Stanley, I have to leave you this evening. I feel bad because I just came back from 5 days being gone, and now I’m off again.
Are you going hunting?
Are you going to join another pack?
I don’t think so.
So why are you leaving us?
I am going to teach in Switzerland and then spend 3 days in London with a friend.
That’s why you’re leaving the pack? Don’t you know here is where you’re safe? Here is where you have food and shelter? And Bernie and me, Rami, Tony, Rae, and the rest? Why would you leave all that?
Now that you mention it, I don’t know. I love my routine with you and Bernie: talking to Bernie over dinner, going to the woods with you, writing, teaching here, opening my eyes to the trees outside first thing every morning. But I also need to break the routine. It renews me, helps me see things with new eyes. I still love new horizons and adventure.
Humans are weird.
Because we leave?
No, because you think you have to leave. Me, I smell something new every single morning when I go out. You know the raccoon that lives up the hill from us? She has babies. I can hardly wait to catch them one night.
Lucky for you, Stan, that you can’t hear a thing, not to mention how strongly you sleep at night. She’d kill you.
And there are always new animals in the woods. Remember that time there was a wolf in the neighborhood?
People reported that. I got very excited and kept a lookout day after day, and never saw it.
You think you just see a wolf whenever you feel like it? You have to look hard for a wolf. You have to sniff and sniff, feel where the wind’s coming from, perk your ears from side to side, stay still and fully awake, and wait. And one other thing.
Why is it that of all the great photos taken of the gathering of so many Zen teachers at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the one that stands out for me is this one, of their teacher, Roshi Egyoku Nakao, and members saying goodbye to Bernie and me as we left on Sunday morning?
By then most of the 70 Zen teachers of the White Plum lineage who’d arrived from Europe and all over the US were gone. Bernie had temporarily run out of stories about what he remembered from 50 years back (he was the only one there who went back all the way to the beginning). We’d cleaned out the on-campus apartment that a generous woman had let us use, packed up the car, and then a group of residents and members of the Center came over to say good-bye.
Some did it formal style, putting their hands together, and some hugged and kissed. It reminded me how often over these years I’ve parted from Zen friends, feeling at times constrained to do the formal farewell gesture when what I really wanted was to hug them and tell them how much they meant to me, how much I loved them, how they made the ineffable effable.
It’s not just that this gathering took place a year and a half after Bernie’s stroke and I watched him struggle onto his feet from the wheelchair for the memorial service to his teacher, second wife, and students. Nor is it the lines on others’ faces, watching strong bodies get thin, people who once loved to talk get quiet. Passage of time doesn’t just bring on old age, it brings the beauty of refreshed gardens, renovated temples and halls, a pretty opera singer singing exquisitely under the stars, and new faces with the intense, passionate eyes of young practitioners that I remember so well from years ago.
But still, there was talk of who will be there at the 60th and who will not. At the memorial service I counted 7 successors of Maezumi Roshi, 5 less than the original dozen. Roshi Chozen Bays, who officiated at the service, invoked those who were gone, saying we needed them, for now they were no longer in their original forms, they were everywhere. So two days later I heard one long-time teacher part from another, who’s older and not in good health, saying, We’ll see you everywhere.
There’s so much life in poignancy. And wonder, too, as I contemplate all the different threads that tie me together to these people, the place, a particular Japanese family, this particular niche in history when Zen practice came riding out of the West like some Wild West cowboy, only the cowboys were Japanese who were damn good lassoers because they captured entire herds of us, kept us fenced in to graze on some very fertile pastures, and then let us loose to do our damage in the world.
And then there are their successors, of which Bernie is one, powerful men and women who were told by their teacher to take as much as they could from him and then spit out what didn’t fit for this country, and they did just that, each following a path unique to his/her personality and flavor. And the result is that all of us there, teachers and senior students alike, are brazenly different, traditionalists and renegades put together, and why not? The Japanese masters who first brought Zen to this country were also renegades in their own land.
How did this happen, I’ve often asked myself. How did a dumb woman in her mid-30s, emotionally immature, with a history of bad decisions, do this one smart thing that finally, so many years later, brought her to this gathering in Los Angeles in 2017? And to so many other places beside, places of deep poignancy.
So this last weekend I counted not just those who were present but also those who were absent, and felt unusually blessed to experience those moments when the invisible becomes visible, when a fragment of this gigantic web is suddenly crystal clear, and you marvel at its vastness and luminosity.
