MEMORIAL MORNING

Photo by Peter Cunningham of Greyston Bakery staff; Howard stands at right

When I woke up this morning I knew right away that it was the memorial day for Howard, a member and resident at the Zen Community of New York for many years. 24 years have passed since he was killed that spring afternoon in the apartment he shared with a housemate and, sporadically, with me.

I stayed in the apartment 2 nights a week while doing work for the Greyston Foundation in Yonkers, and that day I returned to my home near Woodstock at 11 at night only to find a message from the Yonkers Police Department: Please call right away.

Oh no, I thought, did someone complain about Woody (my dog)? Did I forget to clean up after him? Did I park my car in an illegal spot? You search in all the familiar routines of your life to discover what went wrong, but it’s nothing like that at all. A man from the neighborhood had knocked on the door and asked Howard for money. Howard, usually generous to a fault, said he couldn’t give him anymore, and the man killed him.

Howard was Chinese. If he’d been Jewish we’d have called him the Golden Boy, the one who succeeds in school, has lots of friends, knows just what he wants to do with his life and gets into the best colleges, the one who is going to make the family proud and prosperous. I knew lots of Jewish immigrant families with a son on whom their fondest hopes and plans rested.

There was only one problem: Howard was gay. No one knew in the family. All they knew, it turned out much, much later, is that he broke off all ties with them and they had no idea where he went or what happened to him. Howard meandered back and forth around New York and finally found his way to the Zen Community.

He was not a Buddhist, he told everyone, he was a Confucian, and to prove it he wrote a book describing the positive values of Confucianism, especially family ties and obligations.

“So Howard,” I said to him while sitting in the kitchen we shared one day, “If you think so highly of family, how come you’re not in touch with your own?”

He turned from the sink where he was washing dishes, his usually kind, friendly eyes filled with rage. “You stupid woman! You think any Chinese family wants to know that their son is a faggot?” That last word he shouted out with loathing, then walked out of the room and didn’t talk to me for a week.

This morning I thought of him, and the many sons and daughters who left their families for the same reason. Howard was lucky enough to find another family, a community of meditators. With them he moved to southwest Yonkers to do economic and social development work and stayed long after most of us had moved on. It was that family that cremated and mourned him, and that planted a tree in his name.

After he died, a tech wizard tracked down Howard’s family and a brother came down for the memorial. Years after that, a niece created a film about a man she never met out of old photos and interviews with many of us; the film was shown in film festivals. Times and generations had changed, and the family reclaimed its faggot son.

This morning I lit incense for Howard and then looked out the window. It was April, but the sky was gray. “Live with others in the spirit of spring,” Howard used to say, quoting a Confucian scholar, “live with yourself in the spirit of autumn.”

 

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IF YOU CAN’T STAND TO READ ABOUT POOP

If you can’t stand to read about poop, don’t read this post.

I arrived home from Switzerland on Monday night. On Tuesday early afternoon I took Aussie and Harry out into the woods. It was their first unleashed run since I’d gone and my chance to feel the New England (still) frozen earth under my feet. We had various adventures and came home.

I didn’t notice anything amiss till I called them to eat and Harry didn’t show up. Instead he lay on the sofa, clearly in pain. When Harry doesn’t rush to the kitchen as the sound of food rolling into his food bowl things are serious. I wondered whether I would make it to the zendo in the evening and just then Aussie, standing nearby, tottered and fell on the ground. She got up quickly enough, but her legs shook.

I never made it to the zendo last night. Instead, I made it to the hospital with two very sick dogs and was told they both exhibited classic signs of severe marijuana poisoning.

“How is that possible?” I asked the vet. “I took them right into the deep woods. We didn’t pass neighbors, compost, or anything like that.”

“People leave things in the woods,” she said.

She let me take Harry home—he could at least careen his way to the car—but recommended I leave Aussie in the hospital. “Try to check on Harry every hour,” she instructed. “Wake him up, make sure he’s conscious.”

