Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sheltering Beauty

A softly bright hazy sky comes into view as I climb up a narrow flight of stairs and exit the Subway station at 72nd Street and Central Park West. I wait as the light turns green then cross the street.

Before setting out for a brisk romp through the park en-route to work, I scan my phone for "personal" email to see if any need immediate responses. All these movements are carefully choreographed, a schedule neatly planned to get me to work refreshed, focussed, and on time. I can't afford to be distracted.

Standing beside a fresh bed of pastel pink tulips, I pause to breathe in their gorgeous scent and attune to the chirping of nearby sparrows flitting among budding branches of a young tree.

I pick up my Blackberry and open a message from a friend living in Oregon. It says, "Saw Alex Rudinsky yesterday. He's within a week or two of dying."

The words hit me like a bolt of lightning. I stand frozen for a few seconds, unable to absorb what's happening. My mind goes blank. My feet take over and phone in hand, I walk towards the tree-shelter canopy that marks the entrance into Strawberry Fields. I put the phone away and walk the short distance to the Imagine Circle. Eyes register "Imagine" set in gray mosaic tiling.

I slowly step back then turn, facing east and keep going. Within minutes, I feel the air moisten as first drops begin to fall.

A year earlier, Alex and I reconnect at a Memorial Day buffet. It's offered by Zen Community of Oregon at its residential training Center called Great Vow Zen Monastery. The place is anything but cloistered. People are a'plenty. Alex is telling me with great enthusiasm about his daughter Anna now in her early 20's and living in New York. He and I go back over a decade, having shared many moments of "spiritual practice" as members of this Community. I have been visiting twice a year since moving.

Alex's eyes exude kindness. His smile is gentle and direct. He's the kind of guy who when he's smiling, you just find yourself going along for the ride. You feel better just standing there with him.

Now moving through Central Park, the rain connects me to a terrain 3000 miles away whose touch is familiar as it is comforting. When I finally arrive at work, sitting down and just before emailing our mutual friend; I notice my agitation. Attuning, I sense below the surface, through what feel like bubbles of rage bursting and rippling out to diffuse their energy. As this happens, I begin to feel pain, sometimes sharp and as this spreads out, the tightness in my chest feels more achy. It hits me, first the recognition of having been completely unaware until today of Alex being sick. And I'm just beginning to feel his presence in that state and realize my helplessness. A queasy hollow-like sensation courses through me. I stay there for some time attuning to its rhythm as my pulse and breath settle.

Days later, I'm standing at the post office, finally finding words to write in a card. I feel Alex's presence. A moment of being with him feels like it's happening now all over again. He is standing, painting in the Jizo Garden at Great Vow (as it's affectionately known).

This garden is actually set in a forest. It is a place to rest and reflect and be with loved ones who have passed on. Everywhere are tokens of remembrance, slowly disintegrating, hanging from whatever is within reach. Poems and artwork, small toys, and bits of fabric sewn together, accented by beads or whatever strikes the fancy of the one remembering. Throughout this place are a sprinkling of old growth trees among younger varieties, Some are evergreens, Doug Fir being the most common. These form a sheltering canopy while still welcoming in sunlight or rain in soft streaming ripples.

As I walk along the newly shaped path through these woods, I see a figure wearing a moderately broad brim hat, paintbrush in hand, facing an easel. He is standing in a wild mess of tall ferns. The canvas is filled with varying shades of green, each one reflecting a quality of light, which draws me closer.

Just then, my feet step onto a dry branch, which crackles loudly enough to draw the painter's gaze. He turns and seeing me, breaks into a broad albeit subtle grin. I'm smiling too. We meet in a moment as ordinary as it is intimate, perfectly at home in this forest garden.

Back at the post office, I place the card, crafted of handmade paper with a light green hue, in an Express Mail envelope. I bring it to the counter. The woman helping me asks, "Oregon. How many hours difference?" "Three," I reply. She says, "Oh, same as Nevada." I ask, "Do you know someone in Nevada?" She replies, "No, I'm from Hong Kong originally. I was just visiting Death Valley." I feel my legs go soft and place my hands on the counter for support. I say, "It must've been amazing." She says, "Oh, yes. The name sounds scary but it's not. It's very beautiful."

