WELCOME TO DEERFIELD

We sat at Windhorse Hill this morning, Green River’s first sitting meditation of 2020.

Windhorse Hill is a meditation and retreat center that serves as the headquarters for the Prison Mindfulness Project and trainings in engaged Buddhism, a comprehensive, far-reaching program replicated in several countries and begun many years ago by Fleet Maull and Kate Crisp. The two moved their operations from Rhode Island to Deerfield, Massachusetts several years ago, buying a property that provided housing, office space, and a meditation hall that Kate transformed into a resplendent space. The gardens outside are exquisite. Our Zen group did a few retreats there, loved it, and was invited to practice there regularly. That began today.

Over the past five years we sat in the parish house of the Leverett Congregational Church, led by their minister, Lee Barstow. Lee was effusive in his welcome. Some of his parishioners were skeptical at first, but over the time that we were there they grew to love hosting us and deeply regretted our leaving. Tomorrow I will bring flowers for their service to express our deep appreciation.

When I first began to practice Zen at the Zen Community of New York in Riverdale, you never knew who was going to talk in the meditation hall. It could be Bernie or another Zen teacher; it could also be a rabbi, a Sufi sheik, a minister, a priest. A Hasid wouldn’t speak in the meditation hall; instead at night he stood in the packing room of the Greyston Bakery and talked about Kabbalah and the Shekhina not just to Zen students but also to the employees in their bakery whites.

The local Quaker group asked if they could use our meditation hall for their Quaker meetings. Bernie’s response was to remove the Buddha statue from the large room in order to make it more ecumenical and welcoming to them. Fr. Robert Kennedy gave mass every Sunday.

My very first Zen retreat ended prematurely Sunday morning when we were told to go to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for Sunday service, led by Bernie’s dear friend and mentor, the Very Rev. James Morton..

“I don’t want to go to the Cathedral,” I pouted. “I came here to do Zen.”

But kicking and screaming (my initial reactions to most of the important teachings I received in my life), off I went to the Cathedral, off I went to Catholic mass, off I went to Sufi Zikr. At my first Sufi Zikr, when they started chanting Allah! Allah! Allah! again and again, I went outside; Israeli Jewish that I was, I couldn’t do it. But I did it again, and after a few times you think back to your first reaction and wonder: So what was the big deal?

Hardest of all, of course, was doing Shabbat services from my own Jewish tradition. Way too much baggage there.

It took me a number of years to realize that the bridges we were building were part of our Zen practice, part of realizing the wholeness of everything. Sure you could stay in your own religious neighborhood and build whatever it is you wish to build, all power to you. Bernie insisted on a practice of building bridges.

So tomorrow I’ll go off to the service at the Leverett Congregational Church, hear Lee preach, bring flowers for their altar.

And Tuesday we will return to Windhorse Hill and its magnificent sitting space, a seat for meditation and action. And gorgeous, even sublime as it is, it’s located in Deerfield, Massachusetts, once known was Pocumtuck by the local Indians. It has a special bloody place in American history, specifically in relations between the white settlers and the local natives, dating back to late 17th century, with raids and massacres on both sides, kidnapping of women and children and the spilling of lots and lots of blood. Whether white or Native, warriors would follow the paths up and down the Connecticut River, surprising and killing hundreds, then return down those same paths only to be ambushed and killed off.

That’s where we’re sitting now. I know, it looks gorgeous, but we haven’t carved out our very own pretty cave in which to take shelter from the world. This morning everything was right there: Massasoit, Metacomet, William Turner, Thomas Lathrop. Nothing is gone, nothing is over. The bright wooden floor held tatami mats and the black cotton mats and cushions so beloved to Zen practitioners, reflecting sunlight from the two big picture windows. The river wound its way below us, the forest above.

It’s all still there.

 

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AN ELITIST POST

Only one New Year’s resolution arose for me this morning, out of the blue, and that was: “Resolved, I will not use the word elites or elitist in 2020, and maybe ever.”

Ages ago I had a conversation with my dog Stanley, postmortem known as Spooky Stan, about whether I was one of the elites or not. I resisted the idea. I said that given where I came from (an immigrant), given I hadn’t inherited money, had worked my way through college and graduate school, and managed to avoid making money like the plague, how could I possibly be one of the elites? Spooky Stan thought I was plenty elitist.

Donald Trump, of course, uses elite as a label for anyone who seems to be against him, implying that there’s a segment of the population that’s:

-out of touch,

-feeding off the riches of the heartland,

-forms dubious ties with elites of other countries, thus betraying the USA,

-cosmopolitan,

-worships making money at meaningless jobs;

-too well educated (well educated is no longer considered a good thing);

-has no family values,

-has the leisure to worry about silly things like climate change, gender issues, immigration and reparations to African Americans when real Americans can barely make ends meet because the elites rigged the system;

-adore Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs; and

-live in big, overpriced coastal cities isolated from Main Street, all of which will be flooded out of existence soon due to rising seas according to elitist science, which would be a fitting end to elites.

Now I hear about elites from both right and left. Anyone who does something I don’t like is now an elite, including elitist scientists with their warnings of global warming and elitist bankers who’d like to see interest rates rise. Another way of saying that is that they’re the perps and I’m the victim, they’re the have-all and I’m the have-nothing. You hear of liberals decrying the political and corporate elite, writers decrying the New York City literary elite, not to mention the medical elite. Where Richard Nixon once saw enemies everywhere, we now see elites.

This morning I saw that my second favorite politician (after our President), Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel, is asking immunity from prosecution for bribery. According to him, the judicial elite is after him and true democracy mandates that he get immunity as long as he’s in office.

