Winter Dawn

February 28th, 2021

It is now 4:30 AM. I fed Asher and changed his diaper an hour ago. Now he sleeps next to me in his bouncy chair, making little mewing noises. He will no doubt wake up in an hour or so, hungry again.

My wife, Karin, and I have come up with schedule for Asher’s night feedings. It’s taken us a month to sort things out, but I think we finally have a plan that works. Karin is by nature a night owl, so she is comfortable with staying up quite late. I spent over twenty years working third shift, so I am used to waking up dark and early. We trade shifts some time between 1:00 and 4:00 AM. The times vary according to Asher’s sleep pattern. It’s not the best possible system for Asher’s care, but it is all we have for now.

After I feed Asher his bottle of formula, I generally walk with him through our darkened house. He needs to burp, and the walking calms him. It is good for me too. The slow, steady pace is kind of a meditation practice for me.

At some point, I usually stop to stare out of our patio door. I like to watch the approaching dawn. Asher does not watch with me. He is generally asleep at that time, with his little, round cheek welded to my right shoulder.

Winter dawns are somehow different from those that occur at other times of the year. I’m not sure why that is. Our patio door faces to the east, more or less. I can see the sky slowly brightening over the branches of the bare trees in our backyard. The horizon turns a gun metal grey at first. It looks cold somehow. The early twilight is uninviting. The landscape is only slightly more distinct, and the snow on the ground reflects the weak light. The wind moves the tree limbs like they are black, skeletal hands in the air. I can see things better, but the message from the sun is still “stay inside the house”.

It seems to take a long time for the sun to come. First, there are flashes of pink at the tree line. It’s like the night sky is leaving grudgingly. Objects in the yard remain dim and colorless. The world becomes gradually brighter. It happens too slowly.

Then, all at once, an orange ball of fire crests the roof of the neighbor’s barn. A knife blade of pure light stabs through the glass of the patio door. Suddenly, all of the snow is glittering and brilliant. The yard is alive in all its details.

Morning.

A Very Narrow Focus

February 24th, 2021

Our world has contracted. Over the course of the last year, the scope of our existence has, for the most part, shrunk down to the size of our house. My wife and I used to travel a lot. We used to be active members of our community. Now Karin and I almost always stay at home.

This change in our lifestyle, as is the case with most other people, is primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are no longer many places for us to go, and we are not necessarily interested in visiting the places that are open. For instance, I used to meet friends and pray at the synagogue. The synagogue has been closed for nearly a year. I used to go to meditation practice at the Zen Center. The Zen Center doesn’t even exist any more. Karin used to join with her knitting group at a local McDonald’s every Thursday morning. Now they meet on Zoom. About the only thing that Karin and I still do regularly is go to Mass at our church. Even that has become much less of a communal experience. Things have become increasingly impersonal.

During the last few months, a few friends have cooked us meals and brought them to our home. These visits have almost always been “dump and run” operations. There has been very opportunity for idle chatter. We sometimes did not even know that a delivery had been made until we heard our dogs bark, and then discerned the squeal of tires in the driveway as our benefactor fled the scene.

The weather this month has made it difficult for us for us to do any outside activities (except for snow shoveling). Frequent snowstorms and single digit temperatures have made me reluctant to go on the long walks that I was accustomed to make. Even the dogs have not shown much interest in exploring the world beyond our front door. Except for running small errands, we have stayed indoors.

This month also began with a radical change in our routine. Karin and I suddenly became the sole caregivers for a two-month-old boy named Asher. We had forgotten just how time consuming it can be to provide for an infant. It did not take us long to remember how it all works.

Asher is low maintenance, as far as babies go. That does not mean that he can care for himself. On the contrary, he requires our constant help and vigilance. The fact is that, at this very moment, as I write these words, Asher is trying to get my attention. He is making curious grunting/growling noises, reminiscent of the sounds the girl made in “The Exorcist”. I will no doubt see to his needs, which probably have something to do with getting him a new diaper.

Let me make this clear: Right now, Asher is everything.

Our focus on Asher has taken an laser-like intensity. Karin and I have other interests. We have other people we want to help. All of those activities and people will have to wait. There is only one person in our world, and he weighs about eleven pounds.

It’s okay.

It all becomes worthwhile when I carry Asher in my arms. I look at his round, cherubic face. I see the trace of a beatific smile there, like that of the Buddha. Asher is pure love. He is pure joy. He is new life.

