This month my friend Bob Chrisman died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a writer and zen student that I met many years ago in Taos, New Mexico. After awhile he stopped coming to Taos but we corresponded and talked on the phone and saw each other during his occasional visits to California. I always assumed I’d visit his house in Kansas City someday to see its multicolored rooms, but low funds kept me home in the Bay Area. During our last conversation Bob told me he was thinking of going to a retreat in France in 2014. Bob had always told me if I became homeless I could come live with him in KC.
Beyond that, my beloved is troubled, struggling with demons for his very life and happiness, unable or unwilling to communicate with me for much of June and July. I sort through a basket of grief, pain, anger, despair, loneliness — it is like one of those cooking shows where they give you a basket with tuna, rutabagas, cinnamon and bananas and tell you to make a main dish in thirty minutes. Where do you start?
You start where you are. You taste your ingredients and smell them, look at the texture. Are the bananas green or ripe? Is the rutabaga woody or tender and sweet. Bob’s death sent me to my meditation cushion each morning at 5:30 to recite the Heart Sutra. It is an unexpected gift from Bob: I sit and I cry, but as the days go by I am calmer and quieter in my crying. I find myself voicing a wish that my heart fill with love. I also find myself angry and reactive, hurting, but in those moments I turn to the page to write or tell my friends how I am feeling. Telling the feelings airs them out somehow and I see that I do not want to act out of anger if I can avoid it. The quiet space each morning helps me go on, as does the support and fellowship of like-minded people.
It is traditional to say the Heart Sutra for forty-nine days after someone’s death, so I will be at this for awhile, gathering strength and peace from the cushion. In the meantime, I continue my life, which feels too spacious today. My life is never the frantic scramble of many American lives since I left the regular workforce against my will a few years back. In fact, I work six days a week, usually, but my work consists of one or two shifts of singing in public for tips. When I am not working or traveling to work I have lots of time, time to sit and write and read. If Johnny calls, I have plenty of time to talk with him, time to listen.
I have Sundays off, unless there is a singing gathering. Today I didn’t even get dressed: it is a typical Bay Area summer day, shrouded in fog, the trees dripping this morning. By afternoon it has only lightened a little. The summer markets are full of their glory. Last week I bought green beans and basil, corn on the cob, ollalieberries (a form of blackberry), peaches and ten pounds of Gravenstein apples. This week I spent all of the money I earned at the market on a pizza of the first red and yellow bell peppers and green onions. I ate it for lunch and dinner yesterday and for lunch again today. It was delicious, even if I had to forgo peaches and beans to get it. I bought it on impulse, wanting to treat myself — it’s not often that I permit myself a sixteen-dollar splurge these days. It didn’t hurt that the vendor plucked a big roasted tomato and put it in my hand and then showed me every pizza he had for sale so that I could choose one. I’m not sorry I splurged — I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I were rich, I might eat this pizza every week, or get back to making them: Sunday is the only day I can make pizza now, the day when I have enough hours to wait for the sourdough crust to proof. As it is, I’m grateful to have had the treat.
Last Sunday I had a different treat: I heard about a documentary movie about back-up singers. I checked the show times and headed out the door to the theater. taking a ten-dollar bill. I bought a ticket and walked down the street to get a dollar coffee toffee ice cream on a sugar cone. Let me say that these treats are rare: the last movie I saw was in May when Johnny and I saw “On the Road.”
Of course, I’ve just been to France. I could not have gone there without scholarship money and a work scholarship. I saved the air fare out of my monthly earnings which range from $300 to $500 a month, depending on how the busking trade is going and how many CDs I sell. Every month I work first to pay my phone and internet bill, then to get a monthly bus pass, then to afford a pair of twenty-dollar shoes (I wear out a pair of shoes each month due to my odd gait from cerebral palsy). Strings, food and treats come next, and money for savings to afford the next airline ticket. I borrow books from the library and listen to the radio or play CDs I’ve loaded into iTunes. I sing with friends. I talk on the phone. I pick up the windfall apples from our neighbor’s tree and will dry them in my dehydrator. Meditation is free, only taking time and effort.
I continue with things that take time and effort. I make the effort to open my heart, to tolerate my anxiety and grief. I take plenty of time to rest, although I look hollow-eyed with dark shadows. I know that everything changes, quickly or slowly, that one season follows another, that apples and pears are early this year in California. I am grateful to be alive and grateful that my suffering is not greater, grateful for moments of respite and hope, of companionship, grateful for the comfort of books and music and occasional delicious food. I hope July finds you well and, if not, that comfort is available to you.