The heavy rains and storms are flattening our flowers. Some survive, some don’t.
Yesterday was 9/11, when thousands died, and I lit incense.
Today is a memorial for one person—I have marked it for close to 35 years—and I lit incense again. Each time this day rolls around I think of him, the terrible impact of words casually spoken, and an incredible act of grace and forgiveness.
The name of the man was Chris (I won’t give his family name). He was a young black man from New Orleans who wrote the Zen Community of New York in the late 1980s, when we were in Yonkers struggling to develop our social service programs and trying to prevent the bankruptcy of the Greyston Bakery. In his letter he wrote that he was in his 20s, was fatherless and raised by his mother with limited means. He’d sat for a long time, heard of our work, and could he come up by bus to live and work with us?
We’d never met him and knew nothing of him, so by all measurable criteria, this was not a good idea. But measurable criteria also have their limits. The woman who answered his letter (not me) invited him to come and work as her assistant. He did, and she very quickly realized her mistake. He didn’t have the capacity to do the work he’d written he could do. In addition, he was already taking serious meds for mental illness.
Like many Zen centers, we had a 3-month probation period for anyone coming to live and work, so she agreed that he stay for the probation period and we would do an evaluation at the end. He had to participate in all meditation programs, including retreats. And, in consultation with his doctors, she insisted he take his meds.
Chris agreed and lived in a small room just down the narrow hall from my room. He never missed a sitting period or a retreat, and he worked for her. As the weeks and months went by, it was clear he couldn’t do what was needed. Our days consisted of long hours and deadlines, which Chris couldn’t sustain. At other periods in the unfolding of the community there might have been more help and support; that wasn’t true then, we were struggling.
I find that the act of giving attention and listening to someone consumes lots of energy. Some people, I am aware, say that even a minute of full-fledged attention is very important. They may well be right. I don’t shift gears that quickly. Paying deep attention is a generous act, and from me it takes energy hard to summon in the middle of a big workload.
This is often the criticism I heard aimed at myself, at Bernie, and others who hurried to work each morning but found no time for each other, labeling human needs and companionship distractions before moving on. Believe me when I tell you that lots of kindness, caring, and even love were there, but Chris needed more than that.
Chris’s three months of probation were up, he went through an evaluation, and I was told by Chris’s boss, along with Bernie, that this probation period hadn’t gone well. The work was beyond him; worse, they’d been informed by his doctors that he wasn’t taking his meds, which he had agreed to do. We couldn’t be responsible for his wellbeing.
Other than seeing Chris in morning sittings, I’d had little to do with him at work, exchanging but a few companionable words. But I was the residential coordinator at the time, and like it or not, it was my job to give him the news. That evening I knocked on his door; he was lying in bed, reading. I told him the news, he didn’t seem surprised. I said there was no rush, he could leave once he knew his next steps, no one was hurrying him out the door. He thanked me.
Those were his last words to me. The following day I was gone for two hours in the early afternoon, and when I returned, I was told by the bakery manager that the police had arrived and informed them that Chris had jumped from the 14th floor of a building downtown.
I was shocked—that’s an understatement. I had no idea what meds he’d been taking, no idea that this was a possibility. Later, in talking with others, I discovered from one friend that Chris had indeed told him he would never return to New Orleans, that he’d rather take his own life, and even told him how he would do it. Had we known that ahead of time it might have changed things; as it was, the man never shared this conversation with anyone, and Chris did what he’d threatened to do.
Weeks and months passed. I did what others do in such circumstances, talked it out with peers, talked with a therapist. We did a memorial service. I felt I was sleepwalking those first months after his death.
I wish I could say that it turned a page for me, that it caused me to sit up and wonder: Wait a minute, what am I doing here? What is this practice of freeing all sentient beings? I write in so many grant applications about the need for housing for homeless families, jobs for mothers and childcare for children, but what about the person right in front of me?
Instead, I was glad to be swallowed up by work once again. Chris’s body was sent back to his mother in New Orleans, his life was over, there didn’t seem to be much I could do.
As time has gone by, and especially on September 12, I look at the wooden face of Kwan-yin in back, she who lets herself be consumed by rodents of all kinds that find home and wood to gnaw on inside her body, and ask for forgiveness. As the years pass, I realize there is still a job ahead for me, and that is not to work more, write more blogs or better books, or teach more. The job ahead is to always, always give attention.
There’s a lot to say about that, but not for now.
A few weeks after Chris took his life, I received a letter from New Orleans addressed to me personally. I opened it up and found several sheets of long lined yellow paper, the kind you tear off of yellow office notepads. The letter was from Chris’s mother, and it was handwritten, the lines sloping down as if it was hard for her to stay on the horizontal lines.
She wrote me not to feel guilty about her son’s death. She had raised him alone in New Orleans, and from the very beginning he’d been a very sad boy, so much so that she would pray for him every Sunday in church. She wrote that she’d long ago realized that he might die before her, that there was little she could do about it, and therefore begged God to take care of him. There was no room for blame here, not by me, not by her, not by anyone. She also added that Chris had told her that those 3 months he spent with us were the happiest he’d been in a very long time. She was grateful for that.
When I think of grace, as I do now, I think of a low-income black woman in New Orleans who lost her son to suicide, buried his body, and then wrote a letter to a white woman in New York whom she’d never met (how she knew my name I’ll never know), to tell her she was not to blame, that she herself had put her trust in God long ago when it came to her son, and I must do the same.
When I light incense for Chris today, I light it for his mother, too.
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