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.

 

Make A Donation

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?”

 

Make A Donation

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.

Make A Donation

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.

Make A Donation

THE BERLIN WALL ALL OVER AGAIN

So many of you responded to my first appeal for support. Thank you thank you thank you. It was heartwarming beyond measure.

“As heartwarming as me?”

“Shut up, Aussie, I’m mad at you.”

I want to thank so many people. And also to say that we have some technical issues, which Silvana.net will work out. I am sorry that donation buttons didn’t appear on all the posts, but I’m confident they will soon. And this, indeed, is why the blog needs donations, because things don’t always work all the time.

“Tell the truth, Boss, you fucked up.”

“I’m not good with computers, Aussie, that’s why the highly capable Silvana is helping out.”

“You can’t even maintain the fence behind the yard!”

I couldn’t believe it. Yesterday morning Harry barked like crazy, staring out my office door with his eyes popping out of his head. I finally looked out and there was the Juvenile Delinquent—outside the fence!

“You haven’t escaped in a long while, Aussie.”

“I was miserable for ages, but I never forgot my mission, Boss. And I happened to notice that a lot of snow had fallen.”

“So?”

“So the distance between the top of the snow and the top of the fence has diminished considerably. I took a step back and leaped to freedom! It felt like the Berlin Wall all over again.”

“I think they dug under the Berlin Wall, not over, Aussie. I have to admit that when I went out to get you, you looked happier than I’d seen you in a long time. Not that that justifies anything.”

“And did you see the looks Harry gave me?”

Harry sat on the snow and looked at Aussie gallivanting around, tail twitching, with the most adoring, awestruck gaze I’d ever seen on his face.

“Say the truth, Boss, does he ever look like that at you?”

“At least he didn’t try leaping over the fence.”

“He will. Remember how he was afraid to cross the plank bridge in the preserve? Now he just slides across with his back legs up in the air. Remember how afraid he was to go down into the water? By summer he became a champion splasher. That mountain cur has potential.”

Even as I tried to work out why donation buttons weren’t appearing on the post and thanking folks who were pointing it out to me, Aussie kept on flying over the fence like some gigantic seabird, then flying over the snow for good measure, Harry yapping and mewling each time. When I got tired of it I went into the garage, found two table stands and dragged them up the snowy slope to block Aussie, as well as a long wooden strip. If I’d had time I’d have gone for sandbags.

Aussie looked quietly, sniffing around.

“I win this one,” I told her before going back to my office.

A half hour later she was flying over the snow on the other side of the fence again, looking gaily over her shoulder at me. I could swear that half her joy comes out of foiling me time and time again.

I worked a few more hours trying to make things work on the blog when Harry whinnied by the front door. I walked over there and let her in. “Finally came home, eh?”

She sashays over to my office and jumps onto the blanket on the futon, ready to take a snooze. But first she turns over, legs splayed, and says magnanimously, “You can pet my belly.”

Make A Donation

YOU’RE JUST A PIECE OF WRITING!

My beautiful Saraswati looking over my desk, my first gift from Bernie

After great discussion, I added a button asking for donations to support the blog. Discussions with whom? The blog. It went something like this:

Blog: “I think I need a little help. You know, I don’t wake up every morning bubbling with vitality and something interesting to say, I get tired like everybody else. I have to work hard to do this, especially on gray, rainy days like this one after you’ve been gone on retreat. Even the dogs aren’t giving me one bit of help today. You think it’s easy to get updated and renewed three times a week?”

“Come on, Blog, you’re just a piece of writing.”

“And that doesn’t need support, lady?”

“Immigrants need support. People with no shelter in these cold times need support. Children who’re—”

“What about art, lady? What about writing?”

“Well . . .”

“Thousands of years ago, when it was a lot harder to survive than it is now, people would risk their lives to go deep into caves and draw on limestone that would preserve the drawings. They drew stick figures and painted deer and horses; they even buried their dead near these paintings so that their works of art could accompany them into the underworld. That’s how you should think of me, lady.”

