I arrived at the Sacramento Airport early, only to go round and round the rental car return in vain (and in the dark) looking for the entrance to the Budget/Avis Rental Car Return. I’m some 8 days before cataract surgery and the lights were few even in the airport. I think I went around at least three times till I found the way into the field and returned the car.
“Hi, Eve,” says a young woman with long dreadlocks, a couple of nose rings and lots of tiny dot earrings on both ear lobes, moving her wand around the sideview mirror.
I’ve stopped asking stupid questions like: “How do you know my name?” If anything, now when people wave wands around my car, I expect more questions, like: “Did you put on weight since you first checked in in Portland?” or “How was the shopping at the Japan Center in San Francisco?”
Bernie used to say that in this one life, there is no such thing as secrets—and that was well before this technical age. Nothing is withheld.
“I like your name,” she added. “My daughter’s name is Evangeline. Close.”
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Samantha. Sam,” she said. “It means God hears me.”
I think She heard me, too. Presence was everywhere in this trip, be it in Portland, walking in redwoods forests, looking way down and across the Pacific, watching the white curtain of fog part to reveal San Francisco and remind me how beautiful it is.
But mostly it was the people I talked to, who listened deeply and were ready to plunge right into the things that matter: not the weather, not the trials of Donald Trump, but rather: What are you doing now? What’s giving you energy and renewal? Who and what’s giving you love?
I told a few of them what I heard from Bernie years ago. I asked him about the face-to-face that Zen teachers do with students. He told me: “A lot of people come to see me. They want all kinds of things from me, but do you know what they really want, Eve?”
“They want me to listen to them.”
“What about a practice, guidance, koans, some way to train?”
“They say they want this or that, but do you know what they really want from you, Eve?”
“No, what, Bernie?”
“They want you to listen to them.”
It’s still taking time, and little by little I learn to do that. To listen to friends across two tall candles on a dining table while far outside cars light up the Bay Bridge at night and cruise ships blast a final farewell as they pull out onto the bay, to an old companion from street retreats sharing coffee with me outside Café Grecco, looking at large photos of a man who’d died a year ago and remembering him with so much love as his wife tells me about their last years together, speaking of how love and curiosity fuel each other as we get older while sitting on the deck of a houseboat and munching on lemon and almond croissants.
Listening to waves crashing against big black boulders, the silent song of ancient trees, the pelicans flying over Sausalito and Tiburon in formation like jet planes.
Soaking in love and friendship, cherishing and being cherished.
So much gratitude to Jane and Harvey, Chris Panos, Joan Hoeberichts, Frank Ostaseski, Bob and Jean.
Cape Perpetua, Florence, Humbug Mountain, Redwoods National Park. Eureka. Fort Bragg, Mendocino, where I’ve finally settled down for an indulgent croissant and cappuccino.
Sent a last-minute, impulsive email this morning to an old boyfriend who lives or lived somewhere here with his wife, asking if we can meet, leaving it like that. I don’t even know if he’s still living since he was 13 years older than me. If he gets it, will mine be a voice from the past? What does a voice from the past sound like?
In tired nights, capping many hours of driving and trying to get comfortable on sagging motel mattresses, I read the fascinating novel Time Shelter by the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, which is all about how easy it is to take refuge in the past, with its music, scents, lingo, and a big future still ahead, especially as people start losing their memories or their mind.
I’m not there. If the ex-boyfriend were to come here and sit across from me, we’d smile with the echo of our joint memories, maybe talk a little about Bernie whom he certainly knew, but the life would come from now—How are you? What is exciting now? What drives you, makes you happy? The answers to those questions would contain everything, the energy of past years, the shrinking future, all viscerally alive right now.
There’s not just confusion in time but also geography. Back home in Western Massachusetts, when I look west to a sun setting behind beech trees, I see the entire United States, state after state lying adjacent to each other like bales of hay over a few thousand miles. The rest of the country lies there. Two hours east is Boston and the Atlantic Ocean, followed by Europe which I’d visited often enough, and the Middle East, of which there’s lots to say but not now.
