MAKING OUR WILLS

Photo by Rami Efal

Stanley, Bernie and I have been making our wills.

Are you going anywhere soon?

There’s so much to dispose of: a house, two cars, Buddhist sculpture and art, clothes, zendo articles, books, the list goes on and on. So here I am, with pencil and paper in hand, to ask you this: What would you like me to leave you when I die?

Everything in the refrigerator.

The contents of the vegetable bin?

No, not the vegetable bin. But don’t forget the bread and chicken in the freezer and the pint of Bart‘s Sea Salt Caramel ice cream.

[writing] All contents in refrigerator. Got it. Anything else?

The biscotti on the top shelf over the microwave, Simply Naked Pita Chips, and the black sesame brown rice snaps above the sugar. Also, both jars of MaraNatha peanut butter in the pantry, doesn’t have to be organic.

Biscotti, Simply Naked Pita, rice snaps, peanut butter. What else?

The birdseed in the bin in the laundry room.

You can’t eat sunflower seeds, Stanley, your stomach doesn’t digest it, it goes right through you.

How do you know?

I see what I’m stepping on when I walk outside!

Speaking of outside, leave me the squirrels.

I don’t own the squirrels. What else?

The mice in the basement?

Stan, you create a will to dispose of all your possessions. The only animal that I technically own is you.

Me! You don’t own the squirrels or the birds, not even the mice in your basement, but you own me?

I think that’s because you’re viewed as a domestic creature. Now, let’s find out your wishes for after you die. How would you like me to dispose of your body?

I’d like you to leave me on the sofa. No more “Stanley get off the couch.”

For how long?

Forever.

What about when your body turns to bone and even dust?

Leave it on the sofa.

Got it. What kind of memorial service would you like, Stanley?

Any Buddhist service will do, but I prefer Tibetan.

Why?

Because it has the most offerings, not necessarily vegetarian.

Any particular offerings you have in mind?

Slices of roast beef forget the ketchup, rice but no soy sauce, anything deep-fried, and cashews. Forget the tea. Also don’t need flowers and candlelight. Or chanting for that matter, since I’m deaf.

Okay. Now for your possessions. Who gets your warm, furry, circular bed with the ridge for a pillow?

Any one but Kaya, Leeann’s dog. Whenever I stay at Leeann’s Kaya steals the bed from me.

What about the red collar that says Stanley with my phone number on it.

Burn it.

Your leash?

Cremation.

Medical paraphernalia? Ear drops, turmeric for joint problems, anti-worm and tick pills?

Ditto.

Dogfood? Greenies? Biscuits?

I ain’t leaving any.

Your food bowls? I’d like to use them for our next generation of dogs.

Only if you leave your clothes for Bernie’s next wife.

Got it. Now, I’m your medical proxy. Is there any time you’d like to call it quits? When I call Dr. Brown—

The House of Horrors!—

I won’t take you to her office but I might need to call her to end your life if you’re suffering too much. When would you like us to end your life? Cancer?

Nope.

Kidney disease?

Nope.

Heart?

Nope.

Painful arthritis?

Nope.

When you can’t walk and can’t eat?

That’ll be the day.

[Writing] That’ll be the day.

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LOVE AND SELF-REPROACH

In the early mornings I meditate, then sit at my desk and blog. Always I begin with a blank screen, and in staring at that white vertical rectangle I ask myself, Who am I today? What am I now?

I recognize there’s no final answer to that question. And yes, I know that the Buddhist answer is emptiness at the core, that there’s no there there. For years I practiced—not with Manjusri’s sword that cuts off delusion—but with a dagger, plunging it again and again into yet another veil, yet another layer, yet another story. Stabbing oneself in this way is the stupidest thing you can do, for each of these sheaths and wrappings are like gossamer, with their own life, their own reasons for being. Kissing them away is far more effective than stabbing them like a lunatic.

If we could surround all our mistakes with tenderness—the bad career decisions, the bad relationships, the surrender to practicality on the one hand and the vapid voyages into fantasy land—then perhaps the beauty of this one life, which is the true meaning of emptiness, will reveal itself to us equally tenderly.

Some time ago I wrote about my friend, Mary Rose, who spent over 30 years of her life looking for her daughter’s killer, the man who also killed at least two other young women. Her story was aired over a full hour at Investigation Discovery last Monday night. The cable TV program, with its combination of interviews, photos, and enactment, will be aired again on Sunday, June 4, at 9 am, and we’ll record it.

