IN THE LAND OF SOD

“Yippee! A new day! Let’s run, Aussie!”

“I’m way ahead of you, Harry.”

“The sun is out, I could smell the deer from last night, and you know what we get on Sunday? Marrow bones! Isn’t life great? Wait a minute, where’s the Boss?”

“She’s walking slowly behind us, deep in thought.”

“Don’t tell me she’s back you-know-where.”

“I’m afraid so, Harry. She’s back in the Land of SOD.”

“Where’s that, Auss?”

“The Land of Sickness, Oldage, and Death is nowhere and everywhere, Harry.”

“Uggh, who wants to go there? Think she’ll throw the ball for us, Auss?”

“Wouldn’t count on it, Harry.”

“Think she’ll go wading in the creek with us?”

“I don’t think so, Harry.”

“What’s wrong with her, Auss?”

“She spent several years caregiving and now she’s grieving.”

“Yes, but for how long, Aussie? She’s been doing that since the day I arrived.”

“She’s not always like this. Sometimes she’s actually happy.  Just not now.”

“Doesn’t she know that time is passing, Auss?”

“She knows it, Harry.”

“She’s not getting any younger. If she doesn’t start living now, what’s going to happen later? The hummingbirds are starting to go.”

“She knows that, too, Harry, she’s the one who puts out their sugar water.”

“Doesn’t she feel the cool nights, Aussie?”

“She’s put out a warmer blanket on the bed, Harry.”

“What’s she waiting for, snow?”

“You can’t rush these things, Harry.”

“I can’t wait, Auss. You know who the Boss reminds me of?”

“Who, Harry?”

“Bruce.”

“Bruce the big dog we play with by the pond?”

“That Bruce. You know how he flounces around in a funny way? I heard the Boss talking with Bruce’s human pal, and the pal told her that Bruce was put in a crate too small for him when he was young so that he could hardly turn around or anything, so he lost a lot of his peripheral vision or he doesn’t know how to use it.  That’s why he’s clumsy and doesn’t respond to things coming from the side, like me when I jump him, yuck yuck.”

“What’s that got to do with the Boss, Harry?”

“The Boss is like Bruce, Aussie. She doesn’t have a big enough view.”

“Because she grew up in a crate that was too small?”

“Aussie, doesn’t the Land of SOD feel small to you?”

“To me it does, Harry, but humans are undecided about that. Some say it’s good to get out of there quick as you can—“

“That’s what I say—“

“And some say the Land of SOD is a big country masquerading as a small crate.”

“Well, I think the Boss has lost her peripheral vision, Auss. She’s missing out. Soon the flowers will go, then the other birds, then the creek will get cold and I won’t want to splash in it anymore with her.”

“She does take us out every day, Harry. She loves the woods, loves the flowers, sits outside in the early morning when you’re still dozing off in bed. She just hasn’t turned yet, know what I mean?”

“No. Does she throw us balls?”

“Not too often.”

“Does she run around with us or drop to the ground and wrestle?”

“Not lately, Harry.”

“I rest my case. She’s just like Bruce. Somebody better get her out of that crate fast.”

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IN THE ABYSS BUT NOT THE TRENCHES

“We’re in the trenches.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Harry. It’s just that everything is overgrown at this time of summer.”

“No, no, I tell you, we’re in the trenches. Everything is so much bigger than me. It feels like we’re in a war zone, I love it!”

“Harry, you’re not in a war zone.”

“If I say it’s a war zone I could get all excited and think about what military gear I need to protect myself. I could think of all the baddies and how we’re the goodies. I like being in a war zone!”

“I don’t think we need any more of that, Harry.”

“How come you don’t have any imagination?”

I don’t have that kind of imagination. But the sense of walking along an edge almost never leaves me. If I stay on my feet I’ll be okay, find gladness in talking on the phone with friends and comfort in activity. But nothing takes away the abyss at my feet. It’s a long fall down there, deep and sad. I have no idea when it will happen, when something will trigger it:

What did you do this summer? We were in Maine for two full months.

