Country Temple

 

CountryTemple

By Nizan Weisman

Translated from Hebrew by Joanna Chen

 

It happened on one of those Saturdays when we rose early, leaving the children to sleep in, and drove off to view houses. It was the end of summer, the mornings were growing colder, along the coastal road the first sea squill flowers had popped up, and the sea, calm and blue, peeked out then disappeared behind low hills of sandstone. I put on ‘A Window to the Mediterranean Sea’ by Poliker, a song that Ronit particularly loved, and when she placed her hand on my thigh and said, “I don’t know, Mickey, don’t you feel all of a sudden totally optimistic?” I smiled. We had been through some tough years, and I wanted to believe they were now behind us. Practicing Zen had helped me accept both myself and others and to be happy with my lot in life; meditation had made me more receptive, less aggressive. I was a different person; accepting my own human weaknesses had fortified me.
 
Against the backdrop of the sea, in a pale dress, her shoulders bare, hair blowing in the breeze as she opened the window to catch the scent of autumn, big sunglasses on her cute little nose, Ronit looked simply wonderful.
 
We stared straight ahead, we had a shared goal, we were united, and that was what was important.
 
I do not have any illusions regarding my own humble appearance, but at that moment I too felt handsome and alluring.
 
In the Zen group I have learned that when a moment is perfect, there is no need for anything more.
 
 
I didn’t always feel good about myself. My father, to whom I was deeply attached, died when I was young. I was studying at the Technion back then, and his agonizing death from lung cancer came at an already difficult time for me: due to a congenital heart murmur, the army had rejected me, leaving me at home whilst the few friends I had from high school were recruited into combat units, and because I had always excelled at school—what else could I have excelled at—the natural and only outcome for me was to study physics at the Technion. I told myself I was a soldier-student, but before I had a chance to digest everything, I sank into a loneliness that no one could have prepared me for - what could I have talked about with my buddies on leave from the army, exhausted and bursting with stories? My adventures in the cafeteria? My escapades in the lab? I didn’t even understand what they were talking about. It quickly became apparent to me that I had nothing to offer, neither to girls my age who had also been drafted, nor to fellow students who were a few years older than me, mostly married and struggling to earn a living. I had been sucked into a terrible void, I asked myself fundamental questions about life, and despite my good grades found little joy in studying. Finally, with much help from the university psychologist, I came to terms with the different path my life had taken and gradually extricated myself from the darkness. By the time my peers had completed their army service and come to me for advice, I had already begun my M.A., met Ronit, and was working as a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Defence Technologies. I was happy for the opportunity to do my bit for my country. Perhaps I couldn’t charge up hills and attack the enemy, but I could still design weaponry that would win the battle.
 
For many years I loved the system and the system loved me. I completed a Ph.D. funded by the Institute, and was put in charge of a small R&D team. I built myself a life with a family and three children, two cars, an apartment and a dog. We had our ups and downs—I’m not an easy person, and when threatened, my extreme reactions quickly become destructive—but with patience and perseverance we learned to surf the turbulent waves, to forgive, to accept, to contain, to support, and most of all to look forward to what lay ahead.
 
And then my mother passed away. Since she was elderly and ailing, her death came as no surprise. After the shiva my brother and I sold the small apartment we had grown up in, and split the money. Since we had been deliberating moving house at that time, the small inheritance was timely. It was becoming quite crowded living with three children in four rooms. Ronit’s therapist had recommended she take up painting or sculpture, and I was sick of practicing zazen meditation in a corner of the living room, squeezed between an armchair and a couch. We treated ourselves to a week in Tuscany, and upon our return Ronit suggested that instead of simply moving to a bigger apartment in the same neighborhood, we follow our dreams and move to a house in the country with a lawn and fruit trees and a hammock and a place for the dog to run around in, and that kind of stuff.
 
At first the idea seemed farfetched—we finally had a little breathing space, so why get into debt again, why spend years dealing with architects and building contractors and village politics and schools for the kids? Despite all this, I remained true to the resolutions I had made and tried to listen, tried to take on the ambitions of Ronit and her world. We sat on the small terrace, a light evening breeze tinkling through the wind chimes that she had hung from a beam, the lights of the city twinkling across the dark bay. Dean and Hallely were already in bed, Shahar was stretched out on the couch in the living room watching some kids’ TV show, I made Ronit iced coffee in a tall glass the way she liked it. We sat like this, her legs on my knees while I massaged the soles of her bare feet, she talked and I listened; I treasured these fragile moments of grace that life offered at day’s end.
 
“I really don’t know, Mickey,” she said. “Just for a minute try recalling our own childhood, how we ran around the hills and played in the thicket near the Technion before it was swallowed up by housing projects, how we inhaled freedom and nature and climbed trees and went home sweaty and panting, and now think about Shahar and Dean and Hallely, how their childhood is spent between the computer and the TV screen, how we always have to drive them to friends and after-school activities, and what do they get from all this? I really don’t know, Mickey. Perhaps we’re doing wrong by them and we’re going to regret it.”  
 
“What wrong are we doing to the kids?” I protested. “What exactly don’t they have? Do you know how many kids would switch places with them right now?”
 
“You know what, Mickey, sometimes I really pity them,” Ronit continued in the same patient tone she reserved for her customers in the bank. “I’m talking about our three living and breathing children, Mickey, about Shahar and Dean and Hallely, not about some anonymous kid in the refugee camps you read about in the newspaper and then immediately forget. Do you really not think our kids deserve a little bit of what others have in such copious amounts? After all, what exactly do we want for them—a bit of nature, a bit of color, a bit of fresh air, a bit of freedom. Is that too much? If Ronit and Mickey can’t provide their own children with a healthy, wholesome environment after working endless hours, then something here is terribly wrong, Mickey, something very fundamental.”
 
