THE SPACE IN BETWEEN

Early this morning of Memorial Day I took my fast walk without Stanley, still sleeping back home. The trees were heavy and wet, flooding me with raindrops, and I could see the start of summer in their darker, droopier color of green. I walked by the horses. They were in their barn after 24 hours of rain, but they saw me through the open doors and came out of their stalls, so I gave them their apples and resumed my fast walk.

On the way back Gala pranced and snorted, and approached the electrified fence. This was a surprise; they know that on my way back I no longer have apples for them and they usually don’t bother. So I came towards the fence too and stretched out my hand to show her there were no apples. But she remained where she was, looking straight at me, so I tried to stroke her, which she usually likes, and she backed off.

I withdrew my arm and she approached the fence again, bent her head forward, I bent mine, and she licked me in the face. It was the first time she’d done that, so I tried to reciprocate the only way I knew how, which was to stroke her again, and again she moved away. Then she came back, pushed her head forward, I bent mine forward and she licked my face, and she kept on licking it over and over as I just stood there, head proferred. Finally she stopped, walked off, and resumed munching grass.

Is connection between species more common than connection between humans? Not only are we humans so much in our heads, the reason we go there is to deny how deeply and dearly we yearn for connection. Is that why so many people love their dogs and cats more than the humans they live with? Something speaks through them to us, and if we could stop being such cowards and finally look into the eyes, then maybe something will speak through us to them.

I think those two somethings are actually the same thing recognizing itself in a second form. It looks from Gala to me and from me to Gala and says: Here I am. But what’s the word for connection when it’s one thing connecting with itself? Maybe God’s words in the Book of Exodus: I am that I am.

Zen practice has taught me a lot about attention. Connection goes beyond that. It’s not putting out your arm to stroke someone else, it’s not about doing for someone. It’s about emptying yourself of your self, and whatever’s still there, which we sometimes call emptiness, can then recognize itself in the other.

I never saw as clearly as I did this morning that animals do that, trees do that, birds and bare branches you brush lightly away as you walk among them do that. It’s an intelligence not in our sense of intelligence, timeless and so close it’s beyond family, beyond belonging, beyond even that deep sense of self you encounter in solitude.

Always active, always recognizing itself in everything. It’s in the forest recognizing itself in the fire that burns the forest. It’s in the hawk recognizing itself in the mouse struggling for life in those terrible talons. It’s in the battered wife recognizing itself in the battering husband. It’s in the boat full of immigrants recognizing itself in the water seeping in, and in the people who wish to reach a safe shore.

This morning it was far less dramatic, in a woman recognizing itself in the horse, and in the horse recognizing itself in the woman.

When I came home I lit incense because it’s Memorial Day, remembering soldiers who died so that we could live. Everything dies so that others could live, but these soldiers did it on purpose, with intention, and that’s hard to imagine. They killed and were killed, and there too something recognized itself.

What would happen if everyone would put away their guns and retract their arms, not try to do or change things, not even stroke anyone? What would happen if they just looked into each other’s eyes as Gala asked me to do this morning, lighting that flame that burns only in the space in between? What would happen if they held it for a moment, two, five? If they finally rested in that recognition?

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IRISES AND PHILIP ROTH

I love the early hours before the iris opens. Yesterday they were all closed and now, 24 hours later, after a warm, dry day, two have opened. More will open soon, including the purple ones, but for now it’s just the whites shimmering with promise.

The beginning of anything is so exciting. A new baby, a new story, a new book. Anticipation and mystery. Not mystery like: Will it make it or will it not make it? Just the mystery of creation and how it can go in so many directions, becoming something no one planned or envisaged.

From beginnings to endings, death, and specifically the death of Philip Roth.

His American Pastoral dazzled me, a genuinely great novel. If you’re a writer, you don’t just read, you study, especially when coming across a master prose writer. You read some pages, turn back and start again, reading more carefully this time: How did he set that up? How did he bring this character in so seamlessly? How did he capture the essence of the guy so clearly (and, alas, it was always the guys he captured well)? And that walk along the hedge, with the sun at the horizon and the shadows and colors, and his entire life passing before him—how did he do that?

