WHY IS THERE NO REVOLUTION?

A rainbow in Hadley.

On this September 11, I find myself wondering why we don’t have more revolutions here. There’s an opioid epidemic, especially among the poor and unemployed, and suicide. Why do we have those instead of a revolution?

The unfairness of it all does not lie hidden. According to Wikipedia, if you add up all this country’s household and non-profit wealth, each American family should have an average of $760,000 in wealth—more than three-quarters of a million dollars! Instead, the lower 50% of households average $11,000 in wealth. The top 10% of families own more than three-quarters of American wealth, while the lower 50% hold 1%.

As a young girl, I used to read these numbers in connection with certain Latin American countries, those derisively referred to as banana republics. There was a dictator and his family who took most of the wealth, surrounded by a few landowners who owned most of the land, banks and companies, and almost everyone else was poor. This happened when there was a very small middle class. It happened when there was no democracy.

And it’s happening here now, with our democratic institutions still mostly in place (though often undermined). I do not blame it on the Trump era, this trend began long before him, with Ronald Reagan and continuing under both Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses. It has to do with an economic system that has severely undercut the middle class even as it has rarely brought much benefit to those with lower incomes. It has to do with how much power money exerts in state capitols and in Washington.

We don’t need a dictator to protect the few, we have a duly elected government that does just that.

So why isn’t there a revolution? Why aren’t people taking to the streets?

1776 notwithstanding, revolution doesn’t seem to be our way. In this country, if you have no money it’s because you’re a failure, you’re the only one to blame. In this country it’s a crime to depend on others’ generosity. It’s practically a crime to give birth and not instantly jump up and go back to work as soon as possible. Too many people have internalized that message, so instead of opposing it on the streets, in demonstrations and in the election booth, they take drugs.

Imagine what it’s like to be poor here. Not only are you struggling to make it to the end of the month, it’s all your fault as well even if you just lost your job after decades working, so shame and guilt pile up. At the very time when you need to stay strong, keep your head clear and keep on plugging, you’re told you’re no good. So we take drugs to dull the pain, we escape into television and bad food, we escape a society that’s punitive and humiliating, and we try to escape ourselves.

I can’t imagine this happening in France. There they fight for their piece of the pie, and the minute it looks like it’s shrinking they go on the streets. Trucks barricade the highways, students fill the Paris streets, unions shut things down. They turn on the government, not on themselves.

Here we turn on ourselves. We accept the blame, and at best become apathetic, finding relief in oxycodone; at worst we kill ourselves. The television stays on all day to show how others live, with their sharp clothes, McMansions and frivolous love lives, and if our lives aren’t remotely like that it’s no one’s fault but our own.

And when everything’s your fault, who has the energy to go out on the streets and change the system? Much, much easier to reach for another valium, another anti-depressant, another beer.

And maybe one of the reasons our society has been ready to countenance this, hey, even help pay for it, is that it’s much more fearful of the alternative.

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BOLOGNA

Stanley, why are you always so happy around mealtime? You’re practically hyperventilating from excitement.

I fended off starvation for one more day!

Pe-lease, you’ve never starved in your life.

Excuse me excuse me. Do you remember what I looked like when you first brought me home from the SPCA? Skin and bones, skin and bones. I was practically on my last legs!

You were thin, that’s true. But once you started eating, you never stopped. You put on so much weight those first several months that Dr. Brown told me to cut down on your food.

The beginning of a lifelong hatred.

You haven’t gone anywhere, Stanley, you haven’t seen other dogs. I once sat on a park bench in Mexico City eating a sandwich. The thinnest dog I ever saw came by. He looked like he was on his last legs, either from starvation or disease. I gave him my sandwich but he was so weak he couldn’t eat it, it just lay there.

He let a sandwich go to waste? What was in it, bologna?

I don’t eat bologna, Stanley.

Is that why you gave it to him?

No, Stanley, you’re missing the point. And when we were in the ashram in Tamil Nadu in India, there was a new mother with puppies. She was white with shades of brown, looked a little like a whippet with long thing legs. Since it was an ashram they didn’t give her any meat, just rice, and she was skin and bones. She had no milk for the pups. They chased her all the time, trying to get food, and she just snarled at them to leave her alone.

Did you smuggle in a bologna sandwich?

I couldn’t, Stanley. The truth is, in situations like that I don’t know what to do. In Mexico City, giving a sandwich didn’t help.

A dog that won’t eat a bologna sandwich is far gone.

That’s right, Stanley. You can’t wait till then, you have to be there a lot earlier, before someone is on his last legs, before someone is in despair and doesn’t even care about living or dying.