What could I possibly say? Zen had taught me that, when you empty yourself out and listen, things begin to look different, and the more I mulled over the vision of a house in the country, the more I liked it. Here, I would have a quiet meditation corner of my own close to the earth, immersed in air and light, a little country temple of simplicity and modest satisfaction.  
 
“You’re right,” I summed up my standpoint. “Let’s do it.”
           
 
Within a few days the house filled up with interior design magazines, and the Seroxat, the depression, and the grumbling Ronit were exchanged for yellow Post-it notes with telephone numbers and addresses of houses that could be visited in order to get ideas and inspiration. On Saturday mornings we began combing villages we had never been to before. We believed that somewhere there, along the old coastal road between Haifa and Netanya, our country house awaited us.
 
The work I did at the Institute apparently fitted me like a glove. I was a physicist, focusing on tangible and measurable phenomena, I was endowed with a sharp brain and healthy logic, both of which helped me to see things for what they were, without any of the fanfare, I was careful to reach decisions based solely on what my eyes saw and my intellect analysed, and I never built castles in the air. With unyielding tenacity I exposed what lay behind a thin veneer of clumsy pretence, pathetic self-deceit and small, unsophisticated lies. I’m a stubborn person, and it’s difficult to pull the wool over my eyes, but to my credit I must say that I never demanded of others what I did not demand of myself. The striving for truth is a long and lonely path, I used to tell myself, a narrow, unpaved trail walked along barefoot. But everyone chooses his own way, and I chose the way of truth. I did not relinquish my principles, even at the expense of someone left behind, crying in humiliation. Admittedly I have softened up over the years, and I have learned to apologize to those who I have hurt unnecessarily, but still I’ve accumulated more enemies than friends, and most of my work colleagues have been careful to keep a safe distance from me.
 
 
On the other hand, the loneliness produced quite a few unexpected dividends. No one stopped me from delving into and excelling at what really interested me. I built a world of my own, and even if no one knew me outside of my immediate security clearance circle, my professional achievements were enough for me. All I can say about my profession is that I specialised in thermal imaging sensors posited within electro-optic equipment, miniscule components that enabled our people to see and photograph from a safe distance everything that the enemy wanted to hide, to gather intelligence, to track scheming men to their front door, and at the moment of truth to aim the missile directly at the heart of the target.
 
Sometimes we joked around at the Institute, saying we could literally see the surprised expression on the face of the enemy one second before the missile frazzled him and anyone else unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. The ability to observe distant objects down to the smallest detail, without them even being aware of it, was thrilling. Sometimes I felt like Professor Bullfinch, the inventor of the purple tonic that transformed Danny Dunn into an invisible boy, and in fact we named one of the models developed in the Institute after Danny Dunn. The power we held in our hands was intoxicating.
 
 
All in all I progressed well. I gave expression to creativity, tenacity and my own intellectual integrity. From time to time I was commended and won prizes. Modest bonuses enabled us to replace furniture, remodel the kitchen and enjoy family vacations in Holland or Greece. But the years passed, other people were promoted instead of me, and many left to form start-ups, some of whom made fortunes and were able to follow their dreams. I, for some reason, always chose to stay in my safe and familiar flowerbed.
 
The thing is, a person cannot run away from himself his entire life. In the morning, on the road leading down to the hi-tech industrial park, I would gaze longingly at the interminably blue sea of the Haifa Bay. I asked myself again and again how many more grey mornings I would spend like this, getting into the grey Toyota, the property of the grey Institute for Advanced Defence Technologies, descending the grey road that led to the grey hi-tech industrial park, walking into the grey lobby of the grey building, going up in the grey elevator to my grey cubicle in the grey open space, sitting in my grey chair facing half a grey tree, making myself a cup of grey instant coffee in a disposal grey cup, tapping in a grey password on the grey keyboard of a grey computer, pulling back a grey curtain only to see a grey-haired physicist staring at me with a grey expression through a dusty grey pane of glass.
 
Personal crises come from all sorts of directions. My crisis, like the Institute’s missiles, burst out of nowhere—unexpected, silent, lethal, and cruel. Maybe it was an early midlife crisis, or perhaps an adolescent crisis that had arrived late; either way, I found myself running around the inner mazes of my life as crazed and helpless as a mouse. I slept fitfully. I became cantankerous and even more grouchy than usual. I got increasingly caught up in senseless arguments and baseless altercations, both with those I loved and those I didn’t. I found myself saying things and then being sorry for them. I had no patience for anything. Ronit said she could not continue like this, and that to the best of her knowledge the guy she’d married had been even-tempered and lovable, nothing like this bundle of nerves that had to be treated with kid gloves. I agreed to go to couples’ therapy, we met with a wan family therapist for a couple of sessions that got us nowhere, Ronit broke down and began taking all sorts of medication, I found myself surfing the net late at night, googling all kinds of phrases that popped up in my tired brain. Like a lone mariner in the depths of the dark ocean I sent distress signals across the Web, maybe someone had left a message in a bottle. From ‘Sleepless’ and ‘Undefined Dissatisfaction’, I moved to ‘Existential Distress and ‘The Meaning of Life’, and I read innumerable blogs and articles that gradually led me to the realms of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, and from there the way to the website of ‘Zen Buddhism Israel’ was quick. Within a few days I had met Gideon-San. The bald and smiling monk listened to my clumsy descriptions of distress with infinite patience and at the end of the conversation invited me to join his Zen group at the local community centre.
 