Come for a cookout tomorrow evening.

My husband and I read aloud to each other every night in bed.

Can’t forget standing on line in the Greenfield Co-op behind a couple waiting for their groceries to be tallied. He tapped her on the shoulder, pointed to a price sign above the avocadoes nearby, and whispered in her ear, and she smiled back. Small things like that.

Then it’s my turn at the cashier: “Hi, how’re you doing?”

“Well,” I say, “how are you?”

What else am I going to say? I just went smash into a dark abyss, don’t know when I’ll come out, and how are you doing?

Another day in the preserve I go down a secluded path. The dogs rush forward and I see a man wading happily in the creek. “Come in,” he says to someone behind me. Another man, younger and taller, stands on shore with a dog that looks a lot like my old pit bull, Bubale. He hesitates, smiling at his friend in the water. There are backpacks nearby and food items, including a frying pan, and I realize that these two made a night of it, camping above the creek.

We hang out for a few minutes and then I leave, and as I start going uphill to the pasture my eyes do what they now inconveniently do half a dozen times a day, clouding over and blinking rapidly. Bernie would have never camped; I hurry to remind myself. It doesn’t matter, it’s the intimacy that leaves me breathless:

Come on!

It’s a little cold!

Come on!

I’m not sure.

Come on!

And then I surprise myself. After a few moments in the abyss I suddenly feel a deep sense of gratitude and a strong wish that these two men cherish each other and the companionship they share. Words creep down to my lips, words I’ve never uttered before: I bless you. I bless your closeness and intimacy. I bless you apart and I bless you as one whole.

I’ve never blessed anyone in my entire life.

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and I gathered and commented on edgy situations that householders like her, like me, and like almost all of you encounter in our lives. We called it The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment, and it’s coming out in February 2020. One of the koans appearing there is called Enju’s Black Abyss, dealing with a mother’s loss of a child.

I didn’t lose a child, I lost a husband approaching 80 after 3 years of suffering through a severe stroke. But I know a black abyss when it cracks open at my feet, and I bet you do, too. I will write more about this book, the many sharp-edged fragments of life that we encounter, and how they  make us sad and enrich our lives beyond measure. F,or now, you could pre-order this book here.

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WHEN DISAPPOINTMENTS PILE UP; HAITI

“How come you never write about me?”

“I write about you and Aussie, Harry.”

“You write about Aussie all the time but you never write about me.”

“I think that’s because you don’t have much of a personality yet, Harry.”

“What’s a personality?”

“You haven’t come into your own yet, Harry, you haven’t figured who you are.”

“I didn’t know I had to do that.”

“Aussie, for example, who will be 2 next month, is only beginning to come into her own, but you can already see the basics of her personality, Harry. She’s full of energy, funny, sneaky in how she gets through the fence and the look she gives me over her shoulder (Just try to stop me!), playful–”

“You mean bossy, don’t you? She sure likes to boss me around.”

“She’s also playful, Harry. When we go down the stairs she comes to a sudden standstill right in the middle, between my legs, and then wiggles her bum from one side to the other like it’s all a big game.”

“Is that supposed to be fun? I think she’s trying to make you fall.”

“The only thing you have, Harry, is your craziness around food.”

“Isn’t that enough for a personality?”

“Remember how you used to attack Aussie if she was chewing on a bone that you wanted?”

“That’s what I mean. Doesn’t that make me tough and macho?”

“It makes you what trainers call a resource hoarder, and if I’d known this about you back in January, Harry, I wouldn’t have taken you home.”

”That would have made me a tragic figure.”

“The point is, Harry, I still don’t know who you are. Are you Harry Rama, as in Hare Rama in Kirtan? Are you Harry the Red? Are you Harry the Bum? Who are you, Harry?”

“Are those my only options?”

“Harry, you either have a personality or you don’t. Most important, you still don’t have some basic confidence. For example, for a month you were peeing in the house even though you’d been housebroken 6 months ago. Luckily, that has ended.”

