Photo by Yudo

I sat on the porch of the abbot’s house at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, having just taken off my socks because the day warmed up. One of her students arrived and, looking at my feet, took a photo.

I laughed and told him the story of how, long ago, I did a 3-month retreat with the founder of the Center, Maezumi Roshi. Everyone wore full-length robes of some kind even in the heat, we were all correct and spiritual-like, except for one Swiss woman who wore bright red toenail polish, very visible under neck-to-ankle black robes. Finally a senior student couldn’t take it anymore and reprimanded her.

“But Roshi likes my red toenails!” she said in dismay.

Since Roshi was boss, that was the end of that.

Light shines on things from the outside; we look at them, like them or dislike them, appreciate them or judge. But light also shines from the inside of everything, aiming straight at me inside. That’s the light I want to see at all times, even if, say in the case of rattlesnakes, I decide to keep a distance.

A short meditation robe is composed of different pieces of fabric that are cut straight, hemmed and sewn together. In our family we feel free to use fabrics of different colors, often given to us by people representing different strands of our lives. All the fabrics are throw-aways, things of no value people would usually cast off.

When I made my second such robe back in 1996, a friend sent me the red felt hat worn by his partner. Dying in the AIDS ward of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, his partner, Anthony, threw a Christmas party for the entire floor, patients and staff alike, and wore a Santa Claus hat. That was the hat his friend sent me, bright red. I cut off a piece and put into a bucket with other pieces I’d received, into a dye meant to darken the fabrics but not make them black. The red was so strong it reddened the dye, as well as all the other fabrics I had there. The entire robe, called a rakusu, tended towards the red for many, many years.

How much I love small, decorative, female things: rings on the fingers, a wild blue streak across someone’s blonde hair, a bright pink scarf across a black sweater, toe rings and ankle bracelets, and make-up, make-up, make-up! Just like the words say: make yourself up. Start from scratch, imagine how you’d like to be and what you want to look like. Give yourself a new name for the day.

There’s a way to meet life headlong, as if there’s only one more minute left out of your remaining lifetime. At that point there’s no half smiles but loud and wacky laughs, no averted glances but eye-to-eye. No more saving myself up for some future, for when things have changed or for the light at the end of the tunnel.

I admire women in their 90s who get beautifully dressed, put on make-up and wear jewelry. They take the trouble. They don’t fool themselves about their wrinkles, skinny arms and legs, bloated stomachs, and puffy eyes. They know damn well what they look like.

Nevertheless, they edge into a pair of silk pants or a white frilly blouse, choose their favorite bracelet or a rhinestone brooch because it adds color. They look critically at their wispy hair and, most crucial of all, add lipstick. Those last days and months ache in the joints, you lost much of your taste for food or are half-deaf, and often don’t feel like getting out of bed. You’ve seen it all, have done it all, and soon that life form you call me will be gone. And still, they make themselves up.

“It’s no use, I’m still decrepit,” my old friend Margery used to tell me when we’d go out and I’d compliment her on how she looked. But she’d straighten up a little more as she pushed her walker forward, then decide she didn’t really need it all she needed was a cane, she’d pick up her bag and insist on paying for dinner. And she couldn’t help herself, just before getting to the door she’d look in the small, pewter-framed mirror atop the small glass table in the hallway and push back a little curl behind her ear.

“Oh, what’s the use,” she’d say, with a big smile.