A Fate Worse Than Death

It is night in Greenport. I’m at LB’s at the desk in the front room, by the windows. I don’t feel well, but I am on deadline, so I’m working anyway. Suddenly I hear the sound of bicycle tires on the road, and a man and woman, arguing while they ride.

“I’m not going to stop at stop signs,” he says. This is behind closed blinds, so I can’t see them. They are somewhere between forty and fifty years old, I’d say, from the weight in their voices.

“You have to,” she says. She is annoyed. (So is he.) “You could be killed. Or worse: You could be maimed.”

I have just finished reading Atul Gawande’s piece in the current New Yorker, about end-of-life care. (Anything that man writes is worth reading.) This piece basically says, People can live longer and have better deaths if they choose hospice care rather than medical intervention when they have a terminal illness. Most people don’t know this. Killed might be better than maimed.

That’s all. And the fact that it’s nice to live in a place where you can hear the sound of bicycle tires as they pass in the night.

Dolly: An Introduction

Dolly and Julia
Julia and I met, and within the week, she was driving with me from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I lived with Maud, who was sixteen at the time. Toby had just sold me his 1987 VW van with a mattress in the back, and that’s what we were driving. But this story is not about Julia and me and our wild ride. This story is about Dolly.

Dolly is a tiny shih tzu, not one of those big guys with an underbite who move like caterpillers. She weighs less than ten pounds, she has button eyes, and, if you were going to categorize her as either a movie dog or a stuffed animal (one of Maud’s childhood filing systems), she’d be a stuffed animal. She was two or three when I met her.

Dolly and Maud, asleep
Dolly traveled with us to Nova Scotia, and didn’t complain at all: not when we stopped in the parking lot of an old white library somewhere in Massachusetts, and slept under a blaring street lamp. Not when we took a food break somewhere up there, at the sort of place that has menus the size of surf boards, all laminated, and food that they bring out in buckets. I remember looking back at the van in the vast and empty parking lot as we trekked toward the place, and seeing Dolly looking out from the back window at us, disappearing into the night, O.K. to be a tiny shih tzu all alone in the world.

Very soon after we arrived in Halifax, a hurricane hit the city so hard that part of the roof was torn off the building where I worked at the Shambhala Sun. The two fantastic parks in the city were basically destroyed, people were killed, and we didn’t have gas or electricity for several days. The Big Slice lost its “S,” and remained, for a while, The Big Lice. Julia and I found the only coffee in town.

We brought a bunch back for the neighbors, who had set up barbecues outside of their houses, and cooked, every day, the stuff that would other be rotting in people’s refrigerators. This is Canada, and it was truly lovely. Anyway, on this particular day, we were standing outside the house where Maud and I lived on the second floor, chatting, and I was holding a tray with four lattes.

All of sudden, the universe ended. That is, the sky fell. That is something flew from above me, landed on my head, hard, hit the lattes, and fell to the ground with the tray. It was Dolly. She’d jumped off of our second-story porch, onto my head. She was OK, and I was OK. It was…a strange thing for her to do. (Maybe Bodhi and Scout, both well at the time, were inside torturing her—I wouldn’t put it past them.)

Anyway. I haven’t talked much about Dolly, except at the beginning of this blog. Since her first trip to Halifax, I’ve become her other mommy, though I doubt that Julia would agree with that, being so completely possessive of that particular being. Still, I’ve taken her to the vet when she had a terrible ear infection (or other kinds of unmentionable infections), and she was too brave for a tiny shih tzu. I’ve shooed away Fat Dave when he’s made her cry. I’ve fallen asleep, many, many times, with her in the crook of my legs, and sometimes even, when it’s thundering, with her shaking and panting on top of my head.

Now I’m warning you. Dolly is unexpectedly very sick. And that’s one reason why I haven’t written. I haven’t known what to say. Like Kevin, she is someone else’s bestfriend. Like Kevin, she is a tiny hero.

Treasure Hunt: Me and Willie

I never told you this, but Willie Nelson recorded this Brenda Lee song for me in 1982. We’d been together for a while, and were having a very hard time—I didn’t like that he spent so much time in Bertha (that’s the bus), and that he never stopped playing the Jew’s Harp around that groupie. I especially didn’t like it that, when he took his bandanna off, his skull would come off with it. And then one day he realized how difficult it might be trying to have a life with such a popular rock star, and he made this romantic gesture.* All the ladies shown in this video are the girls he swore to swear off, but it was too late. I’d slipped out to hear Khandro Rinpoche, and had laid my eyes on Julia.

*Thanks, anyway, Will, honey—I love this song: I really did feel understood.

Treasure Hunt: I'm Coming Home

(For Lynnie)

Genius may be as mindstopping as loss, but in a different way.

