COLOGNE AND THE BABY JESUS

I’ve started wearing cologne again. On days when I’m not with groups of people or seeing doctors, that is.

I didn’t wear cologne or perfume for some 25 years, what with being in a Zen community, people’s sensitivities to fragrances, and my general confusion about spirituality, but lately I’ve wanted once again to smell it on my skin, especially when I’m at home and not disturbing anyone with allergies. I talked this out with my friend, Maggie, who comes from Colombia.

Maggie, I had no idea how expensive perfume and cologne have gotten over all the years I haven’t used them.

It’s true, Eve, but for us, growing up in Colombia, cologne was always very expensive. In fact, almost the only place we put cologne was on the baby Jesus.

You put cologne on the baby Jesus?

She explains: We had neighbors who had a statue of the baby Jesus in a small glass cabinet so that everybody could see him, and at Christmas time they would bring him in the cabinet to one family, leave him there overnight, and the next day they would bring him to another family, leave him there overnight, and do that all around the town. And they always put cologne on the baby Jesus.

They perfumed the baby Jesus! Wow! I said.

No, no, never perfume, Eve. Nobody could afford perfume, they could barely afford cologne. They put cologne on the baby Jesus, and you know which one? Tabu.

Tabu? The heavy, strong perfume?

Yes, because it was the cheapest, the only one they could afford.

I remembered Tabu from my youth as something oriental, heavy, and very strong, Nothing subtle about it. The forbidden fragrance, it was called. It might have been spelled Tabu, but in my adolescent mind it was always Taboo.

I looked it up on Wikipedia. You know what I just read? I told Maggie. The perfumer who made Tabu was told by the client to develop a perfume that a prostitute would wear. That’s what your neighbors put on the baby Jesus.

She just giggled.

 

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WHAT KIND OF THANKSGIVING IS THIS!

It’s Thanksgiving, my favorite day of the year! Why aren’t you cooking?

Because no one is coming this year, Stanley. Alisa and her family are not coming and no friends are coming, too. Bernie had no energy.

You’re not cooking! What—what about the turkey?

Not cooking turkey.

No turkey! What about the giblet gravy?

No gravy, Stanley.

Garlic mashed potatoes?

Forget about it.

OMG! OMG! What will Bernie say?

Bernie’s sleeping upstairs, Stan.

Chestnut apple stuffing?

Nope.

Pan roasted balsamic onions?

Nope.

Squash with goat cheese?

No.

Pies? Apple? Pumpkin?

None, Stanley.

WHAT KIND OF THANKSGIVING IS THIS?

I note you don’t mention salad and Brussell sprouts, Stan.

Never noticed them. What am I going to do with myself all day? I can’t do my practice.

What’s your practice, Stanley?

You know which was my favorite Thanksgiving? Remember when you transferred the turkey from the pan to a big plate and so much of the gravy and small pieces of meat fell on the butcher block table? (BEWARE READERS: IF YOU’RE OBSESSED WITH HYGIENE AND PLAN TO EAT AT OUR HOME IN THE NEAR FUTURE, DO NOT READ FURTHER.) You told Bernie that it was too bad all that stuff didn’t fall on the floor because I can’t get on top of the butcher block table, so without saying anything Bernie put his hands under my belly, picked me right up and put me on the table.

He was stronger then, Stanley.

It took me half an hour to clean that mess up, and when I was done he put me right back on the floor. I never practiced so hard as I did on that Thanksgiving, but it was worth every minute.

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INTERRUPTING THE SILENCE

This will be a holiday without family or friends. We canceled the celebration due to Bernie’s health. I think he was also concerned for my fatigue. Now we’re having the same old discussion we’ve had frequently in the past:

It’s a long weekend, Bernie. Should I invite people over? Anybody you’d like to see?

I don’t want any bother.

I mean just talking to people. How about – or — ? You like them.

I do, but they just interrupt my silence. You know, I’ve always been such a loner, and then I found myself being with so many people all the time.

Which leaves me reflecting on what it is to follow your calling even as it goes against other aspects of your temperament. I write and like a certain amount of privacy, but after just a few days of being on my own I start looking piningly at the phone. I’ve even looked at Stanley on occasion and said, You can’t turn into a human by some chance, can you?

No.

Didn’t think so.

So Bernie goes into his silence, punctuated by occasional glances at his iPad or a New England Patriots football game. Or he rests, which he needs to do.

Just don’t withdraw, I implore.

But he’s already shut his eyes.

The phone rings.

Stanley, fetch the phone.

