Calling for help!

Calling for help!

Calling for help!

I disconnect the medical alert system which we used to keep track of Bernie after his stroke, but the battery still functions so a woman’s firm, calm voice keeps on calling for help in this empty house. I can hear her even when I’m upstairs—Calling for help! Calling for help!—but I can’t open the yellow console to remove the battery.

Various people tell me that Bernie has appeared in their dreams and talked or walked with them. I wished he’d do that to me, but not so far. Such a recalcitrant guy. But I did have a dream the other night in which he figured indirectly.

In the dream he, I, and other teachers in his lineage are teaching in a large, unfamiliar conference center. He’s not in the room with me and I never see him, but everyone knows he’s there. In the large meditation hall Roshi Enkyo O’Hara, of Village Zendo, is giving a talk, only I need to use the bathroom. My room has none so I go up and down the hallways looking for public bathrooms and showers, and to my surprise can’t find any.

Finally I enter an enormous dormitory, the biggest dormitory I ever saw. Single beds separated from each other by curtains, small and narrow cubicles. Looking in, I see that everyone is there, lying on their beds, doing everything in the world: working on their computer, reading, talking on the phone, drawing in a sketchbook, even working out with weights.

I also notice that a few of those cubicles have toilets, only each cubicle is so narrow that the toilet is right by the bed, close to where the people sleep, no avoiding the smell of piss and shit right by the pillows where they put their heads. I marvel, thinking that prison cells must be designed better than this. With no other bathroom facilities in the center, I wonder if I could ask people whether I can use the toilet in their cubicle, even though I know how this will affect them.

I woke up from the dream and thought of my 33 years with Bernie.

I thought of the last dharma schmooze in our living room on the evening of October 25; he was more alert and actively engaged that evening than in any of the other dharma schmoozes we’d hosted since his stroke. He said then what he’d repeated to me and to others many times over the years: “My teacher, Maezumi Roshi, said over and over that Zen is life. It took me years to understand this, but finally I did.”

I thought of that Greyston Bakery on Woodworth Street in Yonkers, with the illegal paint factory across the street emitting poisonous fumes and the illegal Latinos working there; the wholesale butcher next door with animal carcasses hanging inside; you glimpsed them when the doors opened and the butchers in white aprons came out to smoke their cigarettes.

Next door was Little Bit’s Place, the only all-night bar in Yonkers. We did retreats on the top floor of the bakery, 30 of us lying as close as sardines while loud rock music made the walls shake. At 4 am we’d be seated on the stoop outside drinking black coffee before the first sitting. That’s when Little Bit’s Place would close and the last drunks would come out, steadied by gorgeous hookers holding on to each arm.

“How you doing?” they’d say, never blinking once at our black robes.

“Fine, how you doing?” we’d say back.

It all felt natural: the music, the loud tractor trailers on the noisy street, the paint fumes, the illegal workers peering carefully out of the brick factory, the red crack vials on the sidewalk (the biggest crack house in Yonkers was right behind the bakery), and zazen. Zazen felt natural there.

I never heard Bernie utter the words radical acceptance, but in some ways he lived it better than anyone I knew. This is the world, he seemed to say. You want to waste your time picking and choosing, or are you going to go for it?

Bear witness and act, bear witness and act, bear witness and act. What choice have you got? “My teacher always said, Zen is life.”