When Maud was about eleven or twelve, and we were living in a railroad apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with Bodhi and Scout, I sat her down at the table and said it’s time for you to hear this: Blue. I can’t remember, exactly, but I think the only thing I had to play the album on was a Discman. She sat there, my little Maud, and listened to the whole thing through, and she got it. She just got it: the simple genius that changes you upon hearing.

California, coming home.

Treasure Hunt

After my father died and we moved away from the house I’d grown up in, I often thought that I’d forgotten something: What if my father had hidden a treasure chest—or a message—for me in the house, or in the yard, or down at the beach, and had told me where, but I hadn’t been listening? What if I’d been too upset to hear? Or too young? What if he’d given me a hand-drawn map, that took me from bush to rock, from cabinet to floorboard? What if the one thing I was missing was there, waiting for me, if only I could remember?

For a long time, knowing I’d lost the map, I looked for the treasure elsewhere—in novels and poems, in museums and galleries, in walks on the beach and trudges through the woods. I looked for the treasure in the people I had loved. I found very many clues.

But I stopped looking at some point. I forgot that I’d forgotten, and that there was a treasure buried somewhere, waiting for me. I am now officially resuming the hunt. Here’s a clue I’ve had in my pocket on a crumpled paper for many, many years:

The Storms of Loss

O.K., yeah, so, loss. Loss, really, when you think about, is so perplexing. We don’t talk about it at all, though we sure do feel it. I don’t need to go into the daily losses, because you know them intimately, even if you’ve grown inured to their pain, or oblivious to their presence.

The loss I’m thinking about now is the big one, the death of someone you really can’t live without. I mean, you can, because you must, but I’m thinking that I’m not the only person who walks around with two big honking knives (no, meat cleavers!)—one in my heart, and one in the middle of my forehead—related to the endless missing of at least one someone.

Tonight I was driving from Love Lane, again the sky an incredible pink, with magnificent blue clouds, thinking about how amazing it is that we live on a planet such as this, with such amazing wonders, and we drive in little gas-powered vehicles, slightly inebriated, and we hurt so bad. I mean, even if we’re happy we hurt.

Reggie, in a talk I was reading today, was saying that our body is made up of storms. You can feel it, if you settle down and tune in for a minute: sudden thunder strikes and lightening bolts and massive winds and rain. This goes on moment after moment, endlessly. Storms in our body. And you add to those storms the death of your childhood bestfriend, or your young husband, or the pain of just about the sweetest little furry girl you could ever imagine.

What are we doing here, on this planet? How do we deal with all this pain? I’ll tell you what I’m doing tonight, as Scout circles by the water bowl behind me, his feet caked with shit, his eyes two pointy blurs: I’m opening my shirt and splitting open my chest, and shoving out my heart and saying, “Here. See it? It’s been beating continually for 54 years—54 years!—and I will allow it to break over and over again, if it means I can love that much more kindly, sanely, and deeply.” (Please, please, let me do that.)

There. That’s what I’m doing with my loss tonight.


(For Dolly)

Not us, but still kids
All loss brings with it every loss before it. Did I tell you about Kevin? I can’t remember. Kevin lived two houses down from us, on the block in Kings Point where my brothers and I were born. Being Ian’s age, he was officially Ian’s friend, but Kevin and I had a deep and secret connection.

The get-go: There was this woman named Thea who often came to watch us. She was ancient—from another era, with red, Betty-Boop lips, a white-pancake face, and wavy hair like frosting. She was a seamstress. I remember her laughing and recalling a day when she was out walking with me in a baby carriage. Kevin, apparently, was walking beside her. She said, “Kevin, do you want to go for a ride in the carriage?” And he said, “No, I’m too big of a man to ride in a carriage.” Anyway, that’s how far we go back.

Kevin, who was a small, gentle redhead—not at all a big man, or even a macho boy—taught me how to ride a bike. He dug an old, black, boys’ stingray bike with a banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars out of his garage, and would run behind me, his straight bowl-cut hair flying. (Kevin’s much-older sister, Joanie, was engaged to Wes Farrell, who wrote “Hang on, Sloopy,” and Kevin, unlike a lot of boys—including Ian—was allowed to wear his hair like a Beatle.) He knew me; why else would he choose that bike to teach me, rather than the pink one in my garage?

Once, when my family came home from having been away for several months, Kevin, who was probably seven at the time, was waiting for us by the kitchen door. As soon as we were all out of the car, and the house key was in the lock, Kevin let loose two fistfuls of confetti, which flew around our heads like tiny, red, white, and blue welcome birds. How does a boy get like that?

