snow in Switzerland

I’m in Bern, Switzerland, and will leave tomorrow for Israel.

I’ve wanted to go to Bern since my dear friend, Roland Wegmueller, had a big tumor removed almost a year ago. I thought then that I’d do it on my way to Israel, only the next time I flew east it was to attend my mother’s last days and death. So here I am now. Snow is on the ground and it’s very cold outside.

Yesterday, my dear friends Koho Mello and his wife, Marge Daien Oppliger, and Franziska Schneider, two of whom I work alongside, also came from Zurich and St. Gallen, respectively, and I am so grateful for their efforts. The Wegmueller home, comprising Roland and Barbara, and over the years their children and Barbara’s mother (and Jacino, her dog), seems to have become the Zen Peacemakers’ European 5-star hotel. The beds are firm and the food delicious, but nothing beats the conversation.

It’s hard to maintain international friendships and relations with family, but I can tell you from experience, it can be done. There’s no point in comparing it to what it is to live in the town or even an hour away, but for many years I was able to visit my family in Israel twice a year. When I did work with Israelis and Palestinians I saw them more often, though for shorter times. Before that, especially when I lived in community at ZCNY, I only visited once a year because I didn’t have money and often my parents paid my way.

The closeness is renewed again and again, the laughter and the intimacy, the shared memories and experiences, the language that is ours and ours alone. It’s a delight every time.

Many of us have rough times with our families as we grow up and no one, including me, can say what’s the right behavior.  But in a talk I gave during our last retreat, I talked about cliches. Too many of us live our lives as if they’re cliches. A bird is a bird is a bird, a rock is a rock is a rock, and, of course, there’s Ronald Reagan’s “If you see a tree you’ve seen them all.” I used to laugh and shake my head at that till I realized that, day after day, I don’t gasp with wonder at the miracles called trees; they surround my home, I see them every time I walk around, look out the window, and don’t look twice. Why? Because they’ve become cliches.

So do the people around us and the people we once lived with. My father is a father is a father, my mother is a mother is a mother, Bernie is Bernie is Bernie, you’re sure you know them, and they often degenerate into abstract symbols: of abuse, ignorance, bad parenting, whatever. They become cliches.

You know when they’re not cliches? When they die. When they die, especially suddenly as Bernie did, you remember every little thing: the precise moment when he’d go to his bathroom to take his morning baths and put the tub water on, how he sat on the deck in back with his computer on the table and a cigar in his hand, often holding a phone in his other hand. How his hand looked with the wedding ring on it, the moles on his back, every single Hawaiian shirt he wore, every single pair of suspenders, how he’d look up from making coffee at the coffee machine. I remember his smell most of all, it’s as vivid in my nostrils as if he’s still here, lying next to me.

I thought of him while helping Barbara in her kitchen this morning. She remembered, too, how he liked to sit in the back, how relaxed he was, how he loved to carry on with people and share some new ideas as he waved the eternal cigar back and forth, smoke signals rising in the Swiss air.

He died and stopped being a cliché.

For others, especially as the years go by, he may well become a symbol of the confluence of Zen and taking action in the world, but I fight against that privately. I hold on to the details of the man as long as I can, as closely as I can, like long-held secrets. In the details, I feel, he’s mine, all mine.

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