Snowstorm

February 16th, 2021 @ 5:48 AM

I just fed Asher. Asher woke up (sort of) at 4:30. He has a particular cry when he gets hungry. Karin was awake with him until almost 2:00 AM. Perhaps she didn’t need to up that late. I don’t know. The trick is to sleep when Asher sleeps. If a person waits too long after Asher dozes, then he is up again, and the cycle of feeding and sleeping and pooping repeats. I sleep poorly at best, and I am attuned to Asher’s little moans and cries. Some of them are false alarms, but usually I can tell when he needs somebody, and that somebody is me.

By the way, Asher is our grandson, and he is ten weeks old.

It’s snowing and blowing outside. It’s white and windy and nasty. Even our two dogs won’t go out in this shit. I encouraged Shocky, our border collie, to rouse herself and go pee. No response other than a bleary-eyed refusal. Shocky and Sara, our two elderly dogs, will eventually go out the door to take care of their business, but it will be with extreme reluctance.

I am letting Karin sleep. She needs it. We both need it. We are in our sixties, and we are getting a bit old to care for an almost newborn. Karin and I are the designated caregivers for Asher now that his mother is in jail. We are capable of loving and caring for the lad, but it is tiring. There is no denying that.

Our son, Hans, called us from Texas yesterday. They had evil bad weather there too. Hans’ wife, Gabi, gave birth to their daughter, Madeline, on Saturday. Due to medical issues, Gabi and Maddy could not return home until yesterday. This was a problem since the power, and heat, was off in their apartment for several hours yesterday. The electrical grid in Texas failed miserably during this extremely unusual cold snap. The snow and the intense cold essentially shut the entire state down.

Wisconsin, where we live, is prepared for winter, but that doesn’t mean that we all like it. My front yard looks like a lunar landscape. It will take me hours to shovel things out. Would it be easier with a snow blower? Maybe. I don’t know. I do know that I am retired, and we have no place that we need to go. If it takes all day to clean out the driveway, so be it. Karin prefers that I don’t have a heart attack.

I could ask our youngest son, Stefan, to come here to help me clean up the snow. I don’t want to do that. Stefan is a welder with the Iron Workers Union, and he spends every day doing his job in the cold and snow. He works hard enough already. I want don’t want to be a burden to him. Stefan pushes himself way too hard. Karin says the same thing about me.

Asher sleeps. His sleep is fitful, but that could be because he was almost two months premature. Asher sleeps the sleep of the innocent. He’s too young to have screwed up anything. He can’t have any regrets. Sometimes, like now, he smiles in his sleep. He just dreams baby dreams, whatever they are.

I wish that I could sleep like him.


You Can Never Go Home Again

February 14th, 2021

“She can not live with you any more. You know that. Right?”

Several people from the Child Protection Service (CPS) us asked that question. Karin and I know that the Asher’s mom cannot live with us again, at least not until such a time as when the young woman can prove to CPS that she can safely care for her little boy. Karin and I aren’t too bothered by the fact that the young woman is currently banned from our house (except to visit Asher). In a way, the girl’s absence is neither good nor bad. It just is.

The situation feels much different to the young woman. She freaked out about the rule from CPS when I told her about it during a phone call.

“Where will I live? I will freeze on the street! What will I do?!”

I tried to comfort the girl by explaining to her that Karin and I would not let her freeze in the dark. She responded by saying,

“You let me freeze on Bly Mountain.”

Oh yeah. That.

The young woman often comments on her two month stay on Bly Mountain in Oregon. Back in the fall of 2015, she had an extremely negative experience at a Christian, Bible-based rehab program. After she left that organization, Karin and I didn’t know what to do. We were all out of ideas. The young woman was out of control at home, and we couldn’t think of anywhere else for her to go. Finally, her cousin offered to take her in, if we could bring the girl to Oregon. The cousin and her husband were homesteading/weed growing on Bly Mountain in the Cascades. So, Karin and I flew with the young woman to Oregon, and she stayed in a trailer on the cousin’s property on the mountain in the depths of winter. The young woman survived that ordeal and returned to Wisconsin after several weeks. However, she has not forgotten about the experience, and she likes to remind us of it. Maybe she should.

I have tried to explain to the young woman that the question of her future accommodations is something to be handled at a later date. First, we have to find out where she is going for treatment, and for how long. There are other burning issues that have to be resolved before she gets a new address.