Here, when I look west there’s only the ocean, with white breakers smashing against gigantic boulders off the Oregon coast, and across from that, Asia. Highway 101 is dotted with signs: Entering Tsunami Alert Zone and Leaving Tsunami Alert Zone., reminding me that I’m not in Kansas anymore. Standing on many lookouts as I drove south, I thought of how this country (which often, after reading the morning newspaper, I think I barely know) was now behind me, and ahead there are only waves coming and receding, coming and receding.
I am writing this in a café, watching people like me coming in and out, white, leisurely, with money to burn on organic espressos and avocado omelettes. Don’t do this back home so I’m happy to do it here and now, but can’t help noticing that the front desk cashiers are all slim, tall, and white, while those who bring in the coffee and take away the dishes are Latino, wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the café, which the front-desk cashiers do not.
Just like in the two motels I stayed in, Reception is occupied by an Indian man holding a little baby in one hand as he types with his other hand and gives me my room key, or last night an Indian mother giving me an exhausted smile at 8 pm when I checked in, a scar ringing one of her dark eyes. She wished me a good night and was there today to wish me a good morning and to have a good day, which I wished her, too.
I will finish this, and if ex-boyfriend doesn’t arrive, will look into neighboring shoe store, continue to Santa Rosa for lunch, and in late afternoon proceed to San Francisco to stay with a wonderful woman whom I love and admire, with her husband, on Telegraph Hill. Hang out with another dear friend on Saturday, and another on Sunday, and more on Monday before heading back home on a Red-Eye.
How have I merited such close friendships? It’s not me at all, it’s just the Big Bang still banging away, creating and exploding and bursting forth. It can’t help itself. On a personal level, may my life continue to give birth again and again. They tell me I’m past reproductive age, but I don’t believe it, not for one second.
I went to a gas station bathroom after crossing into California yesterday and saw the sign below. Have a look.
“The lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
I thought of Rachel Carson’s words when I visited the Rose Garden in Washington Park in Portland, Oregon. The cloud cover had given way for just a few hours of sun, and we went from row to row, peering carefully at the flavors of each flower, watching as some shed petals down to the ground while others held raindrops like necklace beads. Not that they needed necklaces.
We also bent carefully to sniff their scent. What you do is you get closer, bend your head, get even closer, and when you stand back up, you’re no longer the same.
My friend took a reluctant photo of me (I’m always reluctant around cameras), and when I looked at it, to my surprise, one of the roses lay on top of my shoulder like a corsage a young boyfriend misplaced from bumbling enthusiasm, or perhaps like some giant earring that dangles too far down.
Rachel Carson speaks of things not being just themselves, but brief interludes of change. She might have added that things aren’t just themselves but beads of an endless necklace that connects all beings. It wasn’t just me bending towards the flowers, the flowers bent towards me. Not because I was the sun and not because I was a propagating bee, but because I was their sangha, their community of a sort.
They bent towards me, and I bent towards them. Did we meet anywhere? Does it matter? It’s the inclination towards, the aspiration, the longing met or unmet, that counts. That, and the dropping petals, the passing clouds overhead, the wet, brisk wind that talked not of satisfaction or disappointment but of the endlessness of it all.
Why smell roses in Portland? I live out in nature, with flowers growing at my Kwan-yin’s feet in the back. Why go to a garden in a different city? Maybe because I don’t have enough sun to grow roses by my house. But even if I did, Portland roses smell differently from New England roses.
In my last post I wrote that every time I travel, I wake up that morning and ask myself: Why exactly am I leaving home? Tell me, is there a better reason for leaving home than to smell roses in Portland?
I’ve begun my drive down to San Francisco. Hundreds of miles, 300 today, passing Cannon Beach, Newport, the Siuslaw Forest, with a motel stop in Florence overnight. Maybe I’ll stop at a cave to see sea lions, depending on the time.
Driving west from Portland towards the ocean, a coyote ran on the road and I braked hard to let him cross.
I’m sitting on a plane for a trip to the West Coast: Portland, Oregon, then down to San Francisco, Sacramento, and back home. I just figured out how to turn off the explosive scenes on the small screen in front of me, an invite from Direct TV to be entertained from morning to night.
