I’m stuck at home on a gorgeous day. Stuck only to the extent that the car is in the garage. But living in the woods, I’ve already managed to take the dogs out and Aussie chased deer. Bears have also been in the neighborhood—two nights around our house. Soon I’ll go to work outside in back, assuming the mosquitoes aren’t bad.
This is the only house that I, somewhat ascetic by nature, have ever owned. I moved around a great deal during much of my life, which helped create a mindset against owning many things. Owning less meant moving less.
Bernie and I moved around several times in our early years, and I right away noticed that he would take all the books (more than a thousand for sure) and all the pictures out of the boxes, Buddhist paraphernalia, altars, photos and binders, and set them up wherever we lived even when we were sure we’d be leaving within the year. I would have kept everything in storage and lived with bare walls; not him.
Wherever we were, that was home.
Everything is here in the house, no storage needed. There has been time and space for all the ingredients to show up and find their place. But I’m pretty sure that the next home will be smaller, whatever and wherever it is. Maybe, one day in the future, I’ll live in one room again, just as I did living in a spiritual community, maybe not even that. I wonder how I would cope with lack of privacy.
One of my regular practices now is doing historical cleaning, culling and disposing of things from the past, from marriage, relationships and friends, things I swore meant a lot to me (otherwise why keep them?) but now examine again. And again. And again.
I look at things on my desk: A tray holding files, papers, bills, and letters. I’ll keep the tray but empty it, recycling some of its contents. Re-examine a big plastic pen holder that ended up holding lots of other things, too. Scotch tape holders, multiple clips of different sizes, covid masks, a few books and files. My utilitarian, miserly brain speaks up: You never know when you’ll need this!
After Bernie died, I was able to let go of many things of his fairly quickly. I think a part of me resisted the lure of memories, smells, and images. Clothes were clothes, I decided. A few people who remembered his shirts and suspenders wanted something, everything else went to the Salvation Army. He hadn’t been able to wear anything on his feet other than big, heavy, black shoes since his stroke, and those I eagerly got rid of.
I have art works, but these have lived in this house for so long that I feel they’re ours, things we talked about and loved. And still, those will have to go. His binders with his notes on everything from Zen koans to liturgy to translations of sutras to zendo positions and protocols—I need to give thought to who could steward them. A few Zen documents, his birth certificate, his doctorate. A few deeply personal photos and his clowning tools—his Kosovo hat, lots of red noses, a funny bowtie, bubble wands, and, of course, perfect for a meditation master—noisemakers . VHS tapes with footage on Bernie, Greyston, and Zen Peacemakers. I no longer have a player for them.
And two drawings of the man that hang in my office:
One was done by an accomplished neighbor artist, Jack Coughlin; I loved it as soon as Jack brought it over. Jack knew almost nothing about Bernie, just that he was a neighbor. Bernie never sat for him; perhaps Jack had gotten a hold of some photo or other.
The other was done by Marian Kolodziej, who spent 4-1/2 years as an inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau and waited till his 70s to begin a massive output of drawings of the life and death he witnessed there. His drawing shows Bernie in the middle of a sun, looking right, left, and forward, holding a cup in one hand and a candle in the other, and with two more hands holding Marian and his wife, Halina. These will have to go, too, but maybe later, not now.
That’s the mantra that comes up: Later, not now. But as one friend already pointed out to me, there is no later. When you get to later, it’s now. In the same way, there is no away, because when you get to wherever away is, you’re here.
But before that, there are other things to consider. Do I disassemble altars and give away the images, candles and incense holders? I have four downstairs and one in my bedroom. The living room will look empty without them, one voice says inside. Another whispers: So? If the rooms get emptier, does it mean your life gets emptier, too?
For so many years of my life with Bernie I craved space, craved time. Life often felt strained and busting at the seams, like an overpacked valise. What’ll happen if I empty things one at a time? Will I lose my bearings, will I get overwhelmed by emptiness? What will I find, surrounded by nothing but day-to-day infinity?
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