The young woman’s anxiety is understandable. She has always felt that our house, in particular her bedroom, was a safe harbor. At some point in the future, it may be one again, but not now. She won’t be sleeping in her own bed until the State of Wisconsin lets her do so.

Looking at it from a larger perspective, she is not the only person who can’t go home. I never got to go home once I joined the Army. I went to West Point in July of 1976. My parents sold their house shortly thereafter. They didn’t even tell that they sold the house until I was due to come back home for Christmas break. I eventually came back to my family, but I never again entered the house where I had been raised. Now, after 45 years, the structure still stands on 82nd Street in West Allis. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to go through the front door of that house. It’s not my home any more. I would only find ghosts hiding in those old rooms.

I remember the last time I went to visit Karin’s family in Germany. That was in 1998. We stopped to see Karin’s aunt and uncle. Tante Aga and Onkel Kurt had grown up prior to WWII in Silesia, which is now part of Poland. They were unable to return to their home town after the war ended. When the Berlin Wall fell, and communism collapsed in Poland, Kurt and Aga finally made the journey back to Silesia. Kurt told me about how disappointed they had been with the experience. He said,

“Polnisch! Polnisch! Polnisch! Kein Deutsch mehr!”

“Polish! Polish! Polish! No more German!”

The town was still physically there, but it didn’t match any of their memories. The home of their youth no longer existed, except in their own minds. I think that fact hurt them more than if they had never had the opportunity to return to Silesia

The young woman will get to be with Asher in our house. She will have the chance to be with her son, as often as she likes, or as often as we can handle it.

But she won’t come home.

Help from Afar

February 12th, 2021

“They look like shit.”

That was the comment of one of my nieces when she saw a picture of Karin and myself on social media. The photos had been sent by Shawn upon her arrival at our house last Friday. My sister-in-law, Shawn, had flown up from Texas to help us care for little Asher. Shawn showed up at our house at the bitter end of a tumultuous week, and Karin and I were pretty ragged.

Karin and I had not expected that Shawn would suddenly make the long journey to Wisconsin, especially since we were hip-deep in snow, and our local temperatures were the lowest they had been all winter. Shawn had been here before during the depths of winter, but not for a long time. It’s been at least a decade since she made the trip up to the north country.

I guess she was due.

Shawn decided to fly here on the spur of the moment. She has a good friend who let her use her accumulated flight miles to make the trip. Shawn convinced her employers to give her a week off (Shawn cares for an young autistic man). In a way, it seemed pointless to me for Shawn to visit us for only a week, but I was wrong.

It’s hard to describe how tired and lost Karin and I felt a week ago. The girl we love was/is in jail, and we were responsible for the young woman’s two-month-old boy. We had all sorts of people (mostly of the government sort) talking with us or visiting our home. We have a mountain of paperwork to complete, and we really don’t have heads that are clear enough to do it. All of a sudden, Karin and I are parents again, and we are out of practice.

Shawn’s visit was a godsend. She swiftly and effortlessly slid into our routine. Shawn cared for Asher when Karin and I were tired and irritable. She gave us breathing space. Shawn was with us here for a week, and that was enough for us to get a tenuous grip on our new reality.

Shawn is good for conversation. She is smart and she is deep. One morning while we drank strong coffee, I asked her why she came to us. She said,

“I don’t know. I needed to be here. I didn’t know what I would do. I do know how to feed a baby and how to change his diaper. I thought that would be enough.”

It was.

Shawn is a vegan. We’re not. We had to adjust our lives a bit to her presence. That was probably a good thing.

Shawn had many long conversations with Karin and/or with me. We talked about babies. We talked about the Virgin Mary. We talked about Buddhism. We talked about racial violence, sexual abuse, and bad craziness. We have known Shawn for over thirty years. We all have a history together.

Shawn’s presence helped me when I received phone calls with the girl in jail. Those were/are always stressful for me. They reek of fear, guilt, and sorrow. I literally collapse after talking with that young woman. I’m not angry with her. I’m not offended by what she might say. I am just exhausted.

Shawn talked to me after one of the calls. She gave me her perspective, and that helped. Shawn can see and hear different viewpoints.

