Malachi’s Mother, the Precipice, and the Wild Strawberry

“Ma, where’s Dad?

“I sent him to the market.”

“It’s ten o’clock. He shouldn’t be out this late. I would have gone for you. What did you need so late?”

“Strawberries.”

“Strawberries?”

“Yes. Can’t a person have strawberries when they want them. Is that such a sin?”

“But at ten o’clock, in the rain? He’ll miss Don Lemon.”

“There are more important things in life than Don Lemon, you know.”

“But…”

“Don’t but me.”

“Besides, all he ever does when he’s watching Don Lemon, which by the way is not really like watching the news anymore because your aunt Frieda says that he only watches Don Lemon because it satisfies his confrontation bias.”

“Frieda said that? Confrontation bias? Isn’t it confirmation bias?”

“Frieda says when her Milton watches CNN he gets all worked up and it’s like he’s looking for a fight. She has to make him a glass of Lights Out! Sleepy Time Tea with a little peach schnapps in it so she can live with him ‘til he falls asleep in his chair.”

“But Dad is not like that.”

“Malachi. You don’t live with him. Your father thinks the world is crumbling around him. He talks to the television. ‘Oy Vey,’ he says. ‘Australia, and sea level, the Democrats. And Putin. Mitch McConnel, Iran, all ready. Corona virus. We’re doomed’, he says. Irving, I tell him, calm down. Take a cleansing breath. Put a mask on. So, I sent him out for strawberries.”

“Why?”

“To help him deal with doom. Your sister Felicia said I should do it. She’s a Zen now you know. She takes classes at the Y in the evening.”

“A Zen? She takes classes at the Y and that makes her a Zen Buddhist? I thought she’s an agnostic.”

“She is, she says she is searching for her own path to enlightenment. And I don’t think it’s a Buddhist kind of Zen. I think it is a special Jewish kind of Zen.”

“And strawberries are on the path to Jewish Zen enlightenment?”

“Yes. She told me the teacher told them a very important Zen Cohen story.”

“Ma? What is a Zen Cohen story?”

“Cohen, I said, like your uncle Henry, the dentist. Anyway, don’t interrupt me. Just listen to me. You will learn something. The Zen Cohen story is about a woman who is walking through the Prospect Park Zoo one day and a ferocious tiger escapes from its cage and starts chasing her.

“There are no tigers in the Prospect Park Zoo.”

“Please, Malachi, put your feet on the floor, close your mouth, and open your mind. So this tiger is chasing her. She runs as fast as she can, but she comes to a steep precipice over by  Flatbush Avenue where there’s all that construction, and it is like fifty feet deep all the way down, so she looks to her right and looks to her left, and there’s nowhere else to run, no escape, except…

“Except what?”

“Except over the edge… She just steps right over the edge of the cliff and it’s after four o’clock and all the workers and people have gone home and it’s January and it’s getting dark and, as she’s going over the precipice she grabs onto the only thing she can see, a really thick vine growing out of the dirt on the side of the cliff, and she is saved from tiger, except…”

“Except what?”

Except that she sees all the way down at the bottom the cliff is another tiger. Another tiger that somehow escaped from the tiger cage, and it is looking up at her and waiting for her to fall so it can eat her. Mishlakhes (disaster) right? And if that was not enough, right there on the vine are these two big ugly gray subway rats, from the F train, big as porcupines, sticking their heads out and gnawing away at the vine and, sure as New York knishes are round, they are going to cut clear through it in a minute. She is doomed. And then…and then, out of the corner of her eye, she sees just within her reach, a plump, juicy red wild strawberry growing right there in front of her and…

“And what?”

“And she grabs for the strawberry!”

“She is going to die and she grabs for the strawberry? That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“You eat a damn strawberry and then you get eaten by a tiger? That’s it? That’s the whole point?

“Yes. Felicia says the Zen Cohen means that you have to take whatever joy out of life you can whenever it comes your way because you never know. You could step off the curb tomorrow and get hit by the B37 bus. So you should grab it while you can.”

“And that story is supposed to calm your mind? I rather have a cup of Lights Out with a shot of peach schnapps and a little sugar like Milton.”

“You don’t get it.”

Ma, I get it. But grabbing at all the joy when you can, doesn’t mean you send your husband down to 7th Avenue at ten o’clock at night across busy 9th Street to buy strawberries. And, by the way, you should tell Felicia it’s not a Zen Cohen. It’s not Jewish. It’s a Koan. K-O-A-N. A Japanese Buddhist Zen Koan that is on the path to enlightenment.”

“Koan, schmoan. I should worry. You’re missing the point.”

“No, Ma, I know you meant well, but you’re the one missing the point. And Dad is missing Don Lemon. Why don’t you just let him pick his own strawberries?”

Silence. A deep abiding silence fills the space between them.

 

 

 

 

 

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