Bernie began radiation treatments yesterday and Rae (his caregiver) and I meticulously monitor his nose almost hourly. Is there a tiny blister here? A skin break there? In Santa Barbara a gardener friend packed up seven very large aloe vera leaves to take home with me. I take one, slice off a portion, and rub the thick, jelly-like extract on the Man’s nose a few times a day.
We were supposed to teach at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas in the week of April 16. I wondered if Bernie would be able to make the trip, but after some discussion we decided to move forward with it. Since we’re going to participate in a peace conference, they interviewed both of us on the subject of Zen and peace.
The interviewer asked what does peace mean, and Bernie recalled that his sense of peace came from the Hebrew equivalent, which is shalom, derived from shalem, which means whole. Peace, he said, refers to being whole, or realizing wholeness.
The interviewer digs further: What does it mean, to be whole?
Bernie looks straight into the camera. We had a big glass vase here, he tells the interviewer, and it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Was it whole before it broke?
I guess so, she says.
And what about after it broke?
She brightens. Well, I guess now it’s whole as a broken vase.
More than that, he tells her. Every single broken piece is whole.
He continues to look at the camera. I can tell he’s getting tired because his speech is getting slower and more labored, but he goes on: Two years ago I had a big stroke. People told me before the stroke that I was whole. Tell me, he says, his mottled face bearing a round patch of skin on the bridge of his nose and the red remains of a circle in the forehead (we call it his Third Eye), am I any less whole now after the stroke and with the cancer than I was then?
She says nothing.
Two things come up for me that moment. The first is: Son of a gun, I want to say to him, you’re always at your clearest and most spontaneous when you’re teaching, that’s never changed.
And the second is that the practice is all about connection. Not the usual my-concept-of-me connecting with your-concept-of-you connection, but connecting with something surprising, unsettling, discombobulating, even alienating. There’s nothing new, challenging, or refreshing about the usual me and the usual you, everything lives up to expectations, so the connection is rote and mechanical.
Now something’s changed. There’s a black eye, or no eye at all. There’s a scar or tattoo, an eyebrow has gone up to the forehead while one edge of the mouth sags down to the chin. The face rattles and disturbs.
Tell me, what kind of connection is this?