Three things were always alive for me with Philip Roth. The first was the immense controversy he went through with Portnoy’s Complaint. I was around 17 or so at the time and well remember the Jewish reaction. Even the rabbi, a great progressive, spoke against him in his Saturday sermon.

Roth said that while getting all the anger and abuse was terrible at the time, he later realized it had been a Godsend. He’d gone through it and emerged on the other side. The Jews around him scoffed, raged, and insulted, and he continued to write for years about the Jewish experience in the US and was never afraid again. Never afraid of who he was, of what he was writing, of what people would say. That’s a great lesson to learn when you’re young.

The second was how he wrote, or couldn’t write, about women. His male characters were so obsessed with women they never saw them. I read when he publicly announced he’d stopped writing, admitting his best writing was behind him, but I couldn’t help wondering then whether deep inside he already knew that he, too, had been left behind somewhat, that the time for leaving out women as full human beings was done and gone.

A long time ago I asked Bernie about a certain Zen practitioner we knew who’d written a book. Bernie shook his head. He doesn’t get it, he said. Over and over again, he shows he doesn’t get it.

Do you want to read his book? I asked.

No, he said, why should I read someone showing me again and again how he doesn’t get it?

When it came to women, it’s how I felt about reading Philip Roth. He was masterful at showing, again and again, that he didn’t get it.

Third: Roth’s characters were practical and earthbound. No after-life for them, no heaven or hell, no nirvanas of any kind. They dug in their heels and fiercely remained creatures of this earth, no transcendence allowed. Here and there were hints of very small, private redemptions, but very, very small. They made their beds and lay in them, no excuses. Secular Jewish pragmatism, Brooklyn and Newark rolled into one.

Sometimes it got too discouraging, especially as they aged, got sick, and had to face the end. But face it they did, and if I as a reader yearned for something more positive, just a tiny rainbow at the end, some vision that made the end more coherent and the zigs and zags of life more palatable, Roth was not giving me any.

I admired him for that.

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A BLOW TO THE STOMACH

Photo by Monika Winkelmann

Usually I feel on top of things. I don’t mean that literally, like Eve sitting on top of a tall pile consisting of spring, teaching, writing, walking, cooking, caregiving, organizing, or doing laundry. I mean that life fits into a schematic that’s familiar, clear, orderly, with rules, and often centered around me.

And then a photo comes up, like the one above posted on Facebook by Monika Winkelmann, and it’s as if someone punched me in the stomach.

You look and you look, and you can’t believe your eyes. Did he really look so good once? Did he really look so happy, so engaged, so interested? So THERE?

Did he really have that sturdiness I always noticed, the strong body, big shoulders, ruddy face, alive eyes? The self-containment that, to those who knew him closely, could explode with new ideas and activity at any moment?

Is it the same man?

This one photo is worth 10,000 words about changing causes and conditions, 100,000 words about karma. Who cares about any of that? Look at the flush on his cheeks, the high, pulsing forehead, the combination of humor and watchfulness in the eyes.

The photo lies in my files next to the photo I took of the wound on the bridge of the Man’s nose over the weekend, the one I sent to the surgeon in Springfield, suggesting that the wound may be closing after all (contrary to the surgeon’s estimate) and maybe, just maybe, we could avoid a 4th surgical procedure. Everything is so much thinner and narrower. A full face seeking to become a profile.

No, don’t talk to me about changing conditions or impermanence, because words just get in the way of that punch in the belly, the sudden, stunned inhale. I have never gotten used to seeing Bernie post-stroke; there hasn’t been a morning since that day in January 2016 when he walked to the hallway, I looked up and nonchalantly thought: Oh, that’s Bernie, as if it’s the same man I’ve known since 1985. There’s no new normal to which my brain can condition itself, only the punch in the belly.

And it’s important to feel the punch, not to roll around in words and thoughts but to feel the fast pulse at the loud dropping of a cane upstairs or the way the air exploded when he fell Friday night, dropping across the wheelchair and over the futon arm till I blocked his fall with my body, sending the table with wheels crashing towards the closet.

