I drove my sister, Ruth, down to the New Haven train station this morning and said goodbye. She’s taking Amtrak to the Newark Airport, from where she’s flying to Israel.
When I spend time with Ruth, who’s 4-1/2 years younger than me, I feel as though I straddle a threshold, one foot in one room and the second foot in another.
The first room is the past. Who else remembers me from the time I was so young?
Our first snowball fights in American winters.
A 3-verse poem I wrote her for her birthday and put into her jewelry box.
Washing dishes together.
The fight we had one evening when our parents were gone and I pushed her down the stairs.
Heart-to-hearts about our early loves. Years later, she strongly supported my getting together as a couple with Bernie in the face of my own uncertainty.
Her miscarriage, the birth of a precious daughter, another miscarriage, and then she called it a day.
The decisions we made, the crises we faced—I had to call to tell you! And sometimes: You’re the only one who knows this.
The second room is now, the present. Not the children we were then, nor the young, reckless people in our 20s and 30s, amateurs in life, hoping big hopes and dreaming big dreams. We see each other in multiple dimensions—child, young woman, professional, wife, mother, widow. She tells me of a conversation she had with her daughter, and I can’t help but see it like a movie, in frames of karma: a long time ago she was like this, then she became this, then that, now this—and it’s all there in that conversation.
Our relationship is marked by deep compassion. After all, in the final analysis, what is there to say to someone whom you’ve known their entire life? What guidance, criticism, or advice is there to give? None, though I’m the oldest of the three of us.
One thing becomes clearer and clearer to me. You can live out of karma, and you can live out of vow. You can evoke your upbringing and the challenges of your early life–your first marriage, your second marriage, the first career, the second career, the hurts, the errors, the disappointments—till you’re blue in the face. You’re living out of karma: this happened, therefore this happened, therefore this happened, to infinity.
And you can live out of vow. All those things happened—and this is what I stand for. I had a bad night, a tree fell on top of the garage, there’s a leak in the basement, I’m ill, Aussie’s ill, I was never prepared for anything—and I have my vow.
Of course, your vows are also folded into karma. Day by day I look at a slim white piece of paper and remind myself that this is it, my north star, to be followed regardless of what happens.
This past summer, members of the Zen Peacemaker Order’s first cohort, an international group, did a long process around developing their guiding precept, supervised by Sensei Joshin Byrnes, who teaches in Vermont. I followed the process and decided it was time for me, too, to come up with a new guiding precept. I came up with this:
Today I will express de-light in all my endeavors and, accompanying those who suffer, help them awaken to and express de-light in their lives too.
I am indebted to Roshi Michel Dobbs who ends his missives with the words “In love and de- light”.
I’m also indebted to my mother’s passing. From the time I was a child she shared with me the darkness of her early life, of danger, persecution, the need to survive above all, the misery of her marriage. She didn’t show this to others, on the contrary, she showed de-light and triumph to others, but she shares her suffering with me. It inspired me to practice and to be of service to others, but it left its shadow on my life.
After she died last May, and after that first mourning, I felt a lightness of spirit, as if now I could bask in sunlight and the dazzling colors of fall. I find myself laughing more and gathering heaps of joy from the simplest interactions with people, dogs, and even the toad that I chased around the kitchen earlier to catch it and take it outside.
Living with Bernie for 20 years, of course, helped a great deal.
When I brought my sister to Union Station in New Haven, I saw a big white banner at the entrance: Welcome, Class of 2026, a welcome to Yale University’s incoming class of freshmen and freshwomen. I’m not the Class of 2026, I’m the Class of Now, and I feel more welcome than ever by this life and de-light.