DRAMA AND LIFE

Last night I called Emma (not her real name) to offer my condolences on the passing of her husband, whom I knew for many years for he and I had worked in Greyston together. He had died some 3 weeks ago and I don’t know what I expected to hear on the phone, everything from long silences interrupted by a few slow words to sobs, maybe a storm of tears.

When I asked Emma how she was doing she said, Fine, without any hesitation. When I said that this must be a difficult time for her she told me that her husband’s illness had lasted for 2 years. There were mileposts along the way, she said. Each time there was something new he couldn’t do or that  we couldn’t do together anymore, I grieved a little. When the cancer came back the last time and they said it was inoperable, I knew this day would come too.

She said all this very matter-of-factly, no drama of any kind, and when I asked her again if she was okay she said she was fine, this time with a small question mark at the end as if asking me why I was repeating myself.

The drama is coming from me, I thought to myself when I hung up the phone, not from her. She’d let go little by little by little, her expectations had changed over the span of two years, and now she seemed able to move on.

I had expected anguish, a deep felt sense of loss, an outpouring of grief. I didn’t get it.

Sometimes I mistake drama for real life. You know what I mean by drama, that gut-wrenching, heartstring-pulling, agonizing, tortured reaction that tells me I’m really on to something. After all, if I’m feeling something so strongly, then the thing or event that triggered all that must be really important and meaningful. The greater the outpouring of emotion, the more significant the event must be for my life. I celebrate the effects; I am sure I am in the middle of a major transformation.

But often all I’m doing is indulging my feelings, giving them the kind of free rein I wouldn’t give my dog, Stanley. I can feel deep sadness in response to something that happened today, and then go on. Or I can’t let go and it becomes a greater and grander opera.

Some people seem to be positively addicted to intense emotions; they don’t think they’re alive without them.

You know the old joke, my brother told me recently. Billy is born and doesn’t speak. He’s 2, then 3, and doesn’t say a word. Billy goes to kindergarten, he’s now in school, and he still hasn’t said one word. His parents are overwhelmed. Finally the family is having dinner and out of the blue Billy says, “Pass the salt.” His parents are stunned. Pass the salt! He could speak after all. “Why didn’t you say anything all this time?” they ask. ”Because till now everything was fine.”

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HEY, THE BUDDHA BEGGED!

I love to read!

Stanley, Wednesday is your 13th homecoming day. You’ve been with us for 13 years, longer than any other dog I’ve ever had.

Says a lot about my survival skills.

How would you like to celebrate it, Stan? Big walks? Cuddling?

A 16-oz. steak you don’t have to cook it, those rolls from House of Pizza, and Rae’s feta cheese omelet. For breakfast. Then for dinner—

Okay, I got the picture. You’ve changed so much from the time you first came to us, Stanley.

Yeah? How?

When you first arrived, Stanley, you wanted no love, no stroking; all you wanted to do was guard the house. For the first few years you were a terror for anyone visiting us and we got regular visits from the dog police.

That was so much fun!

How have I changed, Stanley?

You’re not such a bully. That’s probably because Bubale, your partner in crime, is not around anymore. When that pit bull was alive Bernie and me had no say about anything.

Tell the truth, Stanley, you love bossy females!

I hate bossy females. I have one more question: Can I retire now?

Retire, Stanley? And pray tell, what exactly are you working so hard on right now?

I am Bernie’s Great Disrupter. I make sure to lie at the foot of his bed each and every night, even if I prefer to lie on my own dog bed, so that he has to watch out and not trip over me whenever he goes to the bathroom. Instead he picks up his cane, shuffles down to the foot of the bed, and then vaults over it in the other direction. That’s the most athletic thing he does all day, and it’s all thanks to me.

You’re his workout trainer, Stanley. His fitness coach.

And who’s around to lick all the foods he drops on the kitchen floor when he makes his breakfast? Just this morning he dropped the peanut butter jar and a big glop fell on the floor. Who came over and voluntarily licked all of it, saving you all that trouble of cleaning it up yourself?

You did, Stan.

Who licks the top of the yogurt cup when it falls to the floor so that it doesn’t leave big white spots?

You do, Stan.

Or that great chicken soup he heated up for lunch, some of which dripped down?

You’re a regular Mr. Clean, Stanley. All-purpose.

Who begs Bernie for food when he’s eating, helping him feel wanted and needed?

You do, Stanley, especially when I’m not looking.

Exactly. You yell at me to stop begging, so I have to now do it on Bernie’s other side where you can’t reach me. And what’s wrong with begging? Don’t you advise all Zen Peacemakers to learn to beg?

That’s a whole other practice, Stanley.

Didn’t the Buddha beg for food all his life? Why is it okay for him and not for me?

You’re right, Stanley, it’s time for you to retire.

Don’t rush me, retirement is a serious decision. I have to ponder it carefully.