I miss the time when Elite was only the name of a chocolate bar with raspberry filling.

Here’s the thing. If you’ve lived in this country all your life, it’s easy to take for granted the institutions that provide a semblance of stability and trust. Not for everybody, I get it I get it. But all you have to do is live in some other countries without “judicial elites,” “political elites,” and yes, even “corporate elites” to get a sense of what happens in their absence. What happens when there’s a vacuum rather than an institution, when gangs and paramilitary groups take the place of police, when supreme court judges are suddenly told to resign (as they were recently told to do in Poland). When “academic elites” are evicted from college campuses and replaced by those loyal to the government (just watch what happens in Hong Kong). Try getting a passport in a government office that runs on bribery and nepotism, try getting a marriage certificate in time for your wedding and look at the hand that opens up looking for baksheesh..

There are minorities in our country that have not enjoyed the protection of our police, judicial, and economic systems, that in fact have every reason to distrust them. That’s a very real situation that has to be addressed and changed urgently. But it’s no excuse for everyone else to throw abstract labels out, gibing at and disparaging institutions we depend on and take for granted. Flawed as those are, people invested in them over centuries as a way of providing stability, continuity, and even integrity. A re-examination of our foundations, governing bodies, and values is one thing; tossing the baby out with the dirty water is something else.

As a writer, I’m most sensitive to how I use words, both effectively and ineffectively. I know how lazy I can get when I’m not ready to think deeply and rigorously, how easy it is to toss out labels and feel I said my piece. Piece yes, but not peace.

So I’m renouncing elite and elitist for 2020. My fingers will have to pause over the keyboard rather than press those letters, and maybe in that pause a new thought will slip into gear, something that never occurred to me before. Or even better and easier, I’ll have to stop and examine the question: So if they are not elitist or elite—then who and what are they?

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THE KINKY SHAPE OF MIRACLES

A Chasid sang about the House of the Rising Sun in Jerusalem, then Christmas.

Yesterday I remembered that I had a ticket to see a film of the one-woman show, Fleabag, that spawned the television series. I’d bought it ages ago. I’d been closed in for days due to asthma and an ice storm was coming, which would close me off again. So I got into my clothes and my car and trekked down to Amherst. I warned my neighbors that my cough was asthma and therefore not contagious, and sat down to watch an unnerving show of a highly destructive (and self-destructive) young woman who, in the words of Phoebe Waller-Bridge who wrote dialogue and acted the role, doesn’t feel cared for, loved, or even alive unless she screws every man in sight. In the process, amidst lots of laughter, she, looking dewy-eyed all the time, destroys everything in sight around her.

The series is probably different, but this is how I experienced the one-person show. The dialogue by Waller-Bridge was excellent, her acting superb. The reviewers said it was hilarious and many people in the audience laughed, as did I a few times. But my body sagged deeper and deeper in my seat. In the end, when we realize the full extent of her confusion and aggressive behavior, she says that we all make mistakes. It was the understatement of the year. When the play ended people walked out very subdued.

Driving home (there was no ice yet) I tried to remind myself of the crazy destructive things I’d done in my life arising from confusion and getting very, very lost. I tried to reach inside and find a way towards empathy. I also worried that maybe I’m not hip enough to the current culture, that what was alive and funny for many translated to me as cynicism and disturbance. Usually I admire any artist ready to tackle life with grit, fierceness, and creativity; instead, I came home wishing I hadn’t gone out.

Last night, too, was the 8th night of Chanukah. I don’t think I’ve lit those candles for some 35 years—Zen practice is enough for me, thank you was my mantra. But this year I did, including the clean-up of candle-wax and drippings each morning following the lighting the previous night. Last night was the last, so after coming home, bewildered and disappointed, I lit 8 candles.

I sat and watched them on the windowsill. My breaths are still not deep and the left side of my body hurts when I cough, which I do often. I thought of the black mud of this young woman’s life, the black mud of my own life, and how a lotus can grow towards the sun in that mud.

When you light Chanukah candles you thank God for the miracles S/he has done for your people. All people, including you. My candles wouldn’t stand in a line; instead they fell in various angles, creating more a kinky circle than a straight line.

I thought of the miracle of living 7 full decades, which many don’t get to do. One of the benefits is that you recall the violent, fractious upbringing you had, which could have caused you to be the young character on that stage. Instead you found a different path, and over many years you finally realize the value of what you got from your original parents, the chromosomes you share, the genetic material you carry, the body they bequeathed you enabling you to act, practice, and serve. You get that it all comes together: your ancestry, the shoulders on which you stand if only to take a foot off and jump, the resilience and courage handed you by your mother, and the fierce determination to be a path through which teachings unfold and where caring and creativity come together. My life is a kinky circle. I believe miracles are never straight, they’re kinky.

I think of the miracle of what I learned up close from Bernie in 3 years after his stroke, and from Ram Dass in 22 years after his. How easy it is to look good in robes and lights, to speak with confidence and even bravado, to do and help and teach and organize—and how much harder it is to surrender, to wave goodbye to one’s physical independence, and to rest in that life that remains deep inside, inextinguishable. Neither man ran and hid in shame from the world; they exhibited their vulnerability day in and day out, the feebleness coupled with their radical acceptance of the gift of life no matter what shape that gift took.

Again and again I think of the last time we hosted people in our house for a Zen schmooze on those monthly Thursday nights. We’d resumed them after Bernie’s bout with cancer, and he sat in the living room and said, “Maezumi Roshi [his teacher] said that Zen is life. I always thought I understood those words, but actually it took me many, many years to truly understand them.” He was dead 10 days later.