She needn’t have worried. Harry was up every 20-30 minutes all night last night, running around the house, crashing into lamps, tables, and chairs, back legs crumbling under him, body collapsing left and right while I chased him with a leash, trying to stop him from hurting himself. He seemed afraid of me, afraid of the house. He rushed into cluttered corners and brought down side tables and books, belly strangely distended.

“Don’t let him go up or down stairs,” the vet said.

But Harry rushed upstairs into the bedroom and jumped on my bed. I hoped he’d rest there so I followed and lay next to him, exhausted. He clambered further down and lay on top of my legs, keeping me captive under his 41 pounds of scrappy muscle.

I shut my eyes, enjoying a few moments’ quiet; I felt enclosed by affection. He’s farting, I thought to myself. I bent to look down from my pillow and saw the dark puddle a foot away from me. Harry had left a pool of diarrhea on top of the quilt under which I lay.

I lay there quietly, not moving a muscle so as not to disturb the dog. This is love, I thought to myself. A red brindle dog, confused, anxious, in pain, stretched tightly over my body in search of relief, and next to him a puddle of shit.

Sometimes we are loved but don’t feel loved. The kisses, the words, the murmurs of endearment are not there. Even the dog that always rested his body against mine now runs away because of illness. But illness is also love. It confuses things, makes a mess, has a bad smell, and it’s love.

Soon, I knew, I’ll squirm and get out from under Harry because his weight is too much for me, and he will jump off in alarm and continue banging into things and bringing them down. I will follow him with a leash, say soothing words. And when he finally rests again I’ll go back up, collect the blanket, the cover, the sheet, the pillowcases, and even my bathrobe and put them into the washing machine. Later I will find poop everywhere, including in the lining of the duvet cover (how did it all get inside, I’ll wonder, and how does a little dog like Harry produce so much of it).

I’ll call the hospital, check on Aussie, maybe bring Harry in in the morning for a further check-up. Mop the wooden floors upstairs and down because Harry dribbled piss all over.

A night of shit, is what it is. A night and day of shit, illness, and confusion. So you clean up, try to feed him by hand, catch yourself before shouting at him because he careens into the water bowl and splashes water on the floor you just mopped. Someone is iIl, and you take care. Doesn’t feel like the real thing, but it is the real thing. At the same time, nothing to write home about.

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SWISS CHOCOLATE

Photo by Leeann Warner

“Miss me already?”

“OMG, Stanley, what are you doing in Dublin Airport?”

“I have become more mobile since I died. I smelled a grilled cheese/tomato sandwich and tracked you down here. Why are you eating grilled cheese in an airport?”

“Because I’m on my way back from Switzerland where I taught this last week and I’m hungry. Oh Stan, you always did love food. When you were alive, I mean.”

“I still love food. Trouble is, I can’t eat any since I lost my body. Can’t steal it, either, so you don’t have to hide the Swiss chocolate anymore like you used to.”

“You ate so much Swiss chocolate, Stanley!”

“People said it would kill me. Instead I lived till I was almost 15. Probably would have lived longer if I ate more chocolate.”

“Speaking of stealing food, Stanley, you have a worthy successor in Harry the Cur. Harry can jump onto the counter and the stove for beef stew. Even you couldn’t jump that high.”

“I was never stupid enough to jump onto a hot stove. I was silly in those younger years, but never crazy.”

“I miss you, Stanley.”

“Good for you.”

“Everybody says I should be living my life. Instead I miss those who’re gone.”

“Attachments! Don’t you love them?”

“Weird things happen when people and animals die, Stanley. Their voice seems to get louder rather than softer. In fact, they get so loud that sometimes I can’t hear the voices of the living, know what I mean?”

“No.”

“Your voice is so much louder than the voices of Aussie the Bandit and Harry the Cur. They’re alive, but they still don’t have much personality. The land of the living is kind of mute compared to the land of the dead.”

“They’re young, give them time. How strong was my personality when you got me?”