Leeann says you do great when you’re with her and all the other dogs, Stanley. You’re deaf, mostly blind, with weak back legs and hips, but you still keep up as they climb up hills and go down valleys.

And I’m the oldest dog in the pack. I wonder if that makes me the wisest.

Doubtful.

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NO GOD, JUST SOME GREAT SONGS

Recently a friend wrote about how he deals with mental illness—working on it daily, cultivating sanity and creativity, getting stronger and more stable—and said: I get to recover every day.

In a way, I do too. I don’t know about mental illness, never received that diagnosis and don’t have enough training in the field. So what am I recovering from?

There was a period of time 20 years ago when Bernie, in starting a talk to big groups, would say: Hello, My name is Bernie. I am an addict. I am addicted to my self. I have always been an addict and will always be an addict.

It got a laugh.

But this is the big one, the addiction to the story and identity of my self, lovingly made up over the years, layer over cumulative layer. While in Israel I tended to drink lots of coffee with family members and friends (I arrived home late last night), and watched the stories we tell about ourselves change from visit to visit.

My self feels like a big house always in construction. I furnish one room lovingly, then decide this isn’t quite right and start furnishing another, then add another. I can never quite get that self right, always futzing with it: a little addition here (That book helped me so much!), subtract the patio (I guess the feedback she gave was okay but it could have been a little softer), another little tchotchke (Remember when . . .), a refinement on the tchotchke (It wasn’t like that at all!), a refinement on the refinement (I can’t swear to it, but still . . .).

I feel like a car accumulating bumper stickers:

INDEPENDENT, STRONG WOMAN AT WHEEL.

DITTO PLUS EMPATHY.

ADD: BUSY.

CAREGIVING IS FOR THE BIRDS.

WOMAN LEARNING THAT CAREGIVING IS NOT SO BAD.

THIS DRIVER LOVES TO LAUGH.

DRIVER FULL OF DOUBT.

ALSO FULL OF DETERMINATION.

My mother’s self is full of bumper stickers as well:

THIS WOMAN HAS GREAT CHILDREN.

DID SHE EVER MARRY THE WRONG MAN!

THIS WOMAN STRUGGLED!

DID SHE EVER MAKE WRONG DECISIONS!

THIS WOMAN BELIEVES IN BEING JEWISH.

BUT SHE DOESN’T BELIEVE IN GOD.

Since I’m younger, it’s easy for me to add more bumper stickers about the woman driving the car. But my mother is towards the end of her life, hasn’t driven in quite a while, and her mind fogs up so it’s hard for her to design new bumper stickers. Instead she mulls over the Big Ones, crying, exclaiming in her sleep, a perpetual grimace of pain ravaging her once beautiful face.

I’d like to tell her not to read bumper stickers anymore. Despairing of that, I try to remind her of happy bumper stickers, but that hasn’t gone very far for she seems to always get drawn to the ones that talk of anger, insecurity, and fear.

I don’t want her to approach the end of her life like that.

I don’t want to approach the end of my life like that.

Beauty helps. I went to the Via Dolorosa to visit Jerusalem Pottery, the oldest—and many say best—Armenian pottery in Jerusalem. There I met the owner, Hagop Karakashian, tall, handsome, and very courteous in the gracious Middle Eastern way. He told me that his grandfather, a highly respected Armenian potter, fled Turkey and came to Jerusalem in the early 1920s, and the family has made pottery in Jerusalem ever since. Check them out and look at the Armenian, Persian, and Turkish motifs in their gorgeous tiles, with the bluest blues, the deepest turquoises and Mesopotamian reds that I have seen. In the end he invited my sister and me upstairs to see the studio where they paint the pottery by hand.

You continue a tradition over 100 years old, I said to him. Did you feel it restrained you in some way?

He nodded. I did in the beginning. But then I realized that the tiles and crockery I design go everywhere. We get photos of our tiles and ceramics in kitchens around the world, the plates are used for fruit on so many tables. My art goes everywhere. He paused. It’s living and working here, in this city, that is so difficult. The religions fight all the time.

From the outside Jerusalem Pottery seems small, the entrance so nondescript you can easily miss it. You’ll find it across from the eighth Station of the Cross, someone told us, where Jesus met the three women of Jerusalem. For me, on this visit, it was more important than the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

And I remembered something my brother told me. Once, when he hosted my mother at a Sabbath dinner, his children asked her about the synagogue she had been religiously attending for at least 25 years. Did she feel close to God there? She shook her head. There’s no God there, she said, they just have some great songs.

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VIA DOLOROSA

 

This morning I visited the old, walled city of Jerusalem. I walked on Via Dolorosa, as did Jesus before his crucifixion, small signs designating the Stations of the Cross.