Once you’ve lost interest in bologna, it’s all over.

The world is full of animals and humans who suffer, who have no food or good water, who lose their homes, wander around, and die young. Seeing them in the last stages doesn’t do much good, you have to catch this early.

You have to take preventative measures.

Exactly, Stanley.

You have to make sure the mother is strong enough to nurse those pups, that they get bologna so that they can grow up strong and healthy, and make healthy pups of their own.

Now you’re talking.

You have to make sure that everybody in the world has enough bologna so that they can take care of their packs, and even if you fight here and there, as long as everybody has a place to go to when it’s cold and good water and enough bologna, the world will be a better place.

That’s wonderful, Stanley!

There won’t be any reason for anybody to be afraid or run away, or to live and die in misery. As long as there’s enough bologna and no Dr. Brown, everybody will be happy.

I’m not sure everybody eats bologna, Stanley.

Whoever doesn’t eat bologna deserves to die.

That’s the silliest thing I ever heard.

If you don’t eat bologna, if the smell of it doesn’t drive you crazy, doesn’t make you smack your lips and dribble, doesn’t make you hyperventilate and run round and round the table, then there’s something seriously wrong with you.

I’m still eating. Would you stop begging for food?

Just taking preventative measures. Any chicken left on your plate? Mashed potatoes?

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MORNING ENCOUNTERS

What can I say about our morning encounters? They happen when I come into the bedroom in the mornings as soon as I hear him stirring, and they start the same way.

How are you doing? How was the night?

Fine. Yours?

Fine.

And then we look at each other, and a world of unspokenness falls between us. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just too much to put into words. Or maybe it needs so many words it’ll take lifetimes to express, and we don’t have those lifetimes. So usually we don’t say much, just small talk that doesn’t hide but pays tribute to what isn’t said.

But there are hard days. We’re not different from other couples, we’ve had difficult times, and they ain’t over. They’re funny and sometimes very stark. I’ve learned to limit these conversations to a few minutes; talk about strong emotions has never been easy for Bernie, now more than ever.

We both speak much slower now, with longer pauses. So many of the words we used in the past are no longer necessary, the reactive words, words of denial. No no no just doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, so much from the past seems small—why did we ever bother going there? Why did we waste so much energy over that?

In mornings like this one, when Bernie is tired and feels more fragile, the immediate is what’s precious. Nothingness never felt so immense and full. If one of the crows outside loudly cawed both of us here nowboth of us here nowboth of us here now hour upon hour, it couldn’t feel more tangible than it does in this silence.

We’re still here, human, alive. Stanley lies on the rug by the bed. He’s long ago figured out what’s important: food walks attention, not necessarily in that order.

I’m very tired today, Bernie says.

The water therapy?

His eyes close, then open again.

If you don’t feel up to it, don’t do it.

Again his eyes close, open.

How are your spirits?

Spirits? he repeats, as if puzzled by the plural. Sometimes I feel bad about us, he murmurs, adds: Not depressed, not angry, nothing like that.

Sad?

Yes, very sad. I don’t think that happened in the past, there was much more then. Not now, now it’s just sad.

Me, too.

And that’s the end of it. I should get up and get dressed, he says, but closes his eyes instead. I continue to sit by him, Stanley on the rug. There’s an opening in the gray outside, letting in a bit of sunlight. Finally he opens his eyes, looks at the clock. Rae will come soon to work with him, he needs to get up.

It may not be much, but at least we meet there, I say.

Eh? He can’t hear well, he doesn’t have his hearing aides on.

At least we meet in sadness, I tell him. It’s better than no meeting at all. Much better.

And that, for the first time this morning, brings a smile to his lips.

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AM I A FICTIONAL CHARACTER?

Photo by Leeann Warner

I love walking around in Amherst.

People love you here, Stanley.

They sure give you some odd looks.

I think it’s because they think I’m talking to myself.

Talking to yourself? Why? Don’t they hear me?

Maybe a very few do, but most don’t, Stanley. They think I’m talking to some fictional voice inside my head.

What’s a fictional voice?

It’s the voice of somebody you make up in your head. When I was a young girl almost the only people I ever talked to were made up. My parents thought I was nuts.

[After a moment] Am I a fictional character? Am I made up?

You, Stanley? Let me think about that. Yes and no.

I hate it when you give me those kinds of answers.

You are flesh-and-blood.

Could use more flesh, if you ask me.

And that’s how most people know you. But when you’re with me, you become something else.

Like what?

Like Stanley. You know what I mean?

No.

Let me think how I can explain this.

Everybody calls me Stanley. By the way, did I ever tell you what a stupid name that is?

