THEN AND NOW

“Let me go! Let me go!”

“No way, Aussie.”

“I’ll be good. Just one time!”

“No!”

“There’s a scent out there, olfactory retard!”

“No, Auss!”

“How come Harry gets to run and I don’t?”

“Because I can’t take you both on leash into the woods, it’s too difficult. And when Harry’s off-leash and smells a scent, Aussie, he runs and comes right back. I’ve timed Harry every day and he has yet to come back later than 2 minutes. If he ever comes back later than 5 he’ll go on leash, too.”

“Once! Just let me run once!”

“No, Auss. I’m done.”

“Since when has you become so rigid? This is unlike you. This is most—most—unZen!”

“Au contraire, Auss, it’s very Zen.”

“Oh yeah? What’s Zen about it?”

This is not about Aussie, I realize it’s about me. For 15 months since her arrival I wouldn’t let go of a fantasy built on the past, that this dog, like two previous generations of dogs over 22 years, would do what they did and be a walking companion in the woods. She’d sniff at the roots of trees and dig up suspicious tunnels, she’d run after deer like any self-respecting dog but would always, always come back after a few minutes. We’d enter the woods together and leave together.

That fantasy had lots of accessories: a house or cabin near the woods, daily meditations in forest, dog follows scent while I follow tracks, etc. I held on to this fantasy with accessories with all the stupid stubbornness I have historically manifested many times, other folks’ warnings notwithstanding.

And last week the fantasy came crashing down. I knew with sudden clarity that as long as Aussie behaves as she does, I will not let her go off-leash, even if that means for the rest of her life. It would mean fewer walks in the woods (not easy to walk a dog on leash in dense woods), fewer forest meditations. It took everything else down with it, such as a need to live close to the woods. There were new ingredients at hand: a different dog, a different time in my life, different needs. I lay in bed and realized that this liberated me to think of different housing possibilities, even a small apartment with a garden in back.

Let go of the past, bear witness to now, and life opens up, including possibilities you didn’t consider before. Whatever you end up doing, there’s always more freedom when I’m no longer imprisoned by what I did in the past, what I thought I needed, what I thought I couldn’t live without.

Definitely Zen.

Bernie’s birthday is coming up on Saturday. These are always the tough days because they cluster together in a little over two months: his death, my birthday, our anniversary, his birthday. When I was sick and had trouble breathing, a few people told me that in Chinese medicine, difficulties in the lungs point to grief. I didn’t think I felt grief, I’d left much of it with his ashes at Auschwitz/Birkenau in early November, on the anniversary of his death.

But memories and dreams flood me at night. Memories of our first anniversary 11 months after his stroke, when I took him to a restaurant in Northampton and the celebration turned into a nightmare, bringing home the realization that taking Bernie anywhere on my own would come at a very high price. (Could we go to visit Ram Dass in Maui? Could we go to my brother-in-law’s 90th birthday party?) I said yes to those requests, wondering how we’d pull through, but he never summoned the energy for a flight to Hawaii and he died before his brother-in-law’s 90th.

With Aussie I held on to some fantasy about a dog-filled past that has nothing to do with now; I just wasn’t ready to let go. But now I know: That was then, this is now. And now deserves more exploration.

As long as there’s no deep snow on the ground I’ll go into the woods. One dog will be free to run (at least as long as he returns within a few minutes), one dog will be on leash. I will empathize with the dog that’s leashed by her own conditioning, her own habits and history, her own perpetual ways of doing things. I will watch Aussie plopping down on her butt from sheer bewilderment at this new reality, eyes, nose, and ears following Harry as he dashes off after a scent, only to return in two minutes.

“What a jerk. Why’s he coming back so soon?”

“Because that’s how he gets to go unleashed, Aussie. The minute you get back in two minutes I’ll let you run, too. Not that I’m holding my breath.”

“How’s 2 days?”

“Two minutes, Aussie.”

“How’s tonight? Promise to be back by midnight.”

“Two minutes, Cinderella.”

“How’s two hours?”

“You’re wasting my time, Aussie.”

“Next Monday at 4? OK, by the weekend. I promise to be back by the weekend!”

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COLONEL THIN

They closed up the hole behind the shed!