Charged with enthusiasm, I arrived at the first meeting. To my disappointment, I found there a bunch of uninspiring men and women who had long since reached their prime, and who were now looking for meaning to lives that had suddenly been emptied of kids and career, and alongside them were a few younger people, all with an obscure look in their eyes, and an even more obscure path in life. No one seemed to be in my situation, but it was the best thing I could find this close to home. I consoled myself that this was only the beginning, and that even a missile with a thousand-mile range needs some kind of launcher, however unpretentious and modest. Twice a week we would gather in the basement of the Aba Hushi Community Centre. We arranged the meditation cushions in straight lines and practiced zazen—cross-legged in the lotus position, hands placed carefully one on top of the other as if holding an egg, straight-backed, heads supporting the heavens, gazes fixed on an imaginary point, eyes half-closed, consciousness gathered into one spot that followed the breath, fighting attachment to untamed thoughts or painful knees, trying to capture an elusive tranquillity with the help of a net held by inexperienced hands.  
 
Gradually I learned to love the sound of the delicate bell at the end of meditation, the serene kinhin walk after the strenuous sitting position, the quiet conversations on the meaning we give to things, the Zen stories, hundreds of years old, on the sound of one hand clapping, and the face we had before our parents were born, and the dog with the Buddha-nature, the eternal smile of Gideon-San, who doubted everything, and who urged us to find our own truth and to kill the Buddha if we met him on the road.
 
I particularly loved the Sea of Tranquillity, discovered by chance, even for a few seconds. The introspection and the quietude opened up an entire internal world I had never known before. Gradually I began sleeping again. Zen made my life bearable. It also made me into an alert and mindful being, or so I liked to think. Morning and evening I attuned my ear to the sound of one hand clapping, with endless patience I searched for the face I had before my father was born; I was determined to free the real Mickey Maor from the abyss. Gradually, I dared to dream of a totally different life, and how I would leave behind the electro-optic laboratory and the smart missiles, pack a small backpack, travel to the monastery that Gideon-San had spoken of, wear a robe, sit at the feet of the roshi, devote myself to meditation, invest my entire life in introspection and celibacy, experience satori with willpower and determination, and when I left the monastery, I would be a different person altogether. Yes, me, Mickey Maor, Motke and Rika Maor’s son from Kiryat Haim, the boy who the gym teacher sat on the bench while everyone else played soccer, the guy with the heart murmur who was rejected by the army, the lone wolf from the Institute who was always left behind when they were handing out promotions, the modest, dedicated family man from Givat Alonim, me, the Mickey Maor you never knew, was about to reach enlightenment, to discover his eternal and unchanging true nature. Without anyone noticing, my old personality would burst like a soap bubble, the tortured cocoon of my existence would crumble into dust, the old chrysalis that had slept inside it all those years would finally die, and a wondrous butterfly would emerge out of the ashes of my old life.
 
All the relentless suffering, the unfathomable loneliness, the walking on the sidelines, the medical problem that shaped my life—everything took on a unified meaning. Unlike those around me who were up to their eyes in debilitating mediocrity, in my own special way I was destined for greatness.
 
Suddenly everything looked simple: I would experience enlightenment, the me of my old life would die, and I would be reborn. Gradually disciples would gather around me of their own accord, birds of the air would carry the voice, one friend would bring another. Mickey Maor’s zendo wouldn’t be just another evening group in the Aba Hushi Community Center. I devoured books with alacrity. I gradually became convinced that the Zen way of life was meant for the few determined and serious, the strong-souled warriors who had survived life’s tests and could handle it.
 
I naively saw myself walking around in my black cloak between Japan and Israel. The monastery in Kyoto would be my second home, and I would be completely immersed in a life of contemplation and frugality. I told no one of my little secret. If I had learned anything in my many years with the Defence Industry, it was to bury secrets deep inside. But in my imagination I painted again and again the life I would lead. Deep down in my secret world I was already Roshi Mickey Maor, the first enlightened Israeli Zen monk.
 
My dream gave new meaning to my life. Increasingly my daily routine was filled with moments of tranquillity and beauty. I devoured book after book—Suzuki, Alan Watts, Dōgen Zenji, Eugen Herrigel, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chögyam Trungpa—they all became my soulmates during the quiet small hours of the night, after Ronit had fallen asleep. Every morning I practised zazen in a corner of the tiny living room in Givat Alonim: a cushion on the carpet, a straight back in the lotus position, face to the wall, eyes half-closed, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, does a dog have Buddha-nature, what did my face look like before my father was born, what is the sound of one hand clapping, inhale, exhale, silence.
 
When the mind is empty, one bowl and one cloak are sufficient.
 
Gideon-San used to tell us that those “moments of enlightenment” that everyone longs for, the moments in which life is given to us in abundance, are moments that we, in our blindness, do not see. And because our false personality is fearful of it, enlightenment learns to creep up on us from behind, and at the right moment, when the soul is open and the guards of the false personality fall asleep for a minute, enlightenment charges, swift as a whiplash, sharp as a samurai sword. It unravels the veils of our illusions, casting light on our chief feature, the one we are ashamed of and do everything that we can not to see, that blinds us to what is going on both within us and around us, and despite all our efforts to conceal it, everyone we know sees it, and releases us from it the way a surgeon removes a huge cataract from a blind man’s eye.
 
