Fall in New England, and everybody takes pictures. Year after year I promise to stop, but I can’t help reaching for the phone camera when I walk on the road. And as I neared the bridge over Spaulding Brook I heard a giant flutter and a blue heron flew out of the lower branches. It looked sideways at me—What do you know about beauty?—and flew off.
It’s not just the color that talks to me, it’s the graceful freedom with which these leaves die. They float down, some sweeping up, down, and sideways before finally coming to rest on the earth. They don’t seem to grumble, complain (Ouch, my stem hurts!), or give over to regret (You mean that’s all the time I got!). They turn gorgeous, and they go.
I smell freedom in that. Not the freedom where you control what happens to you and call that freedom, not the freedom where you decide to go right rather than left or vice versa, but the internal freedom to greet whatever comes up with openness and affirmation: Yes! To let myself be changed by whatever happens rather than forever fighting and struggling,
And I don’t want that freedom just for my death, I want it for life. I don’t want to live in fear of what the next day brings. I don’t want to live with painful memories controlling my moves, dictating that whatever I do must circumvent that pain so that it never hurts again. There was nothing smart about those rules; if anything, they turned into the prison bars of my life:
Don’t go out if you see the slightest chance of a thunderstorm. Be careful when a man says hi to you. Don’t make too much eye contact. Watch how much money you spend. Look at how they’re killing people, this world isn’t safe. Don’t ask people for help and you won’t hear a no. In fact, don’t ask for too much, think of how your mother suffered in the Holocaust and all the people still starving in India, and who do you think you are anyway?
Yes, I know we live in a free country, but what about my internal country? How free am I in there?
I want to plant the seeds of goodness. In an hour Bernie and I will go to the 35th anniversary gala of the Greyston Bakery. As I wrote a dear friend: It feels like the Zen Community’s work in the Greyston Bakery was just yesterday. I can tell you everything about a chocolate mousse cake; I can even tell you how to tier a wedding cake for 150 and the choices for filling and icing. And now Greyston, through its next generation of terrific leaders, is a national leader in open hiring, employing everyone they can without inquiring into felony convictions or time served in prison.
I want to bear witness to people as they are, not to ask them to get better, stronger, not to tell them what they should do and how to improve. And frankly, I don’t want anyone else telling me that, either, though they probably will.
From the time I was a child I loved sneaking down the hallway in my pajamas and listening to adults talk in the living room, stories grown-ups told each other about their lives and their struggles. I got confused when I began Zen training and heard That’s just your story! as some spiritual insult, but I’m not confused about it now. I know that that was someone talking who simply couldn’t listen.
If I want to die with some degree of internal freedom, I have to live with it right now. Work on it day after day, even moment by moment. Pay attention to withdrawal symptoms—I better not say that; time for me to check emails/Facebook/headlines again; I really need a glass of wine/something sweet/some dope.
We can affect each other so strongly. So one thing I can do is appeal to everyone in the world and ask them to take my delicate sensibilities into consideration. But I don’t have Donald’s cell phone number, or Harvey Weinstein’s, or General Min Aung Hlaing in Burma, or Roy Moore’s in Alabama, or Bibi’s in Israel, or Maduro’s in Venezuela, or even Stanley’s in Montague for that matter. The only number I have is my own.
Freedom fighters aren’t just to be found in Kurdistan, Catalan, Palestine, Venezuela, Russia, or in Black Lives Matter. The frontier comes up every time there’s that scratching in the belly, the dry feeling in the mouth, and you wonder: What happened? I was doing fine till 15 minutes ago. Did someone say something? Did I read an email, an article, and suddenly the world looks different? What’s draining me? Who or what did I empower to rob me of energy and take away my life?