A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
It fell into my lap when like an arrow a mouse brazenly shot out of the fireplace and headed straight to the kitchen. I dropped my book in shock. There was the explanation for those strange little deformities on the edges of the soap bar by the sink… and the source of those inexplicable seeds here and there on the granite counter. Here was the dastardly culprit who upstairs had sacrilegiously noshed and crapped on the Tibetan malas (rosaries) I had carried all the way from Kathmandu to Maine to give to my teacher when he arrived so he could give them out as gifts. What a panic, having to make a cross country call to Berkeley to get costly replacements in time.
And the time had come. My teacher was in Maine, past the middle of this stop on his world tour. He was coming to my house for luncheon--and my kitchen counter had been turned into a mouse toilet! I called around for a Have-a-heart trap but nobody had one. Instead everybody had the heart to remind me if I’d seen a mouse, my house must be a riddled with them because everybody knows mouse is a misnomer for mice. Just as there is not a potato chip there’s no such thing as one mouse—even if they do all look alike.
As it happens, I refuse to not live at least some time in Maine because being part of a very apparent ecosystem rich in wild life makes me feel alive: it’s magical to watch the great blue heron or swimming seal, the loon, the red fox, even the occasional raccoon mother lumbering down from a tree. But a mouse in the house? I locked up every temptation I could think of, including that nibbled soap, in the hope that emptiness would drive the unwelcome creature back to the great outdoors.
I had to leave the house to buy lobsters because my special luncheon the next afternoon was to include a surprise fish release in which living fish headed for death are sent back to the sea. I was worried I might not have time to round up living fish from fish markets in the morning. I was gone less than an hour. When I returned with two flip flapping lobsters, the varmint had rudely nibbled through the gold foil wrapper on one of my precious See’s Chocolate Lollypops stuck in a vase and then munched the pop itself. I had dragged those irreplaceable treats across the country so the monks could take them as gifts to Kathmandu and that mouse had the nerve to eat one! First the malas, now the lollypop. That did it!
I was...there it was, darting from the sink toward the lollypops at the end of the counter. The mouse hovered on the backsplash as we met eye to eye. We both froze. Maybe it is politically incorrect to say this, even if I have spent the past decade trying to determine why all Asians do not look alike by looking for salient facial differences, but it sure looked like the same lively wide-eyed mouse I first saw. I was sure I had just one.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” I said. I subtly slid my right hand toward the small tin of my homemade toasted pumpkin seeds. The mouse bolted across the stovetop toward the lollypops at the counter’s end and jumped down behind the propane heater. “Hey wait!” I hollered. I turned on the propane heater hoping to force it out from behind when it got hot back there. I sat down on the planked floor and told the mouse I was trying to save its life: you know, the ‘I am here to help you’ speech. And you know what they say about quiet as a mouse.
I got antsy, got up and put down a tiny trail of pumpkin seeds leading to an empty deli tub I held on its side. I sat back down and, having heard that gurus can calm wild animals by singing this common mantra, I chanted: Om mani padme hum—may all beings be freed of suffering. Thank Buddha I was home alone and nobody could see a very adult woman sitting on the floor staring at a wall heater singing in Tibetan to an invisible mouse.
I got miffed that this creature was not tricked by my treats, not dashing for my homemade pumpkin seeds the way my real friends do. But then, I realized, I couldn’t let a little insult mar my eternal karma. With my teacher in the vicinity all merit was magnified and all bad karma blown equally out of proportion so I was desperate to save this mouse. I tried a different mantra: that of White Tara, goddess of long life and wisdom, protectress of beings. I waxed ecstatic about the fine life it could have in the field down at the end of the dirt road if it would only appear. But it wouldn’t.
I did not want the trail of seeds to be a trail of tears but I did not have the entire evening to sit on the floor singing to a mouse. The Buddha was coming for lunch and everything had to be ready. I tried to be nonchalant: I got up, got out disinfectant and washed the entire counter and stove and sink and the foil on the remaining lollypops, all the while keeping an eye out for the mouse to move so I could pounce sort of Tom and Jerry style. No luck.
Finally, after another round of sitting on the floor singing to the space heater, I gave up. My karma was going to hell and this was not a Saturday morning cartoon but what was a girl to do? I dashed to the car, sped two miles to the convenience store and nervously stalked the aisles, hunting for the dreaded Decon. I was risking not only my future life but the putrid stench of decaying mouse in the wall of this one. But how could I afford to risk the sight of mouse turds in Rinpoche’s lunch? I consoled myself by remembering the story of a virulent outbreak of Shigella dysentery at a huge tent retreat in the Colorado Mountains which sent the guru storming into the tent kitchen darkened by swarming flies. “Why don’t you have flypaper up?” he demanded. Because of course being newly and zealously Buddhist, nobody wanted to kill living creatures. So the guru screamed how utterly stupid and irresponsible they all were, making everybody near fatally sick just to save disease carrying flies. Up went those sticky curls of flypaper.