If Aussie was to turn into a Marvel hero with super powers, her name might be Coonel. Thin.

I became obsessed with Col. Thin’s escape abilities. Called Harijap at Grass Roots Landscaping, the wonderful group that has plowed our driveway for many years, taken away fallen trees, and at times mowed the grass, and positively begged for him to come over and do something about our fence. I got down on my knees, but he couldn’t see it because we were talking on the phone.

“This is not a good time,” he said, “what with frozen ground and snow.”

“I think the posts are strong and they’ll hold a taller fence, so for now you won’t have to put in new posts. If we need something stronger and better we have no choice but wait till spring, but new fencing that is tied to existing posts would be a big step.”

I can’t say enough about Grass Roots. They do lots of beautiful landscaping and tree work, but what I most value is that they’ll come to help out in all kinds of urgent situations. Which they did now, too, buying new fencing that they cut up and attached to the old, giving me a fence of 6 feet. The old posts held up. At the end of the day Harijap came to the door.

“We ran short a very little bit,” he informed me. “There are 3 small places where we didn’t add the extensions, and we’ll finish them tomorrow. I think the dogs will be okay, they’re small places, won’t be easy for them to find them.”

I turned towards Aussie. “Check.”

Within 20 minutes I heard an ominous silence.

“Aussie! Harry!” I called out to the back yard.

They were gone.

Harry returned in an hour, Aussie in four. “Checkmate,” she said.

By then I’d been reincarnated. “The game’s afoot,” I told Dr. Watson, a/k/a my housemate Tim. Put on my hunting cap, took out my magnifying glass, went outside, got down on my knees and started paddling around on the frozen earth, examining every foot of fencing.

“What are you doing?” Watson asked.

“The curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” I mused. “Look at those pawprints outside the fence, Watson. It’s the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

“I think that’s a raccoon,” says Watson.

“Just look at the one-and-a-half inches of space between the gate and the edge of the house,” I told him.

“I don’t think she can get through there.”

“Elementary, Watson. Aussie can’t. Colonel Thin can cross through anything.”

I put wooden logs into every narrow crack around the gates. Picked up a ladder and leaned it over one gate, a tall wooden easel over the other. Looked down at Aussie: “No way you could get through the gates or over them. Check, Colonel. Thin.”

But that night I couldn’t sleep. Or rather, I’d sleep for a half hour and then wake up from a nightmare, all asweat:

“The garage door!”

“The shed!”

“The gazebo!”

“The front door!”

“Under the floorboards of my office, tunnel through to China, and out!”

Sure enough, Aussie was gone early the next morning, but came back to gloat and have breakfast. “Checkmate,” she said. “And I didn’t spend all that money on a new fence, ha ha ha!”

“A human playing chess with a dog is very undignified,” I told her.

“Especially when it’s the human that’s losing,” she shot back.

Grass Roots returned. I told them about Col. Thin. They fixed up the three remaining fences, then knocked on the door. “We walked along the fence and we think we found where she goes out. Behind the shed was a narrow opening—you couldn’t spot it because of the tree on the other side—and we closed it all up. It was real narrow.”

I thanked them. When they left I opened up the dog door and looked out. Instantly both dogs ran towards the shed, then came back, abashed.

“I think she got us, Auss,” said Harry.

“Hee hee hee,” I told them. “Education never ends. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.”

There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you,” said Colonel Thin. “You have not seen the last of me yet.

 

 

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HE DOESN’T DO ANYTHING PHYSICAL, BUT . . .

A dear friend of mine, one of the finest people I know, has been married to an alcoholic for a long, long time. For years she was tight-lipped about it, only occasionally breaking down. “He doesn’t do anything physical,” she’d tell me, “but the way he talks to me, I have to be so careful!”

Over and over I pushed her to go to Al-Anon, the organization for spouses of alcoholics. She’d agree, wouldn’t go, and say that things were under control. Till they weren’t. This went on for a period of some 15 years.

A few months ago she broke down again. I sat with her in front of the computer and showed her the Al-Anon meetings in her area. None were open meetings so I couldn’t go with her, but she finally went on her own. And didn’t stop.