But Via Dolorosa is also a bazaar full of stores of clothes, food, and souvenirs, colorful dresses hanging outside and store owners importuning you to come in, browse, have tea with mint. Most people stop and look at everything outside—purple and magenta coin scarves and corset belts for belly dancing (Get this! my sister instructs me), Turkish coffee and tea sets, small hills of orange saffron powder, and mounds of wooden crucifixes—how could you not? It’s colorful and downright gorgeous.

And in the middle of it all come the groups of pilgrims. They drop on their knees as their guide reads what happened to Jesus at this particular spot: Here he fell the second time; here he met the three women of Jerusalem, etc. They fall to their knees in the middle of all the shoppers, listening to that echo of events 2,000 years ago.

De donde estan ustedes? I mumble to an elderly lady leaning against the old stones, mesmerized by the cross commemorating Christ’s 6th Station. De Argentina, she says, barely looking at me.

The hubbub of tourists runs alongside them as they hear a different song. No one pushes, there’s no impatience. The two streams run together.

And I think of a friend of mine who emailed several days ago that his mother passed away. He attached two photos of her, one showing her as a young woman getting married to his father, the other somewhat older, when he got married. He sat with her at her bedside till she died.

I also think of another email yesterday from another friend about the joyous birth of a new granddaughter. She told me that the baby’s dark, bright eyes evoked some place else. Looking at them, she felt as though another world, another universe, was looking back at her through the baby’s eyes. She, too, sat with the baby’s mother till she gave birth.

And I think of myself, sitting by my mother these days when she won’t dress but remains in her pajamas, lacking interest in the world in which she had been super-active for so many years. She still has a strong will to live, the doctor told us earlier today.

Still, I feel like I’m sitting along some invisible perimeter dividing me from an invisible land on the other side, an echo of which reaches my ears even in the middle of the honking of cars on the street outside and the smell of coffee from the cheese shop a few doors down the block.

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A LOCKED UP HOME

My mother, Shoshana Brayer, and her granddaughter, Yardena Bar-Eden Allon

The doves don’t give up.

I sit in the sunny living room of my sister’s apartment in Jerusalem. I flew in here several days ago on account of my mother’s decline.

It’s late morning on Saturday, the Sabbath. There is less street noise, less car noise, mostly the talk of people walking back and forth from the synagogue. Jerusalem, ordinarily a very noisy city, is more quiet today.

But the doves don’t seem to know about Sabbath of any kind, not Muslim (Friday), Jewish (Saturday), or Christian (Sunday). They have long perched on the narrow column of ledges, 4 stories tall, that is on the inside of my sister’s building. The ledges were safe havens for them, inaccessible to humans or Jerusalem’s dangerous predators, cats, a good place to raise a family. But they left terrible messes in the garden and paths below, and finally the building’s human denizens sealed up their homes.

Every morning I hear them flying down, fluttering their heavy wings, eager to settle back on the ledges that were wide and safe enough for nesting, only to find them shut off by a gray tin siding. In vain they flutter and flutter even now, as I write this, against the tin blockage, bewildered and confused, always coming back, a little like Jews wishing to return from the diaspora, carrying their history and dreams with them.

How many generations have perched here, flying in for refuge from rain and wind, raising young, using it to launch them out into the world? In vain they cluck and flutter their wings. Home is cut off, sealed, done with.

I have never called Jerusalem home. I don’t have a geographical home, not even in Montague, Massachusetts, where I live. I lack that sense of rootedness anywhere. But whenever I return to where my parents—and now my mother—reside, there’s a sense of contact with previous generations and ancestors, with a long and deep karma that goes beyond parents, country, and tradition.

You don’t own me, I used to say silently on these trip to see my parents. You don’t control me. You don’t control my voice. I would sit and witness them, listen and observe. I had learned to do that at a very early age. At a time when young children whooped and hollered, I learned to be silent and listen.

Much, much later, and far away from them, that silence exploded into words and outbursts of feelings, scratches that effortlessly filled page after page. The silence would come back only when I returned to Jerusalem.

But now my mother, too, is silent. Full of heroic stories of struggle and survival, still dreaming of a movie to be made of her life, she nevertheless has become quiet. Sometimes, she admitted to me slowly the other day, my mind gets fogged up, and then it clears, and then it gets fogged up again.

Last night she didn’t come for dinner. It was Friday night, the sacred night of the Sabbath when for generations the family always came together. That was the plan this time, too. We gathered in my brother’s home: he and his girlfriend, my sister and brother-in-law and their friend, and myself, and we waited for her to come. Instead the message arrived from Swapna, her Indian caregiver: Mother is not coming. Not doing the 10-minute walk to her son’s home, not doing the wheelchair, not even 3 minutes in a car.

I went to see her, expecting to find her as I have almost every day this visit, in her pajamas. Instead she’d gotten dressed, she even had her hat on. But she sat at the table by the entrance when I arrived and said: I have no strength.

I returned and joined the others in the living room, looking at each other thoughtfully before sitting down to dinner. Ancestorless.

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