“There’s lots of trauma in my life, you know.”

“What trauma, Harry? From the time they found you as a stray on the streets of Mississippi?”

“No, from the time you let Aussie lick the soup pot instead of me. And yesterday you gave her a treat and not me.”

“I gave her her heart worm medication. You know, Harry, not every disappointment has to result in trauma.”

“But if disappointments pile up and pile up and pile up, don’t they finally result in trauma?”

“Harry, you’re going to die one day.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No, you’re really going to die one day, Harry.”

“OMG, now I’m really traumatized. Watch me pee.”

“NOT IN THE HOUSE!”

 

Dear readers of my blog: Two students at Green River Zen Center, accomplished nurses, are returning to Haiti (after working there in the past) for a week of nursing work beginning Saturday, September 7. They have gathered a great deal of urgently-needed medications to bring in, but are restricted in how much each could bring. They need 1-2 people to fly down to Haiti with them so that all the medicine can arrive. They will be there till September 14, but whoever comes down with them can go home earlier. You don’t need a medical background, they’ll train you to do some basic procedures and be of assistance. There may be help with the airfare.

If you or anyone you know can do this, please let me know: eve@zenpeacemakers.com. The Haitians have sore need for medical treatment and the medicine that has already been gathered. Let’s try to find a way to get this down to them. Thank you.

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YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO PARIS

 

Many lifetimes ago, on a planet far, far away, I fell in love with France. I had divorced after an early marriage and decided to fall in love with a country instead. I upped my high school and college French by dating Frenchmen and made a point of getting to France at least once, and often twice, a year. I could do that even on a low income because there were some cheap airfares back then. I flew Pakistan Air to Paris in the middle of one summer for $150.

Met the man of my dreams, lived with him a short while, and one rainy summer day knew it was all over. Not just my relationship with him, but also my relationship with Paris. And not just the relationship with Paris, but with the beautiful things outside that we clutch at because we think that there’s nothing inside.

I remember well how it all ended. It was a Sunday twilight, around 8 or 9 in the evening (it gets dark very late in Paris summers), and it was raining. I left our apartment and walked far till somewhere around Montparnasse a young man began to walk by my side. We maintained a companionable silence in the rain till he finally said, “Vous êtes triste, Madame?” [“Are you sad?] “Oui, Je suis triste,” I said back.

Without any further ado he told me his story. He was Hungarian living in Paris and several days earlier came back to find his furniture gone, his money gone from the bank, and his girlfriend gone, all now belonging to his best friend, a fellow Hungarian also living in Paris.

It was the oldest story in the world, and he told it to me in French as we walked through Jardin du Luxembourg in the Paris mist. No one was feeding the pigeons, no raucous children or couples in love, just a Hungarian expatriate living in Paris who had lost his reason to live, as he earnestly told me, and an American woman who lost her taste for Paris. We walked like this for a long time, he so deeply engrossed in his story that I don’t think he guessed that I wasn’t French.

Two days later I left France and didn’t come back for many years.

The page turned. I realized that there was no escaping my own skin. When I began to sit, or meditate, a couple of years later I realized that there was also a way of living in my own skin, maybe even finding refuge there.

Yesterday I returned home from our summer sesshin, or Zen retreat. I came back to two gorgeous dahlias in what had been till now a dahlia-less summer, to a home that,  in the fall and winter, had felt caved-in upon itself but that was now enjoying the warm yellow sun and whose grass was thick and green. Aussie had broken through the fence again but broke right back and rushed to greet me when I yelled out her name, and Harry the dog mewled like a kitten when he saw me come out of the car.

I felt that I had rarely sat with so much in my heart as I had in this retreat. Episodes from the past popped up without surcease; I finally gave up pushing them away and let them wash over me, as did tears. I read aloud some of my notes from my Greyston Journal and I gave a talk about how to save a ghost.