She told me this story: “On New Year’s Day my husband asked me if I had any New Year resolutions. I asked him if he had any. He smiled and said, ‘Yes, this year I’m going to try to be a nicer person.’ Then he asked me again if I had a New Year’s resolution. I looked at him and said, ‘Yes. No one is ever going to trash me again.’”

I watched her face, watched her dawning understanding. Even now I’m not sure she understands that she’s been walking on eggs for a long time, raising two children and being her family’s most consistent breadwinner. No, she didn’t have a wife-beater for a husband; instead, she had a verbally abusive partner who bullied her, and she had learned what so many women had learned in order to survive: to walk on eggs around their husband, be careful what they said, survey his body language when he came in the door—Is he in a good mood? A bad mood? How quickly will it take for him to get angry?—go to a different part of the house to get away, feel safe. I am sad for the many who continue to live this way, who take it for granted that this is how life is.

I’ve been reading Educated, Tara Westover‘s extraordinary memoir of growing up in a religious, secluded Idaho family where she and her mother, two highly intelligent and capable women, were brutalized, intimidated, and bullied by father and brothers. In this case the author documents a lot of physical abuse as well, but neither woman questions the men’s rights to do this. They don’t realize that their relations with their menfolk is exceptional, not the norm. It takes years for Westover to finally understand that her father’s rage, bluster, and domination—all in the name of God—are pathology, not religion.

Old echoes from my own childhood come up in these situations, I give them attention while trying not to confuse past and present. Those echoes will probably always be there. I had a physically brutal father who took out frustration and aggression on me, his oldest child. I know very well what it is to walk on eggs around someone, to listen for that front door opening, to listen even closer to the footsteps in the hallway—Did he have a bad day? Is he angry? What’s he going to be like at dinner? Do I need to stay in my room or can I chance coming out?—to speak quietly at times and not meet his eyes. Always be careful, always be vigilant.

Naturally, I also learned that giving in to rage was a big relief, that yelling at somebody could make you feel good, if only temporarily. It didn’t occur to me that this was not the natural way other families talked till I got married and saw my first husband’s  eyes open wide as I started ranting.

“Why are you talking like this?” he asked me.

“I’m expressing my feelings and you don’t,” I told him confidently.

But I wasn’t expressing my feelings at all, I was behaving like a maniac. I had had no other example for how to resolve conflict or disagreement. The only tools I had at my disposal were rage and humiliation.

When I started my study of Buddhist precepts, I knew that the precept of Not being angry was mine for life. There are other poisons for sure—ignorance, greed, lying, intoxication—but for me, none were as destructive as anger. When you’re angry, even if you’re not physically hurting someone, you can’t mistake the energy of resentment and threat that permeates your body and entire being. You become big with it, an aura of destructiveness blooming around you, while the people in your home or work shrink and become small to accommodate the swelling melanoma in their midst.

You can smile all you want, you can say the right things, you could even convince your partner for many years that this is not really a problem, in fact it’s perfectly normal, but the kids know. Dogs know, too.

The day after Aussie and Harry were gone for 12 hours, I had the doors barred and would take them out only on leash to the back yard. “Aussie,” I’d call out, “let’s go out to pee.” She wouldn’t come. Instead she ran up the stairs and stood on the top landing. “Come on, Auss,” I’d say, looking up at her, holding up her leash, “we’re going out. Don’t you want to go out?”

But Aussie was afraid to come down. She knew, in that way dogs know, that deep inside I was angry. I’d fed her, I’d refrained from yelling, but there was a toughness, even a harshness, in my movements that she recognized right away, that probably account, too, for her fear of men, and she’d run upstairs whenever I came close though I never touched her. Perhaps that’s how she knew best of all, because I wouldn’t touch her. The only way I could get her to come down was offer her treats.

Children, too, always know. At the age of 3 I met my grandfather for the first time. When he picked me up I screamed and held on to my mother for dear life. I hadn’t ever done that before, I’d been a friendly baby and toddler. My mother laughed uneasily and said that maybe it was his beard that scared me. Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that from a very young age I disliked my grandfather. He was a Torah scholar who preferred to bend over his books for hours; for him, talking to people about anything else was a waste of time. His wife was accustomed to being ridiculed over her need for friends.