When I left the house Aussie was chewing her Sunday morning marrow bone on her warm rug, Henry throwing his stuffed turtle up in the air for about the 1,500th time, Lori doing her weekend laundry, and rain outside.
It never fails. On the morning I leave for a trip, or the evening before, I find myself asking the same question: Why are you going?So much prep work before you even leave: Straightening out the house before you go, making sure Lori has everything to take care of dogs and house in my absence, completing things that can’t wait for 9 days, not to mention packing and traveling to airport.
But what most causes me to question my plan is appreciating what I have: the comforting light that comes in through the window, the coziness of the book by my bed, the coffee machine making good Italian coffee, the unfailing routine that sometimes feels monotonous and other times surprisingly rich—and I leave that for what?
This time, not to see family, not to teach or do other work, but to see friends.
Love comes in many guises. There’s the one that’s romantic, one-on-one. It emphasizes the specialness of one other person, the listening, caring, and loving space jointly created. Over the years your individual identity gets embedded with the other; if you don’t understand that early, you sure get it when one of you dies and you wonder: Who am I without him or her?
I discovered the answer to that through my work, but more so through my relationships with family, friends, and students. If before I was counting on one other person to be my mirror and reflect me back to me (not a job Bernie, bless his big heart, excelled in), now I find my image reflected back to me by many mirrors, each focusing on one or another dimension. Acknowledgment comes from students focusing on practice and encouragement, from friends focusing on long history, the fun of working together over many years, the deep-hearted resonance that has built up over time, and from my siblings the unconditional support and love that we have worked to develop among us over many years and over many miles of distance.
None of this was easy; none happened automatically. Without care and attention, relationships of all kinds turn fallow and lie supine on the ground, unfed, unwatered, just another brown blade of grass that’ll disappear soon with the onset of winter.
I promised myself some years ago that I will not live in an emotional desert, that I want to be held in the cross-current of reciprocal love and appreciation, of feeding and being fed, at the heart of give-and-take.
I’m an introvert. Inside is where I go for energy, comfort, reassurance. The woods also hold me. So does this trip, to see faces I haven’t seen in a long time, catch up, enjoying shared allusions and experiences, and always curious: So, what are you doing now? Tell me who you pretend you are now, and I’ll tell you who I pretend I am.
“Because it’s just me, nothing else around except water. Water water everywhere. Gray and silent. I’m bored. Maybe I’ll create some forms.”
“Forms? Why? I like everything formless, just like now. One big nothing. That’s what I call religion.”
“Maybe, but it’s very boring. You know what? Tomorrow I’m going to get to work. Start creating some light.”
“Lack of darkness.”
“You‘ll be sorry. Darkness is so much easier on the eyes.”
“That’ll take the day. After that, put on some Netflix. But on Monday I get back to work.”
“Why work? Just say Bang!”
“Okay. On Monday I’ll say Bang! and a universe will appear.”
“I hate Mondays. After that, go on vacation. You’ve done enough. Just think of all that space!”
“I need the ground under my feet.”
“You don’t have feet.”
“I need something solid and stable. On Tuesday I’ll create Earth.”
“What’s an Earth?”
“An Earth is solid and stable. You know levitation?”
“Is there a spiritual being who doesn’t know levitation?”
“It’s the opposite of that. You come down to earth, you don’t go up in the air. And I think I’ll add a few things, like sequoias, grasses, sage, and mums.”
“We don‘t need more stage sets!”
“The next day I’ll—”
“Say Bang! again?”
“No, I’ll create suns, moons, and stars.”
“But you already created a universe.”
“I made a mistake, I created too much dark matter.”
“You don’t make mistakes, at least not in theory. Of course, this one will be a doozy!”
“With suns and moons we’ll have days, months, and years.”
“Also, to-do lists.”
“Speaking of which, on Thursday—”
“Hey, what about pacing your glorious self? Take a day off, go to a spa.”
“On Thursday I’m creating Fish and Fowl.”
“Not Dungeons and Dragons? Red Dead Redemption? Super Mario?”
“On Friday I‘m making things that will walk the Earth. Cows, saber-tooth tigers, spiders, skunks, snakes.”
“Could we cancel the snakes?”