Do you know what courage this man has? The courage to take one labored step after another, make his breakfast slowly—get the cereal from the closet, open envelope with one hand, get bowl from closet, empty cereal in bowl, open refrigerator, get milk container and open with one hand, pour into bowl, put hot cereal in the microwave, careful with the heat when you take it out, scoop out peanut butter, unpeel banana with one hand, slice, put into bowl, bring bowl verrrry slowly to table, go back, make coffee, bring to table—all with one fucking hand.

Walk carefully, very carefully, the uneven terrain of a new spring earth and even take a seat in the sun for a short while. Go to your desk, the place where you worked for so many years, talked to so many people. Go to the exercise mat and exercise. Go upstairs to rest. At dinner face the question: How was your day?

OK, you say. OK is your code word. Code for what, I don’t know, you never told me.

Then ask me: And how was your day, Eve?

Fine, I say. Fine is my code word for: Today, in one day, I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been to the valley, Bernie. Today, in one day, I heard the birds in the morning and the deep, sad sigh you sometimes make when you’re asleep. Today, all in one day, I laughed with Rami about something and a few hours later removed a tick from your right leg that you can’t feel because you can’t feel anything there. I found it because you leave your right leg out from under the blanket, not feeling the cold air coming through the window.

Every day is like one of those wide-panorama photos where you aim the camera from one wide angle to the opposite side and follow the arrow, only I have no arrow to follow, just sun and clouds sun and clouds sun and clouds flickering by so fast I’ll never catch up.

Monika’s photo, I believe, is from one of our bearing witness retreats. Which one was it? What year?

How do you think it went? I’d ask you time and time again after each retreat. OK, you’d reply. You? Fine, I’d say.

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THE NEWS BY THE TRAILING ARBUTUS

I’m coming. I’m coming. Why are you in such a rush?

You’re old and slow, Stan.

I’m coming. I’m coming.

You’re not frisky anymore, Stanley, you’re not jumping up and down with joy, you’re not chasing deer.

I’m coming. I’m coming.

Life doesn’t wait, Stan.

Of course it waits.

No it doesn’t, Stan. Time is rushing by. The months, the years. You think something happened 5 minutes ago, and you realize it was 15 years back! What are you doing?

I’m listening to the radio for news.

That’s not what you’re doing, Stanley, you’re sniffing that trailing arbutus.

That’s how I get my news.

So what’s new?

A mother raccoon has three new babies, only the youngest is kind of weak, probably won’t make it.

How do you know?

They peed here, and the youngest left a funny smell. And new highway construction is underway.

Where, Stanley?

Underground, dummy, where else do you dig up new highways? The voles got a late start this year but they’re busy now. There’s an entrance here, see that small hole? The exit is probably down by the creek. Speaking of which, you’re in big trouble.

What do you mean, Stan?

Overpopulation! Voles multiply like crazy, I can smell so many of them right now. They’ll be chewing up the roots of your apple tree in no time. And another thing: War is coming!

OMG!

See where the grass is flattened over there? A family of coyotes. Pups walking now, starting to learn to hunt. I’m going to have to be careful when I go out at nights.

You think they’re coming after you?

OMG, just when you think you’ve seen it bad, it gets worse. Illegal immigrants!

Where, Stanley?

See that buckthorn over there, monopolizing all the sunlight? There goes the neighborhood. They’ll take over the entire forest and speak only Buckthornian. They’re taking over the forest. They’re taking over the world.

I never knew these woods could be so dangerous, Stanley. Who would have thought so much is going on. And you get all this from sniffing the trailing arbutus?

OMG, it gets worser and worser. I can’t believe it!

What’s happening, Stan?

See the scraping of the bark of that chestnut there? A buck rubbed his forehead there to leave his scent for the female deer. Disgusting! I’m ashamed!

What, Stan?

Sex and orgies are going on everywhere, even as we speak!

Where, Stan? Where?

