Tomorrow is my 74th birthday, the first birthday in a long while which does not take place in the middle of our annual December Rohatsu retreat. We’re doing a more abbreviated retreat this time, so I won’t be sitting on my birthday.
“What are you doing on your birthday?“ people always asked me.
Year after year I’d groan and say: “I’m sitting.” Meaning, doing sitting meditation, the thing you do that first week of December. I groaned, but it was good-natured; I liked sitting on the day of the year that marked my birth.
In the early days I’d wonder, when starting a retreat, whether I’d be the same person when I got up at the end. Something big was bound to happen, right? “One ping! and I have forgotten all I knew,” Xiangyan in 9thcentury China wrote. With all his learning and sharpness, he hadn’t been able to fully penetrate and experience the nondual. He left the monastery and became a groundskeeper at an abandoned temple. Sure enough, while he was sweeping one day, a broken tile hit a bamboo tree, and the sound caused a great opening.
Retreat after retreat, I waited for that same ping! It’s bound to happen, I thought, and then I, too, would forget all I know, everything will be crystal clear and fresh as dew, and I won’t be the same anymore.
I’m not the same anymore because I’m almost 74 years old. Just when I’ve lost the desire to be different, I find that I am different after all. Enlightenment, as someone said, is a back-door affair. Perhaps for a few it comes in with a loud bang on the front door, all lights coming on out front, Lori, the two dogs, and me rushing forward to see what’s happened, like when the big bear Boris arrives at the house in midnight.
For me, it comes through the kitchen door that leads to the garage that leads to the back yard. It finds its way from the cold outdoors, maybe after having a how-do-you-do with Ms. Kwan-yin in the back, then over the wet, muddy, concrete garage floor, avoiding the blue bins of recycled plastic/glass and paper. Maybe then it’ll come through the dog door, avoid the row of boots and slippers, the few unwashed dishes in the sink, the food stains on the oven.
Chances are, it won’t avoid anything. Regardless, that’s how it seems to come for me, through clutter and travail.
Sometimes, it comes through glimpses and experiences of visceral suffering. I think about that lately because I plan to travel to Israel in 8 days, right after the retreat ends, and am told that grief, shock, and depression await there. But also, life. I’m sure of it.
I feel a longing inside. For what or whom? Maybe for myself. No, not for my True Self, or for that self that is nothing and everything; I’m too old for Zen jargon. Just for myself. If anything, the longing stands on its own, with no object in mind.
I’m surrounded by great books, a magnificent calligraphy by the great Zen Master Soen Nakagawa of prajna, emptiness, hanging in the living room, two talkative dogs, and a gorgeous red twilight over to the west. Each is its own thing, an object of beauty, but in the end, not more than a gorgeous book cover. Where’s the real thing? The real deal, as Bernie would say it.
“What are you doing on your birthday, Eve?”
“For myself.” Or just yearning.
You don’t have to send gifts or even cards, though I’m deeply grateful for good wishes. What you could do is buy Christmas gifts for the children of immigrant families who live here, most of which are undocumented.
As I’ve written before, the farms were flooded this past summer, sweeping out not just seeds and soil but also the farm jobs these families desperately rely on (the water table is still very high here). Now starts the bad winter, all farm work ended for the season. I’ve already given Jimena Pareja a check for someone’s rent as well as $1,000 in Walmart gift cards for families who’ll struggle in the week of Christmas to New Year, when schools are closed and school breakfasts and lunches won’t be available. These things matter to them in ways that many of us can’t understand.
Therefore, there’s usually no money for Christmas presents for children. Here is an Amazon list of what the children requested. Almost all are in the $20-$30 range, none above, a few under $20. A few are gift cards, a few are electronics, and the rest are eye-poppingly gorgeous—dance mats, nail polish sets, tie-dye kits, bright yellow trucks, and even a few glittering bracelets and necklaces. What’s not to love?
Yes, I know there’s inflation, but Jimena and I have tried to keep prices low. So please, buy a gift or two for one or more children. Their yearnings are as important as mine and maybe yours. They’re children, after all. We’re all children.
The gifts will automatically be shipped to Jimena, and she and her family will then wrap them up beautifully. Please don’t add my address for shipping, I won’t be around to pick anything up. Everything on the list will go automatically to her. Here’s the list once again.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.