Maria Elena Salinas interviews Mary Rose about the mission she took on after her daughter’s disappearance and the hunt she pursued relentlessly even after the police and FBI dropped the case, including how she connected the dots with two other disappearances of young women in two other other states. But more to the point, she asks Mary tough questions about her relationship with her daughter, Annette, and decisions she made letting her young daughter go away with a much older man.

I flinched as I listened to those questions. It felt like putting a spotlight on the sharpest pain, on the deepest regret, on those intersections where I could have gone in one direction and instead chose another, and having to contemplate the price. Mary didn’t flinch as she looked into the camera and said, again and again, that with hindsight she wishes she’d done things differently, but I wondered at her courage, at what it takes to face an interview like that, to look into a camera that will lay bare your soul to people who know nothing about you, who won’t even notice the devastation behind the steely replies and the powerful will.

Emotions aren’t everything, spine and resilience also count. At least two other women were killed in addition to Mary’s daughter and their families didn’t know what to do when the police dropped the case. Mary is the sole parent of one of these young women who is still alive, and it’s hard for me to imagine what it was to be their father and mother with this big hole in their heart, go into old age and death not knowing what happened to their daughter, imagining the worst. Love and tenacity often go hand in hand.

For my mother, who went through the Holocaust, love meant toughness and very little else. It meant you did everything you needed to in order to survive, and I mean everything.

But when I listened to the self-reproach of that mother Monday night, when I look at the face of my own mother contemplating the end of life and autonomy, I want to take those faces in my hands and whisper, like the song, Try a little tenderness: It’s not just sentimental/She has her grief and care,/But the soft words spoke so gentle/makes it easier to bear. Yeah.

 

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A FOG CALLED DESTINATION

I love to walk in a fog.

Where are we going? I ask Stanley. Since his eyes are always foggy now, I figure he’s a greater expert than I am on what to do when you can’t see things clearly.

Live for the short run, a friend with Stage 4 cancer advised me.

In the short run I know what gives pleasure: the sun on bare arms, the walk in the woods, a book at night, new white irises that bloomed overnight. Stanley lives like that, sniffing the tree hollow that he passed before braking and making a quick U-turn, the tiny pellets the deer leave to help us track them down.

But I’m still drawn to a fog called destination. Where am I going? What will I find? What’s waiting out there?

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MEMORIAL DAY TODAY, AND SEVEN YEARS AGO

When Bernie woke up today he told me he had a dream. What’s more, he remembered it.

I developed a calculus that goes both forward and backward, he tells me. That means it could take me back in time. Whaddya think of that?

I’ve always wondered why people want to go back in time.

Maybe they want to go back in time to change the results of the election. You have to be very careful about things like that, he says.

Maybe to change themselves, I muse.

He nods. Yup, you have to be very careful.

A half hour later I’m walking Stanley on the road before the rains come. We’re the only ones around, no people, other dogs, or even cars. We cross the railroad tracks, I look to my right, and there’s a fawn on the tracks some 20 yards away. It’s walking away from us, but soon stops and turns around. Stanley has no idea he’s there but the fawn and I lock gazes. Then it turns around and continues down the tracks.

And it’s as if Bernie’s calculus works, for suddenly it’s Memorial Day 7 years ago. I have two rambunctious dogs on the back seat of my car: my current dog, Stanley, and his relentless mentor and Alpha boss, Bubale the Pit Bull. They’re a rowdy, high-spirited pack (Hey, Peacemaker Dogs, try living up to your name, I used to implore in vain) and it seems safest to drive them practically to the opening of the forest and then let them off leash.

We drive up the slope to the parking area, and there, coming down the path, is a young fawn. I have no idea how old it is, only that it’s alone.

I stop the car and get out. Its eyes sparkle, its tail actually begins to wag, and it approaches.

Behind me the dogs in the back seat of the car are going berserk, barking and snarling, making me nervous. What would it take for powerful Bubale to actually go through the window, I wonder.

Go away, I tell the fawn.

Instead it comes closer, eyes warm and friendly, as if meeting a new pal for a holiday brunch.

I don’t know what to do. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to my very core. I’ve had several intimate encounters with deer over the years. Once a family of them lay under trees in the rain and watched me curiously as I passed, first one way, then the other, not 5 feet away. On two other occasions they brushed right by me as they passed, as though I was a far lesser danger than something else. Now I want to call out to the fawn, slowly put out my arm, look at its big liquid eyes, and take in its incredibly sweet scent of youth.

But I’m afraid for it. It’s young, hasn’t yet learned to fear humans or dogs. Ahead of it is a hot summer of foraging and growth, but bow-and-arrow season starts mid-October and continues to Thanksgiving, and then the shooting season begins and goes on till Christmas.