And so Decon: four packages to the box Made in America with a BIG stars and stripes flag. Decon: “Fifty years of killing rats and mice in America!” What a headline brag about all the death it had engineered. And here was I, also made in America where the highly compensated elected and unelected executives are cavalierly killing thousands of human beings by the hour and celebrating that as victory. I was standing at the counter of a gas station convenience store behind two burly guys in tattoos buying cigarettes and beer, churning with angst about killing a field mouse. I mean, who was I to will the death of a living creature? Had not the God of the Bible buried Jonah in a gourd for wishing to do that as well? Have not all those soldiers made to kill living beings struggling to survive in the Muslim madness post traumatic syndrome because slaughter is not doing a what comes naturally?
With trembling hands I opened one of the four packages of poison in the box. I threw the other three in the garbage and put the bait where the trail of seeds had started. I held my breath. Then I sat down in front of the heater and chanted Om mani padme hum. I reminded myself of the old tale about the south Indian swami who sat on his throne in the steamy heat preaching against aggression of any sort while loudly smacking the mosquitoes who landed on his arms and legs. “ How can you kill them?” one of his devotees asked in horror. “Because,” the swami said without breaking his rhythm, “I am hastening them on to a higher incarnation.” I sang to the mouse the prayer for rebirth in the pure land and told it I hoped it wouldn’t be born again in Toys are us form.
I started to worry about the two lobsters I had bought not making it through the night. Outside heavy rain had begun to crash and there was thunder, strikes of lightening like retribution. It mightily scared me but I put on a slicker, grabbed the biggest pot I owned and bravely navigated my way through the stormy night to the bottom of my slippery dock. I was on a lifesaving mission to get seaweed and a bit of sea water. Back in the house, I poured the click clacking lobsters from the waxy fish market bag into the pot of seaweed, cooing how happy they were going to be to end up not in boiling water but back in their freezing ocean free and clear to do their own thing. They had been saved! Happily I pushed the huge pot into the fridge, taking great care not to dislodge the towel I had ingeniously tied over the top to keep them from crawling out. I was such a good girl!
I turned to preparations for the lunch and was chopping vegetables when at high speed the mouse bolted from behind the heater and charged into the fireplace from which it had originally run. I put down the cleaver and prayed for it. I apologized. I was not only sorry, I was depressed at now having such bad karma to overcome. I jettisoned the open package of poison and went to bed praying for the mouse and for me to at least not have to suffer the smell of its rotting carcass in the walls.
Early the next morning I ran around the nearest town looking for live bait to rescue and send back to the sea. You’d think in a fishing capital like Maine this would be easy but in Maine dead bait is all the lure you get. I could free eels, but the guy who sold them was late to open and I had to move on. So I went to the nearest fish market and scooped up a lobster plus clams and mussels not farmed but yanked from the wild. I stuck them on ice in the back of my car and sped to the retreat’s closing ceremony: a ritual for the long life of my teacher. (And people think I am having 10 days of total blissed out calm!)
Once the last white scarf had been offered to the guru, I flew out the door to set up for the lunch and surprise fish release also for his long life. My teacher is nearly 73 years old and as he is the most revered scholar of Tibetan Buddhism alive you can’t really overdo these rites. I drove home down a country road passing the butcher shop where the day before I’d picked up the lunch meat. On one side of that road are the cows grazing and on the other a huge unmarked barn attached to the meat emporium where I’d asked if they had a brisket good to go. When they said: “We can get you one” I looked over to the field to see if I could determine which steer would be coming to lunch at my house. One of them had because a 6 pound piece of meat was in my oven. Maybe if I had asked for lamb it would still be nibbling grass with its friends out in that field?
Then at last Rinpoche was at my house. The meat was on the serving plate, the clams and mussels on the dock. I ran for the lobsters in the fridge. I threw the towel off the pot, heady with excitement about saving their lives. But no! They lay unmoved. “Dead,” my Dharma sister Joan the scientist said, peering over my shoulder. “Probably not enough oxygen. They took all they could get from the little bit of water and it wasn’t enough.” I had inadvertently killed them—sort of death by friendly fire.
And so it was: wanting a ceremony for the long life of my guru, I had invited him to lunch and somehow managed to cause the death of one cow, one mouse and two lobsters. That is why I cannot begin to describe how thrilling and fulfilling it was to stand on my dock next to him and send back to the sea, one lobster, two pounds of clams and one pound of mussels that had been mercilessly ripped out of it to be put to death. Thanks to me, off they went freed of suffering, inscribed for life. This part was absolutely painless and absolutely joyful and I'd take the job absolutely any time.
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