The craving for enlightenment became my life’s dream. I went to sleep with it, I dreamed of it, I woke up with it. Impatiently I yearned for it to come and change my life forever, to liberate me from my illusions, to expose me to the mysteries of existence, to finally turn me into an enlightened person, a special one, a different one, a true Zen master.
 
But how do you get it to draw nearer? And how does a person know when he is ready for it?
 
If only I had understood what Gideon-San had been trying to teach us.
 
 
At Michmoret we travelled down to the right, the coastal road made way for a narrow country road, and we drove by a sign, Welcome to Kfar Shneorson. Modest farmsteads had been turned into estates surrounded by high wood and stone walls that made my stomach heave. After the basketball pitch we turned left, and a few yards later we found ourselves in the driveway of the doctor and his wife. In her search for inspiration for our own future dream house, Ronit had discovered this house in one of the design magazines and had been particularly enthusiastic about it.
 
“I really like it, Mickey,” I recalled her saying, lifting shining eyes from the magazine in her lap. “You know, the materials, the simplicity, the shades of earth and clay, and all the serenity it evokes.” I encouraged her to call. The woman who owned the house actually sounded happy. “No problem, dear,” she said, “come whenever you like. Our hearts and home are always open.”
 
I hadn’t even bothered to read the article. I trusted Ronit and I loved her, and this was her project. Nevertheless, I should have been more cautious: open doors sometimes conceal dark pits.
 
The woman was waiting for us in the garden, stretched out on a wicker couch, a book in her hand. When we arrived she placed the book on a small table and introduced herself warmly as Dawn Moonshine. She said how happy she was to host us in her humble abode, invited us to join her for some tea made with freshly-picked herbs from her garden, and in the meantime sat us down opposite the two-storey wood and glass facade, leaving Ronit and me to gape at the abundance of green, red, and pale blue. The armchairs cocooned our bodies, the armrests were positioned precisely where our hands came to rest, the back cushions had just the right amount of softness. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ronit running one hand over the crisp, raw cotton. The faint sound of twittering birds cutting through the deep silence of the Sabbath reminded me of a poem that Gideon-San taught us once: “Sitting quietly/doing nothing/Spring comes/and the grass grows by itself.”
 
I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply.
 
How many jewels of happiness life invites when the gaze is turned to the right place, far beyond all illusion.
 
Tea was served. I flashed Ronit an encouraging smile, and while grappling with the fragrance of the murky liquid in the fine porcelain teacups, I half-listened to the woman as she described some kind of enlightenment she had experienced after her parents died within months of each other, and her reflections on the meaning of death as the unavoidable end of life. And how like everyone—and when she said “everyone” she stared at Ronit and me with a long look full of phony compassion—she had moved from day to day as if death was something that only happens to others. But the long days at her parents’ bedsides, the closure and the reconciliation and the love and the forgiveness that she had experienced, taught her unequivocally the first noble truth of the dharma—that suffering is the essence of life.
 
I should have stood up and left at that very moment—my own suffering was quite enough for me, and this kind of cheap philosophy was detrimental to my health. Wasn’t it written, He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak? Me, I thought to myself, who had been practicing Zen in earnest for quite some time, who had read quite a few books on the subject, still did not allow myself to talk about it to others, while this woman, devoid of any sense of self-awareness, was pouring out her heart to us as if we’d come all that way just to hear those banal stories and nonsensical musings of hers.
 
And while she was speaking, I could not help but think about my own mother and father, Motke and Rika Maor, about how they had lived their lives in a modest corner of Kiryat Haim without complaint and without drama, and how they had died like ordinary mortals, devoid of noise and fanfare and the celebration of insights and closures and reconciliations. My father was lucky and did not stay alive long enough to really suffer from the mysterious cancer that took over his body, probably after being exposed to poisonous substances at his place of work. His friends from the factory came to the shiva, hefty workmen in blue overalls. They sat and smoked in silence, ate crackers and drank Kinley soda, they told my tearful mother what a responsible man and a good friend Motke had been, always ready with a smile and a kind word, and then they left. My mother dwindled away, suffering from a long line of illnesses that culminated in a stroke many years later, and after a couple of months in the Fliman Geriatric Hospital, she simply failed to open her eyes one morning. A modest funeral, shiva, a few childhood girlfriends from Tschernovitch, a few work colleagues from the office of the school where she had worked all her life. They came, sat for a while, blew their noses, clicked their tongues, and leafed through photo albums we had placed on the table. Then they left. My brother and I were left alone, just the two of us, for most of that week of mourning. We reminisced, we searched for distant relatives in yellowing photographs, and on the last day we took some household items and old clothes down to the dumpster, we gave the furniture and the fridge to the rag-and-bone-man who passed down the street, divided up a few pieces of china, old letters and school report cards between us, sold the apartment to new immigrants from Russia, and that was the end of that.
 
What a fuss people make of themselves and their petty lives.
 
But the woman went on and on, pummelling us with her never-ending story about how she had asked herself what she, little Hannah Moonshine, ought to do with the lesson that life had taught her. And how she had agonized over it until she stopped eating and sleeping, and how redemption was born out of all that terrible suffering, and how after countless dark nights of weeping and emotional torment, a new day dawned and the sun rose, and a clear, lucid inner voice told her something like: “Go forth, Hannah, from your job and your life, from your home and your possessions, into the unknown that I will show you.”
 
I shifted restlessly in the armchair.
 
“And wasn’t it difficult for you to leave everything behind?” Ronit ventured.
 