Shawn and I made one trip outside of our home. We drove up to the east side of Milwaukee and visited one of my friends from the synagogue. We went to Ken’s house. Ken is a writer. He publishes novels. I am a writer (obviously). Shawn is a writer. She is working on a book about Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Ken invited us into an empty room in his basement, where we could drink craft beer in a socially distanced way. Shawn doesn’t drink alcohol, so she had tea. Ken’s wife, Julianna, was there too. We all talked about writing. Shawn talked about her Catholic essays. Ken told us about his Jewish stories. Julianna listened and made perceptive comments. (Julianna is a yoga teacher, a woman in serious pain from back surgery, and a Buddhist). It was important for me that Shawn get to meet Ken and Julianna. These people are integral to my life.

Yesterday afternoon I drove Shawn to the airport. She was wearing a scarf, mittens, and a humungous cap that Karin had knit. I pulled up to the American Airlines entrance, and I pulled out her bag.

We stood facing each other on the curb, and we placed the palms of our hands together in gassho. We bowed ever so slightly to each other. We chanted softly,

“Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”, three times.

She hugged me.

Shawn walked away.

Asher is sleeping next to me. It is a fitful and edgy sleep, but he sleeps.

In the end, it is all about Asher. Shawn’s journey was all about Asher.

I’m tired, and I hear the boy cry out.

CPS

February 9th, 2021

The furnace is running. Lately, it seems to always be running. It is currently a solid zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. The forecast is for the weather to remain frigid for at least another week. We cranked up the heat inside the house to make Asher more comfortable. We can afford to pay a bit more for gas to keep our two-month-old baby warm.

I got up an hour ago to feed Asher and change his diaper. I let the dogs out (they did not stay outside long). Now Asher is in his bouncy chair sleeping fitfully.

Asher always sleeps fitfully. The visiting nurse came to our house yesterday to check on Asher. We mentioned to her that Asher is a remarkably noisy sleeper. He grunts and groans, mutters and snuffles, and makes the sound of a bleating goat while he dreams his baby dreams. The nurse shrugged and said that these nocturnal noises are normal for a premature birth. The nervous system is the last thing to be completed in a human, and it’s not quite done in Asher. She went on to say that 90% of the premature babies get over this phase. Eventually, we will be shocked and surprised by how quiet he is. This happens already on occasion: Asher suddenly gets quite in bed, and then Karin and I immediately panic. We are okay once we know that he is breathing.

Despite COVID, Karin and I are meeting many new people. Asher’s mom is in jail right now. Asher’s father is MIA. We brought in Child Protective Services (CPS) to help with the situation. That was a life-changing decision. Getting the government involved was like getting on a rollercoaster. We are in for a ride.

Everyone we have met from CPS during the last week (yes, it’s only been a week since this all started) has been friendly and helpful. The case workers, nurses, and lawyers have all seemed to be remarkably grateful to us. They keep thanking Karin and myself for stepping up to care for Asher while his biological parents are unavailable. Apparently, this sort of situation is not typical. My understanding is that often nobody is willing to care for the child. I find this to be both disturbing and depressing.

(There has been a brief pause while I fed Asher another bottle of formula. The lad has all the patience of a boiling tea kettle.)

Everybody we have met has a laser-like focus on the wellbeing of little Asher. That comforts me. They really do care. This is a good fit since it coincides with the our interests. We all want Asher to be happy and healthy.

Thus far, Asher is very healthy, and often happy. He has been thriving in our home. He was doing well when his mother was living with us, and he is doing well now. Asher weighed 3 lbs. and 13 oz. when he was born on December 2nd of last year. Now he tips the scales at 10 lbs. and 1 oz. That’s not bad. He is filling out nicely.

What happens next?

Don’t know.

The father is absent. He has been peripheral to Asher’s life, and I expect that he will remain so. The beauty of having CPS involved is that, if the dad decides to enter Asher’s life, he has to deal with the State of Wisconsin, not with us. If he has complaints or gripes, he can go directly to CPS. I don’t think they will be particularly sympathetic.

The mother’s future is uncertain. She might go back to prison, but I think that is unlikely. Everyone, including her parole officer, is trying to get her into treatment. The universal goal is to get this young woman healthy and reunited to her baby. That makes me hopeful.

Karin and I don’t mind caring for Asher. He is truly a blessing from God. We are not alone when we love him. Many people have offered to help us with Asher. In fact, my sister-in-law, Shawn, flew up from Texas to be with that little boy. Asher is makes us feel like we’re really living. And honestly, Asher is probably the only reason that his mother is still alive. He is alright being with us.

