for over 2 years, in a compound of several homes that once belonged to the Beach Boys. When yoga teachers tell me to imagine a place of peace, beauty, and refuge, our home in Santa Barbara always comes to mind, and specifically sitting on a white Adirondack chair right at cliff’s edge, looking down at the Pacific Ocean, spotting dolphins and whales as they make their way between our beach and the Channel Islands.

There’s a piece of home that Santa Barbara alone captures for me, the piece that says you are enough, the world is enough, you are given this beauty not because you worked hard to deserve it, but just because.

Not this time, because of the fires.

You can’t sit outside anywhere without a mask, she told me. So I imagined myself sitting on the white chairs wearing a mask, breathing in the ash, smoke and particles (they get into your nose one way or another, she warned), looking out to sea, and thought it would make for a funny photo. Behind me I wouldn’t be able to see the mountains because of the smoke, and the haze would descend all the way down to the water, so even the fish wouldn’t surface.

I stayed here. Canceled all the wonderful people who enrolled to help out here at the house while I was gone, and stayed here, where it’s snowing and silent. Nothing moves.

Regalos, I think, is the Spanish word for gifts. I’m teaching myself Spanish using the Pimsleur courses that you can download from the Web. But I keep on forgetting that word though it seems to appear in every leccion. I get the vowels mixed up. Regalos, I repeat over and over again.

Bernie is sleeping late today, and why not? It’s a snow date; schools are closed. It’ll be just the two of us, along with Stanley, who, after breakfast, is also sleeping, not stirring even once by my desk.

These things are unbelievably precious to you at two periods of your life: When you’re a kid and schools are closed, and when you’re much older. The first because you’re going to run out and build a snowman; the second because you’re missing snow even as it falls.

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WOULD YOU SETTLE DOWN ALREADY!

You know, Bernie, in my first marriage my then mother-in-law kept telling us that what she wanted was for us to settle down. “Settle down,” she would implore me, “please.” I think she looked more at me than at her son because she already knew where the trouble lay.

Settling down is good, says Stanley, settled on the rug.

Parents always want their children to settle down.

What does that mean? asks Bernie.

I’m not sure, but I hear it all the time when parents talk about their children: “This one is doing well, this one is fine,” but there’s always one child who has problems because s/he never settled down. I think it refers to getting married, having a career, having kids, having a home.

Two out of four ain’t bad, says Stanley, chewing on his bone.

Which two, Stan?

I have a home and I built a career as Montague’s greatest guard dog.

My point is, I always had the impression that settling down—family, career, possessions—showed maturity. If you didn’t choose that path it meant you hadn’t settled down and your parents worried about you day and night.

Do you think I’ll ever settle down? asks Bernie.

Naah, you’ll be a wild man for the rest of your life.

What about you? he asks.

I used to be wild but I can’t do that anymore, I have to take care of you.

Taking care of me is you being you, he says.

What does that mean?

Taking care of me is you having your life; that’s what taking care of me is.

No one says anything till Stanley’s black nose pushes up against the tablecloth. Did you finish eating? Is it time for me to lick dishes?

Settle down, Stan, I tell him. Just settle down.

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THE GREAT MAN’S ENLIGHTENMENT

Well, we tried to take the day seriously. We sat to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment, all the bells, bows, and whistles. But sometime after 1:00 the snow started coming down heavily and I decided to abort because I don’t like to drive in heavy snow.

What are you going to do? asked Bernie when I returned home earlier than expected.

I’m tired, I’ll think I’ll take a nap.

But instead I decided to take Stanley out into the snow. Take Stanley out? Who am I kidding? No, take me out. After all, it was the first snow of winter, calling me out to play just like it did many years ago, just like it does every year. You want to leap into the air to greet those flakes and welcome them back for another season, feel the gratitude that I lived for another winter to see more snow.

So Stanley, who has seen 14 years of snow and never tires of it, went out with me. We were so excited we forgot about his collar and leash, forgot about his sweater and even about our hunting vests. We walked up to the road where no cars traveled, then turned into the woods, forgetting about the hunters. Climbed up the hill, Stanley half running in delirium (Act your age! I tell him), and then slid back down the slippery path, Stanley cheering me on happily: Cool!

