I returned home on Saturday evening after a long drive from Maryland, a mile from DC, where I’d gone to help a family I deeply care about, post-surgery, with caregiving and household work. Six days had passed since I left New England, driving back and forth with Aussie in tow (actually, she relaxed in the passenger seat). With stops, it took at least 9 hours each way.
It didn’t help that Saturday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a quick Aussie morning walk, I set out onto I-95, a straight arrow going north, almost reaching the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore 45 minutes later, when the phone rang to say I’d left my valise behind.
But family and GPS to the rescue, I drove back south, met up in the parking lot of the DoubleTree by Hilton in Laurel, did the handoff of the valise, let Aussie out for a final sniff, and back on the road we went. You’re losing it, I told myself. Remember all those old people back in the day, endlessly losing glasses, car keys, and phone, going out to the market to get a can of diced tomatoes for the soup on the oven and coming back with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream instead? You’re there, kid.
My plan had been to do whatever needed to get done in Maryland as well as my own work. Hey, I thought, I could work from anywhere. I could blog, attend the zendo schedule and other meetings by Zoom, no problem.
It didn’t happen. Aussie managed to post one blog early last week, and that was it.
Folks, I come from a tradition where almost all the famous ancestors were not just men but also monks. They didn’t take care of children or parents, they didn’t take care of folks who were ill, elderly, or dying. They may have come to the house to chant; in Japan, they showed up mainly after one took one’s last breath in order to launch the dead on their next-life journey.
There were masters who meditated under a constant trickle of icy water in order to stay awake, or else sat on a sharp-edged surface for the same purpose. I believe that, to this very day, priests daily clean the vast wooden floors of the monastery of Eihei-ji with toothbrushes to stay focused and pay attention.
I’m not sure you have to go that far. All you have to do is start taking care of challenging children. Start taking care of people who’re too sick or disabled to take care of themselves or their surroundings. Start taking care—what does that mean? Holding their hands and making loving sounds like they show in some movies? How about load after load of laundry, from wash to fold? How about shopping? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. How about cleaning? How about visits to pharmacies for prescriptions, chauffeuring someone to a covid test, reading a book to a child, playing with walkie-talkies in the streets, finagling a brief afternoon rest before going back to work? How about walking the dog a few times a day?
Within an hour I was transported back to the past, when I took care of Bernie once he could no longer take care of himself. I remembered the moment-by-moment attentiveness, one task following another and another after that, day after day. I remembered finishing each evening with organizing notes for the following day: what we would have for dinner, what ingredients had to be picked up, what doctors, what radiation treatments, the bills, the emails, running interference when necessary, the cancer surgeries—
And I had help. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wonder how people without help managed. Because you did this relentlessly day after day. Because back then, you knew there was no going into the car one day and driving north.
Work like this means shelving your plans (Of course I can do the meditation schedule! Of course I can write the book! Of course I’ll do the retreat), and plunging in.
Plunging—because otherwise you get stuck in the story of it all. I was faced with a choice: I could listen to the upset voices in my head wailing out the story of hardship and sacrifice, or I could jump in and trust the experience. The first made me miserable. The second meant I joined the flow of things: heard the signal, took laundry out of the dryer and folded, cut onions for the soup, made the bed, remade the bed, got lunch started. When you do that you feel good, bad, and everything in between, but basically you’re just doing. You’re just living.
I’m a storyteller, but give me the choice between the story and the life and I’ll take the latter any day. I know the story seems to lay out the meaning and purpose of things, but when you jump in they all collapse into the doing.
People who do this work are my heroes. You’d never know it from Western culture, with its stories of wanderers, romantics, adventurers, and brave soldiers. But our adventurers have companions, Huck had Tom. Soldiers have other soldiers, rules, and structures. Try to be a caregiver in the house, alone, invisible, nobody there to see you, witness your efforts.
My mother hated that work. On some level, she couldn’t forgive the husband and children who were the cause of it all. She loved her children and she liked to cook, but was never presented with another option, a different choice, a way to feel that she was the author of her own life.
“No one ever encouraged me in anything,” she told me once, in tears.
Nor would you ever guess from Buddhist literature that caregivers are heroes. That literature adulates the lone man who sat under a tree and vowed not to get up till he awakened. Please! He sat, for God’s sake! He didn’t run up and down stairs or stand by an oven for hours.
The great Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen and the Eihei-ji monastery, ritualized every aspect of daily life—how you cooked, how you ate, how you slept, how you went to the bathroom— to keep his monks focused and attentive; hence the toothbrushes at Eihei-ji. But all he had to do was send them to nearby homes to help take care of farmers, peasants, and their families. Meeting those needs—believe me, they would have been paying attention plenty.
Tell all those monk warriors we read about, who woke up at 3 am to sit every night, cold and uncomfortable, trying to stay awake—there ain’t nothing to keep you awake like a fidgety or crying child. Nothing to focus your attention quite as much as a tower of dishes waiting in the sink, a tower of clothes waiting to be washed, a house to be cleaned, homework to be gotten through, meals to be cooked. Towers and towers of stuff rising up after you’ve taken them down, day after day.
As a friend of mine, another Zen teacher, said: It’s endless. Now what?
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