However, it would be better if he was safe and serene in his mother’s arms.

Broken Glass

February 3rd, 2021

“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
― Clive Barker

I have attempted to organize the events of the last three days into a coherent narrative, and I have failed utterly. Creating a meaningful story from the chaos and confusion of the last 72 hours is impossible for me to do. Maybe a person who has some distance from what has happened can make sense of it all. I can’t.

So, I will try to describe various scenes, without explanation or comment. They will be like photos without captions, or like shards of a shattered mirror.

To start…

I heard Asher crying late on Sunday night. Karin and I had both been asleep for a while. Asher was in the other bedroom with his mother. I listened to Asher cry, and waited for a couple minutes. It usually takes the young woman about five minutes to give Asher a bottle, and then get him to settle down. Asher cried for much longer than five minutes.

I got up and walked across the hallway. I opened the door to the young woman’s bedroom.

Asher was lying on the floor, on his belly, wailing. The young woman sitting on the floor nearby, her head slumped over. I tried to rouse her, but she was passed out. She’d been using something, but what? I picked up Asher, and felt the old sensation of fear. Anger came too.

The paramedics came after we called 911. They went to the young woman’s room. She hadn’t moved at all. A paramedic patiently tried to pry information from the girl. She balked at that. The paramedic became impatient.

“Hey, c’mon, work with us here! What did you do?”

She mumbled that she had drank hand sanitizer. The medics poured her into an ambulance.

The cops showed up.

One officer came in, looked around, and said,

“I’ve been here before.”

I nodded and replied, “Yeah, you have.”

The police know our address very well.

Karin and I talked to the cops. We told them that we just can’t deal with the stress and fear any more.

The cop asked me, Do you want us to call CPS (Child Protective Services)?”

“Yes”.

Hours later…

I got a call from a doctor at the hospital where the young woman had been taken. He told us that they had dried her out. Then he explained to me that she had left the hospital, gone to a local store, bought booze, and got drunk in public. She was back in the ER, asleep. He told me that her BAC was at five hundred (.500). That’s close to being dead.

Much later…

I drove the woman home from the hospital. Upon our arrival, it became clear the the girl was still drunk, or at least not thinking straight.

A loud argument. Harsh words. She screamed at me,

“I should have stabbed you when I had the chance!”

I took that as a threat.

Another call to 911. Some of the same cops showed up. The girl fled to her bedroom. I walked with the police down the hallway.

The sound of shattering glass.

The sight of a smashed window, with the young woman standing in the snow outside of it.

The cops took her.

Still later..

A two hour-long conversation with a woman from CPS. A change in custody. Papers to be signed.

As we signed the paperwork to get Asher to stay in our home, the lady from CPS said,

“You look worried. Are you regretting doing this?”

“No.”

“Are you worried about the young woman?”

“Yes.”

“But you’re okay with this protection plan?”

“Yeah. This is hard, but it has to be done.”

The lady nodded.

Now…

Asher sleeps next to me. Karin is in bed getting the rest she desperately needs. The young woman is in jail somewhere.

I keep picking up pieces of broken glass.

Old New Parents

January 26th, 2021

The young woman was in the hospital for four nights. So, for four nights, Karin and I cared for little Asher. He is eight-weeks-old, and he’s going through a growth spurt. In fact, he gained almost a pound last week. So he is drinking three ounces of formula every two hours, night and day. That means one of us was up with him every two hours.

The first couple nights were chaotic. We didn’t have a system. Then we got a groove. A parent never really forgets how to care for an infant. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle or having sex. Even after many years, the old skills come back.

Karin and I divided up the night shift. She is by nature a night owl, so Karin cared for Asher during the first half of the evening while I slept. I consistently wake up in the middle of the night (after effects of working third shift for decades), so I started watching Asher after midnight. Karin would feed and/or change Asher, and then go back to whatever she was doing. If she was already in bed, she would take care of the boy, and then try to sleep again. I chose to stay up once I started my turn with Asher. For me, interrupted sleep really isn’t sleep at all. I would stay awake until Karin roused herself in the morning.

There really wasn’t much I could do when I was on watch, other than hang out with the little guy. Sometimes, if he was sound asleep, I could put him in his vibrating seat and do some writing, like I am doing now. At other times, Asher was not so cooperative. He’s a good kid, but he he needs to eat, and he needs to poop. He also needs to be held.