“At first, none. Later you became the most stubborn, ornery, willful dog I ever had.”

“That was moi!”

“You had opinions about everything, Stanley.”

“It’s true, I was a real Zen master. Don’t forget, the Man gave me transmission.”

“The only thing the Man ever gave you was food.”

“Transmission comes in many ways. Speaking of the Man, is his voice as loud as mine?”

“It’s everywhere, Stanley. He seems to be talking right through me, especially when I’m teaching. Someone asks something or something happens, and the thought flashes in my mind: I know just what Bernie would say now. And then I laugh.”

“Why? Because he was funny?”

“No, because there’s something magical about it, Stan. It’s like he’s right there in the retreat house in Sternenberg telling people what he thinks.”

“The Man was just like me, opinions about everything. Sometimes it felt like I was giving him transmission, know what I mean?”

“Not really.”

“Who else talks through you?”

“Nobody, Stan.”

“How about moi?”

“Toi? Why should toi speak through me?”

“Because I am also a Zen master. I came out with some real beauties.”

“Like what?”

“Like Your steak is my steak because we’re all one.’”

“We ate vegetarian meals in Sternenberg, Stanley.”

“Too bad. That was one of my more skillful teachings. Did a dog lick your plates?”

“I don’t know if they let dogs to do that in Switzerland, Stanley.”

“Don’t ever go back there again. Do I smell Swiss chocolate in your bag? My favorite chocolate in the whole world! That’s the problem with dying.”

“What’s the problem, Stanley?”

“You can go everywhere, but you can’t do much. Maybe I could taste some through Harry. After all, if Bernie could speak through you, why can’t I taste Swiss chocolate through Harry the Cur?”

“No way Harry is stealing my Swiss chocolate, Stan. Everyone knows chocolate is poison for dogs.”

“True, he is a little young, but I’ll whisper in his ear. Instruct him in my old chocolate-stealing strategies.”

“You’ll do no such thing, you dead coot!”

“Just watch. I’ll make Harry wise beyond his years.”

 

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WHAT’S A ROMANTIC DOING IN ZEN?

Photo by Peter Cunningham

I quoted Lao-Tzu the other day: “Eyes unclouded by longing.“ Words sent me by a friend.

To get to a point of no longing smack in the middle of birth and death, where he is right now, is quite something, perhaps finally essential. I did a lot of that practice after Bernie became ill. There was so much to accept, so much to make peace with,. Four months before he died, in early summer, I felt that I had reached the place my friend refers to as articulated by Lao-Tzu, and by other masters as well. I had eyes unclouded by longing.

But here I am in Switzerland to lead retreat with one of my students, and someone pointed out that it’s my first time in Europe after Bernie died. We always loved coming to Switzerland, to warm and welcoming friends, teachers, and students. To a challenge posed by two Zen teachers who taught together: Work more in partnership together, they urged us. The world needs to see more partnerships between men and women. We had trouble with that because ours was both a vertical and horizontal relationship, unlike theirs. Some things came into fruition, some did not; that, too, is what you work with at the end of a marriage’s lifetime.

Has longing disappeared? Have I reached the point of being at peace with things as they are?

The photographer Peter Cunningham took the photo above some 23 years ago, when we were back in Yonkers. There must have been a work meeting and it must have been summer because I’m sitting outside with Woody, my Golden Retriever, by my side, and I’m gazing at something. Where? Who knows? Probably at some panorama of endless possibilities visible only to me. I was such a romantic at heart. Not romantic only in love (Bernie and I were not a couple at the time), but romantic in the sense of Goethe and Wordsworth (in fact my dog was called Wordsworth, Woody for short).

My father loved the photo so I gave it to him. A few years after he died in 2015, his widow moved to a new home and a new life, so I took the photo back. And now, as I was doing my own post-death clean-up, I found it again and wondered what to do with it.

Should I trash the photo? Is there room for a romantic in Zen practice?