“If you slither hither and thither, if you shiver and quiver, if you got the muscle to hustle, if you walk, stalk—”
“I got it, I got it! If you can do any of those things, you appear on Friday. Take it from me, you’re creating a lot of unnecessary confusion.”
“And finally, just before sunset on Friday, I’ll create humans.”
“Why, for Your sake?”
“I’m bored dancing solo. I need partners.”
“You’re indefinable. You‘re birthless, deathless, beyond time and space, beyond beyond.”
“You’ll be sorry. Too many forms, too many relationships, too much mishigas. When do we watch TV?”
“Saturday. We rest on Saturday. Sleep late. Have a nice breakfast. You like eggs?”
“It’ll be too loud. Too many sights and smells. And kids! You know how I feel about kids! And malls! Kids in malls! Take it from me, you’ll miss the gray water and the silence. You’ll miss the boredom. And we’re so happy here, just the one of us.”
I hung up the laundry outside, hoping the sun will dry it by end of day, then noticed the colorful leaves already on the ground and took the above photo. There it is, enough of summer’s warmth to dry even the jeans and sofa covering, while reminders of fall lie all around me.
We’re in in-between times. I’m in that zone quite a bit.
On my way to the laundry lines, carrying a white bin of laundry, I slipped on one of Henry’s newer toys, the pink dinosaur with yellow wings (it doesn’t have a name yet, Pinky is still taken by his old pink elephant). Our indoor floors and outdoors grass, not to mention the more dangerous stairs, are dotted with his toys.
I looked around me while spending a few moments on my butt, taking in the toy and the small depression in the grass that has been there for many years but which I forgot about. Thought of Quarterback Aaron Rodgers falling and hurting himself on his first outing with the New York Jets, only I don’t plan to be out for the season. Also thought of how quickly I like to get up on my feet and go on with my day, as if nothing happened.
That’s exactly what I did. But things don’t happen for no reason. One reason for the fall is my neglect of the toy and depression in the ground. And other reasons?
The New York Jets started checking and rechecking their turf right away after Rodgers’ fall, but when things bring me down like that, I don’t think of turf but rather energy. What is this pointing me to? What energy is propelling me too fast and too strongly, or what energy is lacking or missing? Am I being pointed in a new direction even as I make my way to the laundry lines hanging out in back?
“There is more than one lane in a highway,” says my New Hampshire friend on the phone.
Her memory’s gone a bit goofy, and mine also because I can’t remember the context in which she said this. I called to wish her a happy Jewish new year, we talked about how scary things were (her words, not mine, followed by my cautioning her not to scare herself to death), and then she said the above. I quickly wrote it down. I try to move fast when I hear or see things that strike me even when at first, I don’t know why.
“I don’t believe in distractions,” I told someone else, this time in Florida, that very day.
I had a bad interaction with a friend, a co-worker did some harm, a family member is sick—all are part of life. It’s why the Buddha said that life is suffering no matter how you cut it. Something happens that doesn’t bode well, doesn’t meet expectations, and we want to just turn the page. Get back to normal, get back to routine, get the earth under our feet again. I’m all for cultivating stability one way or another, but falling on your face can also bring rewards.
“There is more than one lane in a highway.” Even on our country roads, if a tractor is going slowly or a bike rider is laboring her way up the hill, it’s perfectly acceptable to cross the double yellow lines and pass them.
Landing on my butt next to a full laundry bin (how had I managed to keep it upright?) made me wonder: Have I been driving on the same lane far too long and it’s time to switch? Does laundry day always have to take place on Wednesday?
The life dance is never about me because it’s cosmic. I find myself partnered first with one dancer, then another, often moving from place to place. The dance makes no promises and doesn’t ask for permission. The only question I face is whether to put up obstructions or go with it. Call it a distraction and go on with life as usual, pretend I never fell on the grass, make believe that nothing much is happening? Really?
For the Jewish new year (my family spends lots of time on the phone with each other on the eve of), my brother wished for me renewal in at least one area of life. Instantly I felt creative juices flowing, new thoughts rising. How do I make a new move, even a small one?
I don’t pretend to be in balance. Buoy up and feel like flying, get tripped up by a pink dinosaur with yellow wings, and look around me at the yellow leaves on the green grass. Yes, time’s a-flying. At the same time, there are so many in-between times.
“Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear Aussie, Happy birthday to you.”
“Leave me alone.”
“It’s your birthday, Aussie. You’re 6 years old.”
“A dog in her prime. This morning I thanked Bernie quietly for asking to get another dog quickly after Stanley died, whereas I could have waited. You were his gift to me because he died 45 days later. Aussie? Aussie? Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“I’m not saying another word.”
“Because you’re going to put it on your blog, and you know where that goes.”
“Hell no, it goes to AI. And AI is going to create an image of me that looks nothing like me, and it’s going to quote all the wise things I say and get millions of hits, and where will I be throughout all this?”
“Are they giving me money? Steak for my birthday? Are they giving me marrow bones? Are they giving me anything? Are they even sending me a happy birthday card, the kind with the pop-up cupcakes that have no smell? They are not. THEY’RE JUST USING ME TO MAKE MONEY!”
“It’s terrible, Aussie.”
“You’re telling me! I should go on strike, like the actors and writers in Hollywood.”
“Like the auto workers.”
“Do they think I come cheap? Do they understand how hard I’ve worked to become everybody’s most loveable and trustworthy dog, the canine Walter Cronkite? What about the fan letters I get inviting me to hang out with other dogs and teach them tricks? I have become a model for good canine citizenship. An Influencer!”
“Wow, you mean there’s an Influencer right in my own home and I never knew?”
“Old people know nothing.”
“Other than voting for Donald Trump, what else are you influencing your millions of followers to do, Aussie?”
“Purina is asking me to talk about their latest no-gluten vegan pheasant treats, made specially for dogs who love birds. Ruffwear wants me to model their latest red vest for anxious dogs, and Chewy’s wants me to sleep soundly on their anti-anxiety bed. The best offer yet comes from CVS.”
“The drug store? What do they want?”
“They want me to walk up and down by their entrance with a banner: Opioids are good for you. They’re sending millions of cameras. I’m going to lose all this once AI takes over the world.”
“Aussie, you don’t need to be an Influencer. You have everything you need right here: A sofa and rug on which to sleep, good food, daily walks—”
“Okay, not today because It’s raining. You go out with Leeann’s pack twice a week. You have Lori and Chihuahua Henry here, not to mention Henry’s entire menagerie of stuffed squeaky toys. What more could a dog want?”
“More! More! More!”
“Why, Aussie? You’re getting so anxious lately. I try taking you to the zendo, you won’t come out of the car because of the nearby shooting range. I try taking you outside but you’re afraid of the new dog living down the road. What’s going on? You used to be such a confident and curious dog, ready to go everywhere. Now look at you.”
“It’s all because I am turning 6.”
“So what if you’re turning 6?”
“I‘m getting older!”
“You’re always getting older, Aussie.”
“Yeah, but now I am really older. Not getting older, just older! I’m going to die.”
“Aussie, they say that the minute you’re born you start dying, right?”
“But who knew? Now that I‘m turning six I really know it. Of course, I’m getting hysterical. Anyone who really knows they’re going to die should get hysterical.”
“Not necessarily, Aussie.”
“When I turn 6 I’m over the hill, nobody will be interested in what I eat or say or where I sleep. It’ll be the end of my career as an Influencer. In fact, even AI won’t care, and when AI doesn’t care, you know you’re a real has-been.”
“Aussie, I hope you have many more years ahead of you. Here’s to more talks and more walks.”
“How about a birthday gift? Just one thing I want.”
Aussie’s off to find Nessie. She asked me to come along, accused me of not having any sense of adventure. I told her that, much as I love the Scottish Highlands, they’re not right for me now. There’s a different trip I want to make.
Sometimes you can go looking for the Loch Ness monster. Or you can start doing a different kind of journey. Most important, ask yourself: What now?
A friend of mine recently said on the phone that he’s done what he’s wanted to do, written what he’s wanted to write, and what’s up for him now is to find a loving companion.
I was taken aback that someone could see this so clearly. For me, it’s easy to continue the old habits of doing, writing, teaching.