I held him a lot.

I walked with him around the house, chanting to him softly. Asher rested his little head on my right shoulder as I held him close to my body. After I while, he got heavy and I sat down with him. I slouched back in a chair, and Asher laid on my chest. His breathing was occasionally fitful, but most of the time it was steady and soothing.

When Asher is sleeping deeply, he makes little sounds with his outbreath that sound like “hah, hah, hah…”. As he rested on me, he relaxed to the point that it felt like his bones had turned to jello. His body was warm against mine. I could feel him breathe. I could feel the rapid beating of his tiny heart.

I suspect that he could feel my heartbeat too. He could sense the pattern of my breathing. We connected without speaking, without words. Two bodies and two souls seeking a common rhythm.

It was hard at times to care for Asher in the middle of the night. It wore me out. I don’t have the stamina that I used to have.

However, someday I won’t be able to hold like I did. Someday we won’t be able to bond like that. It might not make any difference to him, but I will miss that time together.

Numbers

January 23rd, 2021

Traffic sucked. We were heading westbound on I-94 at exactly the wrong time of day. The afternoon rush hour was in full swing, and the vehicles slowed to a crawl as we were crossing over the Marquette Interchange in downtown Milwaukee. About a mile west of the interchange, the freeway narrows to three lanes. This creates a chokepoint that stalls traffic every day. When we got there, I saw nothing but a sea of red brake lights.

I was taking the young woman to the hospital. She had a packed bag with her. She wasn’t necessarily looking forward to going there, but she was resigned to doing it. I wasn’t thrilled about driving her to the hospital but, like the young woman, I knew it had to be done.

We had just left a house full of anger and sorrow, and being in a traffic jam was actually a relief from that stress. When the cars had been moving along swiftly, we had not said much to each other. We had been focused on our own thoughts. The girl had been munching the last of her McDonald fries, and finishing off a can of Bubbl’r. I had been watching the cars racing past me or changing lanes without signaling. Then it all slowed down.

We had time to talk.

The young woman asked me, “Do you know the ‘Baron Trump’ story?”

“The what?”

“The ‘Baron Trump’ story. Some guy, a hundred years ago, wrote a story about Trump, and it’s totally accurate.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I mean the first name is spelled differently, but a lot of the stuff is the same. It’s like this guy already knew Barron Trump.”

“Okay…”

The young woman continued, “That story is just like my life.”

“How so?”

“Well, remember when I was little, and I thought that I was really a princess? It was like there was this fairy tale about me. Well, Barron Trump has a fairy tale about him. There’s got to be a story about me.”

“You think so?”

“Well, yeah. I mean people always come up to me and say, ‘Don’t I know you?’, or ‘I’ve seen you before somewhere’. People dream about me, and then they meet me. It’s like these other people already know my story.”

I thought for a moment, then said, “Everybody has a story. Maybe it’s written already, or maybe we are writing it now.”

She spoke of her baby boy, “Asher is in my story.”

“Yeah, he is. Did you know ‘Asher’ means ‘Ten’ in Arabic? I’m not sure about Hebrew. The word for ‘ten’ in Hebrew is like that, but not quite the same.”

(“Ten” in Hebrew is עשר, pronounced “Asir”. That is pretty close to “Asher”.)

The girl got interested. Asher’s name means ‘Ten’? Ten has always been my favorite number. You know Asher has a lot of ‘twos’ in his life. He was born at 2:00 PM on 12/02/2020. So, the number two is big. Asher is a Jewish name. What is ‘two’ in Hebrew?”

“I can’t remember. I know in Arabic the number ‘two’ is ‘ithnain’ (اثنان).”

(“Two” in Hebrew is שניים, pronounced “Shnime”)

She shook her head. “What does the number ten mean in Hebrew?”

“It’s just a number.”

“I mean, does it mean something else besides that?”

“I don’t know. I do know that there is a whole science of numbers (gematria) in Hebrew. The letters in that alphabet are also numbers. So, words have hidden meanings, and numbers can have hidden meanings.”

“I wonder what all the twos mean for Asher.”

“Maybe we can find out.”

“Yeah.”

Traffic started moving again. We were quiet for a while.

She told me, “We need to write my story.”

“We may have to change names to protect the guilty.”

By that time we were pulling up to the hospital entrance.

