SCARY, BUT NOT SCARED

Krishna Das came for a visit yesterday. He usually sings up in Northampton in September; Bernie and I always loved to attend his kirtans. He told me this story about Bernie:

“Last September, which was the last time I saw Bernie before he passed, I took him out to his favorite breakfast place, that diner on Rte. 9. Bernie ordered a pile of blueberry pancakes. Halfway through the meal he looks at all the food that’s left on his plate and says, “Maybe next time I’ll order just one.’ Then he picks up his cane and gets up to go to the bathroom. Only he totters.

‘Are you okay?’ I ask him.

Bernie pauses, and says. ‘Scary, but okay.’ And then slowly walks to the men’s room.”

“He didn’t say scared,” Krishna Das repeated, “he said scary.”

I looked at the Greyston Journal that I kept in the late 1980s and early 1990s about how the Zen Community of New York built the Greyston organizations that continue to serve southwest Yonker. In 1990 I was writing an ambitious grant application to the Department of Health and Human Services for money to train and hire almost 30 homeless mothers in bakery jobs. It involved developing a training program, creating jobs, doing outreach, hiring the candidates, providing counseling and child care—everything that might be needed by the women to be successful. Then I wrote this:

“It’ll be fun to get the money. In the meantime we have no money to pay our own stipends. We need private donations to cover core costs. Please, please, PLEASE we need private monies to keep us going so that we don’t crash with all these great programs on the horizon. I’m nervous because we have so little money at the bakery.”

My Greyston Journal is full of those entreaties to some invisible God to please, please, PLEASE keep us going till government grants come through. Please, please, PLEASE help the bakery not crash before it can start providing Ben & Jerry’s with the brownie products they seek for their ice cream, please, please, PLEASE give us just enough so that we don’t have to fire people.

The pages are laced with apprehension and fear.

Bernie, or Sensei as we called him then, was not scared. I write often that he looks worn out. I use words like ashen and haggard. There’s a week’s retreat he’s supposed to lead but doesn’t show up. I go down to talk to him. “You said you’d be there.”

He shakes his head. “We might lose the whole thing by the end of the week.”

So a small group sits alone while he fights so that Greyston doesn’t go under. A huge, scary thunderstorm hits us that day. We sit in that basement zendo as the light leaves and the outdoors gets black, lightning strikes everywhere. We sit till the bell rings to end the period.

In my life now, too, things at times get scary. Will I have enough money to pay my bills? Should I sell the house? Everything’s up in the air. But am I scared?

There are days when it’s basically only the dogs and me, day after day. I sit in the early morning mist alongside Kwan-Yin. The birds are quiet, planning their flight south, the squirrels don’t chatter as much as they did. At that hour even the dogs are asleep. Aloneness is in the air.

But am I lonely?