On the day that my father died, and my brothers and I were sent over to Kevin’s house for a few hours, Kevin told me, from across the dinner table, that there was a strategy for dealing with grief. (He was eleven at this point.) He said that I could cry ninety-nine times, but after that, I had to stop. (This was very much like the advise he’d given me when I was four or five and couldn’t sleep—he’d said that if I hit my head on my pillow three times and then spun the pillow around my head, I’d soon be out like a light.) I took that to heart. Though I never counted the number of times I cried for my father, I knew I had both permission and leeway.

By the time we were junior high school, Kevin had begun suffering over the war. He always wore a green army jacket, and he alone sold pretzels from big bins at the end of the school day, raising money for people starving in Bangladesh (no, wait—Bangladesh came later; this was for Biafra). I was twelve and he was fourteen. My family had left the neighborhood, and we didn’t have much contact anymore. But I still loved him in the same way I had when I was a little girl. That is, I loved him, period—pure and simple.

Anyway, that same year, the year of the pretzels, when I was twelve and he was fourteen, there was a terrible snowstorm. The schools were closed, the roads were closed, the world shut down. Kevin, someone told my mother over the phone that day, had somehow shut himself into his father’s car in the garage, and was in a coma. They said he had been warming the car up for his mother, and hadn’t realized that the garage had been sealed off by the snow.

I don’t know.

They air-lifted Kevin from his house on our old block to a nearby hospital. He lived for a few more days, and then he died.

It was strange. I’d gotten a whole new set of friends after I’d left the old block, and none of my new friends knew Kevin. I guess they didn’t know me either. So I took the morning off to go to his funeral with my family, and when I came back, I remember sitting in the cafeteria, with this heavy, heavy sadness storming, raging in my chest, and this bewilderment that I experience often still—what is this?—while kids around me, completely unaware of the fact that I’d even been gone, did their goofy kid thing.

Because Kevin was Ian’s friend, officially, was he my friend? He was the boy next door. He was the kid who taught me how to ride a bike. He was the boy who cured my insomnia and showered my family with confetti. He was the one person on this planet who gave me a prescription for my grief when my father died. He was, I believe, the first real bodhisattva I ever met on this planet, at least in this lifetime.

I think of Kevin a lot. The thought of him, running behind the bike that he knew would be my perfect steed, instantly creates a fire in my heart, a genuine living experience of true love. For me, from him. People teach us how to love without ever knowing it. They are our little secret heroes.

Ten-Second Rant: Love

Is anyone in love anymore? Hello out there? I don’t mean people under 25. I’m talking about grownups. Have we thought our way out of the experience? Replaced it with nonattachment? Dried up? Died?

I’m sitting here tonight, wondering what’s the thing to accept and the thing to reject: Love ends, love hurts, love doesn’t work out because even if it does, it doesn’t. But does that mean that we shouldn’t make the gallant attempt, go all nine yards? Be really, really, really kind to each other.

Where is love? Does it fall from stars above? Is it underneath the willow tree, that I’ve been dreaming of? Fuck Sex in the City. Fuck Gossip Girl. Fuck Law and Order and Seinfeld and the Seventies. Fuck open marriages, and Hip-Hop, and Tom Cruise. Fuck greedy leaders. Fuck you all. Give me back my my butterflies, my weak knees, my love poems, my midnight summer drives, my silent forest lapses into sleep, my sweet kisses. Give me back my old-fashioned love.

Frank Dancing

When I was in eighth grade, probably fourteen, I had this pretty nice room in the house in Port Washington that I think I’ve told you about. It was a brick mansion with two white pillars out front, a swimming pool, a pool table, and an indoor squash court. It overlooked the Long Island Sound. My mother and stepfather moved into that house fighting, and he, not long after, left her there. I would say that the atmosphere of the place was dominated by anger and tears, and eventually it was overrun by deep, deep sadness and fog.

The kids, though, we had some fun. Many famous lines from my childhood came from that time: “Make me spaghetti.” (Ian, at two in the morning, while watching “Reel Camp.”) “You’ve got all the shit to put on shit, but none of the shit to put it on.” (Ian’s friend Joe Teitler, while peering into the refrigerator, stoned, also in the middle of the night.) “Who’s going to be my teddy bear tonight?” (Another of Ian’s friends, talking to me and my bestfriend Rhona. We thought he was a jerk.)

Anyway, I liked this room, on one of the walls of which I hung a large American flag. One day, I was lying on my bed listening to Jimi Hendrix’s song “Freedom,” when Ian’s friend Frank Malatino, probably sixteen at the time, appeared. Needless to say, Frank was Italian, and overweight, but he was smooth: he wore tinted aviator glasses, sported a shag and a little mustache, and often wore paisley and fringe. He was gregarious and funny, and was nice to me, even though, for another year or so, I would still be the little sister (despite my potential as a teddy bear).

