IN THE ABYSS BUT NOT THE TRENCHES

“We’re in the trenches.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Harry. It’s just that everything is overgrown at this time of summer.”

“No, no, I tell you, we’re in the trenches. Everything is so much bigger than me. It feels like we’re in a war zone, I love it!”

“Harry, you’re not in a war zone.”

“If I say it’s a war zone I could get all excited and think about what military gear I need to protect myself. I could think of all the baddies and how we’re the goodies. I like being in a war zone!”

“I don’t think we need any more of that, Harry.”

“How come you don’t have any imagination?”

I don’t have that kind of imagination. But the sense of walking along an edge almost never leaves me. If I stay on my feet I’ll be okay, find gladness in talking on the phone with friends and comfort in activity. But nothing takes away the abyss at my feet. It’s a long fall down there, deep and sad. I have no idea when it will happen, when something will trigger it:

What did you do this summer? We were in Maine for two full months.

Come for a cookout tomorrow evening.

My husband and I read aloud to each other every night in bed.

Can’t forget standing on line in the Greenfield Co-op behind a couple waiting for their groceries to be tallied. He tapped her on the shoulder, pointed to a price sign above the avocadoes nearby, and whispered in her ear, and she smiled back. Small things like that.

Then it’s my turn at the cashier: “Hi, how’re you doing?”

“Well,” I say, “how are you?”

What else am I going to say? I just went smash into a dark abyss, don’t know when I’ll come out, and how are you doing?

Another day in the preserve I go down a secluded path. The dogs rush forward and I see a man wading happily in the creek. “Come in,” he says to someone behind me. Another man, younger and taller, stands on shore with a dog that looks a lot like my old pit bull, Bubale. He hesitates, smiling at his friend in the water. There are backpacks nearby and food items, including a frying pan, and I realize that these two made a night of it, camping above the creek.

We hang out for a few minutes and then I leave, and as I start going uphill to the pasture my eyes do what they now inconveniently do half a dozen times a day, clouding over and blinking rapidly. Bernie would have never camped; I hurry to remind myself. It doesn’t matter, it’s the intimacy that leaves me breathless:

Come on!

It’s a little cold!

Come on!

I’m not sure.

Come on!

And then I surprise myself. After a few moments in the abyss I suddenly feel a deep sense of gratitude and a strong wish that these two men cherish each other and the companionship they share. Words creep down to my lips, words I’ve never uttered before: I bless you. I bless your closeness and intimacy. I bless you apart and I bless you as one whole.

I’ve never blessed anyone in my entire life.

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and I gathered and commented on edgy situations that householders like her, like me, and like almost all of you encounter in our lives. We called it The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachment, and it’s coming out in February 2020. One of the koans appearing there is called Enju’s Black Abyss, dealing with a mother’s loss of a child.

I didn’t lose a child, I lost a husband approaching 80 after 3 years of suffering through a severe stroke. But I know a black abyss when it cracks open at my feet, and I bet you do, too. I will write more about this book, the many sharp-edged fragments of life that we encounter, and how they  make us sad and enrich our lives beyond measure. F,or now, you could pre-order this book here.