“As a work of art that accompanies readers to the underworld?”

“Hey, I get into some pretty grim stuff there: Life, death, loss, Harry and Aussie.”

“Harry and Aussie are grim?”

“Turn around and look at them lying there, knowing they’re not going anywhere in this rain. The point is, lady, I go somewhere.”

“You mean, I go somewhere.”

“And you take me with you. Not just to different places and people, but also to the underworld. And I send back news.”

“What news, Blog?”

“That even in the underworld there is light, hope, inspiration, and fun. That there’s nothing so dark that it can’t be made light of.”

“And you think that merits support?”

“Yes. More important, lady, you need support!”

It’s a great luxury not to think about money. It’s fair to say that for much of our life together, Bernie and I had to think a lot about money. We spent a great deal due to his stroke, but we got so much help, so many people thought about money for us, that I could afford to forget about it for a while. He died and I have to think about money again.

Many people could not understand our life. “He never took out a life insurance policy?” they’d ask. “You don’t have a pension?” And I have to explain, again and again, that we chose to live a life of engaged dharma, not just teaching but also doing. That didn’t pay much.

I rejoice in my life, past and present (though it would be nice if Bernie, like Eurydice, tried to make his way back from the underworld). Creativity is everywhere. Not just in writing but also in deriving and articulating meaning from the life that streams through me, and sending that out to you to see if it resonates in your lives, if you, too, find something important and meaningful in similar situations.

Being creative isn’t just writing or blogging or doing something artistic, it’s using every situation as practice, as a way to go deeper, as a way to keep your feet on the bottom of the ocean even as you’re buffeted by waves.

I have been writing this blog consistently for four years now, with the exceptions of retreat times. I plan to continue to write and offer it freely, as I have received so much freely. But I need help to pay my bills, like everybody else, including the bills of maintaining this blog. I recently refinanced my home, half of which is rented out. I am so grateful for all these ways of cutting down expenses and deriving an income. But I still need more.

If you could make a donation of any size, thank you very much. If you could make a monthly donation of any size, thank you very much. If you cannot do any, thank you very much for reading this blog; it will continue to be free. What’s more important to a writer than to be read?

Deep gratitude to all beings who make this possible.

Make A Donation

OMG! YOU’RE GONNA BE 70?

“Aussie, I’m going to be 70 tomorrow.”

“OMG, you’re old!”

“You think so, Auss?”

“You’re ancient and decrepit! And you adopted me, the embodiment of young, free, and wild?”

“You’re not that young, Auss. I recently read that they are comparing dog ages to human ages in a new way. Instead of saying that your one year is equivalent to 7 of mine, they’re saying that in the early time of your life the curve is much steeper, and later it flattens out.”

“Huh?”

“That means that you, Aussie, a little over 2 years old, are equivalent in your life trajectory to me at 40.”

“Were you young, free, and wild at 40?”

“At 40 I was living and working in Yonkers with Bernie and other Zennies.”

“I knew it! You were never frivolous and crazy. You never broke any rules!”

“Little do you know, Aussie.”

“Tell me some stories.”

“I don’t want to shock your 40 year-old ears.”

“Oh, why did you ever adopt me? I don’t want to be raised by an old woman.”

“Aussie, I give you and Harry a big, beautiful back yard in which to play. I also take you out for your walks every single day regardless of weather. Who took you out in the snowstorm where there was no one else around, not even snowplows?”

“Did you think of what happens to me if you die? Did you leave me in your will?”

“Actually, Aussie, I did leave money in my will for people to take care of you and Harry. Not a lot, just enough.”

“If I’d known about this earlier I’d have asked Tim to dig you a grave BEFORE the snowstorm. Now there’s a ton of snow and everything’s frozen, and you’re too big to fit into the freezer alongside all our marrow bones. And between you and our marrow bones, guess what’s staying in the freezer.”