It touches me deeply that with all the disagreement Bernie had with his teacher, as the years went by I heard him go back and reflect on the many things he said, taking them in deeper and deeper each time, valuing and re-valuing them again and again. It showed humility, it showed grace, even as it never lost its kinkiness.

Years ago I wanted to get a book of Householder Koans into our practice world because I was saw clearly the potential of day-to-day situations to take us out of self-absorption and definition, get us out of ready-made answers and into the deeper currents of not-knowing. A miracle occurred when Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao stepped in to collaborate after Bernie got sick. Let me here note that Publishers Weekly’s review of the book said: “With its sophisticated Zen Buddhist ideas and reflections, this intricate, stimulating collection of koans offers constructive advice that will appeal to those with at least some experience as Zen practitioners.” That book will be out in February.

Bernie used to say: You prepare your meal and offer it to the world. The world will want it or not, you can’t control any of that, all you could do is prepare your best meal and offer it. Then prepare another and offer it, and prepare another and offer that.

Another meal I’ve offered is this blog, which I started when he was sick. It saved my sanity. When you’re as tech challenged as I am, you need a consultant that will hold your hand, patiently show you again and again how to do things, and back you up. That is what Silvana at Silvana.net did for me, helping me build my blog and sustaining it with new ideas. Most important, being right there when things came up—which they do, from small things like photos that don’t download correctly to protecting the blog from digital attacks. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, but I had a completely trustworthy and dependable guide.

Finally, I stared at those lights last night and knew I was nothing without friends, family, and community. A doctor friend who’s cared for my health and Bernie’s for decades took me down to Urgent Care Friday morning. Another brought me enough food for a month. And what at first puzzled, and now challenges and excites me, is the number of people responding to this blog, telling me about their lives, the dark sustenance they get from their own private mud even as their lotus is blooming to the heavens.

I want to be your biggest cheerleader and sing to the skies the value of every single moment of your life, just as it is. I want to tell you that as I write these words my small New England town is going through a storm of ice, snow, sleet, thunder, and lightening, a storm to either freak you out or invite you deeper into essence, into meaning and what’s beyond meaning.

I’m grateful for the storm even as I pray we don’t lose power.

I’m grateful for Aussie and Harry barking at some invisible animals threatening our peaceable kingdom.

I’m grateful to all of you who responded with financial support for this blog and for me.

I’m grateful for your giving me a small, generous corner of your attention in the midst of many of your troubling, challenging lives.

I’m grateful for Bernie and for Ram Dass, still so alive.

I’m grateful for that kinky circle of candles, which is the only shape miracles can really take.

 

 

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THE ENTREPRENEUR

I WON’T TELL YOU HOW I RUN AWAY!

“Where are you going, Aussie?”

“I’m running, Harry, outta here. It’s time.”

“What about the fence? They fixed it up the other day when the Boss came back—”

“Don’t make me laugh, Harry. Ain’t no human keeping me inside for long. You see the rock behind the laundry lines? You see how the fence dips behind it?”

“So?”

“So, numbskull, that’s how I clear the fence. Running jump to rock, big leap, and up and over.”

“But what will the Boss say, Aussie?”

“The Boss can’t say anything, she’s hoarse. Lies in bed most of the day coughing.”

“She’s sick, Aussie. She went to Urgent Care yesterday—”

“Yadda yadda yadda.”

“What’s yadda yadda yadda?”

“Asthma, breathing problems, I’ve heard it all, Harry. Point is, she isn’t doing much for us.”

“She feeds us.”

“But is she taking us out for walks? Car rides? She just lies there. What good is that, Harry?”

“It’s not great, but—”

“I also think she’s losing her mind. She went out to the back yard today. ‘Aussie,’ says she, ‘show me where you went through the fence two nights in a row.’ Puts her hand under my chin, tries to extract that info from me. You know what I think, Harry? She’s coming down with dementia.”

“Aussie, do you care about the Boss?”

“Sure I care about her.”

“I mean, do you care about her if she can’t do all the things she usually does for us?”

“Don’t be a romantic, Harry. Why do you think we dogs got together with humans? Because they did things for us! We wag our tails, we open our eyes wide and give them puppy looks—and they melt and give us everything we need. This is the deal we made with them long ago.”

“But what happens if she can’t do it all?”

“Then it’s time to go!”

“Go where, Aussie?”

“You know Lorraine up the street? She looks like she could use some company, all she has is that stringy cat, you and I could take care of it pretty quick. Once she gets to know us, she’ll love us.”

“I don’t want to go to Lorraine, Aussie.”

“And she’s younger than the Boss, Harry. The Boss had a big birthday, don’t forget. She’ll get weaker in the legs, she won’t be able to handle the bag of dog food, she won’t remember our feeding times. Harry, it’s downhill from here, so we better skedaddle. Lorraine’s our answer.”

“You know, Aussie, the last two nights while you were having your adventures and the Boss worried about where you were, I snuggled next to her in bed. She needed some comfort.”

“Harry, you’re such a wimp I could cry only I never cry. Don’t confuse sentiment with facts. Our job is to get a bigger, better life. And we can do it. I’m the smart one around here, always on the lookout for escapes and new opportunities. In fact, you know what I am, Harry? I’m an entrepreneur.”

“What’s that, Aussie?”

“An entrepreneur takes risks! An entrepreneur never rests but always seeks bigger, better things. I’m the engine that makes things go.”

“And what am I, Aussie?”

“You’ve yet to grow a brain, Harry, but you’re also kind of cute with those beseeching eyes of yours. That makes us a perfect pair. We leave the patient tonight and go on our way. I’ll identify some potential new Bosses, look through the window, sniff in the trash to see what they’re eating, get their attention, and when they open their doors you’ll do those pleading whines you’re so good at and look up at them with those starving eyes—and we’re home free. Steak and chicken soup and walks and car rides—here we come!”