I believe that even as a child, I knew in my gut that he had been brutal to his son, my father, who then behaved in the same way to me. In my child’s mind I held him responsible for what my father did. I watched my father walk on eggs around the old man, cajoling, trying to please, pushing us forward as obedient and good exemplars of how his upbringing was continuing down to a new generation. The big man I was so afraid of called his father Tateh in a low, tentative voice, apologetically asking if he wanted or needed a cup of tea, something he never offered anyone else.

Through childhood and teenage years, I hated every moment of being around my grandfather. He never did a bad thing to me, he was probably quite fond of me, his oldest grandchild, but I was not fond of him. In my gut I knew something had been very bad between the two men. Later I heard details about brutal, even sadistic, violent episodes. I heard about a grandmother who couldn’t protect her children, who walked on eggs around her rabbi husband and learned to mind her own business.

My New Year’s resolution is that I will never be trashed again. My wonderful, brave friend is beginning to face it: not the physical violence that grabs the headlines, not even the cursing she endured for years, but that slow, simmering threat that keeps you down to size, that keeps you lying low. Never walk on eggshells rather than on solid ground. Never belittle this precious vessel of life and dharma. Never cave is so that others can plump out. Never renounce equal citizenship on this earth.

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FENCES

The dogs ran away yesterday. I mean really ran away. Ran away in the morning and didn’t return till 9:30 at night, just before I returned from our Tuesday evening sitting.

They practically twisted themselves silly, wheedling and kowtowing; they knew they’d done wrong. I thought for a moment about feeding them for they’d missed their meals, then decided to wait till the regular time next morning. “Restaurant closed hours ago,” I told them.

I almost cried from relief. It was getting very cold outside and earlier I had driven across three towns looking for them. As 4:00 and then 5:00 arrived, time for coming in from the cold and eating dinner, with no sign of them (Harry especially would ordinarily never be late to a meal if he could help it), I began a series of calls to the local animal rescue officers and shelters to see if anyone had found them. No luck, and my heart filled with dread. I went to Green River Zen for the Tuesday evening program, and when I drove into the garage Aussie’s head poked out of the dog door.

“And Harry?” I wondered, heart beating.

Harry was in, too, lying on the sofa, too exhausted to greet me.

Since December it had become clear that the fence we’d had installed around our yard back in 2005 was not holding. Our last dogs never tried to jump over, poke their way through or dig under. Aussie and Harry are a different kettle of dogs, Aussie especially. Over months Tim had bolstered the fence in different places, and each time we thought we’d blocked all exits. But Aussie didn’t give up. I’d see her patrolling up and down the perimeter, sniffing out an opening like Sherlock Holmes.

Last night, exhausted and unwell, I went upstairs and found her on my bed. Aussie has never wanted to sleep on my bed or, for that matter, in the adjoining dog bed; both dogs prefer to sleep downstairs. But this is not the first time that Aussie, aware of a breakdown in relationship, goes upstairs and gets up on the bed, slapping her tail loudly as I come in:

“Come on, let’s be friends. Don’t get mad, I’m back, ain’t I?” Slap slap slap as her eyes follow me eagerly around the room. “Let’s pretend this never happened.”

I made no eye contact with her. She jumped down and went onto the dog bed, and soon afterwards went downstairs. They’re in lockdown now. Dog door barred, no going out into the yard without me or a leash. It’s a pain for dogs and human used to free access between house and yard, but that’s how it has to be.

Winter is not the best time to do serious fencing in New England, the ground frozen hard under snow. But I called around, and it now seems that Friday two nice men will erect a 6-foot fence from one corner of our large yard to another. Luckily the old posts are still firm and can hold a taller fence than the one originally installed. But I don’t kid myself, even with 6 feet of fencing all around, I’ll be watching Aussie very carefully.

“I’ll dig under,” she told me from the bed last night.

“Not this winter, you won’t. Earth is frozen solid. And by the time spring and summer arrive, if this doesn’t hold I’ll take everything down and start from scratch.”

I’ve never had a dog as smart as Aussie. When I first got her from the pound everyone congratulated me on getting a well-socialized dog who could communicate well with dogs and humans (except for the men she’s afraid of), not so common for dogs adopted from a shelter.