There was the gorgeous altar that hosted many beautiful ceremonies, a fabulous Saturday night show under the tent, tables set up banquet-style under shady trees, and even the exquisite Kanzeon garden at the very corner, secluded and quiet smack in the middle of a busy block in Koreatown. But it’s the people who wave hello and wave goodbye who thrust everything forward. They might have originally jumped in because they needed solace, rest, or refuge, but in the end they can’t help it, they become the current.
The other day I quoted Hafiz: Beauty keeps laying its sharp knife against me. Those words continue to echo in my mind, and nowhere did they echo louder than at Homeboy and Homegirl Industries in Los Angeles yesterday.
We were here for the annual White Plum gathering of Zen teachers and to honor the 50th anniversary of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. For years, since reading Tattoos of the Heart, I’d wanted to visit Homeboy Industries, which serves gang members in Los Angeles. Not only did we make that visit, but we also met with the Founder, Fr. Greg Boyle.
How to describe this? You go into a corner space in the middle of Los Angeles’s neighborhood for gangs and drugs, and there is a bakery and café. You go through the doors, past the gift shop selling, among many things, T-shirts saying: Nothing stops a bullet like a job, and find yourself in a large waiting room. Most of the men are big with large tattoos all over their bodies, which is a little ironic since at the other end there is a long line outside a room bearing the sign: Tattoo Removal. Young women sit there, too, and when we ask them what they’re waiting for they say: To talk to someone.
How to get into a program.
Lots of things: counseling, substance abuse, domestic violence, workforce development, cooking, serving in the food industry, installation of solar panels, legal help. Or maybe get a job.
In food service, catering, clothing, recyclables. (We subsequently enjoy a terrific lunch at their Mexican food restaurant, waited on and cooked for by people learning how to work in food service).
Other people stop me and offer to help. Are you here for a tour?
We have a meeting with Fr. Greg, I say.
Oh well, then you don’t need nothing else, is the usual rejoinder.
Finally we meet with him. He hugs Bernie in his wheelchair. Bernie has been in Homeboy to visit with Fr. Greg and Fr. Greg has visited Greyston too. We sit to talk, and instantly I hear, not just words, but a language that is precious to me beyond words, aspirations that sent me roiling back in 1985 when I first came to Greyston.
This is a community of tenderness, he tells us. The people coming here are wounded. I’ve gone to many conferences about gangs, and when you ask why people join gangs you hear: “To belong, to be part of a community, for excitement.” They’ll tell you that, too, if you ask them. You know why? Because it’s easier to give that answer than to say that my mother extinguished her cigarettes on my skin, or else that my father pushed my head into the toilet and flushed. Nobody wants to talk about those things. But here they can, and that’s why nobody here will tell you that they joined a gang in order to belong. They joined because of their wounds, because they were broken.
What about tough love? I ask him. Lots of people working with gang members and addicts believe in that.
Don’t get me wrong. We have an 18-month program and at certain times we ask people to leave. But even then there’s tenderness, not just in what you do but how you do it. Let me tell you a story. We had trouble with someone in the program so I convened my council to get their advice, half of whom are homies. One man, who’s been in prison for 25 years and then with us for a long time, said about the person we were discussing: “He can’t smell the stink of his own shit, he’s gotta go.” And then another homie spoke up, and said: “All he smells is shit.” So we kept him on.
Basically, we all have our wounds. We’re ashamed of them and try to hide them. We try to escape the shit of our lives in so many ways, but not until we’re ready to stop doing that do things start changing. Many of the people coming here, all they’ve smelled is shit their entire lives. Here is where it begins to change, because we’re a community of tenderness. Here is where they can get close to their own brokenness.
A community of tenderness, I think, remembering the big men outside with tattoos covering almost every inch of their bodies.
We are relational, we are not transactional, he says. And even as he says that I see people stopping outside the glass door of his office waving and blowing kisses, and this Jesuit blows kisses back right away to men and women, waving gaily to infants held by their mothers even as he talks to us. Young children are instructed by their parents to clean his glass doors with Windex. I can only imagine how many fingerprints have been left on that glass over the 30 years that Homeboy Industries has been in existence.
We don’t give you a checklist of what you have to do, he adds. We don’t say: “You need substance abuse therapy, you need counseling, you need anger management, you need this and you need that,” like some McDonald’s hamburger with this and that on it. We’re relational here, that’s what it’s about.
