TOUCHED BY JOY, TOUCHED BY PAIN

I woke up early this morning in the same way I wake up most mornings now: I blink at the light, peek over at Bernie (usually sleeping very soundly), at Stanley the dog (equally soundly), and want to go back under the covers, take shelter from anxiety, fear, and all kinds of heavy weather. But after 2+ years I’m used to all this, so I get myself up. Usually at 6. Getting up early is the key to the day, I’ve discovered.

A big change in my understanding of life occurred since Bernie’s stroke. Embarrassed to say it, but here it is: Life is suffering. If I thought I understood it once, it’s nothing like how I understand it now. The Old Man was right back then.

I only now begin to see how relatively carefree my life was for a long time. Setbacks? Disappointments? Lots. There was a tough childhood that culminated in a young woman who walked out the door, leaving behind an artless, openhearted child, went into the world strong-minded and independent, and didn’t look back.

The trouble is that turning your back on anything is a package deal. It’s not just turning away from harshness and abuse, but also from sensitivity and bright-eyed hope. Not just from woundedness, but also from the licking of those wounds. Only that doesn’t become clear to you till years later.

Meantime, life happens. Jobs, relationships, Manhattan, meditation, the path of Zen and service. Writing. And still it’s relatively carefree. No children. Low income but no worry about food or a roof over my head. Getting into a regular practice, making vows, setting goals, working towards them day by day. Does it get much better, much freer, less encumbered than that?

I think Bernie’s life was quite similar during our time together. He awoke by 4:00, worked, took a bath, got dressed, and would venture out into Bernie world wearing his tattered old Greyston Bakery denim jacket, cigar in his mouth, red beret on head, a loud sneeze from his naturally red nose announcing that he’s started his day, and his eternal, jaunty optimism. The man never complained about anything regardless of hardship and mishap.

And he doesn’t complain now, either, though the jaunty grin is no longer there because, I think, post-stroke his mouth can’t stretch that far.

As for me, I wake up each morning with fear that today, this day, I won’t cope. That I’ll buckle, that I’ll fall, so maybe it’s better not to even get up. And then I get up.

Here’s the cliché: It’s been good for my practice. The glass is broken, so I see more clearly. And what I see is that old teaching about suffering. It’s not that suffering’s not there and therefore I can breathe, it’s that it’s there and I can get up and still breathe.

In the early morning I sit, blog, feed the dog, plan the day. Go out in my bathrobe to refill the feeders because the birds are back though the earth is still frozen. It’s planning for company later on, designing a retreat schedule, householder koans, food, appointments, talks. And occasionally looking out the window and seeing the outside reflect my mind, calm or stormy.

Last night I sat on the bed and read a memoir excerpt to Bernie from The Sun. A nurse, Mary Jane Nealon, wrote in exquisite prose of how she visited homeless men in flophouses in New York City at the very same time that her own father was dying of cancer at home. This is hardly cheerful writing (in the past it was Grace Paley’s tales of the Lower East Side), but I knew Bernie would respond to that kind of remorseless compassion.

What do you think? I asked him in the end. His eyes grew a little moist and he nodded.

There have been plenty of missed connections in our life, but one connection has always, always held firm, joining us not just to life but to each other: being deeply touched by the joys and pains of the universe.

I remembered my friend, Edna Winston. One time I’ll write more about her, the illiterate Brooklyn Jewish woman who married the African-American president of the American Communist party, unionized the cafeteria workers at Columbia University, endured years of harassment by the FBI, became an alcoholic, recovered, and read a book a day for the remainder of her life on East 5th Street in New York City, a drug neighborhood in those years so she chose to live next door to the police station.

I was 30 when she died of lung cancer. I ran around to help save her job (thinking she’d be back), wrote her kids to come see her, and made short visits to Lenox Hospital. But I didn’t give her what she most needed, someone to stay next to her bed, talk to her, listen as she coughed her lungs out, tell her how much I loved her and what a difference she made in my life.

The child and teenager had known how to do that, but I’d turned my back on them when I turned my back on my past.

Luckily, Bernie is slowly recovering his strength. We even saw a DVD together last night. And in the early mornings I practice getting up not to a universe that’s empty and call that freedom, but to one full of dying planets, crashing meteors, red-hot gases and black holes, and the job isn’t so much to negotiate your way as to get as close as you can, get a really good look. Feel the heat blisters on your arm,. Bring upstairs slices of a blood orange or some grapes, even ice cream, and read aloud a memoir of a nurse who took care of homeless men in flophouses in New York City.

Fr. Greg Boyle wrote: I need to be reminded that most people out there carry far bigger burdens in a more humble and noble manner than I ever will; have forgiven far more; have contained far more; have had to come to more peace with life than I ever will have to. It is literally mind-blowing to live with that again and again.