The face is younger, of course, and also filled with hope, longing, yearning, curiosity. There’s a road still ahead of that woman, she’s sure of it. She’s such a romantic.

What’s a woman like that doing leading a Zen retreat in Switzerland? Aren’t we told again and again to close the circle between life as it is and life as we’d like it to be? But there she goes, looking beyond the hedge to what lies outside, wondering, always wondering about the possibilities.

When I was a child I was a dreamer. I didn’t like people because I was afraid of them, afraid of social situations where I was such a dork (I was a dork before the word was invented). So I went into my dreams. I could sit in a car full of people and be gone, having terrific conversations inside about the meaning of life while they talked about the weather and the next Jewish holiday coming up. My mother often turned around, saw me, and got angry: Stop dreaming! Don’t be so anti-social.

The woman in 1996 was still dreaming. And the woman now? A lot less, but her eyes are still clouded by longing, a perpetual reaching out even with no grasp in sight. She could never be a pragmatist like her husband was, his feet securely on the ground even as the rest of him went flying. But when his life filled up with uncertainty, when he could no longer do what he used to do, his eyes, too, became more tender and ethereal.

When your legs can’t hold you up anymore you give up even the last, tiniest pretense of solidity and accept the fact that all you are is stardust. There’s a weeping beauty in that realization, and the deepest love imaginable.

The blog will be silent till early next week.

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EYES UNCLOUDED BY LONGING

I packed to go to Switzerland to teach, and thought of bringing a gift. So I picked up my favorite of Bernie’s books, Infinite Circle, turned idly to the flyleaf before putting it in the valise, and saw that he’d signed it. I looked, sighed, and put it away. That copy, at least, I’m keeping close, at home.

A friend of mine wrote me of his very new (and first) grandson, and simultaneously of his wife who is now in hospice care after years of struggle with cancer. He ended by quoting Lao Tzu: “With eyes unclouded by longing.”

I sent him back the photo above: Love, Bernie.

Yes, that kind of love. Not the love of shared enthusiasms, of happily venturing out of rural Massachusetts and out into the world, of packing the same black Eagle Creek canvas bags a quarter of a century old accompanied by the usual chatter:

He: “I finished packing.”

She: “I hope I can get this all in.”

He (with a groan): “Okay, let me do it. Let’s start from scratch (empties out everything).”

Not the love of driving down to the airport before dawn with the usual banter:

He: “I told you we didn’t need an alarm clock. I’m up anyway at 3.”

She: “So what are we going to be teaching?”

He: “You know I never plan ahead of time.”

Not that. Instead, the kind of love you scratch out with the other hand, the one not paralyzed by stroke. The kind of love you transmit by computer screen rather than through a hug, or through hanging out outside the building with your students so that you could have your cigar, because you’re not traveling anymore. You’re not crossing any ocean, you’re not looking out over any clouds. All you can do is look at that screen and hope people get the message. Or else scratch out two words on a flyleaf of a book written long, long ago: Love, Bernie. (While Infinite Circle came out around 2001, the talks it’s based on were given in the early 1980s).

The kind of love that either breaks your heart or breaks you.

I can’t speak for Bernie, but for me it was a love filled to the rafters with longing. Not a love that found its place, that found some permanent peace. That might have been true for him, ever the pragmatist, but not for me. My eyes, at least, were not unclouded by longing. What’s a romantic doing in Zen?

Everything collapses into Love, Bernie: memories, sorrow, jokes, complaints, the shared drives in the car (She: How come you’re going 10 mph? He: I‘m thinking. She: You know there’s a convoy behind us a mile long.), the coffee cup held hazardously as we rattle up the driveway, the pleasure of leaving yet knowing you’ll both come back home to joyous dogs and bird feeders that need filling. Also, the chasms that separated us. Hope, too, is in those two words, hope for more rather than less love, deeper and deeper connection all the time.

Perhaps the love of God is not clouded with longing, but of a person? A man, a woman, a child?