There’s so much I want to hear from him. We can’t replicate or clone people like you or Bernie, I tell him, but I’m also not sure we could train folks to be quite like you. What can we learn?
There are 125,000 gang members in Los Angeles County, he replies. It’s important for 125,000 gang members out there to know that we’re here because that’s the only hope they got, and just knowing that, even if they don’t ever go through our doors, will make some difference in their lives because there’s nothing worse than living in hell without any hope at all. We’re here for the long run, says this Jesuit who started this work alone three decades ago, with leukemia that, at least for now, is in remission. You got to be here for the long run.
In the past there were many times I would tell someone that I love him/her. There were also occasions when I felt I didn’t love him/her. What happened to those places of emotional certainty, when things were clear? Just last night, at the end of a very nice talk in the zendo by Genyo, I asked the question: What does it mean, to become clear?
I feel less clear and more at the edge of things, especially love. Such as very early this morning when Bernie asked me for help in putting on a compression sock. We’re going to Los Angeles for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, a long flight for him, and he had to put on a tall, dark, and very tight sock to protect his right leg from clots. I knelt down on the white tile floor and pulled it up slowly. It wasn’t easy on him and I reminded him of those first six months when we had to put on that sock every single morning, when the occupational therapist showed me how to do it with more ease—first put it inside out, grab the heel part, turn it around, etc.— but it was a skill I never mastered.
You haven’t had to do this in a long time, I tell him, and right then and there I feel I’m at the edge of something. Is it I love you? Is it I don’t love you? Sometimes the two are so, so close.
Making 2 cups of Italian coffee, cleaning out the bathtub, a last straightening out of pillows on the bed, leaving and coming back only to leave once more, checking the checklist (Do you have the tickets? Do you have both driver’s licenses? Did you transfer the wheelchair from one car to the next?), seeing a beetle in the kitchen sink just as we leave and wondering whether Jessie, who’s staying in our house, will kill it or take it outdoors.
Beauty keeps laying its sharp knife against me, Hafiz says.
Some say they walk the path of love; others say they’re in Love, as if it’s the name of a town; still others are in the vale of depression, and a few even in the Valley of Death.
I’m at the very edge of telling you I [don’t] love you.
Stanley, what are all these holes you’re digging in the ground?
The enemy is hiding there.
Rabbits, moles, and groundhogs, to name just a few. To you it’s just some surface with grass, but I know different. Evil lurks inside the earth, but don’t you worry, I’m on it.
What can such small things do to us?
They can eat up our vegetable garden.
We don’t have a vegetable garden. We’re probably the only ones in Western Massachusetts who don’t raise vegetables. You know what I think, Stanley? You’re getting senile.
Good for me.
You’re shitting under the laundry lines with the fresh wash hanging from it, we saw two horses with riders on the road and you didn’t so much as blink, and a deer stopped 100 meters in front of you, froze, and you didn’t evenmove. But when we stopped for take-out food the other day you barked like crazy at an ill-tempered Chihuahua, whom you’d have ignored completely when you were younger.
Chihuahuas affect me like that. Except for Godzilla.
Godzilla that terrorized Tokyo?
No, Godzilla the Chihuahua who’s part of Leeann’s gang. Leeann-rhymes-with-Stan takes us out on the best outings. Leeann’s gang is my gang.
I believe they call it a pack.
You humans are nitpickers with words. If you’re part of Leeann’s gang, you’re my friend. Otherwise, fuggedaboudit.
And here’s more evidence of your senility, Stanley. You’re just too happy!
Rae is making Shepherd’s Pie and I love the smell of ground hamburger meat.
You’re running round and round the table getting in her way! You’d think peace has come to the world.
No, just ground beef and mashed potatoes.
You start running up and down the stairs come 10 am because you think you’re going for a walk or to Leeann. How can you be so bloody happy? Don’t you know you’re deaf?
Don’t you know you’re half blind?
Don’t you know your back legs collapse on a wooden floor?
And you can still be happy under those conditions?
The birds are now singing, screeching, and creating avian turmoil at 4 am, as if demanding of all of us to get out of bed. Several hours later, walking with a friend in the increasing heat, we saw all that remained of a bird—my friend thought it was a baby owl—that had been devoured as prey. And I remembered our time with birds and Peter Matthiessen in Africa.