You learn to take up all the space that life has given you. You dance with the afternoon sun as it frolics on the grass and much later you walk unafraid towards the night that lies deep in the garden, beyond the Kwan-Yin. You know that what makes a desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere and what makes the water come alive is the parched, indecipherable vastness that surrounds it.

You don’t have to go to Paris.

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THERE ARE RETREATS, AND THERE ARE RETREATS

I will be doing our annual summer sesshin, or Zen retreat, starting this evening through Sunday, teaching along with Roshi Fleet Maull, and I hope that gives me the opportunity to sit more than usual.

We will do the retreat at Fleet’s gorgeous Windhorse Hill Retreat Center in Deerfield, and though it is but 20 minutes away I will stay there, which means no dogs for 4-5 days (don’t worry, housemate Tim will take care of them during that time, they won’t starve). Frankly, I could use some days without dogs. Windhorse also serves as a training center for mindfulness teachers and as headquarters for Fleet’s fruitful prison mindfulness program in the United States and Canada.

It will be a privilege to sit in that beautiful space, surrounded by gardens and trees, the Connecticut River flowing down the hill from us. At the same time, I remember a whole other retreat, in very different circumstances, that I did in 1987, in southwest Yonkers. We had finished building a zendo on the third floor of the funky Greyston Bakery across from Stevens Paint, which hired illegal immigrants, and next door to an all-night bar, Little Bit’s Place. Bernie (long before he became my husband) was then Sensei. I recently came across notes I must have written in my Greyston journal right after that experience:

September 27, 1987

“Our first sesshin in the zendo. There are 38 of us, two bathrooms, no showers. We begin 15 minutes late. We sit, Helen (Bernie’s first wife) gives sesshin instructions, but Sensei comes up before she is finished, as though saying enough of talking.

At 9:00 we go to sleep, most of us on mats in the zendo, a few in the offices downstairs. My office is taken by Joanne, where she stretches out two mattresses with satin sheets, three flowery blankets, cosmetics and photos of her dogs on my desk, a frilly negligee on the pillow and a robe draped over my office chair.

Sleep comes, but not for long. Soon I hear the sounds of hard rock and heavy metal, cars stopping and zooming off, people shouting. The bar next door is in full swing and the beat of the loud music hammers against the walls separating the zendo floor, where people are trying to sleep, from the bar.

I get up at 4:15, go downstairs, put on the coffee machine, and sit on the stoop outside. It’s still completely dark, but impossible to sleep. Next door people are coming in and going out of Little Bit’s Place. A pretty woman on red stiletto heels comes out with a man who is totally soused. As she passes she says, “If you got cash then I am your baby. I am going to be your baby forever and a day.” They don’t give a second glance to my black robes.

The owner of the bar comes by. “How’s the bakery?” he asks. Fine, I tell him, and he goes on.

Everybody gets up, groggy. Nobody slept. There is a line for the bathrooms, but the densho [service bell] sounds for service and then sitting.

The hardwood floor is tough on my knees. When the call for daisan (face-to-face with the teacher) sounds I don’t go down; I have nothing to say. After lunch I try for a brief nap, when Little Bit’s is still shut, and just as the afternoon sitting is about to start, Kosho (the head baker) comes up the stairs and beckons me out of the zendo. A white chocolate wedding cake has fallen.

Making wedding cakes is an important bakery product and always falls on Kosho’s shoulders since he’s the head finisher, not to mention a senior of the community and a priest, but he hates to do white chocolate cakes in the summer because the white chocolate melts even in an air-conditioned finishing room and therefore impossible to decorate.

I go downstairs to the finishing room. Four tiers have collapsed, leaving jam, cake, mousse, and white chocolate all over the stainless steel counter. I call the caterer, Jensina, and apologize, tell her what happened. She insists she still wants a white chocolate cake for tomorrow’s wedding. The retreat atmosphere is gone, replaced by wild hilarity. Every time we look at the destroyed cake on the counter we burst out laughing. Kosho rolls his eyes, mumbling in his Japanese English about the hours of work that lie ahead for him as he creates another wedding cake.