The goldfinches are back. Not the hundreds from that first early spring of 2016 after his stroke, when they crowded around 3-4 feeders hung outside the room we converted into a bedroom on the ground floor. Dozens and dozens of them now, filled with the optimism of spring.

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I’LL CROSS THAT BRIDGE WHEN I COME TO IT

We often go to walk in the Montague Plains. Fewer chances of Aussie running away. The Plains are large, but not as large as the forest haunted with smells of elk and deer, bears, coyotes, and bobcats, with the hoot of owls luring you deeper and deeper in. Aussie follows the sounds and smells. When she’s there she becomes almost another animal, looking at me in the distance as through a big divide.

“Aussie!” I call out.

She contemplates me as if sizing up what side she’ll fall into: the human, civilized side, promising food and a warm bed, or the wild rushing side of the forest, with its enormous pine trees protecting the last icy vestiges of winter, promising mysterious sniffs and tracking, not to mention chases after wild turkeys. Sometimes, after a long hesitation, she returns to me, but I can see the other side calling her name.

“What is my true name?” she asks me.

“Bernie called you Aussie.”

“Yes, but is that my true name?”

“How should I know?” I tell her. “I don’t even know my true name right now.”

She gives a short, derisive snort and begins to float away towards the other side, waiting for me to look down at the gurgling creek or else watch for the ice that’s still on the ground, any distraction will do, and before I know it she’s gone.

I don’t know what to do. Two trainers who have worked with her, one of whom has walked with her many times in the woods, say that I’ll never get a guaranteed recall from Aussie because she’s a scent hound, fated to eventually follow any smell that wafts her way.

Do I keep her on leash for the rest of her life or do I let her run? Do I keep her safe or let her do her exploring? She knows how to get out of the woods, she knows how to get home. But there are dangers out there.

Inside the house she’s soft and silky, stretching luxuriously like a cat, and like a cat, keeping her distance. Not for her to put her head on my pillow like Harry, she has too much dignity. Affectionate—and reserved. You think I’m a domesticated creature? I’ll show you.

And show she does, not just me but the squirrels. We are minus 3 squirrels this spring, and I watch her do it. This is the time when they’re really hungry, and they stay longer on the earth to search out sunflower seeds that fall from the bird feeders. I’ve seen her slinking quietly behind my office and standing deadly still at the corner, watching the squirrels forage. Not for her Harry’s loud, bullying rush. Hers is a quiet, controlled approach—and then she leaps.

I’ve had some half-dozen dogs that chased squirrels. Aussie’s the first to catch them, shaking them dead and before depositing them on the ground. I apologize to them later as I politely toss them over the fence. Miss Compassion of the Back Yard looks over all this with her quizzical, beneficent smile.

But now we’re in the Montague Plains. Aussie and I have crossed the narrow plank bridge that lies over the creek raging with water from the snow-melt, and there’s a problem. Harry won’t cross.

“Come on,” I urge him. He begins to whine. Aussie and I continue on the path, and Harry’s whines turn to cries, then yowls that can be heard at the White House. He scampers up and down the sides of the creek, urgently looking for a way to cross, rushing down closer to the freezing water, then back up, bawling like a baby.

Aussie turns around, rushes back and crosses the plank bridge. With her body she edges the younger dog toward the bridge, you could practically hear her say in dog language: Come on! You can do it! And when Harry pulls back in fright she grabs a hold of his black collar, his name embroidered in gold along with my phone number, and starts pulling him toward the bridge. It almost works, but he resists at the very end and gets away from her.

Aussie comes back to me, and I return with her across the bridge to be with Harry. We could walk on that side, too, there’s plenty of space for everyone, including those who won’t cross bridges.

“One day,” I tell him, “you’ll have to cross that bridge.”

“Okay, just not today.” Maybe never, he’s thinking. I can see a happy gleam in his eye.

While we’re having that conversation, Aussie is beginning to sidle away, listening not for a conversation but for a call. Conversations don’t interest her; she lives to be called.