I look at her in wonderment and say nothing.

The next day just before leaving work, I call the residence where Alex has been living and say, "I'm a friend of Alex Rudinsky." The woman answering the phone says, "he died this morning." My stomach sinks into something deeper and the queasiness returns. I immediately call one of his daughters to offer condolences. I get off the phone. I leave the building and do what comes naturally. I walk. I feel the air on my face.

When I get home, even though it's late, I can't sleep. I light a candle and place Alex's photo beside it. I sit there a long time.

The next morning I go to Village Zendo for a day-long retreat. Being with friends in a mostly silent container of time and space allows me to flow with a shifting interior landscape. That forest garden becomes a stronger presence and in moments I feel myself sitting there. Afterwards, I walk to Ten Ren Tea. I pour from a large cup into a small one a rich dark brew of an earthy tea called PuEr. Over and over again I pour and sip. The woodsy aroma and taste take me back to days at Great Vow and other gardens among friends. Our hands dig into moist soil mixed together with fresh compost. This is fertile ground for new seedlings we are transplanting from the greenhouse where they've germinated.

All at once, almost before I realize it's happening, tea in hand, tears spill out. I can't hide them though feel awkward crying openly in this teahouse. Cindy and Anna, friends who work here, offer space and gentle care, bringing over a small cup of Oolong, placing a light hand on my shoulder then stepping back to their work. When ready, I tell them what's happened. Each offers comforting words and a brief, heartfelt hug. Something in me shifts as I'm held. I feel safe. I sense that this moment too is precious and these people dear to me. And it all seems so incredibly ordinary. The lack of seeming drama in the midst of a multitude of emotion allows me to relax. Able to integrate the hurt and sadness, the confusion and regret, I return to appreciating who is here now. An inner warmth moved out as quiet joy arises in me unexpectedly.

As preparations begin to close the teahouse for the night, I head out and wander through the side streets of Chinatown as the sun sets. Stumbling on a prayerful scene, I see Pakistani or perhaps Afghani workers pulling out pieces of cardboard and prostrating together. My mind flashes to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and walking by its renovated chapel. A friend and colleague, Imam Yussuf Hassan, joins with staff, patients, and their family members in prayer. They spread out small colorful rugs and prostrate, facing east towards Mecca.

Days later, I call Sybil, a 70-something friend and writer whose compassionate way is subtle as it is imaginative. I mention Alex being "only 54" yet having lived fully. She says, "sometimes I think it's like people are all kinds of carpets. Some are meant to be prayer rugs instead of wall-to-wall." This hits home and I feel the relief of a few tears running down my cheek.

Back in Chinatown, I turn towards the river, heading west. I hear voices singing. Following the sound, I enter a Catholic church and see an Easter vigil. Holding white candles, Chinese parishioners stand as the choir sings. The candlelight resonates with the end of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, on this, the fifth day of Passover. It is a time, which marks the transition from rest to activity. I stay briefly then keep moving.

Nearly a week earlier, I sit at a long table in Soho for a lively Seder with friends and their family. They get the power of togetherness. Deena is founder of Communal Table and Musho is an artist whose whimsical creations include a colorful cast of characters. The haggadah storybook we use is called, “A Night of Questions.” When it's time for the ten plagues, each of us dips a pinky in our wineglass and removes a drop, one for each plague. Opinions vary on why this is done. A popular explanation is to acknowledge that we do not rejoice at the suffering of the oppressor. Rather, we celebrate being freed from the yoke of oppression. "What's the difference?" remains a question debated at many a table.

Now, standing on the edge of Tribeca, I wait for the traffic light to change. The sky has darkened considerably. The light turns green. I keep going. When I get to the Hudson river, the flow of water soothes and the streetlamps' glow washing over its shifting surface comforts as it refreshes.

The next morning, I reset my makeshift music studio and toss whatever does not seem to be essential. Later, as evening comes, I head downtown to Bluestockings Bookstore to hear Nina Revoyr read from her new novel, Wingshooters. I hear about Nina from my friend Tomomi. Nina is her daughter.