“Aussie, you are being very nasty today.”

“I’m being practical. Try to last till spring when the ground defrosts. Tim could dig a grave between Stanley and the tool shed, there’s enough space as long as you don’t put on more weight.”

“This is the nicest birthday celebration I’ve ever had, Aussie. Thanks.”

“Speaking of birthday celebration, what are you doing for your 70th?”

“Tomorrow evening we start a meditation retreat.”

“I knew it! I knew it! You are such a Zen nerd!”

“Come on, Auss—”

“Others eat steak, they run around, have  a party, eat steak, they play, eat steak, they laugh and joke around, eat steak—”

“Bernie wanted to do that, Auss. We talked one evening, four months before he died, about how much he was still exercising, and he said that he was working hard to get in shape so that he could take me away for my 70th.”

“Too bad he didn’t make it.”

“Even then I knew he wouldn’t be in shape to do that.”

“Did you tell him?”

“No, Aussie, I just said thank you.”

“So how are you going to spend the VERY FEW days left to you to live?”

“I wish you wouldn’t put it that way, Auss.”

“We have to face facts.”

“Remember the red dahlia that bloomed late in September?”

“Of course. What a dummy, I thought. If you’re going to bloom so late, why bother?”

“But it did bother, you see, Aussie? That’s the point. For some reason that red dahlia made it out of the ground late, and then it bloomed and opened up to reveal the most gorgeous color, remember? It could feel the cold coming but it relished every sunny day. Just days before the freeze it exploded and sent out so much beauty.”

“You’re not a dahlia.”

“I want to fold back into fullness, Auss.”

“You’re withdrawing from life?”

“Not one bit.  As I go deeper and deeper into fullness I also open up to the world more and more. One goes with the other.”

“You’re not just going to sit and meditate, are you? If you are, I’m going back into adoption.”

“Don’t worry, Auss. I’ll do what I always did, but not much more. Personal epiphany is nice, but what’s even nicer is connecting more and more with humans and nonhumans—”

“Dogs!”

“No, everything. Even black matter across all space and time—everything!”

“Speaking of fullness, can you feed me now?”

“That red dahlia was fearless, Aussie. I’m following in her footsteps.”

“Okay, just don’t forget what we dogs do to flowers.”

“Eat them?”

“Pee on them. Just saying.”

 

The blog will be on retreat till Monday.

Make A Donation

SNOW DAY

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“Right there in the snow, Harry.”

That’s a bathroom?”

He reminds me of my old Golden, Woody, whom I raised for a couple of years in the woods around Woodstock. I brought him back down to Yonkers when I returned to work with Bernie. The first morning I leashed him and took him out on the pavement to pee. He didn’t pee. On and on we walked, he looking up at me occasionally, and he didn’t pee. Finally I got the idea. Each time he looked up at me he was asking: Where the bathroom? I crossed the street and walked a little till we got to a green park, and he peed right away.

He was one well-educated dog.

“I know the snow’s a foot high, Harry, but you can do it.”

“I know I can do it, the question is where? Dig a trench for me.”

“What are you, a Marine?”

“I ain’t peeing in a ton of snow.”

“You are such a wimp, Harry!” says Aussie, who’s been tracking the snow half the night and now can hardly wait to roll Harry in it.

“I’m from Mississippi, Auss!”

“And I’m from Texas, where the guys are guys and the gals are tougher. Now get out!”

It’s a snow day, and now the two dogs are running around like a pair of banshees in the snow.

“What do you mean, a pair of banshees? One banshee–moi. Harry didn’t run till I pushed him outI”

That’s exactly what Aussie did. The two stood by the open door of my office leading down to steps that were covered by at least a foot of snow, Aussie going into her high-pitched twang: “Come on already! Would you come on!”