Came home and walked out to the back. The birds were at the full birdfeeders, the birdbath had water for them, and I wanted to leap into a snow bank. But there was no snow bank yet, just a couple of inches of snow, so we went back home and appreciated the warm house and a warm cup of tea.

It was the perfect way to celebrate the great man’s enlightenment.

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THE BE PARK (BUDDHA’S ENLIGHTENMENT)

According to Japanese Zen, tomorrow is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, marking that early a.m. when Shakyamuni Buddha, seeing the morning star, fully awakened. Usually we mark this day with a lot of meditation, sitting even through the night.

Recently, however, I’m been mulling over Bible museums and parks that replicate everything from the Garden of Eden to Noah’s Ark and beyond, with enactments of a naked Eve eating an apple every day at 10 while Cain kills Abel at 4, and I had an idea: Why not a Buddha’s Enlightenment theme park?

Okay, sit with the idea, but only to let it carry you away.

First, we replicate the palace in which he was born and grew up, with lots of pretty damsels and perpetually-smiling servants.

Then we offer a guided tour, preferably on chariots, of dark and dangerous alleyways populated by folks who’re sick, old, or dying (preferably all three), easy to design since all we have to do is replicate the streets of any modern city. This part, of course, will be optional since not everybody wants to go this route.

Then we’ll invite the more progressive ones among us to take off our made-in-China clothes and burn them in a big bonfire; tossing our families in the fire optional, as are toasted marshmallows.

We will then do a pilgrimage to various teachers staffing the park but make sure not to call it dharma shopping. We’ll call it the Ascetic’s Tour, charge for organic cotton rags made by Patagonia but include a diet plan for free.

And then: Bodh Gaya. Imagine an immense hall filled with trees with Bodhi leaves constantly raining down so that you could gather them as gifts for the folks back home.

Each tree will come with its own seating: Economy will be nothing; Business Class will offer a chaise lounge, and First will provide a bed with full bath. Snack, of course, is rice pudding, dairy or vegan.

After you sit down there will be 1 minute of silence, followed by shows of attachments of all kinds: Economy will see historical scenes of the Holocaust and secret footage taken from operating slaughterhouses, Business will see the Kardashian sisters and their husbands, while First will feast on Playgirls and Playboys of the month. All shows to be followed by Sound and Light when morning star appears.

Voila!, as Stanley would say.

If you will it, it will happen. Who has time to sit for long periods? Would you really pay to see things just as they are? The business of non-transformation is long and hard, with nothing to show at the end. The Buddha’s Enlightenment Theme Park, or BE-Park, is the real way to go.

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THE STUPIDEST BLOG EVER

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me.

It’s not your birthday, Stanley, it’s my birthday.

Yes, but we’re all one so your birthday is my birthday. Your birthday steak is my birthday steak.

No it’s not, Stan. What is this, socialism Zen? I don’t like steak and I never eat it on my birthday.

Chocolate cake? Hamburger? I’m not fussy.

You know, Stanley, Bernie often says that each of us tends towards a particular side of things. Some tend to live life out of their daily discriminating experience, involved with the many different forms of existence, with little sense of anything else. When that’s taken to an extreme, we say they always “know.” Others prefer to live out of concept-less unity, where everything is equal and same, undifferentiated or labeled, sometimes referred to as True Self. When that’s taken to an extreme, we say they always “no,” meaning they always say there’s no real self, there’s no-doing, no-seeing, no-hearing, no smelling. Bernie says we all tend to gravitate to one or the other. Right now, Stan, I think you’re gravitating to the second. You follow me?

No.

See these horses, Stanley?

What horses?

Exactly. When you were a lot younger, Stan, the minute you saw horses you’d pull against the leash, whimper and bark, trying to get to them. Maybe you didn’t know they were “horses,” but you were aware they were some live things with a strong scent, enough to get you riled up and react. You knew there was something there, you were a “knower.” Now, you don’t acknowledge anything’s there, certainly not horses.

What horses?

So now you’re a “no-er.” Got it?

No.

Only I suspect you’re not a real no-er, Stanley.

How do you know?

I suspect you’re aware something’s there, but your ears and eyes are no good, and you’re old and arthritic, and whatever it is in front is much bigger than you are, so you ignore them. Ignoring something is not coming out of no-self. It’s not a “no,” and it’s not a “know.”