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SITTING

A month ago, my friend Tim moved into the house. Tim is 39 years old, with four nice children, one of whom is already in college. He learned to formally meditate, or sit, last time he was in prison, which was some 10 years ago.

His car was broken into, and when the police didn’t help he decided to take things into his own hands. He knew all about breaking into cars, having done that since the age of 12.

He’d been pretty much on his own practically since birth, left alone at home with his older brother even as very young children, father gone, mother gone, food gone. From 12 on he was in juvenile detention, followed by a few years in prison. In his 20s, he was hired as part of a construction crew to build the Main Hall of the Zen Peacemakers on a big farm we owned at the time, and then remained to do maintenance. He also married and had four young children.

Till the break-in. He was now 30, but knew they’d come again, so he waited in ambush at night. They came, he attacked, and beat a teenage boy very badly. A good lawyer got him acquitted in civil court, but he was convicted in criminal court and sentenced to 2-3 years in prison.

Bernie and I, along with folks from the community, visited him all the time, brought books and notebooks, and it was then that he learned how to meditate, or sit.

With the aid of that good lawyer he got his sentence vastly reduced and went home to his family and earning his livelihood through construction. He became an excellent carpenter; eventually, he also got divorced. We now share this house; he brings his two young girls to stay here, too.

Sometimes he comes to sit with us in the zendo. In the car coming home last night, he said: “You know, I used to sit for hours every day as a teenager, as much as 16 hours a day.”

“Is that so,” I said.

“That was the punishment in juvenile detention. They’d tell us to sit on a chair and not move, and make us do that hour after hour. You couldn’t move any part of your body, you couldn’t move a muscle. If you did, they’d chain your hands together, your feet together, and then the hands with the feet so that you could only lie on your front hogtied. They made me sit like that again and again, hours on end.”

Sitting as punishment, I thought to myself. You want to run, you want to dance, you want to play basketball. Instead, you have to sit.

“Once I wouldn’t do a book report on Martin Luther King,” Tim said. “They made me sit on the chair and told me not to move for days. ‘You’ll break before we do,’ they promised me. I’d just smile. Once you said that to me, I wasn’t breaking. You might say I did my own nonviolent resistance, and they just made me sit there and sit there and sit there, not moving, for days.”

I’m driving the car in the dark, saying little.

“In my life I won three championships,” he continues.

“Which ones?” I ask him.

“I was chess champion in the juvenile detention center. I beat out 125 other juveniles. We had board games there so I learned to play chess.”

“And the second?” I asked.

“That poker tournament I won 2 weeks ago? I learned to play poker in prison. Board games and cards, that’s what we did there. And of course, I lifted weights in prison. Everybody lifts weights in prison, and ten years ago I won the Strongest Man in New England Amateur title. I won three championships as a result of spending so many years in prison.”

“What about sitting? You learned to sit in prison, too,” I said.

Tim didn’t smile. “Yeah, but I can’t do that for more than a few minutes every morning,” he told me.

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A GOOD BOY

“Leave it!”

I’m trying to teach Harry about capitalism, specifically, personal ownership. He doesn’t quite get it and goes after a bone that Aussie retrieved from the forest and brought home. “She got it first, leave it!”

Whoever said that capitalism is fair? It’s especially not fair to Harry because he’s a good dog and stays with me when we’re in the woods, while Aussie the Bandit roams wild and free, occasionally obeying “Come!”, usually not, and running and finding all kinds of goodies from dead animals which she then brings home.

Harry looks up at me as if to say, What’s is my reward for being a good boy?

And I feel like saying, despite what all dog trainers tell you to say: There’s no reward for being a good boy.

Recklessness is what’s emerged for me since Bernie died, an invitation to a wilder spirit. Nothing like a brush with major illness and death, not to mention caregiving for three years, to wake you up to all the constraints and strictures you put on yourself again and again.

There’s the old one of being a good girl. There’s also the spiritual one of being a good person. How does the Metta Sutra begin?