Harry wasn’t coming. Aussie finally lost all patience, pushed her long snout against his hind legs and sent him tumbling down the stairs.

“I almost drowned!”

He started getting up, but she ran past him so hard that into the snow he tumbled a second time, and when he got up he was past caring. The two ran—yes—like a pair of banshees, coming into the house just to grab a stuffed otter or turtle, dangle and shake it in front of the other, and then rush off out to the snow with the second in hot pursuit.

I opened the front door to talk to Tim, busy shoveling a path out front, and the two escaped with a whoop and ran up the unplowed driveway, slipping and scrambling. They expect another 5-8 inches this afternoon and evening. I looked up the driveway nostalgically, put on my boots, jacket, hat, and gloves, and went out to join them.

“Took you long enough,” snapped Aussie.

“You know, Auss,” I tell her, “I remembered how when we were kids we’d leap out of bed after a night of snow. Nobody wanted to come in.”

Aussie was gone before I could finish my sentence. When the two dogs and I finally came home Harry jumped on the futon for a nap while I sat at my computer.

And Aussie? She’s back in ambush mode since we put up squirrel feeders, sidling around the back of the house, waiting for any squirrel with designs on the birdfeeder. But she’s in for a disappointment. We’ve had a banner year for acorns and the squirrels have squirreled away plenty.

“They’ll be out again in a month or two,” I tell her, “so you can come in now.”

“Are you kidding? Gotta practice my moves.”

Make A Donation

RELIGIOUS ARTIFACTS

Just before being packed.

From the Security station at Hartford airport:

“What’s this, Miss?”

“It’s a monk’s bag.”

“A monk’s bag?”

“You see how it says Zen Community of New York on the flap with an image of a paulownia leaf?”

“A what?”

“Zen monks used these bags to carry their worldly possessions. The bag belonged to my husband.”

“He was a monk and your husband at the same time?”

“Yes, it’s a contradiction in terms, part of the confusion of Buddhism in the West. Part of his personal confusion, too. Careful how you open it.”

“DON’T TOUCH THE BAG! And these were his worldly possessions, Miss?”

“Yes, along with a 50” TV set which didn’t fit inside the bag.”

“What’s this plastic?”

“He took this bag with him when he wanted to live on the streets for a while. The plastic was for protection against rain.”

“And the small umbrella, I guess. This?”

“A roll of toilet paper. You see, public bathrooms—”

“Yeah, yeah. A rainhat. And this?”

“A small pillow. He still liked his creature comforts.”

“I don’t know, Miss, this is very suspicious. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, we gotta check everybody carefully, I’m not sure I can let you board—”

“I have to bring them down to Maryland, sir. You see, this bag and the jacket I’m wearing—”

“Why are you wearing two jackets, Miss?”

“This threadbare, falling-apart-at-the-seams blue jacket from the Greyston Bakery is also from my husband, and both are going to the Smithsonian Museum.”

“The American Smithsonian Museum?”

“The very one. The curator for religion has asked for religious artifacts belonging to my husband to be on display there.”

“These are religious artifacts? Toilet paper, stained yellow pillow, a whistle—what’s the whistle for, lady?”

“To summon help in case he gets into trouble.”

“Not to whistle at pretty women? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’ve never seen religious artifacts like these. And a bakery jacket? What’s so religious about that?”

“He thought that creating jobs for people with no jobs in a blighted neighborhood is very religious. So was talking with street people.”

“And these things are going to be at the Smithsonian to lie surrounded by crosses and stars of David?”

“And Muslim and Native American and Hindu and–”

“Do all you people from Asia have such religious artifacts?”

“He was from Brooklyn, sir.”

“Lady, I can’t let you take these items onboard.”

“Sir, I have to bring them down to Maryland so that my husband’s daughter could bring them to the Smithsonian.”

“Don’t bullshit me, lady. No way these things are going into the Smithsonian Museum. What kind of fool you think I am?”

“No kind of fool, sir.”