So what is it?

It’s ignorance, Stanley, plain and simple.

Oh, yeah? What do you call not liking steak? And what are you doing?

I’m taking out my apple. Oh yes, I forgot, if we’re all one, then my apple is your apple. You want an apple, Stanley?

An apple? That’s what you get for your birthday instead of steak?

It may have something to do with my name.

Nah, give it to the horse. If we’re all one then it’s his apple too.

 

 

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IT AIN’T TOO MUCH LOVE

I think I count 80 panels, I tell Bernie.

80 panels of messages from teachers and senior practitioners over almost 50 years who wrote their thanks and good wishes for Bernie in a Memory Quilt.

One said Hang in there, man. Bernie’s nose looks funny—I call him Elephant Man lately—because of the surgery done to his nose to extricate carcinoma. A big hole, and there’s still carcinoma left. So a second surgery will take place before Christmas to restore his nose to its former glory, and once that heals, radiation.

The good news is that Bernie has a Third Eye. Of course, we knew that for many years, but it’s become more visible lately, which probably accounts for the special vibrations we’ve been feeling in the house.

Bliss, bliss, bliss, says Stanley as he walks around the house.

The woman who put the Memory Quilt together is June Tanoue, a teacher of Hula and Zen practice. Back at the White Plum Asanga meeting that took place last June in Los Angeles, she pitched the idea to various teachers there, then followed up with those who weren’t there, and the result is a quilt of some 80 panels of memories, gratitude, and love from folks in Japan, Europe, and the US, compiled and finally sewn together by June.

I had no idea June was doing this, I tell Bernie.

Oh yeah? says he. What about this? And he points to a panel that says: Om San Ma Ya Sa To Ban, I am the Buddhas and they are me. The date says: December 1986-ongoing. And it’s signed: Eve

Those words are from the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy, celebrating our recognition that we are all Buddhas, awakened beings. And back during a retreat in 1986 I told him that while I recited the words like everyone else, I didn’t believe them. So I can’t say them, Sensei, I explained.

Sure you can, he said. Say them now.

I looked at him stupidly. I am the Buddhas and they are me.

I kept on saying and chanting those words all these years. Somebody forged my name, I tell him.

He looks at the drawings and the words, from people who have known him over half a century. We should hang this up, he says.

June suggests you use it as a quilt, to cover yourself with all that love, I say.

He mulls it over.

I’ll take it, volunteers Stanley.

Forget it, says Bernie, we’re hanging it up.

Just because it’s too much love for you doesn’t mean it’s too much love for me, Stan tells him.

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THEN WHY AM I SO HUNGRY?

Stanley, do you notice how much of Buddhism sounds negative even though it isn’t?

No.

Everything is always based on non. Nonexistence, nonthinking, nondoing.

Noneating, Stanley says. I’m getting thinner by the day.

Not according to the straps of your orange vest you’re not. I had to loosen them this morning. And noneating doesn’t refer to starving yourself, just like nondoing doesn’t refer to just lying around. They all refer to not living according to your concepts of things, you know what I mean?

No. Maybe you mean naaneating. I love Indian food.

No, Stanley, I don’t mean naan. It’s like this. I am making salmon today for dinner.

I love salmon!

That’s the point, Stan. You get stuck on the notion of eating salmon. Nonsalmoneating is like taking a bite of something and losing yourself in it, forgetting the notion of eating salmon. You’re taking a bite of the universe, Stan!

But the universe tastes like salmon.

Or turkey or lamb or squash or vinegar or Mexican adobo sauce, depending on circumstances. When we engage in nonsalmoneating, we’re aware that what’s going on isn’t just Stanley eating salmon leftovers, what’s going on is a functioning of the universe that can’t be captured in words, but you miss that, Stanley, because you get so hung up on the difference between salmon and vinegar, say, or salmon and tomato juice.

I hate vinegar and tomato juice!

My point entirely, Stan.

And there IS a difference between salmon and vinegar.

Of course there is, but when we get caught up in those differences we miss the whole picture.

And what’s the whole picture?

Everything is always in the mix, Stanley. When you’re eating salmon, it’s not just the fish but also the water and the plants in the water and the light and the nets and the fishermen and their families and—

Their dogs too?