I go back up to sit, stomach all butterflies, so when the call for meeting with Sensei comes up again I go downstairs. When it’s my turn I find him at his desk with a chair pulled over, a small statue of the Buddha and photos of his teachers behind him. I tell him what happened. His eyes roll. I tell him it’s impossible to go on this way, no sleep, falling wedding cakes. How is one supposed to meditate?

He says that that was the way he got his training. His first sesshin was held in a neighborhood with constant gunfights, small and cramped quarters. In the middle of a hectic, uncomfortable life is the zendo. That’s life. Wedding cakes rising, wedding cakes falling.

Our day-to-day life in this community is like a sesshin, I say. We go from one thing to the next to the next, as though we are always on a schedule. During sesshin the schedule does not change, but it changes day to day. He says that life is what changes the schedule. Life sets the schedule. And we must learn to go with it from one thing to the next.

He gives me my first koan: ‘The world is vast and wide. Why do we put on our seven-panel robe at the sound of the bell?’”

The blog will be on retreat till next Monday.

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FULL DEVOTION

I’ve taken to sitting outside in the mornings. If you wake up early enough then you can beat the black flies and do your meditation in the back with relatively minor discomfort. I face the woods, the upper slope, and Kwan-Yin. Especially Kwan-Yin.

I’ve been wondering about selling my home and moving somewhere smaller and cheaper. I rent out two rooms now but also pay down a steep mortgage. At the same time, there’s our wooden Kwan-Yin, of whom I’ve written earlier. [A high school teacher had a close student who subscribed to neo-Nazi sentiments. He was also a skilled carpenter. One day he asked her what he could do for her, and she said: “Make me a Kwan-Yin.” “What is that?” he asked. “The Buddhist image for compassion,” she replied. He did. Many years later, after she died, it came to the Montague Farm, and then to the back of our house.]

I once asked Tim, the fine carpenter who lives in the house, to look her over. I wondered what to do with the widening cracks in her body. Tim told me that too many critters have made their home in Kwan-Yin, and what with the hollowness inside and the weather damage, it would be dangerous to even try to patch her up. “If you move her even a little bit she begins to crumble,” he explained.

Maybe that’s what happens when you provide shelter to homeless denizens (a one-woman Skid Row). If I stay here, I wonder, will it keep her intact? Is that a good enough reason for staying?

Harry and Aussie come out to say hello after I’ve sat a while, wagging their tails, sniffing the activity from nighttime. Harry’s changed. He’s gotten past his regression from housetraining and no longer pees or poops in the house after we returned to basic training. He never used to say hello before—he had a one-track mind around food—and I’m curious what kind of dog he’s going to grow up to be.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi long ago said that you have to “participate with full devotion.” Participate in life, he meant, not in your head. Wholeheartedly, with full devotion.

The words full devotion have stayed with me over the years.  This has been a difficult summer. I don’t go anywhere, I don’t connect. People go on vacations, they return with stories of summer fun and relaxation. I sit home, write, walk dogs, work. With full devotion.

Aussie comes over and we have the same dialogue that we have every morning:

“Pet me, pet me,” she says.

“Aussie, I’m sitting,” I say.

“Pet me, pet me,” she says, nuzzling between my thighs.

“Aussie, I’m sitting,” I say again.

“Give me love, give me love,” she says.

So you give in and give love, and at some point start feeling so grateful to participate in this co-creation of life, with devotion. You’re one of the co’s, as she is, as are the drops of rain that fall from the tree leaves, the twigs that come banging down because of last night’s storm, and even the f—ing black flies that swirl around you. Suddenly you just can’t believe the life hat you were given.

Milosz wrote:

Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

 

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WE WERE CRAZY!

I was in New York for the past two days. I spent hours with a friend sitting on a rocker and looking out her back yard at a tree full of birds. The next day I went to visit with Mike Brady, President of Greyston, along with Rami Efal, the Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers. Together we talked about how to strengthen Bernie’s Zen flavor in Greyston, the mandala of for-profits and not-for-profits that he, along with his Zen Community, established in the 1980s and 1990s.