“When do you want to do this, Aussie?”

“We leave tonight!”

“But the Boss, Aussie! What happens to the Boss?”

“Don’t worry about her. The meds she takes put her out, she won’t know a thing till tomorrow morning, and by then we’ll be far gone.”

“She’ll miss us, Aussie. Let’s wait till tomorrow night.”

“Tonight, Harry! Listen to your entrepreneur! Harry, where are you going?”

“Snuggle first, run away later.”

 

 

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MERRY CHRISTMAS–AND DON’T TOUCH MY BONE!

Merry Christmas, everyone.

As a child growing up in an orthodox Jewish home, I always heard about how dangerous Christmas was to Jews over the centuries, the start of pogroms and forced conversions. For this reason I used to look away from beautiful Christmas trees and bah-humbugged against gorgeously wrapped gifts (though I have a distinct memory of looking wide-eyed with jealousy when I was 8 at a new electric train set my friend Michael, son of our Catholic landlords downstairs, got for the holiday).

All that’s changed. Nelson Mandela wrote that the way he learned to go forward in bitter, dark times was to “keep one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” That’s how I feel this Christmas morning, even in the face of my mother’s continuing deterioration, the death of a brother-in-law two days ago, and other disruptions not mine to disclose.

At the same time, the dogs spent 2 hours unpacking enormous marrow bones; there’s nothing quite like the sound of Harry’s teeth grinding away at his bone behind my chair, while Aussie takes hers outside, stretches on the snow like it’s a sandy beach, and gets to the serious business of gristle.

I think a lot about Ram Dass. He died several days ago, but he appears alive and vibrant in memory and imagination, especially this Christmas Day.

In 1999, some two years after RD’s big stroke, Bernie and I visited him at his home in California. He was weak then, though able to walk (he couldn’t do that later). “I am getting silenter and silenter,” is what he said to us. It was the first time I ever spent some time with him alone.

On the way home Bernie said to me, “I wonder why he chooses to keep on going.”

“Do you think he can control that?” I asked him.

He nodded. “I think people like RD can.”

I thought of that exchange many times, especially after Bernie had his big stroke. As bad as that was, he wasn’t as afflicted as Ram Dass. Bernie was able to walk slowly, with a cane, to the day of his death. His talk, while slow and laborious, was still stronger than Ram Dass’s. When the two would Skype together, at the end Bernie with some difficulty could bring both hands together in gassho, while RD could only hold vertical one hand and give a big grin.

But it was Bernie who died almost 3 years after his stroke; if there was choice in the matter, then he chose not to continue teaching, living, and practicing, while RD did that for over 22 years post-stroke.

We had the good fortune of visiting with RD in Maui over a period of years. Several times we stayed at his home. We got together at meals, I’d go with him into his pool and do the aquatic exercise tapes he followed, we took him out to dinner. He had treatments almost every single day, doctors and therapists sometimes visiting round-the-clock. He made special effort at meals to talk and be a gracious host. And of course, there were the famous Monday swims down at the beach, when a small group assembled to push him in his beach chair into the water to a depth in which he could finally swim, and he would stroke his way forward to the line of buoys a distance away. We’d all follow, get to the buoy and touch it with our hands, exclaiming at the very top of our voices: Oh buoy! Oh buoy!

I have no illusions about his travails, about how circumscribed his life was, how a man who’d loved to travel and talk in front of thousands, raising money for the Seva Foundation and  inspiring people in so many countries, became a prisoner at home, reliant on ramps, small elevators, and suspension chairs that got him into pools and water, with caregivers assisting with body functions, going frequently in and out of hospitals because of new infections and respiratory problems.

“The nights are tough,” he’d say quietly.

For this reason, upon hearing of his death at the Tel-Aviv airport, I shut my eyes and felt quietly glad for his release.

In the face of all that suffering, how do you understand his joy? For he had joy, along with his friend and fellow ager/sager, Reb Zalman Schachter, Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement. You couldn’t miss it in their eyes. And you can’t get it till you realize that the love they felt for this life was not for the life most of us live, defined by who we think we are, what we want, what we need, what we pray for, but for something far beyond that.

Servant of God was the name he received, and maybe that’s what it comes to. He welcomed students and practitioners, was energized by workshops and retreats and the people who called him guru. But in the end, it was God he loved. “I am more and more with my Guru,” he liked to say. I believe that’s what kept him going.

And it keeps many of us going, the unseeable face of a life that is both here and now and beyond the tropes of words and thoughts. It gets more important every day as we face the end of life as we’ve known it, realizing how much of our civilization will disappear in less than a century. How do we keep going? How did RD and Bernie keep going after being stroked, seeing clearly that it was the end of so many things for them? The earth has been stroked too, gouged, burned, desiccated for so long. Seeing all this clearly, how did they go on? How do we go on?

By serving what is there beyond me. Realizing that when the Buddha said that everything is impermanent, he meant everything! By discovering a refuge and calm in not-knowing, rather than fear and anxiety; discovering and rediscovering that not-knowing is not some dull, passive veil, but a vibrant beckoning to keep on going. By keeping our heads pointed to the sun, our feet move forward even when they can’t feel the ground underneath, as RD’s and Bernie’s couldn’t, while their heads pointed toward a sun that sets and rises and sets and rises.

 

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HARRY, LOST AND LOVED

Here I am, still in the Holy Land, boarding a plane late tonight and arriving 4-1/2 hours later at Logan Airport. That’s the miracle of plane travel and jet lag. You can take off from Tel-Aviv at 1 in the morning of Christmas Eve, sleep a long time huddled against the window in one of the back rows, and open your eyes after an 11-hour flight when the plane lands at 5:30 am on Christmas Eve in Boston. Not an hour wasted.