But a few months later she began to run. I should have taken it more seriously right then; I didn’t, and last night I did go into a brief jag of teary self-recrimination.

But it was gone this morning when I walked both dogs on leash, examining the fence. Fences are important. We need to know what stays in, what can go out, what’s private, what’s public. What serves the family as a whole. Bernie and I worked on that a lot.

I realized that I’d adopted both dogs with the assumption that I would continue walking them off-leash in the woods as I’d done the previous 14 years with other dogs, that they would be companions. I wanted them to be free. I wanted to be free, not hold on to them on leash, getting entangled among the trees, having to keep my mind on them rather than on the forest and animals around me.

Today I began to finally let go of that fantasy. Aussie’s different from previous dogs, so none of those past assumptions are relevant. She, as she is right now, is what I must build on, not some fairytale I made up based on the past. Right now I don’t know what that means. She may never get to go off-leash again; we may never get to be companions in the woods, which is a big shame given how much we both seem to love it. But I can’t afford another day like the one I had yesterday.

I’m curious what those dogs did for 12 hours, especially when darkness and cold set in and they were probably hungry, and still didn’t come home for another 4-5 hours. They may have had a great adventure; they may have been kidnapped by the witch that almost ate Hansel and Gretel and finally made a run for it.

I do know that when the past-based fantasy I had came crashing down, it brought with it a measure of relief. I felt more ready to go with what is and see possibilities in my life now as a single woman with two young dogs who need  fences and lots of patience. Aussie may not be able to run as long as she had till now, but hopefully the three of us will have a good long run ahead of us for a number of years.

 

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TCHOTCHKES

“OK, Buddha, it’s me Grayson. Get off that dog!”

“It’s not a dog, Grayson, it’s a lion.”

“What’s a lion?”

“A lion is a big cat. Bigger than you.”

“Why would a big honcho like you sit on a cat?”

“Years ago someone thought I looked good sitting on a cat, or lion, wielding my sword, a little diamond in my forehead, that kind of thing. Before I died I told them not to make images of me, not to pray to me, not to fuss fuss fuss. But did they listen?”

“If you’re sitting on a lion you must be some big-game hunter.”

“As a matter of fact, Grayson, I am a hunter after big game, the biggest game in town.”

“Catch? Tug-of-war? Flying Squirrel Toy?”

“Much bigger than that, Grayson. I hunt minds, Grayson. I hunt souls.”

“Oh man oh man, that’s exciting. Where do you find them? I know! In the woods!”

“In the woods, in the desert, in the ocean, in the air—I find them everywhere, Grayson.”

“And what do you do when you find them? Eat them, right?”

“I hit them with my sword.”

“And then eat them?”

“It’s a very special sword, Grayson. When they get struck by that sword they suddenly realize who they are.”

“And who are they, Buddha?”

“I’m not telling. You have to find that out for yourself.”

“Okay, I’m ready. Hit me with it, Buddha.”

“Oh Grayson, hit a nice big lab like you with this little tchotchke?”

“What’s a tchotchke?”

“A tchotchke is some tacky little knick-knack or trinket that people like to keep in their homes—like your rope toys and squeakies and stuffed animals by your bed, silly things like that.”

“There’s nothing silly about PawPaw the Barking Puppy and Shep the Sheep. Slinky’s kind of ratty, have to admit.”

“It’s all tchotchkes, Grayson.”

“You mean, they’re not any good?”

“Depends what you mean by good, Grayson. When you’re outside and you sniff some little critter, what do you do?”

“I go after it.”

“Do you stop to put on a sweater or get a lasso or build a cage or do a dance or blow a bugle?”

“Of course not, Buddha, I run like the wind—till the fence stops me. I wish I could jump over that fence like Aussie does. Nobody jumps fences better than Aussie.”

“Humans get stopped a lot quicker than you. They get sidetracked, they get distracted, they run in circles, a little like you in the back yard, Grayson. That’s why they need tchotchkes. They look at the sword, or the many hands of compassion, or the auras and the stupas and the robes and the books, and they remember to get on with it. See?”

“Not really. Gotta go, Buddha, Sancho and Lola the Ethical Pet Toys are waiting for me. Just one more question for you, Buddha.”

“What’s that, my son?”

“Are you a tchotchke?”

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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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