It was Rami’s idea that one of the things I should do at Greyston is tell stories of those early years, when a group of inexperienced but devoted dharma students started a café, an almost-failed bakery that became a great success, a housing program that built permanent homes for homeless families, a child care center, and a highly-regarded AIDS care facility with housing for people with AIDS in southwest Yonkers. Mike gave both of us bags of brownies from the Greyston Bakery which you can buy at Whole Foods.

A week ago I opened up a file I hadn’t looked at in a long time. It contained many pages of journal notes I wrote at night in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I call it my Greyston Journal and I have no memory of writing it. But the pages are there, single-spaced, evidence of a fanatic who stayed in the office night after night trying to capture the flavor of events, and especially stories of the crazy people, like me, who were there because they were madly in love with the dharma.

From a day in April 1989:

“Jack [a consultant who visited the Greyston Bakery to see why it was losing so much money] saw all the employees going upstairs to the zendo and asked what they were doing. ‘Every month we have Mandala Day,’ we explained to him. ‘We gather on the third floor for a couple of hours. The Bakery folks share what they’re doing, the housing folks talk about their work, the Builders [Greyston Builders} talk about their projects. It’s always someone’s birthday so we cut up a cake. The Greyston-ettes sing a couple of songs [that day they sang Didn’t we Almost Have It All and Amazing Grace]. Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka talked at Mandala Day last month. People like it”’ Jack was flabbergasted: “You stop work for this? No wonder you’re broke!”

And this, the following day:

“Yesterday the executive director of the Center for Preventive Psychiatry came to visit. We spoke to him about providing psychiatric services to the children moving into the building [68 Warburton, our first housing project]. We suggested we keep the building in a “wellness” mode and send any adults and children who may need help out for treatment. He didn’t agree at all. He told us that CPP gave as conservative estimates that 75% of the homeless people they deal with have drug abuse problems. He said: ‘Whatever your expectations are, I don’t care how low, slash them by 80%. My office can tell you about success stories we’ve pointed to with pride, women who got off drugs and were housed and working in a good job, their kids doing well in school, and four months later they’re back on crack and the kids are out of school and you can’t even find them anymore. They have no social fabric, no basic security of any kind. It takes nothing for them to have another fall, nothing at all.’”

And finally, this from earlier that same morning:

“Lately each time I wake up in the morning and still find myself on my mattress on the floor I wonder if it makes much sense to be spending years of my life here: Why I’m on some mattress rather than on a bed, why I’m not in my own apartment [we lived communally], why somebody isn’t lying at my side.”

Why? Because there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I loved this way of Zen practice, of making a go of a for-profit bakery and helping families (almost always single mothers with children) live in new apartments, get jobs, get child care, get a life. We were constantly broke, with unpaid stipends and wages, on the brink of collapse, perpetually on edge, trying to make up for our ignorance and lack of business-world competence by always working harder.

“Oh yes,” someone once said when he head that I’d worked in Greyston for years as part of that meshugena community, “you were the ones who practiced in a zendo on the 3rdfloor of a bakery, and afterwards would go downstairs and get to work.”

“No,” I told him, “we were the ones who practiced in that funky zendo early each morning and then went downstairs and continued to practice Zen the rest of the day.”

“We were crazy,” I told the friend I visited last Wednesday. She had been there too, and now we both sat in back of her house and contemplated the birds.

“You’re not kidding,” she said. “We were crazy all right.”

But we were in love.

 

Someone recently said to meitting in the morning

 

 

 

 

This morning I walked the dogs and they rummaged around the shrubbery that runs on both sides of the creek, lunging after various critters I couldn’t see. And then in complete silence a gray-blue heron rose high up in the air to grace-filled heaven.

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WHO’S MY REAL PACK?

Over the weekend, Aussie killed a woodchuck.