We had the privilege and enormous fun of being with Peter on safari in Tanzania some 10 years ago. He offered it as a service and fundraiser to Zen Peacemakers, and a group of us went to Ngorongoro Park, Lake Manyara, Tarangire, and Ruaha National Parks. Everyone in the group, except for Peter, Bernie and me, brought expensive cameras, some costing more than the entire safari, and of course they all knew that Peter was a great bird man.
One gorgeous morning in Ruaha we set out in four jeeps, all coming to a halt because a green Boomslang snake, highly poisonous, slithered across the road. The driver told everyone to stay in their seats, but Peter, who had loved snakes as a boy, and who had once traveled on a small plane over Africa sitting next to the pilot while holding a large basket on his lap with a very large and deadly cobra inside (the pilot was anxious), instantly got out for a closer look. I still remember how tense the driver became as he pleaded with Peter not to get any closer, to please, please come back inside.
Soon after that everybody got excited over birds. Out came the cameras.
Look, Peter, a wagtail!
A blue-headed wagtail, Peter responds, nodding approvingly.
From another jeep: Hey, is that a kingfisher? Everybody peers through their binoculars.
No, warbles the ornithologist, it’s a Lilac-Breasted Roller.
What’s that one, Peter?
That is a Yellow-Crowned Gonolek. See the large red breast and the yellow crown?
Is that a red-whiskered Bulbul? a young, knowledgeable birder asks.
I believe it is, Peter nods approvingly.
I see a bee-eater!
Is that a starling?
That’s a Hildebrandt’s Starling. See the iridescence on the belly and the sides?
Bernie and I are feeling a little out of place.
Peter, I see a boid! Bernie shouts, pointing up to a limb on a tall tree.
A boid, eh? Peter says gruffly, looking up with his binoculars. From Brooklyn?
Peter, there’s another boid! There’s another one, Peter! And I see another boid! What do you think, Peter? There’s another boid! And another boid!
Peter contemplates his teacher from the other jeep and shakes his head sadly.
He snaps and growls at everybody, takes a few bites out of people’s ankles, and has a basically terrible temperament.
What can you do, he’s a Chihuahua.
You know what Jean, his human companion, told me? He was acting out so badly that she took him to a psychic, and guess what? In a former life he was a jazz musician.
That explains it?
Some jazz musicians can get ornery, want to do things their way, play their way, just do their thing.
Sounds like you were a jazz musician in your former life.
You, too, Stanley. Now I know why you insist on shitting under the laundry lines, especially after I hang up the wet, clean, white sheets.
I smell that detergent and it instantly causes me to—
And now I know why you insist on pushing your head between my legs when I brush you. Not to mention all the embarrassing stuff you like to dig out of the trash can, like those burgundy panties you found the other day and were ripping into shreds. Jazz musicians liked sex. You’ve become a regular sex maniac as you’ve gotten older.
Bernie, my brother-in-law likes marzipan, could you imagine? How can anyone like marzipan?
I like marzipan. I just never told you.
All these years I never knew you liked marzipan! How come you didn’t say anything?
Because I knew you’d think I’m stupid.
So why are you telling me now?
Because now, who cares?
I bought See’s Marzipan as a gift for my brother-in-law, who was born in California, home of See’s Chocolate. I also bought Bernie a box of their chocolate because we both love it, and in the course of this discovered a secret he’d kept from me all these years. Not infidelity, something much, much worse. All these years, he liked marzipan.
You live with a man since 1998. You know him long before that as a Zen teacher. He was your boss for years developing Greyston. We traveled together, had adventures, met wonderful people, tore our hearts out, got into painful fights, made up, fought again, sulked for days, argued about movies, saw our dogs die, moved from place to place, watched people leave and then come back, stormy days, moon-filled evenings, giggled together at late-night jokes and went through long, hard bouts of loneliness.
Stanley, you know what I do on Saturday morning when I leave the house at 8?
I go to the zendo and sit, and then we chant. You know what we chant as part of the service?
“We pray for peace in our community and country; for the health of President Donald Trump and all members of our government. May they serve the people with wisdom and compassion, and promote justice, harmony, and sustenance for all beings everywhere.”
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I know, it ain’t easy. We started doing this in the early years of Obama’s presidency.
Well, of course, that was Barack! I loved him. He had a dog in the White House. Trump is anti-dog. I’m not praying for his health, I want him dead.
Stanley, that’s a terrible thing to say for a dog like you, the canine mascot for Zen Peacemakers. Our practice is to include as many people as possible in our actions, to work for the whole rather than for a part.