Your life is so short, I tell it. You have to be vigilant; you have to run fast on those thin, spindly legs.

Go away, I tell him loudly, hands pushing the air in front of me. Leave, run!

It comes to a stop, an undecided look in its eyes.

Go, I tell it loudly, the dogs barking insanely behind me in the car, go!

And finally some look of understanding is there, as though he connects the snarling of the dogs and the waving motions of my arms. He turns around and saunters back up the path, turning to look at me one last time—have I changed my mind?—to which I respond even more aggressively, and then he runs.

When I know he’s gone I open the car door and the dogs rush up the path in eager pursuit, but of course, can’t catch up.

Seven years later I relive my encounter with that fawn. Was I right? Was I wrong? Instead of teaching it to be afraid, should I have slowly approached it and put out a tender hand, made contact with that ineluctable creature of the wild? Heart beating loudly, should I have murmured a welcome to this world, shut my eyes and conveyed some image of peaceful foraging for shoots and leaves, a dream of love and longing?

And if I’d done that, might it have given me a gift in return?

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WHO’S PULLING THE STRINGS?

Linji Yixuan, the 9th century Chan master who founded what is now known as the Rinzai School of Zen, said: Behold the puppets prancing on the stage, and see the man behind who pulls the strings.

I think of that koan almost every day when I hear people talking ad nauseam about our President. I think of it when I look at the media coverage—not Fox or right-leaning media, but The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC. I think of it when I hear the glee with which so many greet all his gaffes, tweets, boasts, and numerous instances of ignorance. What a waste of precious time and attention!

Donald Trump is the tumbler and fool parading onstage, limbs contorting first one way and then the other, pointing here and there, dancing and masquerading, saying and doing whatever it takes to grab our attention (excluding thoughts of some depth or a vision for our country), and getting the audience he craves: I don’t care if you love me or hate me, just say my name. And we do, instead of looking, as Linji suggests, at who’s pulling the strings.

It’s not Trump who put together the latest punitive budget, but Mick Mulvaney and his staff at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), also a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, probably the most far-right group in the Congress, the man who was ready to do anything to bring down Obama’s Affordable Care Act, including voting numerous times to shut down the government.

Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, took a little time out to defend that same budget from his all-consuming job of deregulating the financial sector. Many folks there will tell you that it was the government, with its rules and regulations, that caused the 2008 recession rather than the greed of an unregulated market, and Mnuchin is making damn sure that recession won’t repeat because he’s loosening up all the ties that bind.

And finally there’s Paul Ryan, the moderate, intelligent, and philosophical leader of the House who has proudly cobbled up a medical plan punishing the poor at the expense of the rich. He’s the reasonable Wisconsin Representative who thinks it’s crazy for any modern, prosperous country to do what so many less prosperous do, guarantee medical coverage and wellbeing to each citizen regardless of wealth. According to his version of capitalism, the medical care you get should be a function of how much money you have. He’s the intellectual who states that there’s nothing worse in this country than excessive governmental intervention, nothing, not poverty, racism, war, or climate change.

And speaking of climate change, a vision that calls big government devil will never admit to challenges that can only be met by Satan. The minute we admit to human-made climate change, requiring national and even global intervention, we are also admitting that we need national and global organizations. If we admit that disparity between rich and poor is a global problem that causes, among many things, war, the biggest number of refugees in our age, and illegal immigrants ready to risk their lives stepping on mine-filled borders and risking watery graves to help their children survive, then we must admit the need for global institutions, like the World Health Organization and the United Nations. If we don’t admit these things exist, there is no need for big government to exist.

And that’s the guiding vision of our times. Get government off the backs of corporations, get government off the backs of taxpayers. Make no mistake, the Democratic Party went astray in many ways, wooing billionaires and making love to the high-tech sector, the privileged ones who think that the Internet makes us citizens of the world. Bill Clinton moved away from a pro-active government seeking to help those in need, but some of that old vision is returning. And when it does, there will be huge differences between the visions of both parties.

 

There’s one thing Paul Ryan is right about. Before the election he counseled young Republicans to look at the policies, not the personalities. And that’s what I think we need to do. Look at the issues and those pulling the strings, not the clown taking all the space onstage, diverting our attention from what is really going on.

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WHAT’S A BODHISATTVA TO DO?

Stanley is scared out of his mind, shivering and shaking with terror, all because the carbon monoxide alarm in the bedroom is chirping every 30 seconds to indicate loss of battery power. The dog can’t hear me speaking to him at all, won’t even open his eyes when someone steps heavily one foot away from his sleeping body, but he can hear this. Bernie, with his hearing impairment, is sleeping soundly inside the room because he can barely hear the chirping. The way to stop the chirping, at least temporarily, is to put on the alarm for several seconds, which will scare the dog even worse and wake up the man.