“What can I tell you?” the woman sighed. “When you have everything you ever wanted, you can’t just get up and go like that.” The woman attempted to make eye contact with me, and when she despaired of receiving any hint of empathy she turned back to Ronit. “And what would you have done in my place, my dear?” she asked.
 
“I haven’t really thought about it.” Ronit glanced at me with embarrassment, “It’s a bit complicated, you know, kids, work, marriage…”
 
I should have stood up right then and there in order to rescue Ronit from the snatches of this awful woman, but I was weak, and froze like an animal trapped in a hunter’s searchlights.
 
“I was lucky enough to have Gadi,” the woman continued with equanimity. “I’m sure you’d enjoy meeting him.” She threw me a bogus smile. “I don’t know if you had a chance to be in a combat unit, my dear, but for most people the name Lieutenant Colonel Gadi Moonshine speaks volumes. The Lebanon War? The squadron doctor who saved soldiers under fire and received a medal for valour? That’s my Gadi. And when I told Gadi you were coming to take a look at our house, he really wanted to meet you, but he was suddenly called away to a meeting at the Defence Ministry for urgent consultations, and Gadi is Gadi, you know, he never says no, but perhaps you’ll get to meet him before you leave.” And she seamlessly launched into how this Gadi of hers encouraged her to look for a spiritual guide who could give meaning to her life, and how he supported her when her heart and body led her to some remote village in Japan, where at the foot of a mountain covered with eternal snow, in the corner of a little store belonging to an old carpet weaver, the miracle happened and she met the zen master she was looking for, a wonderful modest man whose followers simply called him “Roshi,” and how the old man sat on a stool, sipping his tea in silence, watching her with sagacious eyes. At first he acted as if he did not know what she wanted from him, but after being impressed with the seriousness of her intentions, he agreed she become his pupil, and then for months she drank his words thirstily, the Roshi took her under his wing, and when he had determined her spiritual merits, he changed her name from Hannah to Dawn, and also sent her to a friend in Osaka to learn the ancient Japanese art of massage, so that she would have a tool with which to help others.
 
I squirmed in the armchair; I wondered what Gideon-San would have said now. He had often explained to us that the truth lies right in front of the pupil’s nose, and that all the romantic voyages to faraway lands and the search for exotic teachers only distract the pupil from his way.
 
“That’s so interesting, Dawn.” Ronit placed a hand on my thigh. “Everything you’re saying, and the change you went through, and what you found. That takes a lot of nerve, to leave everything and travel so very far away, don’t you think so, Mickey?”
 
“Really fascinating,” I said sulkily, managing to wring out a smile for Ronit’s sake, and I even tried taking a sip of the herbal tea. Once I took part in a course on wine, I’ve been around the world quite a bit, and here and there I was exposed to unusual flavours, but nothing prepared me for the awful taste of the oily burning liquid that this woman gave us to drink, like someone had steeped nettles in crude oil and then cooked it in ammonia.
 
I wanted to throw up.
 
“So this is me, little Dawn Moonshine,” the woman continued in a voice as soft as cotton wool, “who with trembling and bravery listened to her heart, and pursued her dream, and found herself a mentor and a friend.” Or maybe she said she had listened to her dream and bravely pursued her mentor and friend, or some other nonsense. At that stage I lost all the remnants of interest and patience that I could find within myself, my head ached, I wasn’t going to get a decent cup of coffee here, or even a little cookie to take away the horrible taste. I wanted to simply rise to my feet and fly away. But Ronit seemed fascinated by the adventures of this woman—how she began travelling a few times a year to this Roshi guy, and how she worked in his garden, and how she made do with no more than a little rice and cooked vegetables, and slept on a thin tatami, and spent a lot of time in silence, and how in spite of these Spartan conditions she was terribly happy, as if she had been reborn, and how she understood in that free and simple environment how little a person needs in order to be truly happy. 

 

“And the children.” Ronit looked at me again. “Where do they fit into the picture? Don’t they miss you? Don’t you miss them?”
 
“Gadi,” the woman smiled. “It’s all about my sweet supportive Gadi. As busy as he is with his research and consultations, for me he’s always available. I don’t know how I’d do it without him. And between you and me, I’m sure that our Sahar and Yaheli would rather have a happy mother than an overwrought, irritable one. Look, Sahar’s about to finish an officers’ course in the Marines—of course, as his mother, I was against him doing it, but go argue with a boy who’s the exact copy of his father—and sweet Yaheli just volunteered for a year, teaching art. He’s such a good soul, just like his dad, decided to give a year of his life working with youth at risk in Beit She’an.” And then she immediately launched into a recollection of how they would run to hug her when she came home with her small suitcase and backpack, tanned and happy after three months in the monastery in Japan, and how her Roshi always said to her, “It’s better to realise your own dreams than to be jealous of others who dared to do so.”
 
“You’re so right, Dawn, really, everything you say is true,” Ronit said. “I also have thoughts like these, what’s really important for me and the children. Lately, I feel as if I’m not managing to be both a good mother, and partner, with my job in the bank, never mind having a little time to think about myself and what’s really important to me…”
 
But the eyes of the woman were already wandering around the garden. “I’m sure you’re ready to see the house,” she said. “You didn’t come all this way just to listen to the trivial story of a trivial woman,” and without waiting for an answer she got up and turned towards the front door.
 
I wavered, wondering if I should join them. I was tired of the woman’s expeditions and discoveries; my headache was only worsening, someone more determined would have got the hell out of there. But I simply abandoned the nettle tea, or whatever it was, and followed them into the house.
 