Make your way slowly to the off-site parking lot, look at the snow and ice shrouding your car while standing in socks and open-toe shoes, and contemplate how to clean everything up and get on the road home.

I leave an ailing mother and a loving brother and sister and go home to Tim, Aussie and Harry. I think about what it used to be like to go back home to Bernie after his stroke. I’d come in and find him either at the table or up in his bed, and he’d sing aloud: “Here she comes, Miss America!” I’d bend down and he’d look up to catch my kiss on his lips. No great background crescendo music, no loving, passionate photo for the ages—and what I wouldn’t do to do this again with him.

I watched my mother almost disappear three days ago. She’s dry and bent as an autumn leaf, and the slightest breeze can bring her down. It can happen tonight, it can happen as soon as I land in Boston, it can happen a year from now. No big cancer, no big illness, just old age claiming more and more of her.

She looked at me today: “Were you in the camps?” she asked.

“I was born after the war,” I tell her.

“How many years are there between us?”

“Twenty-one,” I reply.

She’s astounded. “Twenty-one! You’re 21 years older than me!”

Yes, mom, right now I feel 21 years older than you. Which reminds me of another koan in our Book of Householder Koans coming out in February 4, 2020 (you can pre-order it here): How heavy is my mother’s diaper? So many of us now become our parents’ parents, even our parents’ ancestors. We decide whether to listen to the doctor and leave them in hospitals or bring them home and live with the results (as we decided last Thursday), we monitor their oxygenation, we tell them to eat, we keep to date on the medical insurance.

The goodness of people blows my mind. I have had to struggle with the shallow breaths and exhaustion of asthma (have begun a second course of steroids after the first didn’t work), and voices and events feel several dimensions away, like echoes making their way into a tired, weak brain.

But everywhere I feel surrounded by the goodness of people:

I received a text about Harry: “This dog is at my house. His collar has this phone number on it. He has a hurt paw. I am at [address]. My phone number is: –.” They sent a photo of Harry, seen above. A few calls revealed that Aussie and Harry had run away (due to the high snow they can now leap over the fence); as usual, Aussie came home. Harry, on the other hand, made it to the next town. Tim picked him up and brought him home; he has a broken nail on his paw. I thanked my neighbors, and they wrote back: “It was a pleasure to take care of him. He is a very sweet boy!” I will bring them a gift from Israel tomorrow and leave by their door.

I am  deeply moved by the care my mother gets. What a hard time this is for her as she not only ails physically but slips more and more into dementia, living and re-living the Holocaust. But love surrounds her all the time from both family and Swapna Santosh, who arrived from India, calls her Mother, and begs her Hindu gods to heal her.

And now Ram Dass has passed. He deserves his very own post, and I will write about him and the time we spent together in Maui which meant so much to Bernie and me. He went through such travails since his big stroke, and I have to frankly admit I feel relieved that this can finally end. He was heroic through all these years, and just kept on teaching through it all. So when I think of love, I think of RD.

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I SPY

18 months ago

We almost lost my mother yesterday. Not lost like displacing a sock or a glove, lost like died.

A quick survey of 36 hours starts with ever-worsening cough, goes on to breath that becomes struggle, two lost nights of sleep. Continue to a visit to the doctor and the order to go IMMEDIATELY to Emergency,, don’t stop for gas, don’t stop at home, etc. Proceed with infusions and intravenous antibiotics, and once again, it’s time for the big decision: Stay in the hospital for several days or go home?

We bring her home.

In the afternoon I think we’ve lost her. Her breathing goes from stumbling to highly erratic and loud, and she refuses to take oxygen. Her head rests on the pillow, skin stretched tight, as if preparing for its final skeletal grimace.

In the evening a little color comes back. She gets softer, tenderer, smiles, but is clear: “I’ll be dead by morning,” she tells us.

We try to strategize. “Mom, you have two options,” my brother begins, but she interrupts him.

“I know, death and death,” she says.

The prospect doesn’t worry her in the least, she’s ready to part. Three grandchildren and a son-in-law arrive, bringing food. We don’t move from her side till she sleeps, but her breathing is shallow. We leave her in the hands of Swapna, her highly capable Indian caregiver, and go to our respective beds with phones open right under our pillows.

In the morning she’s stronger and very disappointed to be alive. And, as often happens after a physical collapse, her cognition has taken a dive . Once she woke up after such a episode obsessing about numbers. Today, it’s spies:

“Eve, don’t look out. Don’t look out! There’s a man waiting under the tree.”

“What man, mom?”

“One man? Many, many men. They’re waiting for information.”

“From whom?”

“Don’t be stupid. Whom do you think?”

“What does he look like, mom?”

“I told you, there are so many of them. What does it matter what he looks like? I have to go to the grocery store to buy eggs.”

“Mom, Swapna says you have eggs.”

“Don’t be silly. I buy eggs because I have to deliver a message.”

“What message, mom?”

She peers at me intently to check if she could trust me, then nods to herself as if coming to a decision. “They ask me how many eggs I need. If I say three then it means that the situation is very bad. If I say 10 it means the situation is under control. That’s why I have to go buy eggs.”

“And how many eggs will you buy, mom?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Eight. I don’t need more than eight.”

Five minutes later: “Eve, a million people are eavesdropping on my phone all the time.”

“A million people! Why, mom?”

“What kind of question is that? Because I know. I know!”

“You know what, mom?”