So on this day, Frank came in and, without saying a word, started to dance in the middle of the room. (You gotta hit the play button on this video to really get this.) It was flat out: Hands, arms, legs, feet, hair, head, all flying in all directions. Half the time he wasn’t even on the ground. The floors were wood, and as Frank danced they bent and sunk and sprang back. Nothing like that had ever happened in my room: it came alive. It shook, for God’s sake. Frank’s dancing wasn’t a performance; it was an experience of complete abandon. He couldn’t know that it was a gift I would carry with me for all these years.

Friday Night in New York City

“You won’t kiss me because I’m a nigga.”

I’d been in the NYU Hospital E.R. for a couple of hours, pain radiating from my neck to my shoulder to my left arm. The cardiogram was fine, so they gave me some graham crackers, a valium, and two percosets, and waited. After an hour or so my body still hurt, but I didn’t care. So they sent me home.

As you can imagine, the evening seemed particularly fine, and I thought I’d walk for a while. That’s when this man came up, and asked me where First Avenue was. I told him, and he said, “You’re so beautiful—give me a kiss.” Clearly he was high too. I laughed and said no, and he said, “You won’t kiss me because I’m a nigga.” I had to think about that, it was so strange. I said, “No, I won’t kiss you because you’re a stranger.” Really, it was more complicated than that, but a further explanation seemed unnecessary. He said, “A nigga is worse than a stranger, right?”

Well, that stumped me. I mean, being dirty is worse than being a stranger—I think. (And being toothless doesn’t help.) Especially when you’re high, and the possibility of kissing a stranger becomes ever-so-slightly less remote. But the fact that he was black did not play a part in my decision not to kiss him. That issue was his.

I’m glad he’s not my boyfriend, this guy looking for directions (and love) on Second Avenue. Because if he were, we’d have to go into therapy around the fact that he feels so unlovable because he’s black. I’d have to think about my part in it, and I’d have to take some personal responsibility for it as well. Chances are that would take up many hours in therapy, and I don’t think we’d ever get to my part, which would have to do with not being able to talk to him about the fact that there’s validity in not wanting to kiss a drunk and toothless stranger, and, by the way, why am I ending up in the E.R. in the first place?

The Precious Dog, the Precious Minister

Rinpoche with Pema in 2004
We were meeting up with Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche for lunch. I’m not boasting, just trying to give you some context for how it was the Scout met his guru. Scout wasn’t looking his best—I’d cut off all his hair with dull kitchen scissor a couple of days before during the heat wave, and he looked like he’d been attacked by moths. I like the way he looks, don’t get me wrong—especially the bald spots.

Scout in better days
Anyway, Scout dodders sideways now, his head tilted to the right and down, like he’s ashamed of himself. He walks so slow, and with such mincey little steps, that it looks like he’s walking in place on tip-toe. A UPS guy in Greenport was so nonplussed (whatever that means) by it the other day, that he pulled over to the curb while Scout and I were out for a stroll, just to tell me that he hoped I was heading home with my dog—he said he thought my dog looked like he’d been in the heat too long. But he hadn’t: that’s what he looks like.

In any case, Rinpoche, who was sitting in a rocker low to the ground, gestured for Scout to come over, and Scout doddered a couple of hesitant, wary, and sideways steps in Rinpoche’s direction. Rinpoche reached out to him and lifted his moth-eaten, curly ear, and started whispering stuff in Tibetan or Sanskrit—I couldn’t hear what. Scout came closer.

I turned away, but the next thing I knew Scout was sitting on Rinpoche’s lap, looking at me like, “WTF.” He had the same look on his face that he used to get when I made him swim—like he still loved me, even though I was trying to drown him.

Rinpoche’s not like a lot of the guys you meet in New York City; he’s super chilled out and warm, and seems really happy, and he makes you feel known. At the same time, you wouldn’t want to cross him. Yesterday, after Scout’s meeting with him, I had a stomachache like no other. Julia reminded me that this is what happens after I see Rinpoche: I call it my “hairball.” I feel like I’m going to puke, but what ends up coming up are several lifetimes worth of sorrow. It’s the strangest thing.

Before the hairball, though, Rinpoche coaxed Scout into another room, and I heard lots of chanting and cracking and banging,* and a few minutes later Rinpoche emerged from the room alone, and said that Scout had circumambulated a Guru Rinpoche rupa (that’s one of those small statues that you put on your shrine), and a Buddha, three times.

Brilliant! You see, Scout can’t stop spinning, and Rinpoche just used that symptom of Scout’s ill-health towards his enlightenment. I’m sure there were blessings, too, when Scout went over to a tiny bowl of nuts and dried fruit that Rinpoche was noshing from, and delicately (as is his want) licked the figs. Maybe that’s like in Tibet, when people throw stones at the lamas to insure a connection with them in future lives. Maybe Scout will get to be a real boy someday, after all.

*Not really!