“This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise,

who seeks the good and has obtained peace.”

And then the prescription:

“Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere,

without pride, easily contented and joyous;

Let one not be submerged by the things of the world.

Let one not take upon oneself the burden of riches;

Let one’s senses be controlled;

Let one be wise but not puffed up;

Let one not desire great possessions even for one’s family;

Let one do nothing that is mean

or that the wise would reprove. “

Which begs the question: Who are the wise? They change over our lives. When we’re young they were our parents. Mine certainly reproved me plenty, and even now, grateful as I am for their love and care, I wish I’d done more of what they reproved me for rather than less. Later, it’s your teachers.

I love the Metta Sutra; we’ve chanted it many times over the years and will do so again. But death can happen any moment, so how do you wish to spend these moments? Not in hostility or anger at anyone, not in self-pity or hiding under the covers, that much is clear. But what I also need to do is pay attention to the essence that continues to live and breathe, the unique being called Eve. Not Gandhi, not King, not Jesus, just this one fuzzy-minded, precious spark called Eve. One day it will extinguish, but for now, may it fire up! May it burn and give some light!

And this is something no one can give me prescription for, the old rules don’t apply: Be kind, be good, be loving. Does that mean I have to return everyone’s phone calls? Respond to every email, every cry for help?

In meditation I sink deeper and deeper into myself, which feels like nothing sometimes. But there are still the snores of Harry on the bed, goldfinches flying outside the window, increasing light of early morning. That nothingness is full of flavor, and the flavor becomes fuller and fuller every morning.

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SPILL-OVERS

My red car is at Rau’s, a local garage. Right from where I sit I can see it, its oil changed and snow tires replaced. A funny day to do a change of tires since it was sleeting this morning, but I’m taking my chances that spring is just around the corner (the weather forecasters don’t agree).

This is a very different place from the Toyota Service Center, with its big waiting room, comfortable couches (here I go between an old wooden bench and a chair with its seat fabric torn, revealing a spongy mat), free coffee, soft TV, and WIFI. You don’t see what they do to the car. Everything is quiet and esthetic; the dirty work is done out of sight and hearing.

Bernie loved to go to the Toyota Service Center. It was far enough for a cigar (Rau’s, being local, is not) and he loved sitting down comfortably over a coffee and his computer while the work on his blue Camry was done somewhere else. He didn’t prioritize supporting local businesses, but did fill up gas at Rau’s even as he complained that the prices by I-91 were a lot lower.

When he was at the rehab hospital after his stroke, one of the first things he’d ask me was what was the price of gas at the gas station just outside the hospital which he could see from the window.

It’s easy to overlook the mess of things, not to hear the drilling and the whoosh of the tube, the pop of the machine they use to put on tires, the clanging of a press and the hammering in back, the smell of oil and grime. It’s not just around my red Prius. How do you live and not get dirty?

Even in my current clean, rural life in New England there’s a mess everywhere. Aussie continues to run away and the voices in my head are relentless: You can’t let her do that, more training, more restraint! Harry on occasion goes back to messing up in the house in the middle of the night and yesterday I found a paintbrush with small yellow paint particles on the living room rug. How he found it I have no idea, but it took two days to get the yellow spot off the rug with the aid of pain thinner.

What am I going to do with these two, I wonder.

There are billions of husks of sunflower seeds under the bird feeders, the tub broke and requires a plumber’s visit, I broke a plate last night while washing dishes. And finally, there’s all the mess that Bernie left behind: Zen artifacts, pictures, photos, organizational charts, their corners nibbled by mice.

“What’s this?” someone asked me the other day, pointing at two thin, jagged slices of slate.

“It’s from School 6, an abandoned school where Bernie wanted to build housing and a community center for homeless familiesin Yonkers, only the community got up in arms and we couldn’t do it. Nothing was ever done with School 6, it’s become a magnet for drug dealers, and an environmental hazard for the neighborhood because of the asbestos. He said it was an example of what happens when people just fight among themselves and can’t come together around something productive, be it our project or someone else’s.”