A group of thirty or so eager listeners gather. Homemade cookies sit on a nearby table.

Nina's novel deals with complexity of character and relationships, engaging difficult themes including racism, and is being compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. Nina comes up to the mike. She reads a passage, which beautifully captures a moment where the story's nine-year-old protagonist heads out to the baseball field with her grandfather:

"Something about stepping out onto a baseball field that always gave me a thrill, as if some energy source, some element in the grass, entered my feet and moved up through my body and set off an extra charge in my heart. . . Batting is about muscle memory and repetitive motion, and you have to get to the point where you're moving perfectly and acting without thought. . . When players get into a slump, it's often because they're thinking too much, breaking down the various parts of their swing until it becomes a series of separate, fallible mechanical actions instead of a unified expression of grace."

She adds, "When I did connect, when the ball hit the center of the barrel of the bat and flew out into the field, I felt a sense of joy and freedom as powerful and true as anything I've ever experienced. . . Hitting a ball is like catching a piece of the sky and sending it back up to itself. It's like creating your own crack of thunder. And stopping a ball-especially a grounder you have to reach for, or a line drive that should have flown past your glove-is like catching a bolt of lightning."

As she reads, the sky explodes with a bright flash and soon the crackle of thunder, quickly followed by a downpour. We feel it through the bookstore's open door as a rush of moist wind. During the Q&A, which follows her reading, Nina responds (as best I'm able to hear) to a question:

"Much like a good parent, I give characters enough structure (foundation) then trust. Characters lead you and become the story. Sure, I want people to think about complexity, about racism, but if I wanted to write an opinion I would have written non-fiction. Fiction has to have real characters. What's it like for someone to be neither all good or all evil?"

Her words reverberate throughout my body as I briefly mingle, then head out the door. Time to go home.

It's late. I pick up my electric guitar, already plugged into an effects box, and put on the attached headphones. I step on the pedal to shift sound effects. My fingers start strumming, then slow down to pluck single strings. Hearing the delay of the signal, it sounds like rain falling through that broad forest canopy. I adjust the delay and attune. My body loosens its taughtness and falls in with what's flowing.

The flickering candle light casts dancing shadows across the wall, magnifying the silhoetted shape of flowers nearby. I feel my breath and pulse. Over and over fingers pluck away. I get up and move through the room as far as the cord will allow. Slowly lyrics come. I sing them softly given the hour:

"I'm standing with you. I'm standing with you in a forest garden. And the rain's comin' down. the rain's comin' down. It'll turn you around. It'll turn you around."

I feel the wet warmth of tears streaming down my cheeks in the night glow, choking through the refrain of "rain's comin' down."

My fingers strum harder now and faster. I step on the peddle and the effect, the grit of the sound building. I feel that forest floor squishing beneath me and the sheltering embrace of that forest canopy. It feels so good to play. I feel free, freer than I've felt in months. I play until my fingers shake and eventually settle. The last thing I do is record the snippet of song using my phone. No time yet to setup the recording part of this studio. I finally release into a restful exhaustion.

The next day I send the recording to my friend Naomi. She texts me within minutes, "Wow. . .it's beautiful. You should play in the public. Seriously."

My immediate and visceral response on reading this is palpable, a new interplay of joy, relief, and all of it most intimate. Not so much the being seen for who I am (an ongoing storyline). Rather the ability to express and have this connect for another. Meeting in the moment.

Days later, I check my email. Another friend in Oregon and resident at Great Vow, writes, "We'll have Alex's memorial ceremony here today. I visited Alex the week before his passing. He had big, bright eyes."

I go onto Facebook. I visit Alex's photo albums and am drawn to one of his colorful landcape oil painting of a forest scene, entitled, "Shelter." I then return to the previous page and scroll down to see his comment to friends. He's talking about the relationship between "posting" and "sharing":

"I guess I have no idea how this works. I thought anyone could look at these photos just by going to my fb page and clicking on which photo album they wanted at any time. So the difference is when I edit it, then they are "posted" and go out to everyone as when I "share" something?"

He then writes,

"And so the advantage is people don't have to think. It just visually appears in front of them, and they are happy."