“Bernie, guess what? I had such a powerful dream!”
He lies there, listening.
“I dreamt that I was in Africa, standing in the veldt. The earth is flat, the sky is huge overhead, and I can’t see you or anyone there, I’m standing in the middle of the veldt, just me, all alone.”
“Oy Geveldt,” he says, without missing a beat.
“Isn’t there anything you take seriously?” I demand.
“Probably not,” he laughs, pleased with himself.
Even Bernie didn’t have much humor when it came to the Middle East. There was a period of years when few dinners passed by without his making a cynical allusion to the latest law the Israeli government had passed or the latest speech by Bibi, accompanied by a flash of anger, which was rare for him. The Zen master was Jewish through and through, from a Communist family. As far as he was concerned, Jews had to work on behalf of the underdogs at all times and the modern state of Israel was no underdog.
Someone said to me the other day that it was good that Bernie died and didn’t live to see this latest brutal war. I wasn’t sure. By the time Bernie died, he was tired; he’d seen a lot. He probably guessed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not going to be resolved anytime soon, at least not in his lifetime. His anger finally left him, leaving just a deep sorrow.
Tomorrow, at noon my time, the Zen Peacemakers will host a program commemorating Bernie on the 5thanniversary of his death, which is November 4, focusing on his favorite Order. No, not the Zen Peacemaker Order, the Order of Disorder. (You can take part by going to www.zenpeacemakers.org, scrolling down to Community Events and registering there.) His favorite clowns will be there, but the order wasn’t called the Order of Clowns, it was called the Order of Disorder.
You’d have thought the man loved disorder. He seemed to have such a high tolerance for it. And if you worked with him, you learned to deal with disorder, too.
He knew all about rigid retreat schedules, he knew all about the relentless work it took to build the Greyston companies and organizations, a bakery and apartments for homeless families and childcare centers and an AIDS center, not to mention a whole new dharma family comprising many sanghas in his lineage of Zen Peacemakers. He had his goals, all right—and he loved disorder; he couldn’t help himself.
He worked a lot, but he took the time to notice things sideways. After all, life was disorderly and he was practicing with it, not trying to control it. “Whatever you exclude from the mandala of your practice will come back to sabotage you,” he’d say. He couldn’t include everything, but it felt like he tried.
Working with Bernie was like driving fast with him on a highway towards some destination, say, stabilizing the Greyston Bakery. Only on the way we’d pass off-ramps with signs saying: Childcare for poor families or No housing for people with AIDS, and off he’d go, driving up those ramps to explore the need, see what he could do, include all those needs in the mandala. And if that kept the Bakery insecure, so be it.
It drove us crazy.
At times, the whole thing would be too much even for him. Sometimes our life together would feel too much for him. “You know what I want to do? I want to go on the streets and never come back,” he’d tell me on the way out the door. And I, reminding him of the creature comforts he loved, would retort: “And make sure you take your 50-inch TV screen with you.”
This driven man dreamed of having no responsibilities at all. He dreamed of meandering the streets around Tompkins Park in New York City, smoking a cigar butt, sitting on a bench in the sun, making small talk with street people, picking up a paper coffee cup and going into a bodega for a free cup of coffee. He wanted to be a bum.
He had a good, long run and I often run into people who knew him at some stage of his life of many stages. They still talk of him as they knew him then–the strict young Zen teacher in ZCLA, the tough CEO in Yonkers–as if that was who he really was. I knew him for 35 years and I can’t tell you who he was. Slippery as an eel; just when you thought you had him, he slipped out.
There are so many death scenes of Zen masters in the Zen literature. Just recently I thought of his dying in the ER, suddenly and unexpectedly, and saying to me: “Eve, say a word of Zen!”
But he had no time for that. Before I could say or do anything, death came, and he plunged into it like he plunged everywhere else. He lived bigly, and then just died. Not passed, died.
He’s still on the streets somewhere downtown in New York City. I don’t go down there much anymore, but if I did, I’d look for a pudgy guy wearing an olive-green sweater with holes in the arms, maybe a black rainhat in bad weather, a grizzled face, watching this world’s turmoil and trouble passing by. Not managing anything anymore, not doing anything anymore. Not thinking about the Zen Peacemakers or Greyston or what’s needed. Watching the people go by, maybe wondering why they’re in such a hurry. Why they look strained and stressed, why they’re unhappy.
It’s what I wish you, Berns.
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Photo by Peter Cunningham