Just sit down and write, the voice has been repeating for a few hours. I delay and delay. Why? Because today marks 4 years since Bernie, my husband, died. Sitting to write a post demands that I look deeply into my heart, and I’m not sure I want to.
An online memorial for him is taking place as I write this, the last of four beautiful programs Zen Peacemakers organized this year, this last one connected to the retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau that ends tonight. I am grateful to friends like Ken Byalin, Chris Panos, and many others who organized this, but I’m not there. I find it hard to participate in public events commemorating Bernie, be they memorials or birthdays. Instead, I cling to a personal mourning space, something that belongs to us alone.
I shared him so much with others and I don’t feel like sharing him now. Many people continue to love and admire him, enjoy telling their stories about him. Today, here, I want him to stay mine.
A lot has come up for me in the last 4 years, things I understand deeper and better than before. Ahh, I see now, I think to myself, and look around for him to share it with. You know how you used to say so and so? or Remember when we had that situation and didn’t know what to do? I think I see now, and—only he’s not there.
He always quoted his teacher, Maezumi Roshi, saying that the most important teachings happen after someone dies, and I have experienced that for myself practically every day since November 4, 2018. Things that bit and stung and hurt, things that left me puzzled or else that I enjoyed only superficially, things I didn’t understand about life, love, friendship, and practice—they still have their place, but now in a far, far bigger context. The context of the hanging chimes outside whose music contains everything. If he’s anywhere, he’s in the chime of life they’re ringing day in, day out.
I wish he was around so that I could talk to him about loss, the sense of doing many things and at the same time not-doing, that it’s not really you who’s doing anything at all. I think of the many times we’d have these talks, he puffing on his cigar, nodding in the end. Is that all he did, I ask myself, nudging my memory. Didn’t he also say something? Certainly not That’s right, he never spoke in terms of right and wrong. I agree with that. A smile, a cigar puff, and maybe a Yup. Or maybe Bidiuk, one of the few Hebrew words he knew, meaning exactly. I worry now about how much I forget.
I saw the picture above at the gathering of Stone Soup Café last Sunday in Greenfield, the visioning process I described in a different post. Someone—I don’t know who—drew that picture of Bernie and added his Three Tenets: Not-knowing, Bearing Witness, Taking Loving Action. Few things thrilled Bernie ao much as when folks who were not Buddhist, the bakers in Greyston, the head of its Day Care, or the folks who eat and volunteer at the Café show they’ve absorbed certain of his teachings and made them their own, in their language. He spent years teaching Zen to Zen practitioners, but his big strength lay in spelling out his understanding of the dharma, of life, in simple language that anyone understands. I don’t know anyone who did that better.
People got the gist of it. The folks in the Greyston AIDS Center understood that “Not knowing” wasn’t anti-knowledge, but rather the act of letting go a little of all the knowing and the thinking that make up our sense of a self that’s separate from others, separate from life. The Greyston bakers substituted “Being open” to “bearing witness,” but they understood that you can only be open to the extent that you let go of that self-centered knowing, otherwise, as he’d say in Yiddish, gurnish helfen—nothing will help. No truly loving action will arise that addresses the situation itself; it may just make you feel good.
I walked around the Stone Soup space that Sunday, looking at various posters and numbers of people served, meals served, how many volunteers, etc., saw this picture, and thought to myself how thrilled he would have been to see that a Café run by non-Buddhists, no connection to Zen or any sangha, have absorbed this into their work. Greyston’s values, which included his Tenets, also came about as a result of a visioning process that included its employees, and he was ecstatic. No number of successors and Zen centers in his lineage made him as happy as that.
What do I do this weekend, other than walk the dogs? Drive to Barre tomorrow to witness the handing over of articles that belonged to the murdered men, women and children at Wounded Knee to their Lakota descendants, and greet the elder I admire and love so much, Violet Catches. That this is taking place on the weekend of Bernie’s memorial and the end of the annual retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau is not lost to me; I’ll probably write about that early next week.
After Bernie died—I don’t remember how many months– I went through his things. At some point I looked up his status as a Million Miler with United Airlines and tried to log in, and immediately was asked to supply answers to identifying questions. Luckily, he’d written down this information:
Favorite type movie. Huh? I looked down at the list: science fiction. Fool me, I thought.
Favorite sport: Boxing. Again, I did a double take. Not Tom Brady’s football? Not the New York Giants?
Favorite pizza topping: That I knew. Pepperoni, of course.
Finally: Best Friend’s Birthday Month: I looked down and read: December. Best friend’s birthday occurs in December.
“You sure he didn’t write September?” said Aussie.
“No, Auss,” I said, tears in my eyes, “he wrote December.”
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