What’s a Bodhisattva to do? Stanley is hyperventilating, staring at me with his cataract-filled eyes, and I shut the bedroom door and take him downstairs: Come on sweetie, isn’t it better here? Don’t tell me you can hear it here. But he won’t jump up on the sofa. Instead he walks around, then crouches in a corner and looks at me in terror. Do something! Do something!

I will, I tell him, let’s just wait till Bernie wakes up.

Do something! Do something!

But all I can do is muse on how the things that terrorize some of us don’t move a hair on the heads of others, how one creature’s bogeyman—or bogeydog—hardly merits a second’s pause in someone else’s daily life. The spring brings me allergies, and worse, asthma, and I can hear the hollowness of my breath even as others exult over the sun up high and the plants coming up from the ground. Thunderstorms scare the hell out of me, and how many people have I heard telling me that one of their favorite things to do is sit on a porch and watch a thunderstorm crash and burn around them.

So I hug Stanley and tell him and me both that it’ll be okay, it’ll pass, Bernie will awaken and I’ll put on the alarm. Stanley will then run out of the house as he has done all his life with us, scrambling into the yard and finding a tree to hide behind, till after sufficient time passes, or I come out calling him, he feels it’s safe to go back in. I’ll watch him push his head through the plastic opening of the dog door and move it from side to side, earflaps straining to hear a sound, an echo of what scared him. And if he hears nothing for a while he’ll jump in, walk warily around the kitchen alert for a sudden loud caterwauling lying in ambush, till slowly, gratefully, he relaxes into the quiet.

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BUNGLING WITH SOME DEGREE OF PEACE

One of the reasons I love my walks in the woods is that I can let the lid off and contemplate my bungling with some degree of peace. Over the dozen years of walks, a lot has come up: my insufficiencies as a mensch, a woman, a writer, a teacher, a wife, a daughter, and a bringer of healing to the world.

I think of my mother’s surgery yesterday at which I couldn’t be present, the urgent pleas for rides for undocumented immigrants that I don’t respond to, my husband’s needs that remain unfulfilled (just the other day I remarked on the big discolored blotches on his right arm, and he nodded and said softly, The arm needs a little tenderness), the writing that requires more effort, the practice and teaching that look for more depth and leadership, the impatience with Stanley, the unfilled birdbath, the unwatered flowers, the flowerless altars inside, personal emails that lie unanswered.

The list of incompletions could fill this post: the support I don’t give Sami Awad for his work in Palestine, students I don’t make enough time for, friends I don’t talk to enough, an old friend in dementia isolated in a distant rehab facility, and on and on. I reserve my deepest sadnesses for carrying on the karma of blame and anger so prominent in my family of origin, the many times when my written words fail me, and when practice, teaching, and relationships all feel tepid because I’ve lost my way. Let’s forget everything, I once told a good friend in London, go to a poor country, open an orphanage, and spend the rest of our lives taking care of children with no father or mother.

With all these to contemplate, I wonder what I’ve made of my life. How did I meet this rare opportunity for humanhood that was given me 67 years ago and that will be withdrawn not too many years in the future? What walls surrounding a small and needy self didn’t I break through? What could have been, and what is?

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about self-centered flagellation but about times of reckoning, mornings when I wake up with both gratitude and a sense of insufficiency.

And that’s when I look at small trees like the one above, on the banks of the pool where Stanley and I always finish our walk in the woods. It’s framed by stands of tall, sweeping pines, but this one is more a stalk with spider webs for branches. It’s taken root in a thin, downward slope, just above a sharp fall where the earth has eroded into swamp and water.

Isn’t it beautiful? You should see it when it rains, the drops like diamond bracelets around its skinny arms, fingers angling up for the light. It’s exquisite in its smallness, fragility, and imperfections. There are many like it in the forest, but none exactly like it. It grows not according to its plans and wishes, but according to so many things near and far–the thin soil, the pools, the tall pines, the dog peeing against it, the woman who brushes by it with a kiss—all contained in those silver filaments. And when it shivers in the breeze it is so alive! So alive!

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WE ARE SUMUD, or IF YOU IMAGINE IT, IT WILL BE

Photo by Ahmad Bazz/Activestills.org; with permission.

When I met with Sami Awad, head of Bethlehem’s Holy Land Trust, last week he told me that just two days after I was leaving Israel a group of Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis would go to Sarura, a Palestinian village taken over by the Israeli army for military use, its families exiled, that they would put up tents, hook up generators, and create a peace camp to teach about shared values of nonviolence, the rights of people to self-determination and to land and water. The peace camp would be called Sumud, which in Arabic means steadfastness.

