A STREETS BAG

Saturday was the 49th day since Bernie died. According to many Buddhists, the 49th day is the time when what remains of the person who died—some call it energy, some call it soul—is completely released so that it could continue on its journey. But as I wrote before, I felt Bernie was truly gone from the moment the doctor informed me that he was dead.

And actually, Bernie was ready to go all the time. Or more accurately, to be gone. Recently I took down the small bag he used to take on street retreats, when he’d lead a group to live on the streets for several days with just the clothes on their backs and no money. We wrote extensively about that in Bearing Witness, I won’t do that here. He hadn’t been able to walk the streets for a long time; the arthritis in his knees caused him enormous pain on the streets, and he finally stopped, though other teachers continue to do those retreats in various cities here and in Europe.

So I didn’t expect much when I took down his streets bag, yet there it all was: a flattened roll of toilet paper, a folded up sheet of plastic to put down on the pavement for sleeping, a tiny stained pillow, a few bandaids, and an old folding umbrella. He was ready to go. The bag itself was a monk’s bag with the insignia of the Zen Community of New York on it, antecedent to Zen Peacemakers. In short, close to 40 years old.

“What are you going to do when you get old?” I’d sometimes tease him.

And he’d say, in all seriousness, “I want to go on the streets and disappear.”

He dreamed of going on the streets and leaving it all behind him: the organizations he’d founded, the buildings, the money cares, the incessant phone calls, the calendar full of programs, the many, many people in his life. Even me, I sometimes suspect.

He didn’t do it. He didn’t leave even after the stroke, he stayed right with us till sepsis came on and killed him. When it was time to die, he died, but not a moment sooner.

Sometime around 1989 we had a conference around a HUD grant I was writing to fund support programs for homeless families moving into housing we’d built in Yonkers. There were several of us around the table. It was a hard time. We hadn’t been able to get a federal grant yet, there was no money, and the taste of disappointment was in all our mouths. Even Bernie didn’t have his usual vigorous optimism. As it turned out, that $750,000 grant was the first federal grant we won in competitive application—HUD ranked it second in the nation—and parts of the grant were automatically renewed year after year.

But we didn’t know it then. Then all we saw were people shaking their heads, all we heard was criticism: Why’s a Zen group doing this kind of work? Finally, the others left and only he and I were still seated at the table. I was about to get up, preparing for a long day and night of work, when he said to me, “I know that people criticize me for many things. I know that I’m probably not the best person to do this kind of work, I don’t always know how to talk to people in a good way. But nobody else is doing this, that’s why I do it.”

Going on the streets was his relief from all this: meandering, talking to street people, no phones, no watches. So where did he go after 49 days? Has he been reborn? He didn’t believe in reincarnation and I still think of him as gone. But if I see him anywhere again, I know where it will be.