This is a plug for Swiss Airlines, who gave us the most comfortable extra-leg room economy seats for no extra fee when Anthony, who works for ZPI, explained Bernie’s situation of being post-stroke with limited mobility. They only wanted to know one thing: Can he do some steps?
Yes, he can do some steps. In fact, he can do a lot more than steps.
We both went to Auschwitz-Birkenau together, and it wasn’t till we got there that I was hit—especially at nights when the schedule was over for the day—by what the place had meant for us. He had lost relatives there some 75 years ago, I lost relatives there, that’s an unforgettable given. But in the great ironic cackle of the world, it was also a place that had brought the two of us together.
I was a very average Zen student back in 1994, some 9 years after starting to meditate, only in the beginning stages of learning how to really listen to one’s teacher. But in that one moment when Sensei (he was still Sensei then) told me not to come to interview the following week because he wouldn’t be there, he would be in the death camps, my effrontery paid off: Can I go with you?
The rest is our history. I met him there and heard him say he had to come back with others. Bernie’s nose currently has a carcinoma under that bandaid that will be removed, but regardless, he always has a nose for nosing out whom to activate in a particular project, who is enthusiastic and ready to plunge in. I was enthusiastic and wanted to plunge in, and that was the start. We weren’t a couple then, he was married to Jishu Holmes, I was married to Woody (my dog) and Woodstock, New York. But I came back down to work on this and in 1996 we held that first retreat.
Several years later, upon Jishu’s death, we became a couple, and bearing witness retreats became so important in our relationship and work together they could have acted as witnesses in our wedding. All those retreats—Rwanda, Black Hills, Bosnia, smaller ones that we discussed all the time—but none like Auschwitz-Birkenau.
He did very well. With the help of Pake Hall, who took wonderful care of him, Bernie sat with us at times by the tracks, he gave out once again his vision for the retreat on the first evening, participated in the large council, went again to visit his friend Marian’s pictures at the Labyrinth, and was feisty enough to participate passionately at the meetings of spirit-holders every day, reminding us again and again to return to Not-Knowing.
This year he’s not sleeping for 6 days after returning, as he did last year. In fact, he goes into surgery tomorrow to remove the carcinoma.
It was hard, hard work by day, as it always is for the people who staff this retreat. And at nights I was haunted by the trajectory of our years together, the things that had brought us close, the work that was always there. In some couple processes, there is a Third Seat that represents the relationship as much more than the sum of its parts, an entity with its own orbit and path. In those nights when I couldn’t sleep I thought that this place represented that Third Seat, the witnessing of life and death and the hard-earned wisdom of how to live in the middle of all that with generosity rather than harm.
Strange, isn’t it? Couples wax nostalgic over vacations they’ve done again and again, a Hawaiian island, a certain hotel they went to year after year. For us it’s a place for sure, and also a retreat. A place over which I have said so many times: I am never going back there again, enough is enough is enough. And then I go back.