 

 

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ANTI-DEPRESSANTS IN THE UKRAINE

I went to Dr. Fuckalo—

Furcalo, Bernie—

–this morning to talk about whether I need more antidepressants, the Man tells my sister, who’s here for a visit. You know, after my stroke they gave me antidepressants because they said people get depressed after a stroke.

And did you get depressed? asks Ruth.

No, so I stopped taking them, and then I went whop! Bernie sinks in his chair to demonstrate whop! So then I went back on them, and it was better.

So what happened?

After the cancer and surgery complications and radiation, Dr. Fuckalo said it would be a good idea for a little more antidepressant till I get my strength back

When did she say that? asks Ruth.

A long time ago.

It was this morning, I tell the Man.

A long time ago, says Bernie. You know, a lot of spiritual people were depressed. Nachman’s my hero.

You mean, the Breslav rebbe? my sister says. The one who said it’s a mitzvah to always be happy? Ruth once gave us a hanging that says that in Hebrew.

Not just a mitzvah, Nachman of Breslav said it was a very important practice to be as happy as possible, only he couldn’t do it. He was very depressed, says Bernie.

He lost his son, I say.

I’m sure he would have taken anti-depressants if they had them in the Ukraine then.

What else did the doctor say? asks Ruth.

Dr. Fuckolo?

Dr. Furcalo, Bernie.

She said that I should listen to music. Also, she said I should play with some kind of dough with my fingers. Playing with dough with my right hand would help in repairing my brain cells. She also said I should do some therapy.

I think therapy is great, my sister says.

Especially for Zen teachers, says Bernie. People think that if you’re a Zen master you shouldn’t need these things. What do they know?

Is that not-knowing or know-nothings, wonders Stanley under the table.

Bernie, can I blog about this conversation? I ask.

You know that for me there are no secrets, says the Man.

I love secrets, sighs Stanley. I feel so close to the person with the secret, like it’s us against the world.

I’m not sure that’s a healthy perspective, Stan, I tell him.

Who’re you talking to? asks Ruth.

Your sister likes to talk to herself, Bernie tells her.

That’s okay, she’s been doing that her whole life, says my sister.

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ONE DAY ONE DAY

Photo by Tani Katz

The beautiful woman standing next to me, Iris Dotan-Katz, stood up one night inside a barrack at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and made a vow to work for an equitable peace in Israel/Palestine, one that will honor the deep yearnings of both Israelis and Palestinians.

It was some years ago now, on a Thursday night in our week-long retreat, when we usually return to the camp in the evening. No lights, just candles that are highly monitored not to burn anything down. Someone shone a flashlight on Iris, a diminutive psychotherapist who asked to speak into the microphone so that all could hear her make a vow right there, where so many of her own family members were killed, to work for peace in the Middle East.

Peace in the Middle East! Isn’t it a joke? Like the one about the Russian czar visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital. He stops by the first wounded soldier, tells him how much he appreciates his sacrifice, and asks him what he wants most in life: I want peace in the world! says the wounded soldier gamely. Warmed to the cockles of his heart by this noble reply, the czar stops by the second soldier, expresses the same appreciation, and asks the same question. What is your greatest wish, son? That all people be happy, Your Czarship. Another wonderful answer. He stops by a Jewish soldier and asks him what is his greatest wish. I would like a corn beef sandwich, Sire!

Peace in the Middle East. Who wants that when you could have a corn beef sandwich from a good deli? That’s like saying that one day one day no one will die of starvation, or one day one day we’ll all get to the moon

Friday night I went to a fundraiser. Two nurses, one of whom sits in our zendo, went down to Haiti to provide medication for the many Haitians living rurally with very high blood pressure, a major killer in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince they got to talking with the Haitian staff about the need for temporary housing for homeless families, which barely exists there though so many have lost their homes. It’s hard to obtain land in Port-au-Prince, they were told. A few days later a parcel of lane came up for purchase. So we bought it, Diane said matter-of-factly.

It was that simple.