I gave a little gasp as I walked through the oversized front door. The huge house, with its interior rising two storeys high, was almost completely devoid of objects. The contrast between the immense space and its minimal high-end contents inspired a barely controllable wonderment. Neil Armstrong probably experienced a similar reaction when he exited Apollo 11, stepping into outer space—so clean, so clear, so limitless. Three white couches, as if randomly arranged, rested on the polished wooden floor, and rough wooden shelves stretched across the length of the wall, arranged with clay pots containing solitary thorns, bunches of straw, a bamboo branch with three or four green leaves. In the corner of the room, between a pile of basalt rock that wobbled in meticulous disarray, clear water gurgled, and the blue sea could be seen from horizon to horizon through the expansive, wood-framed windows.
 
“This is exactly what I want, Mickey,” Ronit whispered in my ear, grabbing my hand. “Feel how tranquil it is in here, how pure and simple.”
 
I mumbled something unintelligible. Although the house was two storeys high, there was a conspicuous lack of stairs inside. There wasn’t even one step to climb. What kind of farfetched ideology would lead anyone living here to do everything to avoid stairs. Instead, they had a kind of wooden deck closed in by a handrail that rose up gradually to an open hallway that encircled most of the second floor, and where the living room joined the similarly large dining room, a half-open elevator could be seen, fashioned out of metal and dark glass. Someone had invested a lot of money in this, an awful lot of money, in order to be a little different, a little more special.
 
More than anything else, the house resembled a spaceship.
 
The woman fluttered around her kingdom like a butterfly among flowers, mincing along in her white canvas shoes and her spotless clothes, passing by Gadi’s clinic, then lingering over her own, with the massage bed in the centre and the unavoidable fountain in the corner with the little pebbles and the familiar gurgling water, and white cotton screens that could be lowered down from the ceiling and the scent of cinnamon and lavender floating in the air. And after we had finished marvelling at the design and the expansive doorways—I’d never seen ones quite that expansive, clearly they were supposed to impress the innocent victims of this appalling woman—leading to the kitchen, the dining room, the guest room, and the family room, from there we sailed on to the workrooms and the bedrooms. My feet longed for a few steps but that was not to be, as the deck continued on to the recreation wing that opened onto an inner yard with abundant green foliage, carpeted in white cotton with three white poofs placed there with meticulous disarray, and at the far end of the room was a home cinema system with tiny loudspeakers that hung from each corner, and a closet containing art books and movies, and for dessert the woman waived the need for us to climb even higher up the deck and took us in the glass elevator to the loft, which happened to be a massive room with a polished wooden floor and a huge window facing the sea. A small woven prayer mat the colour of red loam in either Persian or Bukhari design lay in the centre of the room, and a black meditation pillow rested on the mat, enveloped in a white cotton sheath.
 
“Welcome to my little Zendo,” she said, flashing us her familiar smile of modesty. “My country temple, the place where Dawn Moonshine relinquishes the superfluous and remains as she is, an unimportant particle in the infinite universe, an anonymous drop in the eternal sea.”
 
We stood there, overcome with embarrassment. What could we say? I stared out of the window at the distant sea and shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I felt sad for her. I had never in my life come across such an incredible lack of self-awareness, and the whole spectacle aroused my pity.
 
“It’s really quiet here,” Ronit broke the silence. Her embarrassment echoed along the walls.
 
“Silence is the music of eternity, my dear,” the woman said with calculated calmness. “The wholeness that embraces all sounds.”
 
At this stage I simply wanted to die. I closed my eyes. I breathed deeply and slowly. When I opened my eyes I was disappointed to discover I was still there.
 
“You’re so right,” Ronit said. “Isn’t she, Mickey?”
 
“Of course. There’s nothing like silence.”
 
“After me, my dears.” The woman began moving out of the room with brisk steps. “Let’s keep going on our voyage.”
 
We followed her down to the back yard, covered with garden gravel and streaks of gray basalt, orchestrated with the same scrupulous disarray. Like a kind of Chinese torture, water appeared and vanished with the same familiar gurgling. The wooden deck led to a cavern whose opening was surrounded by a thicket of slender bamboo plants, and it looked as though it was being used as a carpark for a particularly massive vehicle. I knew how to put one and one together. I could already imagine the Land Cruiser or Range Rover that crouched there, splattered with mud after rampaging across pathways and river banks, running over animals that had merely got in the way. “And over there, in the depths of bamboo grown from two plants I brought back in my backpack all the way from Japan, is where Gadi parks his toy,” the woman confirmed my worst fears. “Whenever he has a spare moment he goes off the beaten track with his friends from the Marines. ‘This is how I meditate, Dawn,’ he always tells me, ‘on river banks, in secret bays, primordial landscapes, only there can I connect to the real me.’” We gaped at her with open mouths.
 
“And in the end, when a person opens up to life as it really is, everything else just slots into place,” she concluded in a soft voice. “No wonder everything feels so right for us here in our own little slice of heaven.”
 
Ronit swallowed her spit. Suddenly I saw the terrible hunger in her eyes. “If you ask me, I really recommend living out in the country. It doesn’t have to be exactly here, where we live, if this is beyond your means, but it’s important that the soul find a place with spiritual inspiration and quietude,” the woman continued. “When the boys were small, for example, they were almost never at home, they wandered around outside from morning to night, always with a group of friends, always in each other’s houses. They blossomed in this atmosphere of togetherness, free of worries. I think that being outdoors is terribly important for healthy development. There’s twenty-four-seven security here in the village, so we were pretty relaxed about it all.”
 