You fetch it. I’m retired.

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NO LESS THAT ISN’T MORE

Bernie and his caregiver, Rae, before surgery

Bernie and I wait in the pre-op cubicle at Mercy Hospital for the surgeon and anesthesiologist. On the other side of a curtain a young aide tells a nurse that she has failed her classes but the college is giving her another chance. Then she comes in, plump and baby-eyed, and eyes Bernie on the bed.

Hi, sweetie, how are ya? Without waiting for an answer she takes his blood pressure and measures glucose, all this time not looking at him once, then disappears behind the curtain once more. I’m going to come back, sweetie, just going to get my thermometer.

Hospitals are the great equalizer; you learn who’s boss very quickly. The need for reassuring connection—for meeting one’s eyes, for deep listening—is matched only by its loss, when someone handles your body without much thought and dialogues with you as though she’s talking to herself. Every hospital I’ve ever been do has a few such on staff, even Mercy Hospital, run by the extraordinary Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, a community of nuns that has been caring for people in Western Massachusetts for over 140 years. The order seems to be finally dying out, like many orders of nuns, but I still remember their current Superior, Sr. Caritas, visiting Bernie at the Rehab Center almost two years ago, telling him he is in her prayers. Thin, small, humble, and well over 90, she maintains a work schedule that scares me.

In contrast, later I’ll have a conversation with the anesthesiologist nurse, who will wake Bernie up from his anesthesia and report to me about his matter-of-fact calmness. That conversation will be like an interview with a Zen teacher, she being the teacher.

But it’s still early and the young woman comes back. And this is your wife? You have a wife?

I don’t know if I have her, says Bernie. She has me. I guess we have each other.

How did you two meet?

Well, we both study Zen and we met for that, he says.

Oh, so you met in a class. That’s so nice.

And it gets me to thinking about how tough it is to capture a life in a thumbprint, a quip, a brief sentence. My life is so much narrower now, often monotonous, yet the smallest events seem to bear such great significance. How to express that to someone else? How to express what lies behind?

In the hospital, doctor’s reassurances notwithstanding, I can’t help but feel some fear of loss. And even as I bear witness to that, there’s something so big to that less. In fact, there is no less that isn’t, in some way, more.

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STANLEY SAYS: HUH?

What are you doing? I ask Bernie.

Admiring my beauty, he says.

We’re sitting in the dining room at the table along with Alisa Glassman, Bernie’s daughter, who flew up here yesterday to be with us, bringing much-needed help, cheer, and spirit. Bernie has raised a mirror to look at his face, which shows a tall yellow bandage hanging over his nose, a large white bandage on his forehead, and another large white bandage at the bottom of the yellow bandage crisscrossing, mustache-like, over his mouth. Another large white bandage covers a spot on his chest beneath his green sweater.

Stanley has been growling at Bernie since we came back from the hospital after the first part of his plastic surgery to seal the large hole made on top of his nose. The carcinoma is still there and we’re looking at radiation next.

Stanley, why aren’t you saying hello to Bernie?

Because I don’t see him anywhere.

What do you mean, here he is!

You mean the guy smelling of blood and gook?

Not only is Bernie swathed in bandages, but also thin ribbons of blood flow out of both corners of both his eyes and nose, not to mention other discharges. The bandages are red with fresh blood or purple with dried, and Alisa and I are dabbing at his face to keep the mess under control. It doesn’t help that Bernie’s grinning into the mirror.

You look terrible, says Stanley. Whoever you are.

Don’t talk this way, Stan. How do you think it makes Bernie feel that his own dog doesn’t recognize him?

How do you think it makes me feel, seeing him like that?

You can barely see anything, Stan!

I guess cataracts are good for something.

Now listen, Stanley, the surgeon told us to expect all this discharge. He said everything is in order, everything is clean, the healing has begun.

Fool me, says Stan. Who is this man?

He’s Bernie, your master.

Doesn’t look like any kind of master to me.

Bernie, looking like a grisly, gory Mummy, makes a face and Stanley growls.

Zen masters don’t have to look like anything in particular, Stan, I expound.

Do they have to look like this?

You don’t get it, Stanley, though it’s staring you right in the face. There’s a famous koan: “The past Buddha and the future Buddha are his servants. Who is he?”

Stanley growls.

How are you feeling, Dad? Alisa asks. It’s nothing short of a miracle to have her here this weekend.

I-feel-fine, Dad says slowly, but-my-nose-itches-and-I-can’t-scratch-it.

No problem, says Alisa, and gives her own nose a scratch.