I told her as she pulled out her bag, “I’ll wait here until I know your admitted.”

“Okay.”

“Good luck with everything.”

“Thanks.”

Then she said, “Do some research on Baron Trump for me.”

Then she walked away.

Heart Kyol Che

January 17th, 2021

“The Heart Kyol Che is an opportunity for students who cannot sit the traditional Kyol Che, or who can sit only part of it, to participate by doing extra practice at home and doing together practice as they are able. This will run concurrently with the traditional Kyol Che. By doing this Heart Kyol Che together, we will strengthen our own practice, and provide support to our fellow students who are able to sit the traditional Kyol Che. We in turn can draw inspiration and energy from their commitment.”

from Peter Neuwald, abbot of the Great Lake Zen Center, Kwan Um School of Zen

Kyol Che is a winter meditation retreat that is practiced in South Korea.. The participants are often Buddhist monks and nuns, although nowadays Kyol Che is mostly practiced by lay people. The phrase “Kyol Che” roughly means “tight practice”, which implies a enhanced type of meditation routine. Since monastic communities tend to be geared around prayer and meditation anyway, this retreat is just an intensification of their normal regimen. However, the retreat is more difficult for lay persons, seeing as the demands on their lives are different from those of monks or nuns.

That I know for sure. I just woke up fifteen minutes ago to help feed our grandson, Asher. I’m sure that some Buddhist monks and nuns get up at 2:30 AM, but I doubt that they are awakened to the sound of a crying infant.

On Saturday morning, the Great Lake Zen Center hosted a mini-retreat on Zoom. I attended for a while. The retreat went for three hours or so. There was chanting, sitting meditation, and walking meditation on the schedule. The session attracted all the usual suspects. Meditation is often considered “together action”, and there is a real, although mostly spiritual, sense of unity when we all sit in the same room silently. However, due to the pandemic, we aren’t sitting together, and that feeling of unity suffers.

The half-day retreat also offered kong-an (koan) interviews with Zen Master Dae Kwang. A kong-an is a question that does not necessarily have a rational answer. An example of this would be: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The purpose of the kong-an is to force a Zen practitioner to break through discursive thought to find an intuitive answer. Or perhaps the kong-an is a way for the student to become more aware of his or her attachments. The interviews with ZMDK are ways for the Zen student to find out if they are on the right track with solving the riddle of the kong-an.

I sat through the morning bell chant during the session. That is how Zen practice starts. Most of the time, the chanting helps me to relax and focus my mind. That didn’t happen on Saturday. The other members of our household were busy caring for Asher, and a six-week-old baby produces certain amount of unavoidable noise and chaos. I found it impossible to meditate with the maelstrom of activity swirling within a few feet of where I was sitting. I gave up practicing after the bell chant, and joined the fray.

I also saw no point in participating in the kong-an interview with Zen Master Dae Kwang. I know that years ago he gave me a kong-an to ponder. I have completely forgotten it. If I had joined him for an interview, he might have given me a new kong-an, and I am certain that I would forget that one too. I really like talking with ZMDK, but I’m not going to solve a classic kong-an. It’s just not going to happen, so why should I waste his time?

Yesterday morning, the young woman who we love brought Asher to me in the kitchen. She needed to take a shower and clean up their bedroom, so the girl asked me to watch over the lad. I did so.

I held Asher to my right shoulder. He snuffled and burbled softly as he slept. Asher rested his tiny cheek on my shoulder, occasionally spitting up on my sweater. His right hand tugged reflexively on a long, white strand of my beard. I walked with him.

I thought of another Buddhist friend, Senji. He’s a Japanese monk, and he follows a different tradition. In his order, they chant and drum. They almost exclusively use the phrase “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”. This phrase is a from the Lotus Sutra, a famous Buddhist text. The founder of Senji’s order managed to distill thousands of verses from the Lotus Sutra into seven syllables. I have to admire that.

I asked Senji once, “So, really, what does ‘Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’ mean?”

Senji gave me a broad smile and said, “It means: ‘You are love. You are beauty. You are Buddha’.”

I doubt that is a direct translation, but I’ll go with it.

As I walked slowly with Asher, I whispered into his ear,

“Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo…”

Over and over again.

I have meditate when and where I can. I won’t be sitting on a cushion. However, I can walk or sit with Asher. I can meditate on him, and follow his breathing. I can feed him or change him. Asher is my Heart Kyol Che.