Their dogs, too—

You mean I’m a cannibal!—

And their cats and the worms and the earth and the grass and the stars—

I’m eating all that?

Exactly right, Stanley! Now you’ve got it. You’re eating all that.

So why am I so hungry all the time?

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THE SELF IS THE LEAST OF IT

My right hand is making mischief this morning, Bernie announces in the car. We’re driving down to Springfield for his appointment with a radiation oncologist.

What kind of mischief? I ask.

First it dropped water on my pants when I took my medications. Then it dropped my cup of coffee on the table. Not on my pants.

Is that the same right hand that smacks me around when you’re not looking? I inquire.

The very same, he announces.

We make our way down 91, which has one lane closed for miles, and I think that nothing humbles one like disease. And love.

Never mind. The self is the least of it. Let our scars fall in love.
The first step… shall be to lose the way.

I think Galway Kinnell wrote the above lines. I kept them someplace because I found them haunting and mysterious, but also strange and incoherent. Yet this afternoon it really hit me that love is a very humble thing.

Sometimes people say that love will conquer all. I think that’s very American because in this culture we often see things in terms of strength, power, even war. As if life is a war that will be conquered by love.

A particular song phrase refrained throughout our last Auschwitz-Birkenau retreat: Love is the path. Maybe, I thought, maybe not.

I think that the people who love the most are precisely those who know that love won’t conquer all. It won’t conquer death, illness, old age, exile, genocide, epidemics, or children starving to death. Those people love not because they want to win the fight, but because it’s the best they can do. As the poet says, there’s nothing to direct here or control. If anything, you have to be ready to lose your way.

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SHOOTING SEASON

The shooting season has begun again, time to put on orange vests, listen for gunshots, look out for trucks parked along access paths into the woods, examine their license plates—are they local? Are they from New York?

I trust the local hunters more because they know the woods and animals, usually hunt for meat they’ll use over the winter, and most important, they know what they’re doing. They won’t shoot a pregnant deer; they won’t shoot and wound rather than kill.

On Saturday I was back in the woods with Stanley and a friend, we were busy talking, looked up, and there were 3 deer standing some 15 feet away. They were as surprised by us as we were by them, and all of us just stared at each other for half a moment till one deer stamped his hoof, turned and ran down to the creek, and the other two followed. It’s hunting season, I murmured, as though I was saying goodbye to them.

In the past few weeks, Bernie and I have done our own bearing witness retreat right here at home. We watched the 5-part documentary series, OJ: Made in America. I can’t remember any documentary that has captured me so from beginning to end. It retells the story of O.J. Simpson, who, as so many know, was put on trial for murdering his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in the mid 1990s.

I knew all the facts, but seeing the documentary was like seeing a human being rather than a skeleton. It was about everything American: sports, money, race relations, relations between men and women, the cult of celebrity, and the media.

Listening to all those voices was like riding a rollercoaster. How could I not admire Simpson for his talent, hard work, intelligence, and generosity (not to mention good looks) in the beginning? And when I saw the photos of his wife’s body lying in pools of blood, head almost decapitated, how could I not loathe him so deeply that I actually turned my eyes from the screen when he appeared?

I detested Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles cop caught on tape denigrating African Americans and taking pride in his power and their humiliation, and by the end of the documentary, when he described what had happened to his life after the trial, my heart wept for him. I was angry with one woman juror who implied, of Nicole Simpson, that any woman who doesn’t know how to leave a dangerous man and situation has what’s coming to her. But by the end of the series that same woman was reflecting on the toughness and resilience of her own life, and I realized that everything life had taught her has come hard.

Each and every person there—football player, model wife, lawyers, agents, police, journalists, fathers and mothers—played a role, each saw things from his/her point of view, and even those you disliked suffered. My feelings towards them careened from love to hate and then to fondness, like how you feel towards old friends who’ve been through hoops. I hated them and respected them, and at times could do nothing but just shake my head. The action was all in Los Angeles, but they weren’t far from me, it was all so familiar. Depending on the circumstances, saints turned into villains and villains turned into well-intentioned people, if not saints. And the dead were still dead.

The trial of the century, they called it. Maybe, but the story was everyone’s, I thought.

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