Huh? says Stanley.

We’re all interrelated, explains Alisa, so if I scratch my nose it’s like scratching Dad’s nose.

Huh? says Stanley.

You’re been with us for 13 years, Stan, and you haven’t learned a thing, I tell him.

Congratulations, says Bernie.

Stan wags his tail at him.

Finally coming around to say hi, eh? I say to Stanley.

Not saying hi, just begging.

Bernie turns towards me. I’m not seeing you taking any pictures of me, he says.

He’s right. This time I ain’t taking pictures.

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THE BIGGEST BANDAGE OF ALL

So far, I think I have the biggest bandage of all, Bernie whispers to me loud enough to be heard by the 25 other people in the waiting room.

Bernie, don’t talk so loud.

I’m talking loud?

We’re sitting in the office of the doctor doing Moh’s Procedure to remove the carcinoma on Bernie’s nose, which has gotten steadily bigger over the past few months (the carcinoma, not the nose). Everybody but me has white bandages on some part of their body. But not as big as Bernie’s.

I think you should just take the whole thing off, Bernie tells Dr. Loosemore when he examines him.

That’s what I plan to do.

I mean the nose, too. He turns towards me. Not just not-knowing, also not-nosing.

I’m not paying attention because I’m too busy musing about the doctor’s name. Loosemore, I think to myself. Can’t think of a more perfect name for a surgeon. Or for a Zen practitioner, come to think of it.

He’s removing the carcinoma membrane by membrane, with lots of waiting time in the anteroom, so off we start discussing the Auschwitz retreat again, which just ended the previous weekend. I whisper, Bernie blares (he’s hard of hearing, and assumes we all are, too):

What was new for me at Auschwitz this time, he broadcasts, is that given my stroke, I would have never gotten to Auschwitz, I’d have been dead long before that.

The other white bandages stare.

You’re talking loud again, Bernie. You’re right, If you limped heavily and couldn’t use much of your right side, you didn’t even merit a selection, they probably just got rid of you somewhere along the road.

Remember the Sauna, he proclaims, where they took people’s possessions, clothes, hair, and even their name, so that all they had was a number? Genro and I started talking about what we’d take if someone said we have to go to Auschwitz and can only take one suitcase.

More stares.

Genro packs for a trunk, not a suitcase, I say.

He started listing food, clothes, pictures of his boys, his spiritual books.

What did you say when it was your turn, Bernie?

I said I’d just kill myself.

Nobody’s staring anymore, they’re just looking down on the floor.

Bernie peers at his iPad, checking for the 10th time that day how many people have registered for the Zen Peacemakers’ new membership platform. There’s an aquarium right in front with colorful vegetation and fish, probably to quiet down folks’ anxieties. If Bernie gets any more quiet he’d be asleep.

Another hour passes. Why don’t you just go and leave me here? he says.

Good idea, I’m off.

No sense in both of us waiting on account of my nose.

I wish I could bring Stanley here.

In my next surgery.

His next surgery is the very next day, when they’ll close the hole they made. And by the evening, when we sit at the table over pasta, we know it’s more serious than we’d realized. The carcinoma is embedded in the bone of the nose, it’s aggressive, and they couldn’t take it all out. There will actually be two small surgeries to cover everything up, and Bernie will need radiation to get out the rest.

Can I come? asks Stanley with an enthusiastic wag.

Don’t be ridiculous, Stan.

You know what’s good about all this? says Bernie. Usually they take off membranes and they put them under the microscope to see if there’s cancer in the margins, and we don’t know till they tell us. This time we know it’s there.

And that’s good? I ask.

No suspense, says Stanley happily from the rug under the table. Neither of his humans are eating much and he expects big left-overs in his bowl any minute.

 

Whoopee.

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NOT JUST A PLUG FOR SWISS AIRLINES

This is a plug for Swiss Airlines, who gave us the most comfortable extra-leg room economy seats for no extra fee when Anthony, who works for ZPI, explained Bernie’s situation of being post-stroke with limited mobility. They only wanted to know one thing: Can he do some steps?

Yes, he can do some steps. In fact, he can do a lot more than steps.

We both went to Auschwitz-Birkenau together, and it wasn’t till we got there that I was hit—especially at nights when the schedule was over for the day—by what the place had meant for us. He had lost relatives there some 75 years ago, I lost relatives there, that’s an unforgettable given. But in the great ironic cackle of the world, it was also a place that had brought the two of us together.