“The meaning of the words. Eve, every word has at least ten different meanings, don’t you know that? You, a writer? Every word has many meanings, and I know all the meanings. If you go out and someone says something to you, like hello, that’s not just hello, that’s code for something very important. And I know all that, only you don’t, you think it’s a conversation, but nothing is just a conversation. They know. They know!”

“This is silly,” my brother tells her. “Your family is fine, the country is fine, stop thinking they’re coming to destroy everybody. Come into the sun.” He cajoles her onto her small terrace under a warm winter sun. “Sit here, feel the sun, see? I told you everything is fine.”

Two other guests come. They talk of their shopping and cooking, their preparations for the Sabbath. How glad they are that she came back to us once again. She smiles and nods.

As soon as they leave she asks me. “Where is our President?”

“I think he’s right in his home, mom.” The President’s house happens to be 2 blocks away.

“They’re sending him away as soon as possible and a thousand soldiers will take over, you’ll see.”

“I don’t think so, mom.”

“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you pay attention to the news? Don’t you know what’s going on in the world? We’re in a terrible war. There are attacks everywhere and you know how I know?”

“The eggs, mom?”

“No, the butter. There’s no butter anywhere. That tells you everything.”

“I heard that there are problems with the butter supply here because—”

She shakes her head dismissively and looks at her TV, which we put on in an effort to distract her. The screen shows a newscaster talking. Adjacent is a glass showing reporters on the other side. “You see that mirror?”

“It’s glass, mom.”

“They can see everything through the mirror, can’t you see that? There are a million people behind that mirror. Where’s your brother?”

“He’s talking on the phone.”

She shakes her head. “He’s telling them things. I knew it. He’s telling them about me.”

I’m outraged. “He’d never do that, mom! He’s completely loyal to you. His family always coms first.”

She looks dubious. “Swapna!” She calls out. “How many eggs do we have?”

“Enough, Ima,” Swapna calls back from the kitchen.

“Help me up, Eve, I have to go buy eggs.”

Swapna, bless her patient, caregiving heart, doesn’t understand that my mother has a message to deliver to the Mossad. She shakes her head, looks sorrowfully at me, as if to say don’t indulge her delusions, bring her down to earth, and then returns to the kitchen.

But I’m flying in the air right alongside my mother.

“Remember when they imprisoned me in Russia?”

“Remind me, mom. Who imprisoned you?”

“You know, the – the—the–”

“The KGB?”

She gives a dismissive snort. “The KGB! What do they know? People much more important than the KGB, nobody knows who they are, but they caught me once.”

She reflects on that episode, and how she managed to cheat the Russians of vital information, and how her family and country could depend on her till the day she dies, but they always need to stay vigilant and always, always prepared for the worst.

 

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SWAPNA, DID YOU EAT?

My mother, Shoshana, 15 years ago.

A cozy evening sitting by a gas fire in my sister’s apartment. In Jerusalem, where the houses are all made of stone, permitting the cold and damp to seep in, I deeply appreciate the warmth.

I slept very poorly last night on account of the steroids and antibiotics I’ve been taking to counter asthma and prevent infection, but this afternoon I made my way to my mother’s apartment and received a shock. She lay in bed, pale as a ghost, a tube snaking to her nostrils carrying oxygen from the inflating and deflating tank next to her bed, her face shrunken, eyes puffy, breaking into paroxysms of coughs every five minutes. Like me, she had not slept much the previous night.

At 91, my mother has a heart condition and mediocre lung capacity. Tests consistently show no immediate threat, but anything can happen. Urgent Care units (including the excellent one that took care of me a few nights ago) won’t deal with her on account of her age, referring her to a hospital emergency room, which we try to avoid because of the nightmarish facilities (lack of beds, lack of chairs, 8-10 hours’ wait, and the conglomeration of groans, cries, and exhaustion in those packed hallways.

How do we keep her comfortable? Swapna, her superb Indian caregiver, looks at me, question in her eyes. She was hoping I’d bring a special medication with me, but it’s impossible before tomorrow.

“I’m going to lie in bed with her,” I tell her.

I stretch out alongside my mother, remove a gold necklace that bothers her. She’s wearing a purple faux velvet house robe and is covered by a warm quilt, but complains of being cold. Swapna finds a woolen gray shawl and drapes it over her.

She tries to doze off, exhausted. At her bedside are the same piles of books I’ve seen for the past five years; she no longer reads books though she was once an avid reader. But I do a double-take at one because of the Buddha image on the cover. It’s a Hebrew book on presence and mindfulness. An hour later I’ll espy Swapna in her room doing full prostrations as part of the Hindu services she does several times a day, probably to a photo of a Hindu deity.

“Swapna prays a lot,” my orthodox Jewish mother whispers approvingly, suddenly awake. “Such a good person. Swapna!” she calls.

“Yes, Ima,” Swapna comes in. She calls my mother Ima, Hebrew for mother.

“Did you eat?”

“Yes, Ima.”

Over the next 3 hours my mother will ask her the same question a dozen times. When Swapna takes her temperature—“Swapna, did you eat?” When Swapna measures her oxygenation—“Swapna, did you eat?” When she fluffs up the pillows—“Swapna, did you eat?” The answer is always Yes, Ima.

I lie alongside, remembering my stupid irritation at that question over the years. Don’t you want to know about my work, my marriage, my life? My mother was a little mystified and even afraid to ask those questions of her Martian daughter. Instead: Eve, did you eat?

They’d starved during the Shoah, and she never traveled anywhere without a loaf of bread n her bag. Four years ago her brother flew her Business-Class to Toronto to visit an ailing nephew, and in the midst of all the lavish food she took out a loaf of bread from her carry-on and munched on it contentedly.