“And the carpenter who did all those amazing things, Dawn, the couches, the shelves, that awesome floor,” Ronit asked, her eyes shining, “would it be an imposition to ask for his phone number?”
 
The woman’s eyes welled up with compassion: “I’m afraid our carpenter lives in a tiny village in far-off Japan, my dear,” she said softly. “That’s thanks to Gadi, who always manages to solve problems. He met the carpenter at a medical conference in Kyoto. Later we both travelled there to see him, we sat for a whole week just on the plans, and when we finished the construction, we brought Amida here, that’s the carpenter’s name.” The woman smiled pleasantly. “But Sahar and Yaheli just call him Ami, we flew him and his two assistants here, we rented them rooms in a nearby guesthouse, they had everything finished in a month.”
 
“Ah,” Ronit said, disappointed, and the light in her eyes faded. She removed her hand from mine and took a couple of steps away from me. “I see.”
 
“There was such a wonderful connection between the Japanese carpenters and the kids,” the woman continued. “Sahar and Yaheli helped carry the wood, and Amida taught them to work quietly and respectfully and let them apply the glue. You should have seen those kids, all sweaty, working away. It’s so much better than frittering away their time in front of the TV or their computer screens. You’ve got kids, too, so you probably know what I’m talking about.”
 
“Perhaps you know a carpenter in Israel who does this kind of work?” Ronit leaned against my arm hopefully: “It’s a little far for us, Japan. Mickey already works unbelievably long hours at the lab.”
 
An animal knows when the trap door closes on it.
 
“It’s not that there aren’t any carpenters here,” the woman said. With her quiet, monotonous voice, she reminded me of a rattlesnake, moments before it strikes its wretched victim. “One of the neighbors told me about some guy from Jerusalem who actually works quite well with wood. Maybe Gadi remembers the name. It wasn’t really relevant for us, because no one here in Israel could possibly reach the simplicity and precision that we were looking for. The floor, for example, and the wide window frames, and all the decks you must have noticed—it was important to us that they be made of solid wood, and not the cheap substitutes that you see all over the place. But today, even in Japan, you can only find solid cherry wood in the small workshops of Hokkaido. You need to understand, my dears, that it was really important to Gadi and me to capture the timeless simplicity of a Japanese country temple. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to meditate at sunrise in an authentic Zen room, when the ocean is seen from the window as if resting in the palm of your hand, but just try to imagine what this does to the soul, and how it’s so much better than any of the Prozac or Xanax or Cipralex that people shove down their own throats in order to cope with all their little anxieties and depressions.”
 
“Ah,” Ronit said in a choked voice, her hand shaking slightly. “I can imagine how awesome that is.”
 
It had already gone too far, the woman had thrown a punch below the belt. With frightening clarity I saw how the magic of so many years was about to burst like a soap bubble. I had to protect the person I had loved since I was a teenager, I had to protect my family, and everything that was mine, and dear to me. It wasn’t just that terrible woman and her abominable Gadi—that particular nightmare would come to an end one way or another; I had to protect us from ourselves. I was fighting for my home. It was a fight to the death. When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk. And if not for the way of the warrior, then why had I spent two years practising Zen meditation, concentrating on the breath and the emptying of the mind and what was it all for—the straight back and aching legs and the getting up at sunrise, and the dog with the Buddha nature, and the sound of one hand clapping? I felt as if I was in the control room of the missile launches—the enemy identified, location defined, intentions verified, the camera ready, the target calibrated, all that remained was to push the button.
 
“So tell me, did your Zen give up renunciation?” I pondered, “No more one robe one bowl stuff?”
 
The woman stared at me with incredulity.
 
“He’s just saying that,” Ronit apologized, yanking her arm away from mine with a threatening look in her eyes. The woman’s incredulity gave way to her familiar pity: “I actually understand you, Roni,” she addressed me with that phony softness of hers. “Gadi always says to me, ‘Watch out, Dawn, see what happens to people when they realize how little one needs in order to be happy.’”
 
“His name’s Mickey, Dawn. It’s Mickey,” Ronit protested. “I’m Ronit. My husband’s name is Mickey, and he’s a senior optical engineer.”
 
“A million, maybe a million and a half, is definitely enough to buy this little bit of happiness,” I speculated out loud. At the moment of truth, the Zen practitioner goes all the way. Gideon-San would have been proud of the Bushido spirit that filled my being. Ronit flung me a threatening look, but I could not stop. “Perhaps two million dollars after all, Ronity, just two million dollars, and all this modest simplicity, as unimportant as it is, this anonymous drop in the eternal sea, the insignificant grain in the endless universe, two million dollars, and it’s all yours.”
 
“I truly don’t know, my darlings,” the rattlesnake flashed one of her soft smiles enthused with compassion in my direction, “it could just be that you’re right, Roni. My parents were among the founders of this village, and as their only child I inherited the plot of land here. And the Defence Ministry pitched in as well—really, I have no idea how much—and the rest, the construction, the carpentry, the light fittings, the fixtures, the bamboo plants, the mulberry and plum trees, and the basalt, everything—apart from the water in the fountains and the view from the windows—everything was imported from Japan. It could well be that if you add everything up, Roni, you may be right, but it’s best to ask Gadi. Ever since I became Roshi’s pupil, I leave all the finances to Gadi.”
 
Gadi again. It was time to put an end to that Gadi festival. My heart was unable to contain even one more Gadi.
 
“Two million dollars—not including the land that was given free to the descendants of the pioneers—not a lot for a modest grain of cosmic sand Made in Japan,” I concluded.
 