We actually thought of calling you Omar. We had you and Bubale and we figured that Omar and Bubale were a cute couple.

I’m glad that didn’t work out.

The Stanley that’s talking to me now ponders all kinds of things. He asks questions, he’s curious about life but he’s also sure of certain things. One of the things he’s sure about is that I’m weird.

That’s me, all right. Wait a minute, you mean, other humans don’t see me like that? They think you’re making me up?

I think that’s why I get such odd looks from folks. Like I said, they remind me of my parents.

But you’re the one who knows the truth about me!

Maybe you’re like that only when you’re with me. For instance, do you talk much when you’re with Bernie?

I do, but he never answers.

So what do you do?

I go to sleep. What does any dog do when nobody’s paying him any attention?

Precisely my point. You’re different with me than how you are with him.

No no, I’m always Stanley.

Nobody’s always anything, Stan.

Is this some kind of Zen thing?

Yes and no.

Here we go again. Would you stop saying that! Who taught you all this nonsense anyway, Bernie?

No, can’t blame this one on Bernie. Another Zen master called Bill Watterson.

 

 

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SHE TRIED; SHE DIED.

Photo by Caro Roszell

The oak tree in our front garden (apologies to Chao-Chou) had been full of thick branches and limbs generous with leaves, each of which was hacked by Andrew, of The Whole Tree (some irony there), till finally only the top branches were left, and you can see Andrew climbing up to go after them. At the end all that was left was the trunk, which came down in big thudding sections, till the last tall remnant came down with a ground-shaking blow, and one tree died.

It took most of a day. We positioned a couple of chairs on the side at a safe distance, and even Bernie came out to sit and watch. In old days this would have been a perfect time for a cigar, watching and commenting on the many careful things they did to bring down the tree away from the house.

Past a certain age you can’t help it, you see these things and the similarity to your own life, or its end stage, stares you in the face. Younger folks not so much, I think, but those of us contemplating the final third or quarter (as if we know!) can’t help but see parallels. Just like I can’t help but notice Stanley as he approaches 14, stumbling over his own weak legs as he hurries to Leeann or to a meal.

A woman I knew died relatively early from cancer, and declared that on her tombstone one could write: She tried; she died.

I laughed when I heard those words, and at the same time felt sad. This tree didn’t just try, it swaggered gloriously in the blue skies, slurping down the sun, providing refuge for birds, and shade and beauty to humans. Wrapped in our own shrunken skins, we’re full of judgment about this and that, as if one’s life can be summed up in words like try or struggle or make it through the day, when in reality we’re shining all the time, giving so much unawares.

I think of a man I know, a lovely human being. Whenever I meet Bob (not his real name) I smile. He has always been shy and self-deprecating even as he loves to laugh, and his face, with its short white beard, betrays a quality of sheepish joy. I love to coax a smile out of him, see his mouth open to show his strong white teeth. He’s always charming and gracious, yet when I ask him how he is he gives an awkward laugh, shrugs, and says, I’m trying.

You’re shining, man, I tell him. You’re glorious.

He chuckles awkwardly; he doesn’t believe a word. It’s not how he experiences himself; it’s not how he experiences life.

Bernie was once on a book tour giving talks. At the end of one talk he asked for questions. Someone raised his hand and said: Roshi, how can I be here now? He was clearly using the phrase made famous by Ram Das.

At that point Bernie looked at the audience and said, Whoever’s not here now, please stand up.

No one stood up.

Do you really believe you’re not here now? Do you really think you’re just trying? Or can it be, as Hafiz wrote, that you are the sole heir to the King.

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A TREE COMING DOWN

We’re cutting down a magnificent oak tree that’s smack in front of the house. This will bring in more sun into the house, will help the flowers grow, the apple tree bloom, and it removes the hazard of the tree falling on the house. It’s coming down for all the right reasons, and it feels terrible.

The flowers will be happy. Ten years ago we had so many with colorful blossoms, but that was before the branches on top filled out. The dahlias have stopped growing, and whatever does emerge from the ground drops its petals quickly, as if ours isn’t a friendly neighborhood. The hanging baskets droop, and the plants in the two big vases up front don’t last the summer. The apple tree has struggled from day one, its energy perhaps consumed by envy looking at its enormous neighbor that hogs the light.

So down the tree will go. Its death will usher in the sun for many, including us inside the house.

Some 20 years ago I had an elegant lunch sitting next to an elected official in the city of Santa Barbara. Before running for office he was a veterinarian, and a few years later, when he decided to return to normal life (as he put it), he went back to work and doctored our dogs, among many. He was a suntanned, handsome man, on the taciturn side.