He’s gone, his ashes neatly placed in a few urns, but the results of that life still spill over, spread out across tables and the basement floor, a spill you can’t control.

In this house, I tell myself sternly, I am controlling that spill. I am cleaning it all out, getting some space in which to breathe. A space that isn’t completely taken up by Bernie, but that contains him while giving space for some other things to happen.

And as I wait for the work on my car to be finished I remember how we were both very conscientious about taking good care of our cars, washing and servicing them regularly. A year ago I was at the Toyota Service Center and overheard the folks out front talking.

“Did you see what a dirty car that was?”

“Yep, worst one I’ve seen all winter.”

I looked. They were talking about Bernie’s blue car that I had brought in for service. After his stroke I had no time and just let it go. A century-old abandoned hovel in the woods, crumbling and rotting, consumed by brambles and stumps, couldn’t have looked worse than that car. His stroke had spilled over so much, consumed so many things.

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DISMANTLING BRICK BY BRICK

Yesterday I cleaned out and cleaned out and cleaned out. I must have gone through some 50-70 Pentaflex files, all summarizing projects Bernie and I worked on over time.

The tabs contained names: Rwanda, Zipaqueria (in Colombia), Amman, Palestine, Jerusalem Project (with Richard Gere), Chiapas, Mexico City, Greyston, Marshall Rosenberg, Sociocracy. Shambhala Book Contracts, Street Retreats (Boston, New York some 8 of them at least, Springfield, Germany).

Some were less colorful: Computer Fixing, with detailed instructions on how to manage the calendar program. Bernie was my go-to person when something went wrong with my computer. Telephone lists (yes, there was a time when we had those). And Acronyms. So many acronyms: ZP (Zen Peacemakers), ZPO (Zen Peacemaker Order), ZPC (Zen Peacemaker Circles), PC (Peacemaker Community), PCI (Peacemaker Community International), and even hyphenated ones like ZPO-ITC, whose meaning has disappeared from memory.

I remember Sr. Pia Gyger, who headed the St. Katharina-Werk order of nuns, saying to Bernie one day: “You know, Roshi, every time you start a new organization you must stay with it till it gets strong and can stand on its own. You can’t just leave after a year or two to do something else.”

Bernie didn’t listen. He was a little like Picasso, creating something new every morning, convening meetings and enrolling the enthusiasm of others, but then . . . “Once it goes I lose interest,” he admitted. He liked the giving birth part, but not raising the new child.

A big file: Tantur, right in no-man’s land between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Palestine. We held a big international conference there with a beautiful published report. Where did we get the money for that, I wonder, and then I remember the Italian funder who helped us start affiliates in different European and Middle Eastern countries.

Ecclesiastes comes to mind: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. And yet, when I was in Israel over the New Year, Gabriel Meyer said that it was at that Tantur conference that he first envisaged his Sulha celebration, a ceremony of reconciliation which he held year after year between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

What a dreamer you were, Bernie, I tell him as I work. You circled the globe with your dreams, and now, years later, I feel like I’m throwing it all out:  the papers, the booklets, the summaries of meetings and budgets, the new organizational charts (you loved organizational charts!).

And why am I even doing this now? I could wait, nobody’s rushing me. One friend of mine didn’t do this till 7 years after her husband’s death; someone else lost his wife more than 5 years ago and her clothes still hang in the closet. So why am I doing all this hard work now?

Because I want to get to the bottom of things. Because I want to run my fingers through all that life once again—Greyston, Zen Peacemakers, the Order, the million different projects—and see what’s left. If I want to start from scratch I have to dismantle everything, brick by brick.

“Yes, but do you have to do that now?” a friend asked this afternoon.

Probably not, but I can be fierce in some ways. I’m ruthless about throwing things out. I have to be to get to the very bottom of things. If I don’t do it, how will I know what’s left?

Maybe that’s what I’m most afraid of, that I won’t find anything left.

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