I was a very average Zen student back in 1994, some 9 years after starting to meditate, only in the beginning stages of learning how to really listen to one’s teacher. But in that one moment when Sensei (he was still Sensei then) told me not to come to interview the following week because he wouldn’t be there, he would be in the death camps, my effrontery paid off: Can I go with you?

The rest is our history. I met him there and heard him say he had to come back with others. Bernie’s nose currently has a carcinoma under that bandaid that will be removed, but regardless, he always has a nose for nosing out whom to activate in a particular project, who is enthusiastic and ready to plunge in. I was enthusiastic and wanted to plunge in, and that was the start. We weren’t a couple then, he was married to Jishu Holmes, I was married to Woody (my dog) and Woodstock, New York. But I came back down to work on this and in 1996 we held that first retreat.

Several years later, upon Jishu’s death, we became a couple, and bearing witness retreats became so important in our relationship and work together they could have acted as witnesses in our wedding. All those retreats—Rwanda, Black Hills, Bosnia, smaller ones that we discussed all the time—but none like Auschwitz-Birkenau.

He did very well. With the help of Pake Hall, who took wonderful care of him, Bernie sat with us at times by the tracks, he gave out once again his vision for the retreat on the first evening, participated in the large council, went again to visit his friend Marian’s pictures at the Labyrinth, and was feisty enough to participate passionately at the meetings of spirit-holders every day, reminding us again and again to return to Not-Knowing.

This year he’s not sleeping for 6 days after returning, as he did last year. In fact, he goes into surgery tomorrow to remove the carcinoma.

It was hard, hard work by day, as it always is for the people who staff this retreat. And at nights I was haunted by the trajectory of our years together, the things that had brought us close, the work that was always there. In some couple processes, there is a Third Seat that represents the relationship as much more than the sum of its parts, an entity with its own orbit and path. In those nights when I couldn’t sleep I thought that this place represented that Third Seat, the witnessing of life and death and the hard-earned wisdom of how to live in the middle of all that with generosity rather than harm.

Strange, isn’t it? Couples wax nostalgic over vacations they’ve done again and again, a Hawaiian island, a certain hotel they went to year after year. For us it’s a place for sure, and also a retreat. A place over which I have said so many times: I am never going back there again, enough is enough is enough. And then I go back.

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BLACKBIRDS AT BIRKENAU

I know the schedule for the retreat by heart. It stays with you if you’ve done it for this many years.

So I know that Friday late morning is when we have our last sitting in the circle we formed at the Birkenau Selection Site by the train tracks. At that last period all of us read out loud the names of those killed at the death camp. If I have time, I check with a Polish participant how to pronounce certain Polish names on the list; I have some confidence I won’t butcher French, Greek, or Italian names. The names also show dates of birth and death, and the city of origin. In earlier years I used to quickly mentally calculate how old the men and women (and often children) were when they died, but my mind doesn’t work so fast any more.

A cruel gust blows across the brick remnants of barrack chimneys and the wooden barracks still left intact on the other side of the tracks. Bernie has complained in the past that, what with global warming, it’s no longer cold enough to do a retreat at Auschwitz in November; the goal has always been that people feel just a little of the bluster and iciness that inmates here must have felt. In other words, we don’t come when it’s comfortable. He needn’t have worried this year, it was cold, the wind chilled us to the bone and turned our faces pink crepe.

After the reading we will disassemble the circle, pick up benches, chairs, cushions and mats, and take them away, leaving the siding by the train tracks intact. Please make sure you look all around you and take with you anything that doesn’t belong here, Rami Efal, the retreat manager, instructs on the megaphone. And we do that, though I’m not quite clear what does belong here other than remnants and ash.

No, I take that back. The birch trees belong here (hence the name Birkenau), the grass that was once devoured by hungry people, and the birds, the lucky, lucky ones.

We neaten up the place where we have sat for days on end because it feels—can I say it?—downright dear to us. Like home. The place where people were directed to their death has become a temple, a sitting space, a place of intimate encounter.

In Auschwitz you don’t just face what happened long ago, said Andrzej Krajewski that first evening at orientation, who co-founded these retreats years ago. You face yourself.

That’s our work here. There are prayers, songs, and stories told of those who died, but the work is to face ourselves. In a place like Auschwitz there’s no place to hide. It[s harder and harder to tell our customary lies to ourselves, harder to keep up pretense. Auschwitz shatters not just the soul, but also the shell, and when the shell breaks, what happens? Will you die without it? Will you be mangled and hurt? Will you have no more protection against the world? Will you be like a newborn chick, trembling and cold in a new life?

