It’s Tuesday morning in Bern, Switzerland. I plan to catch the 2:00 pm train from Bern to Zurich, then take the train one more stop to Zurich Flughafen. From there it’s upstairs to check in for a flight to Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.
What a pleasure to get to an airport on public transportation, quick and easy, unlike the trek later tonight from Boston home. I have my covid test results in hand—negative after being in close retreat with folks, most of whom were vaccinated but a few not but with negative test results before they came—and am ready to leave Switzerland.
To go home? It wasn’t clear. Yesterday early morning, the day after retreat ended, I heard my mother in Jerusalem was in terrible pain and going to Emergency. If not for the fact that I couldn’t get covid test results on time, I probably would have flown to Tel Aviv last night. Instead, I had to wait, and as of this morning things have stabilized, at least for a short while, and the negative test results will help me get back home rather than fly in an opposite direction.
But that’s a story for another day.
Franziska Schneider, who became a new Zen teacher on Sunday, and I had planned this retreat and final ceremony some 9 months ago, so I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was flying to Switzerland to do a ceremony recognizing her as the 84th generation of Zen Buddhist teachers, a lineage that began with Gautama Buddha over 2,500 years ago. This is usually preceded by retreat. Before that we had to spend a few days reviewing documents, discussing and studying, and I thought I was going to Switzerland for that, too. I gave myself lots of time to get organized—there were things to bring with me— and felt things were fine.
Alles in ordnung. All in order.
But sometime in early September I started feeling very low. From day to day my spirits sank deeper and deeper; the week before I even started to wonder about anti-depressants. In the last few days before leaving, I couldn’t cheer up at all. I would find the briefest temporary solace in activity, but most of the time felt as though I was walking on a cliff edge and any moment something terrible was going to happen. I felt no joy or gladness, there was the sense that very close by, just around the corner, was a black abyss waiting, just waiting for the inevitable fall.
The Sunday I left I was packing in the afternoon and straightened up to stretch my back. I grabbed one of those long plastic stretchers, held both ends with my hands, stretched it tightly around my back, and as both arms pulled up the stretcher snapped and ripped in two.
Twinges began right then and there, but the pain really kicked in on the plane. It felt like a pinched nerve and pain spread throughout the left half of my back, continuing for all the hours of the flight, then for my first two days in Switzerland. I wondered how I would be able to do sitting meditation once the retreat began.
And sometime in those days the thought flashed in my mind that almost 3 years ago I had also flown to Switzerland for a similar purpose. I’d come into Bern for a dharma transmission ceremony recognizing a new teacher. After that I was to go for 4 days of vacation with my friend in London before returning home. This time, too, I’d planned to take 5 days of vacation with my sister in the Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. Three years ago, the London portion of the trip was canceled when my friend got sick, and this year the Ticino part was canceled due to covid.
Almost 3 years ago I’d returned unexpectedly early back to Boston, arrived home late and exhausted, and 36 hours later my husband was dead.
Almost three years later I was back in Switzerland in a very similar situation, and dread had enveloped me all month like the blackening skies of a thunderstorm. What was going to happen this time? What shock? What loss?
By the time the retreat began on Thursday I was feeling better, the back restored. It was so wonderful to sit with a group in person again, feel the energy and camaraderie of being together, meeting people face-to-face, listening not just to them but also to the gorgeous sun greeting us each morning, and especially the cowbells that rang all day from cows and goats that were everywhere, including right under the very windows of our meditation space.
I walked the hills in the short breaks, the Swiss green hills I’ve seen so much over the years, looked at the fluffy, young, white goals scampering over them, a few rising on their hind legs to get at the leaves of the trees. Those same hills turned from sun to shadow and back to sun, and my eyes drank in the light emerald sea that is of a different shade of green from the one I know back home, which by now is darker.
I remembered how much Bernie and I had loved to come to Switzerland. You wouldn’t have thought it, two crazy Jewish Buddhists coming to a culture known for its strong structures and moral rectitude, and yet we had loved it here. Mostly we loved the people. There is ease here and riches, but some 20% of the population are refugees that have been given not just legal status but also homes and jobs, a chance to raise families safely once again. You begin to see the mix here, the young people traveling down to the Balkans and taking on peace work and projects, with girlfriends and boyfriends from vastly different cultures and countries. They have their very strong Swiss culture but are also porous, receiving, giving, and absorbing elements from around the world.
It was what both Bernie and I loved here. Strict Zen practitioners and peacemakers, but with so much joy and laughter, and damn good food!
All traces of pain disappeared, and with it the dread that seemed to dog my steps all September. The light breezes reminded me of the good times we had here, one of our rare vacations taken in Schonreid that is hiking distance to Gstaad (only Bernie never hiked). The talk, the plans, coming together with friends from England, Poland, and Germany right here, at the home of Barbara and Roland Wegmueller. I was in Barbara’s kitchen years ago when one of her sons came home and she told him that about a dozen Syrian refugees were coming to the house in 3 days and would stay however long, and he never batted an eye.
The mountains here embraced me like home. And not for the first time in my life I found myself struck silent by the intimacy of life and death, grief and joy, the thin line I traverse, one foot on one side, one foot on the other.
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