At some point the conversation turned spiritual and he told me he didn’t believe in God.

Why not? I asked.

Because I can’t believe in any divine being who demands that some die so that others live, he said, and that was that..

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WHY SHE DIDN’T COME INTO WORK

How you doing, Wanda?

Doing good, doing good.

That’s how Wanda and I used to greet each other in the late 1980s when she’d come in to work 7 hours after me. We both worked at the Greyston Bakery, which was started by the Zen Community of New York in Yonkers, and I’d be reviewing orders for cakes and tarts in the front office while Wanda worked in packing in the back of the baking floor.

The packing room consisted of an enormous built-in commercial freezer. Every day the packers would go in there, haul out trays full of 6” or 10” heavy Chocolate Mousse or Lemon Mousse cakes, not to mention the different tarts, and pack them up in the brown cardboard boxes that said Greyston Bakery with its logo of the polounia leaf (in the old days it said a livelihood of the Zen Community of New York).

Eddie the driver would come in very early in the morning to start his long route of deliveries, the bakers and clerical staff (that was me) would come in around 8, and the packers, including Wanda, would arrive in mid-afternoon to pack up the new product and prepare the next day’s delivery based on the list of orders and customers that I generated.

Wanda worked alongside two men in the packing room. She was big and heavyset, incredibly strong, and pulled and carried those heavy cakes and trays like one of the guys. She was a single mother with children, and before coming to do a packing shift she did another shift of work somewhere else starting in the early morning. That didn’t prevent her from coming into the bakery in full make-up, wearing nice street clothes with a couple of thick gold strands around her neck and bracelets round her wrists, before changing into whites and putting her hair into a net, as we all had to do orders of the Board of Health.

She was friendly but practical, getting to work right away, always on time, dependable as a clock, never missing one day of work.

Till she did. One day she didn’t show up. Didn’t send a message, didn’t call, not a word. In a bakery in the middle of downtown Yonkers, where employee absenteeism was always a problem, Wanda’s one day of absence alarmed her boss, Howard.

Guess who didn’t come in to work today? he told everyone. Wanda. I hope she didn’t get into a big accident. If Wanda missed a day of work, it had to be bad.

The next day Wanda came in, put on her whites and went back to work as though nothing happened.

Hey Wanda, said Howard, the most amiable man in the world, good to see you. What happened yesterday?

Wanda gave a brief shake of her head. Gave birth, she said.

No one had any idea she was pregnant under those large bakery whites, so no one said anything about how maybe she shouldn’t be carrying boxes of cakes or pulling the heavy tray roller back and forth. She didn’t want them to know. She worked without saying a word to anyone, gave birth one day, came into work the day after, and wouldn’t have said a word if Howard hadn’t asked.

When Mitt Romney spoke five years ago of how only 47% of our population really carries their weight, the rest sponging off the system, I instantly thought of Wanda and whether he or I were the parasites sponging off of her. I thought of how you can’t judge anyone till you’re standing in their shoes.

I thought of all the single mothers I’d see waiting with their children in school bus stops, the children dressed in boots, coats and gloves against the winter cold while the mothers often shivered because they’d just slapped something on quickly before hurrying the kids out the door. I’d overhear them asking their neighbors to pick up their kids at 3 when the buses came back because they’d be at work, and could they keep them around for a few hours till they came home.

And if you were like Wanda, you finished one job and hurried on to the second, carried your pregnancy to term and gave birth without saying a word to your employer in case the man got it into his head to let you go.

And I also think of Wanda when I’d spot her on weekends, walking down Main Street with several young children in tow, dressed to the nines, bejeweled and made up, nails manicured in burgundy, laughing and razzing with her friends, going inside McCory’s for breakfast, loving those weekends.

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HOW CAN I BE A SHADOW IF I DON’T WEAR BLACK?

I was supposed to lead sesshin, a Zen meditation retreat, for 5 days, and never made it. The person who undertook to take care of Bernie was not well, and there wasn’t enough time to make other arrangements. The sesshin goes on without me, as it should. But last night, Norman came for another visit.

I’ve been blessed with many shadows in my life, but Norman has been so persistent that we’ve grown almost fond of each other.

Eve, he hums sibilantly in my ear at around 2 am, don’t you wish you weren’t here?

Long time no see, I say sleepily. You’re the one I wish weren’t here, Norman.

Miss anything? he croons.

Only some peace and quiet.

How about sitting? Don’t you miss sitting?

I’ll sit in the morning.

I mean really sitting, he warbles. Settling in for the long haul. Letting everything else drop—Bernie, dog, house, work, everything—and settling down.

It’s not that simple when you’re leading a retreat.

