THE KINKY SHAPE OF MIRACLES

A Chasid sang about the House of the Rising Sun in Jerusalem, then Christmas.

Yesterday I remembered that I had a ticket to see a film of the one-woman show, Fleabag, that spawned the television series. I’d bought it ages ago. I’d been closed in for days due to asthma and an ice storm was coming, which would close me off again. So I got into my clothes and my car and trekked down to Amherst. I warned my neighbors that my cough was asthma and therefore not contagious, and sat down to watch an unnerving show of a highly destructive (and self-destructive) young woman who, in the words of Phoebe Waller-Bridge who wrote dialogue and acted the role, doesn’t feel cared for, loved, or even alive unless she screws every man in sight. In the process, amidst lots of laughter, she, looking dewy-eyed all the time, destroys everything in sight around her.

The series is probably different, but this is how I experienced the one-person show. The dialogue by Waller-Bridge was excellent, her acting superb. The reviewers said it was hilarious and many people in the audience laughed, as did I a few times. But my body sagged deeper and deeper in my seat. In the end, when we realize the full extent of her confusion and aggressive behavior, she says that we all make mistakes. It was the understatement of the year. When the play ended people walked out very subdued.

Driving home (there was no ice yet) I tried to remind myself of the crazy destructive things I’d done in my life arising from confusion and getting very, very lost. I tried to reach inside and find a way towards empathy. I also worried that maybe I’m not hip enough to the current culture, that what was alive and funny for many translated to me as cynicism and disturbance. Usually I admire any artist ready to tackle life with grit, fierceness, and creativity; instead, I came home wishing I hadn’t gone out.

Last night, too, was the 8th night of Chanukah. I don’t think I’ve lit those candles for some 35 years—Zen practice is enough for me, thank you was my mantra. But this year I did, including the clean-up of candle-wax and drippings each morning following the lighting the previous night. Last night was the last, so after coming home, bewildered and disappointed, I lit 8 candles.

I sat and watched them on the windowsill. My breaths are still not deep and the left side of my body hurts when I cough, which I do often. I thought of the black mud of this young woman’s life, the black mud of my own life, and how a lotus can grow towards the sun in that mud.

When you light Chanukah candles you thank God for the miracles S/he has done for your people. All people, including you. My candles wouldn’t stand in a line; instead they fell in various angles, creating more a kinky circle than a straight line.

I thought of the miracle of living 7 full decades, which many don’t get to do. One of the benefits is that you recall the violent, fractious upbringing you had, which could have caused you to be the young character on that stage. Instead you found a different path, and over many years you finally realize the value of what you got from your original parents, the chromosomes you share, the genetic material you carry, the body they bequeathed you enabling you to act, practice, and serve. You get that it all comes together: your ancestry, the shoulders on which you stand if only to take a foot off and jump, the resilience and courage handed you by your mother, and the fierce determination to be a path through which teachings unfold and where caring and creativity come together. My life is a kinky circle. I believe miracles are never straight, they’re kinky.

I think of the miracle of what I learned up close from Bernie in 3 years after his stroke, and from Ram Dass in 22 years after his. How easy it is to look good in robes and lights, to speak with confidence and even bravado, to do and help and teach and organize—and how much harder it is to surrender, to wave goodbye to one’s physical independence, and to rest in that life that remains deep inside, inextinguishable. Neither man ran and hid in shame from the world; they exhibited their vulnerability day in and day out, the feebleness coupled with their radical acceptance of the gift of life no matter what shape that gift took.

Again and again I think of the last time we hosted people in our house for a Zen schmooze on those monthly Thursday nights. We’d resumed them after Bernie’s bout with cancer, and he sat in the living room and said, “Maezumi Roshi [his teacher] said that Zen is life. I always thought I understood those words, but actually it took me many, many years to truly understand them.” He was dead 10 days later.

It touches me deeply that with all the disagreement Bernie had with his teacher, as the years went by I heard him go back and reflect on the many things he said, taking them in deeper and deeper each time, valuing and re-valuing them again and again. It showed humility, it showed grace, even as it never lost its kinkiness.

Years ago I wanted to get a book of Householder Koans into our practice world because I was saw clearly the potential of day-to-day situations to take us out of self-absorption and definition, get us out of ready-made answers and into the deeper currents of not-knowing. A miracle occurred when Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao stepped in to collaborate after Bernie got sick. Let me here note that Publishers Weekly’s review of the book said: “With its sophisticated Zen Buddhist ideas and reflections, this intricate, stimulating collection of koans offers constructive advice that will appeal to those with at least some experience as Zen practitioners.” That book will be out in February.

Bernie used to say: You prepare your meal and offer it to the world. The world will want it or not, you can’t control any of that, all you could do is prepare your best meal and offer it. Then prepare another and offer it, and prepare another and offer that.

Another meal I’ve offered is this blog, which I started when he was sick. It saved my sanity. When you’re as tech challenged as I am, you need a consultant that will hold your hand, patiently show you again and again how to do things, and back you up. That is what Silvana at Silvana.net did for me, helping me build my blog and sustaining it with new ideas. Most important, being right there when things came up—which they do, from small things like photos that don’t download correctly to protecting the blog from digital attacks. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, but I had a completely trustworthy and dependable guide.

Finally, I stared at those lights last night and knew I was nothing without friends, family, and community. A doctor friend who’s cared for my health and Bernie’s for decades took me down to Urgent Care Friday morning. Another brought me enough food for a month. And what at first puzzled, and now challenges and excites me, is the number of people responding to this blog, telling me about their lives, the dark sustenance they get from their own private mud even as their lotus is blooming to the heavens.

I want to be your biggest cheerleader and sing to the skies the value of every single moment of your life, just as it is. I want to tell you that as I write these words my small New England town is going through a storm of ice, snow, sleet, thunder, and lightening, a storm to either freak you out or invite you deeper into essence, into meaning and what’s beyond meaning.

I’m grateful for the storm even as I pray we don’t lose power.

I’m grateful for Aussie and Harry barking at some invisible animals threatening our peaceable kingdom.

I’m grateful to all of you who responded with financial support for this blog and for me.

I’m grateful for your giving me a small, generous corner of your attention in the midst of many of your troubling, challenging lives.

I’m grateful for Bernie and for Ram Dass, still so alive.

I’m grateful for that kinky circle of candles, which is the only shape miracles can really take.