“Look at the yard, Aussie. It’s so big, it almost circles the house. You know what that means?”
“It means that when somebody walks along the road we could bark at him from the shed, then run all the way to the other side beyond the laundry lines and keep on barking the entire time. Isn’t that fun?”
“We have a fence.”
“A yard by definition has a fence. I mean, there’s a limit to it, right?”
“That’s what I mean, there’s a fence.”
“Aussie, how come you see a fence and I see a yard?”
For a long while there I felt like Aussie, seeing constraints, limits, and definitions so narrow I felt I could hardly breathe. And there are my Harry times, when I experience space, cold air entering deep into my lungs, and the clarity of sky regardless of what color it is that morning. I could bark all day at the people walking up on the road.
Last Thursday I woke up in the morning and felt different for the first time in months. There was no anxious edge, no looking out at gray, threatening outdoors, and most of all, no fuzzy mind trying to recollect the day, the place, who am I. No weight of what’s ahead, of what I can’t do or won’t get to.
I wrote last week that I got a prescription for antidepressants. It takes a while for it to work, I was told, as many as six weeks for full effect. But Thursday morning, 9 days later, I could feel the difference. Confidence began to come back.
For most of my life, when challenges came up, I had the sense that if I wasn’t afraid to lean into them, I’d find a creative entry through the side door. Going through the side door has been my practice for quite a while. My brain instructs me on how to get in through the front door: Go down the path and up 3 steps, open the front door (the lock jiggles a little), shut it before the dogs run out, hang up your jacket and scarf, take off your gloves and boots, etc. Do this and then this and then this and then this.
Unexpected things take me sideways. They require a side-door practice, finding an opening which isn’t so obvious, has no path or steps, no big number on the door, no whining dogs at the entrance. Either you find it, or it finds you. Creativity’s there.
I go in once I find the side door. Maybe I’ll see a corner I hadn’t seen before, maybe I’ll crash into it. Probably, I’ll dangle from it for a while. My feet will feel like they’re on air, I’ll miss the sense of solid earth under me. Dangling is an important practice.
In his later life, Bernie didn’t mind getting hung up by corners. During the Greyston years there were too many to bear at times, but later he seemed to enjoy them.
“I like a good heckler,” he used to say after giving a talk and someone would interrupt or ask sarcastic questions. It took him out of his spiel and into the moment.
I remember one heckler he didn’t enjoy so much. In the early Greyston years we attempted to get control of an abandoned school, School 6, and convert it into temporary housing for homeless families. The Republican mayor of Yonkers, Angelo Martinelli, was all for it, but local community leaders rebelled. So Bernie would go every evening to a different gathering in churches and auditoria to advocate for School 6. In the end community opposition was too much and we had to wait another two years to actually buy a property to develop into permanent homes for homeless families.
To this very day, School 6 is abandoned, homeless people sleeping against its asbestos walls, drug exchanges happening in the yard. The gray stone on my altar is from School 6, a symbol of what happens when people don’t find a way to work together.
He talked one evening in a school auditorium to a predominantly African American audience about our plans to build housing. Somebody started heckling him, calling our plans garbage and much worse. This went on and on, Bernie ignoring him, describing the plans, the arts center we wanted to open, the meals we wanted to share with the community.
Then the man yelled: “I know what you honkies want. You’re not giving anybody a place to live, you’re going to put the men to work in your bakery for no money, they’re going to be slaves!”
Bernie tried to go on, but the man wasn’t finished: “And you’re going to pimp the women coming in with their children, that’s what you’re going to do!”
Bernie lost it. “That’s f—ing bullshit!” he yelled back.
It was the only time I heard him curse in public. Even in private, you could count on one hand the number of times I heard him use a four-letter word. The same man years later sent his daughter to train and work at the Greyston Bakery.
The corner I really wanted him to get caught up on was our relationship, just him and me, the couple. He didn’t wish to spend much time there, which caused conflict at times. Now I think back to it and shake my head: Just how much did you expect from the guy? He had such a vast view of practice, was ready to include so much. Not just teaching or talking about the mandala of life but actually practicing in its different aspects. The corporate life, the service life, the political life—all these were practice realms. He wouldn’t denigrate any of them.
He could have just taught in a zendo. Instead he was ready to go sideways into different realms and get hung up on corners, searching always for the creative potential, developing new practices continually. He was like Harry, finding a big space in every yard.
“Most people out there think you’re crazy,” a Buddhist professor once told him.
He just listened quietly, didn’t say a word.