We don’t just pray for his health, but also for his learning to serve everyone and sustain all beings everywhere.
You mean like the medical care plan they just put out that will cut off millions and millions of people from medical coverage? You know how many dogs it will cover? Zero.
The travel ban, re-instituting the Dakota pipeline, deporting undocumented immigrants who’re not criminals, pulling out of the Paris—
I know all that, Stanley. Believe me, every Saturday morning when the chanter chants this I get a lump in my throat. How can I pray for the health and wellbeing of Trump, Ryan, McConnell, and all the others? But what I’m praying for is their developing more wisdom and compassion.
How is that different from a Born-Again Christian praying for you to one day recognize Jesus as your savior?
French for right on target.
I don’t talk no French.
The point is, whether I like it or not, they are the government leaders right now. Can’t I wish them well, as I wished the previous government well? Can’t I wish them an opening of the heart, a widening of their perspective, a greater understanding that all of us are together in this beautiful, murky soup called earth?
I love green pea soup with marrow bones.
Precisely. Our life is murky like green pea soup, but there’s marrow in it, essence, beauty. Nothing is ever lost.
I love chicken broth, too.
But we’re not a clear chicken broth, Stanley. Everything feels messy and muddled right now.
Like the bathroom floors after I empty out the trash cans: used Q-tips, floss, tissues, toilet paper, yum!
Exactly. I pick one thing up, only to find something else on the floor. I pick that up, and now it’s something else in the other bathroom, and then something else. It never ends!
When I do that you don’t pray for my health, you yell: “Stanley, what did you do this time!”
And we yell similarly at Donald. Only that’s one thing he has in common with you, Stanley.
When have I last felt so energized about my values and lifestyle? When have I last felt so impelled to examine our choices relating to how I live, how much I drive, what I eat, and who suffers from all the conscious decisions I make (or more likely, the lack thereof)?
Yesterday, before Trump announced his withdrawal of this country from the Paris Climate Agreement, I sat with a friend for tea. He shares an apartment with another family and no longer owns a car. That’s not easy in this neck of the woods because of the lack of public transportation. Not owning a car, he explained, makes all the difference in terms of what jobs he can go after, what forms of entertainment, how he spends his weekends, how much he’s in nature rather than in movie theaters, and the slower pace of his life.
He told me that for people of his generation (I don’t know his age but would guess mid-30s), the American Dream feels financially more and more out of reach. For people of my parents’ generation, he said, buying your own home was no big deal, everybody did it. For many of us, on the other hand, that feels increasingly like a wistful dream.
You can say that he’s not ready to pay the price. He’s not ready to take on a job he doesn’t care for, travel 40 minutes each direction to work (which he once did), or be forever in mortgage debt. He seems to have a clearer vision of the cost of the American Dream for individuals like him, society, and the world than I ever had.
Donald Trump can pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, but can he pull you out of it? Can he pull me? Can he pull this town, this state? I think of the states and companies that are already defying him. I am confronted with the challenge of staking my own individual position, creating a personal mandate—and implementing it.
Who did this when Obama was President? He was a good guy, many of us felt, he’ll take us where we need to go while we go to sleep. But who can sleep with Donald Trump at the helm? Who can afford to shut their eyes, take a vacation, leave it to Washington? By dismantling our basic social contract, he leaves it to me to redefine my basic code of values, how I choose to live, and what will I do about it.
I have long wished for a radical awakening on the part of this country, and with President Donald Trump we may finally be getting it. No Gandhi, no King, no hero, not even an anti-hero, just plain people on the ground like you and me realizing, with a vengeance, that it really is up to us.
I will finish with this: Last night I started researching implications of the Paris Climate Agreement for how individuals and families live, specifically for conservation metrics that Bernie and I can use as goals. I found a website that asked me to register, and when I did I got the following request: Please prove you’re not a robot.
How do I do that? I wondered.
The site had the answer: Check the box that says I am not a robot.
I hit the key, and instantly the screen said: Thank you. You are now registered.
Wow, thought I, it’s that easy! Who knew? What about all that therapy I did after a kind friend suggested that my talks with him hit the same funereal bell again and again? Years of practice to loosen up that relentless pattern of identifying with this or that? The walks in the woods where I let go of those dreary, repetitive feelings? The morning sittings where the new light and the birds create welcome havoc in my well-oiled mental machine?
None of those were necessary. All I had to do was check the box that says, I am not a robot.