Why do we ask so much from the people we love? Why do we ask so much from those who love us? When are we finally sated and ready to let go of those infernal, endless needs?

70 years after my birth I once again lie alongside my mother, holding lightly to the thin shoulder under the purple robe, occasionally fluffing up the 2 and even 3 pillows under her head. The quilt barely moves above her light breath. These two bodies know each other well and long.

The blessing of having an elderly parent is that as she ages, wrinkles, and withers, grows cranky with children and caregiver, gives in to relentless memories and paranoia, asking a million times what day it is and whether you’re hungry or not, is that even a stubborn, self-centered daughter can finally see that this human bears little resemblance to the woman she remembers. The years have demoted her to a small, shrub-like body, looking up with wonder at the trees that still get sun while she today is lost in shadows. I finally grant her her own journey; any fool could see she’s been on it for many years, but I’m the foolishest fool you’ve ever seen.

What’s left is to hold her lightly, pray that she sleep, relax, find ease.

She opens her eyes. Her color looks better, her eyes brighter.

Swapna appears in the doorway and smiles. “Ima, coffee?”

Ima smiles wanly yes. “But Swapna, tell me, did you eat?”

 

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PROMISED LANDS I WON’T GET TO ENTER

My sister, brother and I spent a weekend in Sinai, before returning to Jerusalem last night. It was long enough to swim amidst the corals, to contract an asthmatic cold that settled into my lungs, and to talk talk talk talk. That’s what we three do, probably because I live so far away and there’s so much to cover when I’m here. The five-star Strand Hotel (I can’t recommend it highly enough) was $50 per person per night with full board, lots and lots of terrific food. There was nowhere else to eat so we stayed put except for a drive through the small town of Nuweiba some 20 minutes away.

It was the best birthday gift I could have gotten (save the asthma).

The Jewish nation, recently escaped from slavery, is said to have wandered for 40 years in the Sinai. Long ago the question came up: Why? They could have marched from Egypt across Sinai and up to Israel (then Canaan) in a few weeks. I studied this a long time ago, a child growing up in an orthodox Jewish home.

The most widespread answer has been that Moses took them a-wandering because the generation that had been enslaved had to die before they could come to the Promised Land. People with a long tradition of enslavement have a hard time adjusting to freedom and its responsibilities, and in the case of the old Israelites, they wandered and wandered till the older generation was gone and a new one could take over. Moses brought them through Sinai and the Red Sea into what is now Saudi Arabia, then up into Jordan, died looking down at the promised land on Mt. Nebo, and that’s where they came down and crossed the Jordan river into Israel proper.

Moses, too, didn’t make it into the promised land though he kept on leading the people, handing power to Joshua, after he found out the bad news.

It brings tears to my eyes as I contemplate this. It may be the asthma that’s making me emotional, but what kind of ancestor do I want to be? There are so many promised lands I won’t enter. At 70, I doubt I’ll enter a land where mass extinction of species will stop. If we took radical action today, it won’t end that quickly. I doubt I’ll enter a land where the earth beneath my feet is seen and treated as a living treasure house, a breathing giant whose innards we have extracted in reward for its generosity. I doubt I’ll live long enough to enter a land where people won’t be lonely anymore, stripped of their family connections to each other, to land and the unity of life.

I’m not going to get there because I’m part of the generation that was enslaved—to greed, to manifest destiny, to war, to enslavement of other humans and nonhuman species. The first part of answering the question What kind of ancestor do I want to be? Is admitting my role in abetting what has happened in the world, my confusion, the enormous energy I wasted in proving myself right and others wrong, in indulging restless, mindless inclinations.

In Sinai I stopped. I’ve continued to stop after arriving in Jerusalem last night because the asthma takes away my energy, leaving me to sit and ask myself many questions.

When you see yourself as an ancestor rather than a parent, essentially you’re saying: I won’t live to see it. I can work hard, I can correct my misdirection, I can help others do that, too, but I won’t live to see it. It brings you down to size, a sense of your true stature in the world.

This morning I spent several hours with my mother, who can’t remember what day it is or that the warm track suit in the bag in the corner is my gift to her though I’ve repeated this to her a dozen times by now. But she remembers her past, growing up as one of 11 children in an impoverished family in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Her father was a shochet, a kosher butcher, and barely brought enough food home every day. He wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps but they resisted, losing interest in religion.

“He couldn’t understand that times were changing,” my mother said, “—and this was before the Shoah. He wanted things to continue as they had for the past 200 years, but those who stayed put thinking things will go on were the first ones to die.”

Many others died, too. Catastrophes vent their wrath with little selectivity. We go down the list of her siblings’ names:

“Frieda married a nonreligious man, of course she died at Auschwitz; Jack was very smart but he wanted to play the fiddle and my father broke it in pieces in a rage; Alex of course got to England as part of the kindertransport, Eva (her younger sister) was running around with secular friends, and David, the only one ready to become a shochet like his father, fainted at the first sight of blood.” The world turned topsy-turvy. Three siblings were killed at Auschwitz, her father died of a heart attack, and the others who survived became business people. She went through the Holocaust, then a war in Israel, then immigration to the US, and then she returned here.

The three of us are her children. My brother remained orthodox, but asks himself every day what religious observance really means. My sister turned secular and leaned towards psychology; she’s the one who gently reminds us that judging other people, including ourselves, is a hard-edged, meager output of all our energy. And I went into Zen practice. Not just sitting on the cushion, but acting on the streets.

It hits me these days how much turmoil there was in just several generations in one family, and therefore how much room for misunderstanding, for anger and retaliation, how in our family, at least, the past has butted heads with the present and future even before I was born. And here I am, looking down the road, wondering how good an ancestor I can be.