Since the land is vacant, by law they need to enclose it if they are to keep it, so they began to raise money for the wall, after which they would start building the compound to also serve as a community center providing services to those around. Somebody suggested a poster: Build a Wall In a Shithole Country.

Speaking of shithole countries, is there a better candidate than Gaza, where almost 2 million people live on 141 square miles? More than 60 people were killed and thousands wounded as tens of thousands tries to cross the barrier into Israel on the day the US officially opened its (not yet built) new embassy in Jerusalem.

So what are we going to do? Get swept up in the rhetoric and the rage? Listen to voices of defensiveness and cynicism? My almost-90 mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, said to me on the phone how beautiful those embassy-opening ceremonies were, the dulcet tones of peace voiced again and again, a promise like some pink-tinged horizon: One day one day. Not now, of course, never now. One day one day.

So here’s the thing. We can follow the indignant media and feel good in our anger and self-righteousness, or we can take the next step. We can now actually build a wall in a shithole country, specifically around land bought by two nurses for shelter and care, help build that facility and take care of people. We can support the Palestinians working to have their own homeland, trying to break through walls and create meaning in their straitened lives. Sami Awad, with Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, has done this for many years. We can support the Israeli and Palestinian activists who have worked towards this same goal in the face of a repressive and arrogant government, and an oblivious population (see Combatants for Peace, or Parents Circle of Bereaved Families).

We don’t have to stand in a darkened barrack in Birkenau and make vows. We can make them now, this day, in our own private corner of the universe, and then, as human beings blessed with only two legs, make every single step count.

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BACK LEGS HEAVY, SPIRIT FREE

When I walk in the woods I try to relax my eyes and ears, not scan or look for something, let the trees reveal themselves. But there’s a mystery there.

I walked in the woods and there was Stanley framed by the two large trees, the road behind them going deeper and deeper into the forest. He seemed unaware, sniffing and looking to the side, and I paused. Would he cross that threshold? Would he walk beneath them to wherever the road led?

At first something drew him to a wet clump of grass ten feet away, but he came back. He then went the other way, perhaps smelling the creek rushing down below; in the old days he would have run down to drink, stepping carefully in the foam. But he’s too old for that now. Finally he scampered under the trees and went on his way, his back legs heavy, spirit free.

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DEATH IS A SERIOUS MATTER

Photo by Leeann Warner

This is the best life the best life the best life the best life! It doesn’t get any better!

What are you talking about, Stanley?

This is the best life the best life the best life the best—

I heard you the first time, Stan. Why are you limping?

The best life the best life the best—

You’re not eating your dogfood, Stanley. You’re tottering down the stairs—

The best life the best life the best—

Stanley, this is probably the last May of your life. Consider that!

Look at all the flowers I can pee on! Daffodils and tulips and forsythia and that purple stuff and—

Not to mention the turds right under the laundry lines, Stan.

That’s my favorite thing to do, leaving those big pieces right under your white sheets and pillowcases. The slightest breeze and—

I know, I know, Stan—

Not to mention that you step right on it when you collect the laundry. Isn’t spring great!

Stanley, listen to me. This is your 14th or 15th spring, I think you should get serious and think about it. I doubt you’ll have another one.

Ain’t thinking about nothing, too busy hunting for moles.

Stop digging up the yard, Stan!

Gotta go after them, you know the tunnels they got under the ground? Between raccoon condos on top of the trees and mole habitats underground, we might as well live in a zoo. Or a city.

Come Stanley, I want to show you something. There!

What’s there?

That’s where I’m going to bury you when you die, Stan.

WHAT? You’re already looking to bury me?

I started looking out for a spot, and there it is, right under those trees. Isn’t it pretty?

I hate it! How can you even think about those things?

Stanley, watching you limp on your walks, hearing from Leeann that she can’t take you anymore on warm, humid days, I hate to tell you this, but you are going to die one day, and not too far in the future.

And you’re already making plans?

I have to make plans, Stan. I have to think of digging up that hole—

Don’t look at me!

I have to think of what happens if you die in the winter when the ground is frozen, Stan, I have to think of what to plant there after you go to make it pretty.