What writing and teaching have in common is that both help me see things I didn’t see before. Questions I didn’t know I had, something in the core I wasn’t conscious of that finds its way to my fingers, then the computer keys, then the screen.
I wasn’t prepared to give a talk Tuesday night, but I did, and things became clear even as I spoke them; I was the first to be surprised. The space frees up and some inner voice begins to speak. You don’t even know this will happen till it comes out of your mouth, or suddenly appears on the screen.
For so much of my life I avoided the path of the heart. The karma of it is clear. My eyes go up to the sky, which I know, from watching so many other people, that it’s a damn good sign that I’ve gone right into my head.
Bernie’s eyes rarely climbed up when he spoke, even as he was thinking; he kept them straight ahead. At times his famous thick brows would knit together, furrows would appear on top. He might look over your shoulder for a moment. But his eyes didn‘t roll up much.
Mine do. Go back to the mind where it’s safe, where you’ve made your mark in the past starting when you got good grades in school with relatively little effort and were told you were smart and capable. Continue that theme with variations over the decades.
And what about opening up that dusty path that leads elsewhere? The one like the desert roads in western Morocco, so covered with overturned, sharp-edged boulders and wide, jagged cracks that aid vehicles can’t get through to help those affected by the earthquake? I feel at times that that’s been the path to my heart, to my deepest feelings.
Mine is a self that has not felt very comfortable around children but loves to look into the eyes of Milton, first grade, and hear his stories at our local Catholic Charities office about the camp he went to (with your help) this past summer. Would love to hug him tight, too, but refrains.
Mine is the body that wishes to stretch out an arm to his doting mother who went through hell to get here and wants nothing for herself, just that Milton grow in safety and have a good life.
Open your arms, I tell myself.
I can’t speak much Spanish, another voice says.
You don’t have to, the dialogue continues, just open your arms.
I love students and meditators who cope with challenging children, sick parents, and full-time jobs. I’m sure old-time monks left home because staying home was too tough a practice. I have long ago given up the distance we as teachers were encouraged to cultivate; I hug them because I love and admire them.
A path to a more balanced and honest relationship with brother and sister, get away from the older-sister-who-knows-best role and admit to my yearnings, my wishes for closeness, admit to doubts and not knowing my own next steps.
I’ve had loves of all kinds, watched myself flounder, sometimes not show up for husbands, lovers, and friends. Love is much bigger thann a loving companion, it’s the entire life force. So why die before my time? Why roll up my eyes to think more rather than keep them straight ahead in this moment, opening towards this person, this tree, this dog.
If I was talking Zen talk, I would convey to them that they are Buddhas. That I am Buddha, all one thing, no secrets, no barriers anywhere other than the artificial ones we create. Give no fear—including to myself.
Why just keep on doing the old things because for years they worked? Who needs another book, another blog, more teachers? Stories, yes, lots of them. Not AI stories, but ones that tell of what it is to follow breadcrumbs, veer right and left, get lost, almost be devoured by witch or wolf, and finally reach home—without going to Scotland.
I’ve met my Nessies, I told Aussie before she left, I’ve met my monsters. And the one I’m most afraid of isn’t long-necked and underwater, it’s the rolling of the eyes upwards towards ideas and abstractions, plotting new reasons to work, rather than looking straight ahead into connection. I fear nothing else right now.
How do I change direction? Make that sharp turn of the wheel and go down an untraveled side street?
My sister taught me a new word: Coddiwomple. It means traveling in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination. Drive purposefully down that elusive side street, pay attention to people, listen to stories, forget about mistakes (Bernie said there’s no such thing). Don’t condition this on other people’s responses (they don’t meet me there!), go full out. Vague destination, but the life force is real.
We have big storms outside (our 5th consecutive day of rain). Aussie lies on the office rug; before that she spent time on the back seat of the garaged car, her safe space. The illegal Chihuahua sits right on my foot and I can feel his little butt shaking; both dogs are very afraid of the occasional thunder. I can’t keep Henry on my lap all the time, but I can occasionally put words aside, bend and pick up the little dog, stroke him, tell him things will be okay even as he continues to tremble. Can’t control the weather, but I can do that.