“I think we’d better go now, Dawn,” Ronit said hesitatingly. “Thank you so much for your time and hospitality, but our children have been on their own for far too long already.”
 
And with a farewell smile of defeat plastered over her face, Ronit dragged me out of the house. 
 
 
The rattlesnake minced along behind us, not making a sound, until we reached the spot where we had parked our battered Toyota Corolla, with the logo of the Institute, that ought to have been changed long ago. She whispered to Ronit that she should be honest with herself, and that she should always follow her heart and her dreams, and that she shouldn’t feel shy if she ever wanted to drop by for a cup of tea.
 
 
The air in the car was stifling. I opened a window, turned the key in the ignition and began reversing out of the driveway.
 
“It’s a nice house, that’s for sure,” I summarized the visit. Countless hours of meditation had taught me to contain Ronit’s pain—to support, encourage, console, and it did me good to do so. “They really have great taste, your friend and her Gadi. But on the other hand, it’s not hard to see why Doctor “My Gadi” is happy every time his modest little nun trots off to her Japanese Roshi, and why he goes off with his friends from the Marines the minute she gets back.” Like an experienced Zen practitioner, I intended to put this whole incident behind me and to continue moving forwards, when suddenly a huge shadow fell over the driveway. I should have stepped on the gas and escaped with my wife as quickly as possible, but my foot refused to do the job, and I could not rip my eyes away from the sight before me: a gleaming, formidable white van that brought to mind one of those alien spaceships from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” slid noiselessly into the driveway and straight into the bamboo cavern. The branches gently brushed the roof of the van, rays of sunshine shimmered through the green bamboo thicket, glittering on the large, tinted windows.
 
Spellbound, I fixed my eyes on the sliding door as it slowly opened. A good-looking man, roughly about my age, slid out of the darkness of the van’s interior into a gleaming wheelchair lift, and then exited the car in a wheelchair, a small smile on his handsome, rugged face, as he manoeuvred the wheelchair with lean arms. As the wheelchair lift slowly lowered to the ground, an athletic, dark-skinned man emerged from the passenger seat. He wore white cotton clothing, walked swiftly around the front of the vehicle in time to help the man in the wheelchair as he reached the ground. The young guy smiled broadly, revealing pearly teeth. He waved to that diabolical woman who stood there on the deck, hovering, in her immaculate clothes. She leaned over the wheelchair and put both arms around the man’s neck, and after an interminably long moment, she straightened up and pushed the wheelchair up the deck with one hand; with the other, she held his hand. They proceeded along the deck towards the entrance, the young guy carrying a heavy bag on his shoulder.
 
Fascinated, we followed the happy trio with our eyes until they disappeared behind the wide door.
 
“You’re such a rude, dumb idiot sometimes,” Ronit began weeping. Her voice cracked as she spoke, facing the window, unable to take her eyes away from the front door of the house. I offered her a tissue, but she pushed me away angrily. With shaking hands she pulled out a packet of tissues from a bag I had bought her once for her birthday. It suddenly looked grey and worn. “You’re just… just… always jealous of anyone who feels better about themselves than you do.”
 
I did not answer. What on earth could I say? For two years I had strained my ears to the silence, hoping to finally hear the sound of one hand clapping. In the oppressive silence that prevailed in the car I heard an entire world rising to its feet, applauding Mickey Maor with innumerable single hands. My dreams shattered like delicate glass, disintegrating with a sickening crunch, sharp shards flying everywhere, slicing through scenes from my life as if they had been made out of cheap wrapping paper. I had been sucked into a dark abyss, and I wanted to throw up.
 
 
We said nothing for the rest of the journey. We entered the house silently, without speaking we each turned to his and her own corner of the house, in silence we got through the days and nights that followed. We never went on those Saturday trips again. The week before the New Year we bought a new apartment from a contractor in the neighborhood where we lived—five and a half rooms, a small terrace, a storeroom, a private parking space. We moved into our new home on Passover eve, and each child received his or her own room, Ronit took the half-room for herself and signed up for a course in painting, and some of her work was pretty good. I kept going to my meditation group in the cellar of the Aba Hushi Community Centre. Then there was a war in the summer, soldiers were kidnapped, the Air Force responded, the other side threw missiles, our warplanes worked around the clock, the Danny Dunn cameras did a pretty good job, and my team got quite a few compliments. After that a ceasefire was announced, Gideon-San moved away to a monastery in Colorado, the group met a few more times and then dispersed. What could we have taught teach each other at this stage?
 
I resumed working fourteen-hour days at the lab developing new generations of Danny Dunns.
 
Occasionally, on Sabbath mornings, I take out my meditation pillow from the closet, sit down in a shady corner of the terrace, straighten my back, fold my legs in the lotus position, half-close my eyes, breathe deeply, searching in the silence for the face I had before my father was born. 

         

The story “Country Temple” was first published in Israeli Breakfast (stories), Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House Ltd. 2015.
Copyright © Nizan Weisman. English translation © Nizan Weisman.
Translated by Joanna Chen. Published by arrangement with The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Nizan Weisman was born in Haifa in 1956, and lives there with his family. He first studied philosophy and history of theater at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and later graduated in economy and financial accounting. For the last 30 years he has worked as a lecturer and business consultant for Israeli and global companies. Weisman's short stories have been published in a number of literary periodicals in Israel. Rosemary Woods, his first collection of stories, won the Haifa Foundation Award (2006) and was a finalist for the prestigious Haaretz Competition for Debut Fiction (2007). Israeli Breakfast is his second collection of stories.



 

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