It sounds a little like Standing Rock, I said.

Yes, it is like that, he replied, and we both contemplated Standing Rock, the spontaneous gathering of people from so many tribes, the willingness of Anglos from around the world to support them, the checkpoints and guards, the brutal winter, and President Trump’s flourish of the pen to finish the pipeline. But Standing Rock has not ended. It continues in its path to some kind of immortality, as symbol, as myth.

Which is probably why Saturday night, just 24 hours after a group of some 70 (including many American Jews) settled in, did Muslim prayers followed by Jewish Sabbath prayers, the army came in and destroyed the first Sumud camp. They didn’t kill, wound, or arrest anyone, just came into a peace camp with guns, sticks, and helmets, threw a few punches, leveled the makeshift structures and took away the one generator. And as they did that the people said they’ll remain, rebuild, do it again. And again. And again.

What causes perfectly normal people to fly halfway around the world to go to a barren hillside in the heat of summer, put up tents, connect a generator, brave the heat and mosquitoes, and call themselves a peace camp, against major odds that they’ll get torn down very quickly? And then promise they’ll do it again? Are they crazy? Don’t they have something more practical and fruitful to do with their time? How is a small encampment of tents going to upset the enormous machinery of occupation? Who’s even paying attention on the eve of Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East?

They may be crazy, but they also use their imagination. Sumud, like so many other acts of heartful resistance, begins as an act of the imagination. Someone dares imagine that force, occupation, discrimination, poverty, and violence can end. Someone dares imagine making a stand somewhere—in the freezing steppes of North Dakota, on a segregated city bus down South, aboard a British ship in Boston harbor to throw out caskets of tea, on the grounds of a decimated village on a stony hillside in the Hebron hills.

And here are more private acts of imagination that, in some form or other, you have taken: waking up one day to the chirping of a whippoorwill and knowing this is your last day of mind-numbing, heart-numbing work in the office though you have no idea how you’ll support the family; looking out at hills in the distance and deciding to end a marriage, notwithstanding deep fear of loneliness and poverty; holding an acorn in the palm of one’s hand, a symbol for dreams of love, and burying it in the ground.

These acts of imagination enlist the aid of the sacred furniture of life—the bird, the hills, the acorn, a razed village—which, when seen to their essence, take us beyond ourselves and our parameters of logic, help us shoot for the moon, renew the perpetual revolution. Guns, water cannons, sticks and helmets may seem to win in the short run, but over time they can’t compete with water in the Dakotas, a bus seat in Montgomery, a handful of sand in India, or a parched hillside in Palestine.

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DOES YOUR TERRITORY SMELL LIKE YOU?

Just before taking Stanley to the woods I walk out onto our back yard and get pissed: Stanley, you took out all the stuff from the bathroom trash can and brought it out here!

Yup.

There’s my teeth floss, my used tissues, my Q-tips. Why?

How else will anybody know this is our house? I work hard to pee and shit everywhere, but I can’t do it alone, so we have to use some of your bodily fluids, too. I wish you didn’t use a toilet.

Of course I’m going to use a toilet.

Can’t you just smell it? He swoons with delight. Your essence and my essence mixing together all over the grass.

My essence isn’t ear wax and nose drip.

Don’t be so sure. And another thing, says he. Stop brushing me.

But you shed so much hair!

And I try to leave it all over the house. How else will everybody know—

Stanley, we don’t leave our body stuff around to mark our territory, only dogs do that.

What do you do?

We pay money to buy or rent a place, we put our name by the door, get a mailbox, and everyone knows that’s our territory.

You don’t have to pee or shit at the borders?

No. And we don’t leave tissues with nose drippings or face oil everywhere, or tampons with menstrual blood.

But then your territory doesn’t smell like you. What good is that? And how would anyone know it’s yours?

There’s a street address, and somewhere it’s written that that street address belongs to Eve and Bernie.

Sounds pretty abstract to me.

And another thing, Stanley. Stop going to Joe’s place and digging up his compost pile.

He’s throwing out perfectly good food!

He’s using it to fertilize his garden.

What’s that?

He’ll mix it up with air and sunlight, the rain and worms will come, and it’ll decompose into a wet kind of humus. Remember when we walked by his house the other day? There was a pile of it in the wheelbarrow and he was shoveling it onto the soil.

It looked like he was putting earth back in the ground. Pretty dumb, if you ask me.

Let’s go for our walk, Stan. I haven’t been in the woods for 10 days.

Yup. No addresses, just smells.

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