After the first couple of days the retreat runs itself, you’ve said so yourself many times,

I considered a minute. Okay, I feel sad about it.

Ha! he practically hoots in triumph. Now we’re getting somewhere!

I wish Stanley would chase him out of the house, but the dog’s asleep on the rug next to the bed. There’s nothing wrong with being sad, Norman.

Are you kidding me? Who chooses to be sad?

Sad isn’t terrible. Look at the trees outside, they know we’ve begun the end of summer, they know what’s around the corner. But see how beautiful they are.

So what are you saying, that sad is beautiful? Beside, how do you know that trees get sad?

How do you know they’re not? Why am I even wasting my time talking to you, Norman?

You tried to ignore me for many years, remember? I’d dance around the room silly, trying to get your attention, but you couldn’t give me the time of day—or night.

Now we call that spiritual bypassing. At least I didn’t drink or do drugs to avoid you.

No, you did worse. You meditated and studied.

That’s bad?

It is if you do them to keep me away.

Well, Norman, now we’re pals. I know I can expect you anytime I don’t feel so great, only I wish you wouldn’t always wear black. Can’t you change your get-up?

How could I be a shadow if I didn’t wear black?

At least put in an earring or two.

I don’t want to talk about me, I want to talk about you: about the retreat that’s going on without you, about the hours you don’t manage to write, about how old you’re getting—

I’m 67—

About how old Stanley’s getting. Speaking of the trees out there, you think your autumn hasn’t begun? Ha!

I’m planning on a rebirth starting tomorrow. You might consider same. And for your information, I love autumn. Did you ever hear Billie Holiday’s “Autumn in New York?” Gorgeous.

What about the retreat you’re not doing?

I’m getting sleepy. You know, Norman, you used to be one nasty hungry ghost. You’re not so nasty anymore, you’re even cute.

Move a little bit, make some room. Haunting you is hard work, I could use a nap.

Do you snore? Bernie says I snore softly.

Softly’s okay, but no louder.

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WHAT’S YOUR NAME?

Thai cuisine at the Crow Agency Powwow, Montana

What stays with me most from our time in Montana and Wyoming with our Native American elders?

Not trauma, not tears (many as they were). What stay with me are the faith, hope, and laughter in Manny Iron Hawk (who has a hearty, ready laugh) and the squinting determination of Violet as she peers forward while driving her big old station wagon, granddaughters in the back seat, and telling me her tales. The low hills in the distance speed by, as do the gentle pastures of enormous ranches, and I track the progress of white clouds while listening to her.

In New England I have to peek between leaves to see the clouds; not so in Wyoming, where they make interesting shapes. Look at that, it looks like a buffalo! See that one? Looks like a lion crouched over a cave.

I’m reminded of my mother, who has talked about her Holocaust trauma since the time I was a baby. It was one of my earliest and most lasting memories, and I watched vigilantly in later years to see when that will finally fade, when the effects will end. It doesn’t fade, they don’t end. Even when she doesn’t tell her stories, the corners of her graceful lips droop and her eyes go somewhere far away, where you’re not in the room, other people and things are in the room. So while traveling with Violet, I took a few minutes to appreciate what it’s like once more to sit with someone and listen to trauma.

But this is different. Manny and Violet personify faith. Not the heart-thumping, fist-to-the-sky faith, something heartful that has to do with the land. When you’re with them, land and people merge into one blooming life force that goes on and on, unfathomably. Just getting your own true scale in all that brings relief and even laughter, and helps me see my role more clearly.

And what is that role? Look right and left, and ask: What’s your name?

That’s what we did in the beginning of our gathering. Renee led us in a get-acquainted process, and after moving around in response to various cues, you had to look to the person to your right and the person to your left and ask: What’s your name? Implied in that is: Who are you? What do you need?

I return to New England and see how much works and even flourishes here on this heavy August day, the beauty that’s undeniably here as so many struggle all around the world, the exquisite complexity of it all.

I saw a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle at the Visitors Center of Bear Lodge in Wyoming, also known as Devils Tower. Put all together, it showed the picture of Bear Lodge according to Native Americans, an immense bear going after a group of girls who are standing on that rock and praying for help, and the rock climbing up higher and higher and higher, taking the girls out of harm’s way.

If you look at any one piece of the puzzle you can’t see the picture, and in that light I’m dumbfounded by people fascinated and upset by every twist of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, every little tweet of the reality TV star currently occupying the White House. They’re no different from a child mesmerized by every little corner, every little convex and concave bend of the jigsaw pieces, and missing the big, big picture.

In dualistic language, there’s suffering and there’s laughter. But they meet, they surely do, they surely do.

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