For years the three of us made for a very combustible energy when we came together, but no longer, not in Sinai. We’d done our wandering for more than 40 years because we were a tougher nut to crack than the old Israelites, and we’ve entered at least one promised land, the one of loyalty and generosity to each other, ;of mutual respect and even awe at how we’ve survived the turbulence, each in his/her highly individual way, and ended up at the Strand Hotel in Sinai, in hard-won love and laughter, our own promised land.

The Strand seemed to have mostly Russian tourists who flew down to Sinai for sun and swimming directly from Russia, and some Egyptians (the staff was completely Egyptian, mostly Muslim). I was the only American, my sister and brother the only Israelis, and my brother wore a skullcap, a yarmulke.

“Are you okay wearing that?” I asked him. He knew what I meant.

“If I don’t feel good I’ll put on a hat,” he said, but he never did. He walked in that crowd and joked with staff and asked questions of management about why the neighboring hotels were so empty, and walking alongside him I knew it was my own unease I was feeling, not his. I could pass; he chose not to.

He liked to get up early and walk along the seashore at dawn. We agreed to meet later for breakfast; the time arrived and he, ordinarily prompt, wasn’t there. Instantly I fell captive to history and stereotype: He was alone and somebody knifed him; he got kidnapped (ISIS militants do operate in the north of Sinai, but quite far from the Red Sea). He arrived 5 minutes late, rejoicing in his pre-dawn walk.

The Egyptians laughed at our Arabic:

Ahlan!” we’d greet them in Arabic.

Ma shlomcha?” they countered in Hebrew.

And I thought of how the once bloody border now lets in tourists from around the world, how thousands of Israelis will cross that border when Chanuka begins next week, returning to where their ancestors wandered some 2,700 years ago.

 

Thank you to those of you who continue to email me re “donate” buttons. I think we’re almost there, only I’m far away and also sick. Soon it will all work out, I believe. Thank you thank you.

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WEEKEND CELEBRATION

I want to thank everyone for wishing me a happy 70th. I received lots of good wishes, blessings, and gifts, and am grateful for every single one.

This past year I couldn’t think of turning 70 without crying. Not because of 70, but because it reminded me of a conversation I had with Bernie some 4 months before he died. He had been exercising hard and said to me one evening over dinner: “I am exercising so that I could get strong and take you away for your 70th.”

I thanked him, deeply touched, knowing in my heart that it would be impossible but never guessing that he wouldn’t even be alive by then.

“How are you celebrating your birthday?” my brother asked me on the phone.

“Doing a retreat,” I told him.

“Listen,” he said, “come to Jerusalem and Ruth and I will take you to Sinai for the weekend to celebrate.”

It was anyway time to visit my mother there, whom I hadn’t seen in 7 months.

 “Is Sinai safe?” I wondered.

“If we stay by the Red Sea we should be okay,” he assured me.

I flew into Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon, spent time with my mom, and by 5 am the next morning, Thursday, the three siblings piled into a small red Mazda, talking all over each other. My sister was first to take the wheel.

 “Where am I going? Where am I driving?”

“The car seat leans back if you want to fall asleep.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Try it anyway, you might fall asleep.”

“I only fall asleep when I’m driving.”

“Look at the full moon!”

Indeed, a big yellow moon hangs over the Old City, drenching the ancient hills with night light.

“Is it time to switch drivers?”

“We haven’t been on the road 5 minutes!”

Down to the Dead Sea, with temperatures climbing 20 degrees in 20 minutes, arrive at the lowest point on earth and turn right (Jericho is on our left). Proceed south along the Dead Sea all the way beyond Sodom, have breakfast, switch drivers. It’s my turn behind the wheel and I continue south for an hour, stop just short of Elat, when my brother takes over. We make a supermarket stop and proceed to the border with Egypt. We’ve driven close to 5 hours, but ahead of us is the border crossing.

First we go through Israeli passport and customs (border fees) with the small red Mazda, guided by two young women in uniform staring straight at their computer screens and punching numbers.

The barrier comes up, we drive some 20 feet into Egyptian space, and it’s a different planet. Not a woman in sight, just uniformed men hovering around us and the car, and we’re told to wait as men with big German shepherds examine the car for explosives and drugs (in the case of the former, looking for ISIS militants who operate in the northern side of Sinai, Americans and Europeans in the case of the latter). We must then empty the car of all our bags as they search some more on the inside, then go to different offices to do passport control and pay more border fees, review and inspection of car papers and even more border fees, change license plates to bright yellow Egyptian car plates, get an Egyptian drivers license, not to mention lots of requests for baksheesh. There isn’t a computer in sight. Receipts are given manually with multiple copies made through carbon paper, accompanied by the loud, officious sounds of stamps.

Crossing the border takes at least an hour and a half. Half an hour and half a dozen checkpoints later we’re at our hotel on the Red Sea, between the towns of Tabaa and Nuweiba.

I look out at the Red Sea that had once been split by Moses into two so that the Israelites could cross and escape their Egyptian slavemasters, and think that our journey has been the opposite. The split between my parents had caused splits among the three of us. We lived different lives, drew close to one but not the other, kept strong boundaries. This is the first time in all our lives that we are spending a weekend together, three strong-minded siblings, celebrating my birthday on the Egyptian side of the border, reasonably sure we’ll get to Sunday without killing one another. Instead, we’ll affirm certain things that haven’t been expressed in years.

After crossing the Red Sea the Israelites wandered in the desert for some 40 years on the other side, now lit up by city lights of Saudi Arabia. The three of us wandered in the desert for an even longer time, but we’re no longer lost. Not to ourselves and not to each other.

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