We’d just driven up the hill and parked near the entrance to our favorite woods, when both dogs made a beeline for an open pasture. Harry barked and barked; Aussie killed.

It was over by the time I got there. Harry was ready to take off, but not Aussie, who stood above the stationary woodchuck.

“Come on, Auss,” I said. “You did your thing, now let’s go.”

When she didn’t move I tried to leash her, but she pulled away from me. Instead, she kept on trying to pull the body with her mouth into the thick shrubbery, but it seemed too heavy for her. At some point she looked up at Harry, who just sat there uncertain about what comes next, as if asking for his help. Harry started barking again, following his usual dictum: When don’t know, bark. Aussie stopped pulling. She stepped away from the woodchuck, then went back; she couldn’t bear to leave it.

“Come, let’s go to the creek for some water,” I said to her.

Instead she sat down next to the woodchuck. There was no trace of blood anywhere, not on her nor on the dead body; she must have sunk her teeth into its neck and shaken it to death.

I decided not to leash and pull her, but to stand and keep her company, take my cue from her. Aussie, the dog who greets me so sweetly every morning when I sit, pushing her head right into my bathrobe to smell all of me, was now totally in her wild element. Someone said that beauty takes you beyond the known world; so does the wild.

She clearly wanted to drag the woodchuck into the bushes and couldn’t. She looked at me; I nodded and said Yeah. I have no idea what I meant by that. But she got something because she wagged her tail, as if we finally understood each other, then sat back again.

Harry circled us, looking at me with a question in his eyes: Aren’t we going into the wild? The wild’s right here, I told him silently.

Aussie proudly savored the moment. There was no den to drag the woodchuck to, no one else to join her at the kill.

I’m waiting for my pack to come and join me.

We’re your pack, Aussie.

I’m waiting for my real pack.

Who’s your real pack, Aussie?

She sat, panted, looked down, and gave the woodchuck a couple of licks. Not eating licks, something else, and looked up at me. I felt that she was teaching me something really important, but what it was I didn’t know.

I wanted to go home. I’d had a busy morning, ahead lay more work, and this was enough drama for one outing, but I also wanted her to go down to the creek, get wet, and drink her fill. Of course, she could have drunk her fill from the water bowl at home, but I felt that this time she had to drink at the creek.

Finally, on her own, she got up and walked off quietly, and stayed quiet for the rest of the short walk. She didn’t run, she didn’t push Harry into chasing her, she showed no trace of her usual flamboyant self. She ran down to the creek, drank, and came back. I called her, she came, and I leashed her.

“Come Aussie, let’s go home.”

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HOW TO CURE TRAUMA AND ANXIETY

“Harry, what’s come over you? You’re peeing in the house.”

“Only on the rug under the dining room table, Boss.”

“But why, Harry? You were fully housebroken six months ago. You learned to use the dog door whenever you needed to, nothing ever stopped you. So why have you started to pee inside the house?”

“It’s my trauma, Boss.”

“What trauma?”

“When things come up from the past I can’t help it, I got to pee, so I run downstairs and pee on the rug.”

“What things, Harry?”

“I was found as a stray on the streets of Mississippi, remember? Somebody there didn’t want me anymore.”

“Maybe you just ran, Harry. I’ve seen you with food. You may have spotted a piece of discarded hot dog on the street and broken through the window to get to it.”

“They could have come back for me, Boss, but they didn’t. And what you do doesn’t help me, either. You yell at me.”

“That’s because I also found a few turds under the table, Harry.”

“Last time you threw something at me.”

“You mean the small sofa cushion? It couldn’t possibly have hurt you, Harry, not to mention that I missed.”

“That just re-traumatized me all over again. Boss, I need to feel safe.”

“Harry, I don’t think any such thing really exists. Regardless, you have no business peeing and pooping on the rug.”

“Oh yeah? So tell me this, Boss. How come when you wake up in the mornings you just lie there and stare at the ceiling? I’ve watched you do this every single day.”

“Because I get anxious and sad.”

