I finished unpacking in my sister’s apartment and only the camel and frog were left. They’re actually water cans with holes on top. You fill each one up to water your plants. I brought them all the way to Israel
Where did I find these, you ask? In a gift store in Cape May, where I spent a weekend last July. I saw the camel first and immediately envisaged it on the plant-filled terrace of my brother-in-law’s apartment, thinking: The camel will look good there. And when I spotted the large green frog I instantly visualized it under the row of plants on an outdoors ledge off my sister’s dining area and thought to myself: That would be perfect there. I bought them that weekend, kept them in my office, packed them for Israel five months later and brought them here.
By the way, they’re both sitting on top of a red skirt that I wore at my mother’s home last night for the Sabbath meal. In my family, you don’t go to those meals wearing perennial jeans; if you’re a woman you wear a dress or skirt, and if you’re a man you wear a pair of good slacks.
I unpacked the skirt, the camel and the frog, and was struck by a memory. A long time ago Bernie and I packed to travel to Israel. Bernie had 3 young grandchildren in Jerusalem. My valise contained gifts for my family; his did not. I looked at the few Hawaiian shirts he put in, a pair of scruffy jeans, suspenders, and very little else, and said: “Are you packing like a monk or like a grandfather?”
He thought about it, then said: “Where can I find gifts for the kids?” I directed him to a store in the nearby town, he went there and returned with three nice gifts for the kids.
The monk and the grandfather. The monk and the sister or sister-in-law. The monk and the daughter, the son, the family member.
Again and again, I bear witness to how much I can still be drawn to those old Buddhist icons of forest monks, carrying nothing with them but their food bowls for begging food and a few coins to cover their cremation when they die.
Even before getting involved with Buddhism, I enjoyed the simple life. I lived in a small Manhattan studio with few clothes in my closet (but lots of books). I traveled so light in those days I could pack and move all my possessions in just a few hours, so moving was not a big deal for me. I felt portable, light on my feet.
For years I felt perfectly fine living communally in one house with others, though I needed my own room. When Bernie and I left that arrangement and bought a house, it was at his urging because he could no longer stand living communally, he’d done it for so long. I didn’t mind it at all, maybe because I was raised in an Israeli kibbutz.
But the tension between the monk and the lay person, the monk and the sister buying gifts, remains. Is it wrong to espy something in a store, instantly connect it with a person you’re close to, and say: That would be a nice gift for them? There’s nothing essential about those articles, we can live perfectly well without them, but they’re well-crafted and attractive, somewhat utilitarian. Most important, they reflect a quality of attention you give to people whom you love. You know what colors they like, what clothes the prefer, what books they care about.
Noticing these things is an act of attention; giving them is an act of love. But I don’t think they’re the acts of monks.
I’m often torn between abundance and simplicity. Both are instruments of beauty. How to negotiate our way through complex relationships and situations, attentive to wants and needs, wishing to honor family and loved ones, but do so without falling victim to the consumer culture that surrounds me? Can we do this while still maintaining simplicity?
The tension between the two is very alive for me. Bernie and I were in Rwanda with a few other Zen peacemakers some years ago, preparing for a bearing witness retreat three months hence. “Why don’t you be our treasurer for this trip?” he said to me that first morning. I would pay our bills. I agreed.
Only trouble was, the Rwandan Franc was very low in value against the dollar, so I ended up loaded with heavy rolls of Rwandan Francs that I carried in my backpack day after day. Bernie, on the other hand, didn’t carry a backpack; his cigars fitted nicely in his shirt pocket.
One day, over lunch, he waxed nostalgic over Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, the German Jesuit Zen master who was in Hiroshima when it suffered the nuclear bomb, trained in Zen and then traveled back and forth between Japan and Europe training others. “He traveled with only two shirts, one change of underwear and socks wherever he went,” Bernie said. “That’s my ideal.”
“Did he travel alone?” I asked. “Did he have an attendant?” I didn’t have to ask whether he had a wife.
Bernie shrugged. “What does that matter?”
Back at our cheap hotel I took out all the rolls of Rwandan Francs and handed them to him. “Your turn to be treasurer,” I said.
If you travel like a forest monk, you pack one way. But if you have a family with kids who hunger for presents from grandpa, if you want to give your family tokens of love, if you’re bringing 50 small crosses made from Bethlehem olive trees back to give to Catholic immigrant families, if you’re building organizations and programs and need to put cash down for accommodations and food—then you pack very differently.
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