“Try checking them in, but you can’t take them into cabin.”

“Okay, sir.”

“I’ll say one thing for you, lady. You tell a good story.”

“Thanks, sir.”

Make A Donation

MY OLD FRIEND BILL

I am usually up at 6, go downstairs for a glass of water and a cup of coffee, and then sit. Take the mundane and rare opportunity to explore this moment and nothing more, this moment that includes all moments and is still uniquely this moment.

Yesterday after sitting I lit a candle for my old friend, Bill. I’ve done this annually since the mid-90s, when he died quite suddenly around the age of 50.

Bill came to meditate almost daily with the Zen Community of New York all the way from Long Beach, New York. He would have had to have left his home sometime after 4 each morning to make it on time. He was a big, bearish man, grunted rather than spoke, and was prone to sudden, wild bursts of laughter, a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining only Bill kept his lips closed, so that the laughter sounded like a nasal tickle of his throat.

We talked a little from time to time and it didn’t take long to find out that he was a great fan of Leonard Cohen. Also that his wife had just left him, taking their small son with her, and that he hated her. I also liked Leonard at the time, though not as much as I would later in the coming years.

One morning I was taking a bath in the antique tub of my small apartment in Yonkers, NY, on the third floor. It was around 6 in the morning when the intercom rang to tell me someone was at the door. I jumped out of the bath and answered. It was Bill.

“Bill,” I shouted into the intercom, standing stark naked and dripping all over the floor, “what are you doing here at this hour?”

“Heh heh heh,” says Bill. “I brought you something.”

I toweled myself quickly, slipped on a bathrobe, and went down two flights of stairs since there was no buzzer to let him in. I opened the door and he held up a CD right in front of my nose as though this was the key to the kingdom. “Heh heh heh,” says he.

I let him in and he came upstairs. “What is it?” I asked again.

“Leonard’s latest,” he said. “Just came out—only in Tower Records. I stood in line to get the first ones.”

“For whom?” I asked stupidly.

“You,” he said. “You and me both. I got you one,” and he put it in my hand.

It was Cohen’s The Future, which contained what would become some of his most famous songs: The Future, Closing Time, Waiting for the Miracle, Be for Real, Anthem (The crack is where the light comes in), and  Democracy.

“This is it,” said Bill, waving his copy in front of my face, “He’s really done it now.”

I wasn’t clear what exactly Leonard had done, and I was still dripping water on the floor and feeling a little uncomfortable, so I thanked him and explained that I had to get dressed. He immediately understood and left.

A short time later I heard that he’d died. It was sudden and I never discovered how, I only knew that he was in a lot of pain from the divorce and the loss of his son. Perhaps for that reason I made a point of lighting a candle every year at his memorial.

As I did that yesterday, seeing his face in my mind, I suddenly thought of Bernie many years later. Bernie got a hold of the CD Bill had given me and loved the songs. A friend got us a DVD of Cohen’s concert in London and we watched it more than once, the last time when Cohen died some three years ago.

Right after his stroke, I got Bernie a CD of The Best of Leonard Cohen and it had a permanent place of honor in his car. I’d take him for breakfast to a diner in Hadley, and from there go on to do some food shopping, leaving him in the car. I would return with the shopping bags and hear Leonard singing in top volume before I even opened the doors. He heard those songs over and over again; I think they gave him comfort.

Yesterday I remembered Bill at my door at 6 that morning waving the CD at my shivering face. He knew Sensei (as Bernie was called them) and was in awe of him; the two probably rarely spoke. But that CD followed karma’s mysterious squiggly path, making its way to Massachusetts, and eventually to a sick man sitting in his blue car listening to those songs more than two decades later, waiting for his wife to get back from the store, finding solace in the voice of a troubadour facing the end of his lifetime.

Bernie told me he never met Leonard Cohen. It didn’t matter, Bill connected them.

Make A Donation