I was in New York for the past two days. I spent hours with a friend sitting on a rocker and looking out her back yard at a tree full of birds. The next day I went to visit with Mike Brady, President of Greyston, along with Rami Efal, the Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers. Together we talked about how to strengthen Bernie’s Zen flavor in Greyston, the mandala of for-profits and not-for-profits that he, along with his Zen Community, established in the 1980s and 1990s.
It was Rami’s idea that one of the things I should do at Greyston is tell stories of those early years, when a group of inexperienced but devoted dharma students started a café, an almost-failed bakery that became a great success, a housing program that built permanent homes for homeless families, a child care center, and a highly-regarded AIDS care facility with housing for people with AIDS in southwest Yonkers. Mike gave both of us bags of brownies from the Greyston Bakery which you can buy at Whole Foods.
A week ago I opened up a file I hadn’t looked at in a long time. It contained many pages of journal notes I wrote at night in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I call it my Greyston Journal and I have no memory of writing it. But the pages are there, single-spaced, evidence of a fanatic who stayed in the office night after night trying to capture the flavor of events, and especially stories of the crazy people, like me, who were there because they were madly in love with the dharma.
From a day in April 1989:
“Jack [a consultant who visited the Greyston Bakery to see why it was losing so much money] saw all the employees going upstairs to the zendo and asked what they were doing. ‘Every month we have Mandala Day,’ we explained to him. ‘We gather on the third floor for a couple of hours. The Bakery folks share what they’re doing, the housing folks talk about their work, the Builders [Greyston Builders} talk about their projects. It’s always someone’s birthday so we cut up a cake. The Greyston-ettes sing a couple of songs [that day they sang Didn’t we Almost Have It All and Amazing Grace]. Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka talked at Mandala Day last month. People like it”’ Jack was flabbergasted: “You stop work for this? No wonder you’re broke!”
And this, the following day:
“Yesterday the executive director of the Center for Preventive Psychiatry came to visit. We spoke to him about providing psychiatric services to the children moving into the building [68 Warburton, our first housing project]. We suggested we keep the building in a “wellness” mode and send any adults and children who may need help out for treatment. He didn’t agree at all. He told us that CPP gave as conservative estimates that 75% of the homeless people they deal with have drug abuse problems. He said: ‘Whatever your expectations are, I don’t care how low, slash them by 80%. My office can tell you about success stories we’ve pointed to with pride, women who got off drugs and were housed and working in a good job, their kids doing well in school, and four months later they’re back on crack and the kids are out of school and you can’t even find them anymore. They have no social fabric, no basic security of any kind. It takes nothing for them to have another fall, nothing at all.’”
And finally, this from earlier that same morning:
“Lately each time I wake up in the morning and still find myself on my mattress on the floor I wonder if it makes much sense to be spending years of my life here: Why I’m on some mattress rather than on a bed, why I’m not in my own apartment [we lived communally], why somebody isn’t lying at my side.”
Why? Because there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I loved this way of Zen practice, of making a go of a for-profit bakery and helping families (almost always single mothers with children) live in new apartments, get jobs, get child care, get a life. We were constantly broke, with unpaid stipends and wages, on the brink of collapse, perpetually on edge, trying to make up for our ignorance and lack of business-world competence by always working harder.
“Oh yes,” someone once said when he head that I’d worked in Greyston for years as part of that meshugena community, “you were the ones who practiced in a zendo on the 3rdfloor of a bakery, and afterwards would go downstairs and get to work.”
“No,” I told him, “we were the ones who practiced in that funky zendo early each morning and then went downstairs and continued to practice Zen the rest of the day.”
“We were crazy,” I told the friend I visited last Wednesday. She had been there too, and now we both sat in back of her house and contemplated the birds.
“You’re not kidding,” she said. “We were crazy all right.”
But we were in love.
Someone recently said to meitting in the morning
This morning I walked the dogs and they rummaged around the shrubbery that runs on both sides of the creek, lunging after various critters I couldn’t see. And then in complete silence a gray-blue heron rose high up in the air to grace-filled heaven.