I returned to Greyston a few days ago, part of my trip to New York, to re-inter Bernie’s ashes on those grounds.
I say re-inter because his ashes had already lain in a Founders’ Room inside the Greyston AIDS center almost since his death, alongside the ashes of his partner in crime, Jishu Holmes. But Greyston is selling the landmark compound, once a nunnery, that has served as home to the AIDS Center, including housing for folks with AIDS, and the 19th century building housing their offices, by the end of the year and the buildings are being emptied out. No actual move is expected before end of year.
I retrieved the urn that held the ashes and first visited with Joe Kenner, CEO of the Greyston Foundation, in an office long familiar to me, with memories of meetings, reviewing grant applications, and even looking out the south-facing windows at the distant Manhattan skyline on a clear day. Monday, too, was super clear and warm; I’d arrived in New York so overdressed that I stripped down to my undershirt, onto which I hooked up a necklace.
Then we went outside with a few other staff members, lay the urn on a pedestal on which the nunnery had once placed a statue of Mary, unscrewed the urn, and all of us took handfuls of ashes and sprinkled them on the grounds. Mary was long gone; perhaps the nuns had taken her with them. We put ashes around the roots of Japanese maples and Jishu Holmes’ favorite true, the Polounia, that lay in the very back.
I thought of the elderly cloistered nuns who’d lived there, couldn’t speak or walk with us, but who had stretched their arms through the fencing to stroke my Golden Retriever, Wordsworth. How young we must have looked to them then, in the mid 1990s, full of energy, dreams, and vigor, taking over their long-held compound while they were headed to a much smaller place where their members, one by one, were aging, sickening, and dying off.
Why did I bother re-interring the ashes here, not in a formal urn, not covered by rocks and flowers, but just sprinkling those remnants into the earth itself?
Bernie loved Greyston. He loved watching it change the skyline of Yonkers, creating a big 130-staff bakery by the Hudson River, watching more low-income housing come up for families with no homes, more programs for children, more housing and healing services for those who were ill.
He loved the Zen Peacemakers, and especially the Order, but Greyston had been his young love, when he was starting out on his own as a Zen teacher, showing the world that Zen practice didn’t just mean sitting but rather everything, because Zen was everything, and in his case, it meant serving people and families falling into the cracks. He kept his eyes on the prize, steadily moving forward one side-step after another, way too creative to go only forward but always trying this new experiment, that new idea, connecting with new people and getting inspirations from them.
It’s hard to describe how much he loved it. Later, after he’d gone to put all his energy into Zen Peacemakers, traveling the world over, he would always come back—not to board or senior management meetings—but to hang out with the people. “I just want to hang out with the people,” he’d tell me back home.
He had enormous faith in the dynamism of life. People would complain about changes in Greyston, how the present wasn’t like the past, how we had to restore the old dream, etc. It’s so easy to get caught up in talk about how the new folks don’t know what they’re doing, how we were doing things right and at way less pay. He wasn’t buying any of it. He’d had his time with his vision; it was now their time for their vision.
He knew that something had been planted there. The space would finally be sold (AIDS programs get barely any funding nowadays), the people would change, but something fine had taken place there and, like everything else, it wasn’t going to disappear.
His ashes there will remind the earth that he’d walked there jauntily, coming up on foot from his home, pausing by other homes and building to wonder what more was available for purchase, how much more could be done. He was a man with stars in his eyes.
“The past is never dead; it’s not even past,” said the writer William Faulkner. And whatever happens should be honored. Of course, it will change in the future, what doesn’t? None of our work carries any guarantees with it, certainly not with regard to results. I’m not conditioning anything I do on whether it will be considered a great success or not or what the future will bring; we’ll never know. What we do know are the intentions we had, the joy and the love.
I left in mid-afternoon, went down the stairs but paused before turning left onto the path that would take me out of the compound. I looked down the grassy knoll that descended down a slope that took one to a parking lot at the very right, and thought to myself that I might never be up here again.
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