What message will you get—that no one cares? That we’re lucky we avoided that terrible war but feel guilty about feeling so lucky? That we are part of an insignificant planet rolling fast and without control down some anonymous avenue in the Milky Way, alone and without meaning?

During the retreat we tell stories about the dead and we tell stories about the living, and what it means to be alive. So finally it’s time to tell the final story, to read the names of those who died for the last time this Auschwitz retreat. Tourists—3 million of them this year, I’m told–pass on the sides and look askance at this group that has settled down here. Most have signed up for tours of both the Museum and Birkenau that end in three hours flat. We have settled in the fire, and this will be our final sitting. By now the guides know us, I think, for I hear the words group doing meditation here several times during the week.

Does everyone have names? Rami inquires. Shir Yakov, a rabbi, will stand any moment now holding his shofar and blow it to signal the beginning of the period. They say that before the Redeemer comes, the shofar will be blown.

And just that moment the blackbirds fly over to us. They were perched on the barbed wire fence and the grass further away, but at the blowing of the shofar they fly over as if to listen one last time. I turn around—who can’t hear them? Who can’t feel the sudden flap of wings, the air turning attentive? I wished to take a photo because it was an important moment, and I am developing the unfortunate habit of recording certain moments rather than living them. But I can’t get up and leave the circle.

So what’s left is a short video of what happened that instant, taken by Andrzej Krajewski who stood behind the circle and recorded it. Just a brief moment when everything stopped, and then began all over again.

 

 

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AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU: TICKETS HERE

I feel raw inside, sadness alternating with resolve, a sense of loss one moment, determination the next.

One of the triggers is the advertisement shown above: Auschwitz-Birkenau: Tickets here.

Bernie and I are back in Krakow, heading to the 22nd retreat at the concentration camps. Back in 1994, the first time we were there, how many people came to that iconic death camp? Several hundred thousand per year. Some year later I recall reading that the attendance topped 1 million for the first time; now, in 2017, it has topped 2 million per year.

That’s good, I tell myself. It’s good that people want to come and see, maybe even to vow Never Again. Only Auschwitz-Birkenau, or its equivalent, has happened again and again. When we walk through the Sauna in Birkenau and see what people were stripped of from room to room—their belongings, their photos of their past, their clothes, their hair—I think of the refugees everywhere in the world now—in Sudan, Pakistan, Burma, Syria, northern Africa—shedding off their meager belongings and often their family members as they take the path of refugees. Gas chambers are followed by killing fields followed by burnt out villages, Rwandan rivers full of floating corpses (Go back to Ethiopia, where you Tutsis came from!).

How do I relate to these things? If we don’t bear deep witness, is the only remaining alternative to buy tickets, watch the show from the safety of the mezzanine?

The idea started back in 1994, before we were even a couple, but I feel that we worked and nursed this retreat–that became the mother of other bearing witness retreats,–as though it was a child together, and now we see it all grown up, out in the world for 22 years now, doing its work, its legacy carried on by others with so much patience, intelligence, and humor.

People nod in recognition, they come to say hi, remind us their names: We were here in 2014, or maybe it was 2013. One man brought his 16 year-old grandson; others bring their partners, wives or husbands. You don’t remember me, but I was here 19 years ago, 14 years ago, now again. It’s not just me this place has called year after year, it’s called so many others.

For the most part, we don’t come to commemorate the Holocaust (though a few do). Underneath it all, we go to look at what happens when we don’t get along, when we don’t recognize our own brothers and sisters just because they speak a different language and wear different clothes this lifetime around. When discipline is high but hearts are closed. When the past is evoked, when revenge is sought, when fear not Satan rules.

This year especially I am deeply attuned to my own feelings of loss. There are many things Bernie can’t do; there are many things we can’t do together here in Krakow. He (seen below) can still get animated about things, but usually, some 22 months after his stroke, he’s calm, serene, even humorous, while I feel like a bundle of nerves these days before we embark on the retreat tomorrow morning.

The place has changed so much. Saturday night the main square was empty, but when I walked to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that lost its Jews to Hitler’s Nazis, I was surrounded by young Poles entering bars, restaurants and music clubs, for Kazimierz is clearly the happening place in Krakow.

We, too, have changed. Where’s the horizon now, I wonder. Is it near, just sitting on my chair and finally settling into long periods of meditation? Is it sitting at my desk and writing? Or is it far, connecting with places and people I haven’t met yet, learning more, listening more? Stay still, I feel like telling the horizon. Stay still just for one minute so I can finally see you.

The blog will be silent during the week of our retreat.

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