BIG ROOM, BIG WORLD

Each morning, I wake up in a big bedroom that once accommodated two, and the first thing I feel is somewhat intimidated by its size. Behind the full-size bed (it used to be king-size) is the Medicine Buddha, on the side between two windows one of Mayumi Oda’s paintings of Kwan-yin. An altar and chair in the corner by the window, and standing on the floor on the opposite side is a terrific Peter Cunningham photo of Bernie and Jeff Bridges in a New York City restaurant celebrating Bernie’s 70th, Jeff sitting and playing guitar while Bernie looks over his shoulder. Never hung it up because I ran out of wall space; you have to give Peter’s photos the space they need. Yes, a TV screen on the dresser after his stroke that I never use, and a walk-in closet of which half is empty, the other half sparse.

The room feels too big for me, first thing in the morning. The world feels too big for me, too.

I then wonder what it would feel like to wake up in a smaller bedroom, something that fits one person, the walls closer in, the windows and door narrower. Wouldn’t that be more my size? More manageable at this time of life, as they say it? More handleable?

Bernie’s world was huge, and he had no fear. He didn’t understand other cultures or other languages—Brooklyn English and silence were pretty much what he spoke—but wherever he went he felt right at home. In 1997 he was even considering moving out of the United States. We could develop the Zen Peacemakers anywhere, he’d say. He gave some consideration to Poland, where his mother was born.

“I can’t speak the language,” I told him.

He didn’t worry because he could speak every language.

But some cultures he couldn’t get used to. Around 2009 or 2010 the Zen Peacemakers sponsored a safari in Tanzania led by Peter Matthiessen, with profits going to benefit the organization. We did what we were supposed to do, got khaki pants and shirts, decent sunglasses, and packed relatively little because we’d be moving a lot. Everyone else brought excellent, expensive camera equipment.

It was very memorable, as you can imagine. In the days we’d go out in several jeeps, each containing a driver who doubled as a guide, instantly pointing out the flora and fauna, and providing detailed explanations of habitats and habits, what to look for, what to watch out for. I remember the jeep coming to a screeching halt one day when the driver pointed out the highly dangerous Green Mamba slithering its way across the road. Peter, who loved snakes, instantly jumped out to take a closer look as the driver pleaded with him to come back.

That first night out in camping tents (fancy, with showers whenever you wanted them and coffee brought to you before dawn), we had a sumptuous dinner prepared by the staff in a large dining tent with a long table, linen tablecloth and napkins.

Where were the African guides? They sat separately outside, plates on their laps by the fire.

It’s the way it’s done, they explained to me when I asked why. The clients inside, the staff outside. Even the guides we depended on so much, those who’d demonstrated college-level knowledge of zoology, geography, and wildlife biology? The personable, good-natured black men taking such good care of the whites? The ones I’d love to ask about their families, their studies, how they knew so much?

 This is how it’s done in safaris, I was told.

Finally, our last dinner, a festive occasion on our last night together. People were invited to make comments about the safari, most of which were very positive, till it was Bernie’s turn.

“We shouldn’t be eating separately from the guides,” he said. “We’re together all day, they share all their knowledge with us, we should be eating all together.”

“Bernie, it’s the tradition,” Peter remonstrated from where he sat at the head of the table. “I’ve done this for many years, this is the tradition. It’s what they’re used to.”

“I’m not used to this,” said the guy from Brooklyn.

Peter was clearly irritated. “Bernie, it’s not helpful to come here and use a sledgehammer on long-term customs and traditions. People don’t appreciate it.”

It ended pretty much with that, and we went on.

Several years later, after his diagnosis of leukemia, when we visited him at his home for the last time, Peter told Bernie he’d been right that evening about the seating in the safari,

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