KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN

Photo by Peter Cunningham of Greyston Bakery staff in mid-1980s;

I went back to Greyston on Wednesday, and on the 3-hour drive down to Yonkers, NY, remembered how it all began for me.

I had started meditating around 1984 and started looking for a meditation group. Near me was a Zen center headed by a Japanese teacher following strict Japanese protocol, and it was hard for me to connect with them.

One day my friend, a Jungian analyst by the name of Walter Odajnyk, said to me, “There’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn teaching Zen up in Riverdale, wanna check him out?” A Jewish guy from Brooklyn was a little too close to home, I thought, and being an arrogant Manhattanite, I didn’t have a clue where Riverdale was. But a week later Walter called and said: “They have meditation this evening, I’ll pick you up and take you up there.”

When we arrived we discovered that there was no meditation; instead, the residential community was having a meeting in their large dining room. We entered tentatively, they looked up and invited us to join them. We sat in the corner of the large table and I heard things I didn’t hear in other Buddhist communities: cooking meals for the Sharing Community that served poor and homeless families in Yonkers, the entire Zen community leaving wealthy Riverdale and moving to southwest Yonkers, building homes for families with no homes and a child care center.

There would be much, much more later, but that was enough. I loved the dream; I loved the vision. I knew in my bones that there was something historical happening there that evening and I wanted to be part of it.

It was also my first view of Bernie, who didn’t say a word to Walter or me, and my first impression of him wasn’t favorable: He’s full of himself, I thought. But that didn’t dampen my ardor for the rest.

Walter had no interest in any of that and our paths diverged. I stayed while he went off to meditate at the Rochester Zen Center, years later sending me his very good book on Zen and Jung, and later joined the faculty of Pacifica Graduate Institute out in California. He passed away some five years ago.

So two days ago I found myself taking the Yonkers exit off the Sawmill River Parkway, winding my way down and up and then again down Ashburton Avenue.

The Greyston Bakery was surrounded by construction crews building “mixed housing,” which these days means that even the few affordable apartments aren’t very affordable. Along the Hudson River, Yonkers has gentrified, but that ends a block or two inland. There were the familiar shuttered stores, some storefronts with big signs promising Easy Credit, the groups of young men huddled on street corners. Lots and lots of churches. Many years ago, US HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) researched the prevalence of churches in this country and concluded that the number of churches per community rose as income went down.

We had a meeting with senior bakers and crew chiefs, and senior administrative personnel including Mike Brady, the President. I felt right at home among the folks wearing white, with white caps to cover their hair and snoods to cover their beards. They work in 12-hour shifts producing brownie products for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as well as the brownies that appear in high-end food shops like Whole Foods.

And here is a plug for holiday gifts. If you’re looking to give delicious and beautiful holiday gifts to family and friends, please look at the Greyston brownie packages and boxes going out around the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The product is mouth-watering, the packaging elegant, and the gift changes the lives of people hired with no questions about possible criminal records or time spent in prison. Greyston has become a national spokes-company for Open Hiring, hiring anyone you have a position for without inquiring into their past or possible incarceration.

I asked them how I could help, and then just listened. They wanted to hear about Bernie and the beginnings of the Bakery. “What caused Bernie to start all this?” asked me one baker who’d known him well, and I found myself awash with memories and stories of those times. We talked about meditation and the practice of awareness, how conscious breathing helps to deter stress, how one can keep one’s feet on the bottom of the ocean and walk steadily even as the waves buffet you on the surface.

They were excited about that because stress is so prevalent in their lives, and we agreed that I will start in January and return month after month. I was deeply moved by their enthusiasm, by their beginner’s mind. I’d planned to meet with residents of Issan House, the residence for people living with AIDS, but that will wait till January.

Mike Brady hosted me for an overnight stay at his home in Bronxville. As he drove me there, I remembered going to Bronxville’s Dutch Reform Church to make a presentation about our Greyston with the hope of getting some financial support for our work there. I was so young and uninformed then, had no idea how to strike the right note, how to get those well-to-do people who wouldn’t step foot in a poor neighborhood 15 minutes away to support homeless families, mostly single mothers with children. I was clueless. I gave them the right numbers and statistics, but mostly I relied on my own passion and enthusiasm, which didn’t bring much success that night.

We made many mistakes. At the same time, there was so much excitement in all those ups-and-downs, in that I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-but-here-goes mentality. Now I feel I know much more, maybe make fewer mistakes (maybe not). I know what to do, I know what people want to hear. But those shots in the dark, shooting for some distant horizon you had no idea how to reach—it was full of possibilities. It was full of life.

I came home and had a brief conversation with Aussie:

“What’s my vision, Aussie?” I asked her.

“What do you mean, Boss? Don’t you know how to open your eyes?”

“I mean what’s my vision, Auss: My dreams, my plans, what I want to focus on in the life I’m given now without Bernie?”

“Just keep your eyes open, that’s what I say.”

“Is that enough, Aussie?”

“Stop thinking so much, Boss. Wait, watch, listen. You humans!”

“Okay, Auss. I’ll just keep my eyes open.”