“Why, Boss?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always been depressed and anxious first thing in the morning. After Bernie died it got a little worse.”

“Have you ever tried peeing on the rug? It helps me.”

“I’m not going to pee on the rug, Harry.”

“Would you prefer to poop? It’s hard to do if you don’t really have to, you know? I mean, you can pee when you don’t really have to, but you can’t—“

“Harry, I’m not going to poop under the dining room table on account of my anxiety, and I’m not peeing, either. I can just go to the bathroom if I need to.”

“You’ve been doing that all this time, Boss. Has it helped?”

“Peeing in the toilet has not helped my early morning anxiety, that’s true. I don’t think the two are connected, Harry.”

“Of course they’re connected, Boss! You get anxious first thing in the morning and you have to pee first thing in the morning. The only question is, where?”

“This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever had with anyone, Harry.”

“Look, why don’t you pee under the dining room table? It’ll make you feel better.”

“I don’t think so, Harry.”

“And f you leave a pile under the dining room table it’ll make you feel lots better. I’ll leave you space, ok?”

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RACIST

Toni Morrison died.

I was so lucky that my friend, Roshi Pat O’Hara, told me to go see the documentary Toni Morrison: Pieces of Me, which I did some two weeks ago. If you haven’t seen it, see it.

When I was in Teachers College, the renowned education professor, Maxine Green, told all her students to read The Bluest Eye and Sula. She said that the country hadn’t seen anything quite like these books before. I did, and followed a year or so later with Song of Solomon.

Morrison refused to make victims of her characters. She knew darn well that abstractions like victims and perpetrators lack the personal. They lack story. They may make sense for police work, but they capture very little of what matters.

White people didn’t get much play in her books. They were out there, of course. Hate was out there, racism, heartlessness, and oppression were out there, but that’s not what she wrote about. She wrote about what was in here, inside her characters’ lives. She gave them choices, she gave them moral autonomy. In doing so, she freed them.

Which brings me to the epithet racist, and specifically to the question of who’s a racist and who is not.

After Donald Trump won election in 2016 I had coffee with a lovely woman who’d helped take care of Bernie on Saturday mornings when I was in the zendo. I’ll call her Julia. I knew Julia had voted for Donald Trump.

“I am not a racist,” she told me a couple of times during our conversation.

Towards the end of our coffee together she told me that her son loved country music. “You know what bothers him?” she said. “Why aren’t they allowed to fly the Confederate flag during country music concerts? I mean, what’s the harm in doing that?”

“Julia,” I said, “does he understand what the flag stands for?”

“I think so, but that was so long in the past, Eve, what’s the harm of flying it now?”

Is Julia a racist? Is Donald Trump a racist? What information are we trying to winnow out by asking that question? A sense of their ethics and values, their social awareness? Whatever it is, it’s getting impossible to get at any of that anymore, everything gets blurred in the cacophony of name-calling.

In one of our retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a German man suggested that in addition to chanting the names of those who died, we should also chant the names of the camp guards whose deluded actions brought on so much suffering. The suggestion brought on a near-riot. “Absolutely not!” someone yelled. “Never! Never! Never!” someone else said.

Then Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi asked to speak. He said that in old Israel, a rabbinical court was empowered to issue judgments, including for crimes that called for the death penalty. But when death was at stake, the Talmud added an injunction. Unlike what’s done in our juries, where unanimity is required for conviction, the Talmud demanded that in capital cases, if all judges agreed that the accused was guilty and should be put to death, the verdict was put aside and the accused had the right to another rabbinical trial.

Why? Because life is not unanimous. Life is not black and white, pure evil or pure goodness. Life is decisions made within social and economic contexts; life is story and history.

Toni Morrison understood that so well. “What kind of person are you,” she asked, “if you need someone else to kneel so that you could feel tall?”

Racism permeates our society, those people asked to kneel and those who raise themselves above them. Who’s not part of that machinery? But Toni Morrison didn’t idealize and didn’t villainize. She used words to get at whatever is behind words.

 

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