Marrow bones.

The point is, Stanley, death is a serious matter.

Nothing is a serious matter. Ask the Man, he knows. He often talks about dying, and do you see him crying? You’re the only one crying, drama queen.

I’m not a drama queen, Stanley, I’m just the only one with any feelings around here.

Oh yeah? Catch me later. This is the best life the best life the best life the best life the best life the best—

 

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GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!

One of the things I hear in connection with the accusations of physical abuse by Eric Schneiderman, New York’s former attorney general, is: Why do women stand for it? Some are already paraphrasing what Kanye West said about slavery, that it was a choice. That being on the receiving end of physical abuse is a woman’s choice, as is verbal and emotional abuse.

Whenever these things come up, I get thrown back to old memories of what it was like for this young woman—me—to emerge into the world.

I went to Queens College in New York City for two years, and while it was an excellent school I soon realized things were too easy for me, so rather than attending it fulltime I got an editorial assistant job in Manhattan during the day and went to college at night.

I ended up spending lots of time on New York City subways and buses, and while traveling in those hot, crowded subway cars (there was no subway air-conditioning at that time), often squeezed tight against other uncomfortable passengers, there was barely a day when my body wasn’t being touched and felt up. It was very common to stand against other passengers, swaying with the speed of the train, and suddenly feel a strange hand on my sweater or on my pants. The more enterprising ones tried to unbutton my jacket and even reach inside my pants.

Did I ever think of telling this to my parents and asking them what’s a good girl to do? Not on your life. I was pretty sure I knew what the answer would be: You shouldn’t travel like that, you shouldn’t go out to Manhattan on your own, you should just travel with your friends to school and come back with them, that’s safest.

The message was that the safest place for a woman to be is inside her home. For this reason she shouldn’t get too ambitious, shouldn’t use her initiative to get a job and go to night school, chance public transportation. She should go to school, find a man, get married, have kids, stay home. She should never stand out.

I can’t emphasize enough that, even as I did my thing in so many different ways, I strongly internalized the sense that if someone touched me without getting permission it was my fault because I’d left the safety of home, parents, and later, husband. If I tried to do any of the things that a young man would have done without a thought, then clearly I had chosen risky behavior, had left safety behind, so of course, what could I expect?

It’s hard for men to understand the fear of the outside world that’s instilled in us. Even if we’re not explicitly told that we are to blame if anything happens, there’s always the internal wagging finger: If only we’d been more careful, more vigilant, if only we hadn’t been careless that one moment. If only we hadn’t stood out, if only we hadn’t been ambitious, if only we didn’t have all that creative juice we wanted to do something with, if only we hadn’t wanted to be exceptional, if only we’d stayed with the crowd. If only we’d stayed with our family. If only we’d stayed with our husbands.

If only we wore a full-body burqa. Muslim women talk of the safety they feel within the confines of that black fabric, sealing them off from the world. I once ate at a restaurant in Amman, Jordan, when a stately woman entered dressed in full burqa. She was tall, elegant, extremely graceful, and was covered from head to toe in black leaving the barest slit for her eyes. In fact, her vision was so impaired that her husband, at her side, took her elbow and whispered caution when they came to the stairs leading down to the dining room.

I guess having a male guardian at your side, guiding you every step of the way, is one way not to fall on your head. Before anyone says anything about religious Muslims, it’s worth remembering that here in the West there has been, till only very recently and even till now, the promise of safety, dignity, and respect—if we let ourselves be confined. If we do nothing outrageous. If we find, outside or inside, some way to hide. If we never, ever, go out into the woods with no protection (Stanley is no protection).

It took me a long time to learn to tell someone in a loud voice: Get your hands off me. Saying that out in public, chancing the sidelong glances and the eyes filled with alarm—was a very brave thing to do. It flew in the face of discretion, it flew in the face of secrecy and caution, it flew in the face of concealment. It pointed to a man, it pointed to an act, but it also pointed to me. And all I’d wanted to do was read my book quietly while going to school.

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