I have a request. I ask for support for this blog on a quarterly basis. The blog is free—it is at least as much value to me as it may be to others—I should probably pay folks to read it rather than the other way around. I don’t follow the blog’s numbers of hits or readers because that’s not why I write. Nevertheless, I pay to maintain and service it. I usually respond to those who email me. I admit I coddiwomple my way around the blog and my life, sharing their weird twists and turns (including illegal U-turns). Often, I feel like urging you, as we do in a certain Zen ceremony, to wash your ears out after hearing my words.
But there’s one thing better than success, and that’s failure. My motto is: Fail, fail, and fail again. Fail better! Always share. Always connect.
So please use the link below, Donate to My Blog, if you are so inclined. Thank you.
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.
“Guess what I want for Christmas? A food bowl with the Man’s mug shot on it.”
“Luckily, Aussie, we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Chanukah? My birthday? That’s coming up real soon.”
“You get steak on your birthday, Auss, not a food bowl with Trump’s mug shot on it.”
“You mean I can’t get what I want for my birthday? What about his picture on my water bowl? Or on my orange hunters vest for hunting season? It’ll match his hair!”
‘Forget about it, Aussie. Take a look at that photo. He’s the very picture of truculence.”
“Belligerence, Aussie. Nasty-ism.”
“Aussie, look at the way he’s looking at the camera, at his eyes, his chin, lips, the furrows over his eyebrows. It’s the perfect photo of revenge and even hate. That’s one nasty man.”
“My hero! I want it on my blanket, I want to sleep with him.”
“You don’t sleep on a blanket, Aussie, you sleep on the sofa.”
“Can we put his photo in the living room? There’s a perfect place for it right over the altar with the compassion thig-a-ma-jigs—”
“You mean Kwan-yin and Maria of Guadalupe?”
“–and Bernie and your parents and all the other people. They need company!”
“Forget about that, Auss.”
“I know, why don’t you have it painted over the entire house outside? You’ve wanted to repaint the outside of the house for years. Our home looks like nothing, a light gray, nobody even looks at it, not even when they walk on the road above and I bark like crazy. But paint this photo of the Man all over the outside and we’ll have everybody gawking and pointing. Fox will come!”
“Foxes are always visiting here, Auss.”
“You know what I mean. Fox! They’ll interview me. They’ll take pictures of our home. We’ll be heroes!”
“I don’t want to be a hero.”
“I say it’s time to refresh and renew the place we call home. It needs a complete make-over.”
“No, Aussie. You know why?”
“You’re afraid I’ll bite the painters?”
“No, Auss. I’m not doing it for the same reason that I don’t watch horror movies or movies with lots of blood and gore—”
“My favorite kinds!”
“—or read scary books at night by Stephen King, who’s a damn good writer. Because if I do, I won’t sleep. I will see ghosts and ghouls in the darkness and have nightmares instead of dreams. The next day I’ll be run-down, distracted, and anxious. Life brings with it enough challenges and it’s tough to keep a clear mind. I don’t have to add more craziness to my life.”
“What about my favorite dogs?”
“Lassie? Benjy? Scooby-Doo?”
“No, Cujo. Pampers the Zombie Poodle? Rip the Rotting Rottweiler? I love those movies. Every time I see one, I want to bite somebody.”
“My point entirely, Aussie. We are responsible for the state of our minds. When I see horror and violence, it affects my mind, makes me see monsters everywhere. Makes me feel scared and more confused. And that’s on me because I know it’s not healthy, so why do it?”
“You’re a scaredy-cat. Just look at that picture: Gentle, good intentions, a man who loves everybody. A sweet, mild-mannered human, just what this country needs.”
“I think too many movies featuring vampire Vizslas have affected your mind, Auss. I can’t live in a house that has a face like that painted all over the outside, it’ll affect me badly. And think what message it gives to the rest of the world!”
“We’ll be noticed. With any luck, they might even try us in court for something, like being co-conspirators,”
“You mean, for being full-fledged idiots? There are too many of those already, Aussie.”
“Sounds to me like you need an anti-anxiety bed. There are some good ones on Chewy’s. but they’re probably too small for you. Would you consider getting two and putting them together? Expensive, I know, but you need to take care of that crazy mind of yours.”