Fighting In The Zendo

WHEN THE DOCTORS TOLD US Jeff was dying of leukemia, he and I began to fight. Jeff was twenty-nine, I was twenty-eight, and we’d been building a sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot timber-frame cabin on a small hill of hard ground in Vermont’s Green Mountains. For temporary shelter we used a tent, and then, when winter hit, a salvaged aluminum trailer with walls no thicker than a teaspoon turned sideways. We had no electricity, no phone, no running water, and no heat other than an open fire. But back then, difficulty and discomfort passed for adventure. And we believed it was only temporary.

The fights were always about our dream cabin — its design, its function, its budget — and they always occurred in the car. We were in the car a lot. Jeff needed to go to Boston for blood transfusions two, sometimes three times a week. I’d pack a thermos of hot coffee and forty or fifty ungraded student papers, and we’d barrel down Highway 89 at ninety miles per hour. “If a cop pulls us over,” I reasoned, “we’ll just ask him for an escort straight to New England Medical Center.”

Our first fight was about composting toilets. Jeff wanted one; I did not.

“They blow up!” I screamed, slamming my palm against the steering wheel. “You want to beat leukemia, then get killed by flying toilet shrapnel?”

“Where did you hear they blow up?”

“In that magazine you bought last week.”

“The new ones don’t blow up.”

“How well tested are they, if they’re new? Besides, those new ones are the price of a basic septic system. Jeff, do you want to be puking in a composting toilet?”

“I’m not always going to be puking.”

Cars are the worst — and therefore the most likely — place for an argument. No one can go anywhere. Both sides just keep throwing words at each other like heavy stones. Jeff and I always ended up bruised and crying — and still arguing:

“You’re turning this cabin into everything we thought we were going to leave behind,” he said.

“I’m thinking of you, Jeff.”

“No, you’re thinking of you.”

“That’s because I’m the one who does all the caretaking!” I could hardly see the highway, my eyes were so full of tears. Ever since Jeff had begun his chemo treatments, which knocked out his immune system, I’d had to sterilize everything with scalding hot water and antibacterial sprays. I had to clean every surface — doorknobs and ax handles and floors and walls and countertops — twice a day. Sheets and towels had to be laundered every other day. Every bit of food Jeff ate had to be boiled a minimum of twenty minutes. How could I keep this up (along with my teaching job) in a funky cabin with no running water and fermenting shit in the basement?

Two years later, Jeff and I must still fight for his survival, which is even more tenuous after a relapse of his leukemia. In autumn I find time to take a weekend-long break from chemo and cancer to attend a Zen retreat in another state. I arrive at the monastery near midnight and stumble directly from car to dormitory. Yet I rise at 4:30 am to explore the castle-like building and its grounds.

Outside, the sky is a rich black, like the most expensive chocolate. Quietly, I close the heavy wooden cloister door behind me and step out onto the frozen ground. Every blade of grass, every leaf of lamb’s ear, every blood red wintergreen berry has iced over during the night. It all glitters in the moonlight. Even the shadows of the stubborn maple leaves on the stone walkway seem frozen in place. I can’t decide if the world is weeping tears of ice or glowing with promise.

For the first time, I inhale the air of this new place: it tastes of pine and soil and a deep, cavelike cold. Mountains, even darker than the night sky, reach up on both sides of me, and on their high ridges, coyotes yip. In my imagination, I can see the animals clearly, their ragged fur and knobby spines, narrow noses lifting to the darkness, howling.

A gong sounds behind me, within the monastery’s stone walls. I turn and reenter the zendo, which is as sensuous in its own way as the early-morning outdoors. Wooden floors gleam under the soft light of candles, and the air smells sweetly of the incense burning in golden bowls on the altar. Reflected light flies from these bowls like small golden birds while dozens of people in black and gray robes brush gently by me on both sides, as if we were a school of minnows, familiar with each other’s gills and fins. Watching the others carefully to know what to do, I remove my shoes and sit down on the meditation cushion marked “Sarah.” I pull my legs into a cross-legged pose, then place my hands on my lap in the correct position: left hand overlapping the right, thumbs touching so that they create a perfect o at my navel. Another gong sounds, and I prepare for two hours of meditation.

Lowering my eyes and letting my attention move inward, I notice I am breathing hard and fast, as if I’ve been running. Throughout the whole of the morning’s meditation, I continue to gasp and pant. I feel my heart racing, stumbling, like a wounded deer trying to outrun the coyotes I heard earlier this morning. Toward the end, tears I’ve held back for years begin to fall, but they do not soothe me. Rather, they rankle me and make me bitter. I entered the zendo to leave my story behind, yet here it is, on my lap, in my head, screaming, arguing, hurting like hell.

Jeff and I never resolved the composting-toilet issue. Instead, we began to play language tapes in the car to and from the hospital. Together we repeated the Spanish or Russian for “Where is the bathroom?” and “May I have a room for the night?” Because these car rides took place late at night, we would occasionally be too tired to practice. I thought we wouldn’t have the energy to fight, either, but of course when people are tired is when tempers ignite.

The next argument was about electricity. Jeff wanted solar power; I wanted the electric company’s steady flow.

“You have two ivs!” I reminded him.

Jeff was driving this time. One iv was hooked to the garment hook, draining magnesium into him. The other — full of antibiotics for the ride home — was in the back seat, packed in ice.

“And some of those ivs need to be pumped,” I said, “not just drained. What am I going to do on a cloudy day: take you in to work with me and plug you in?”

“I’m not making long-term decisions based on my disease.”

“That’s not fair!” I screamed, as if Jeff were the God that had let him get so sick. “You refuse to deal with reality, and so I end up slogging through it for both of us!” I envisioned myself wading through hip-high snow to our iced-over spring to pump bucket after bucket of water, then boiling the water over a stick fire to sterilize our motley collection of knives, spoons, and bowls. The image was not romantic; it made me feel sick. “You need to know who we are now!”

“I know who we are!” Jeff was not just crying at this point, but sobbing. He jammed his foot on the brake, and the car skidded to a stop alongside the highway. He left the motor running, our headlights glowing. “I know who I am,” he said through tears. His lips and chin trembled like tiny animals. “But do you, Sarah? Do you?”

Jeff’s gaze wasn’t incriminating. It was deeply loving and utterly sad, his eyes as green and forlorn as a white pine in winter. Spots of blood had appeared on his lips and even on his forehead; his platelets were so low that cuts were opening up all over him. I knew we were not going to return home after this transfusion. Despite a year of chemo treatments and a bone-marrow transplant, Jeff’s cancer persisted. He could not make his own blood, and living off blood transfusions was only a short-term solution. The doctors had warned us we’d hit a dead end, and that night, gazing at Jeff’s tear-filled eyes and bloody gums, I knew this was it.

“I don’t want to live off nuclear power,” Jeff said, his voice barely audible. “It’s why I’m dying. It’s why so much of this planet is dying.”

I leaned toward him and with my own lips began to gather up his tears and the spots of blood. I knew who we were: we were the meat that our bodies were made of, but also, inside this wet skin, we were our values and our dreams and our united will. Jeff had lost twenty pounds. His complexion was as white as fresh-fallen snow. He could not hold a fork or a pen without suffering hand tremors. He had no hair — not even eyelashes or eyebrows. But still we believed that our love for each other and for the land was stronger than chemo, radiation, surgery, hospital bureaucracy, and even the global toxicity that created cancer inside young, green men.

I leaned my head against Jeff’s chest and cried with him — but just for a moment. “We have to keep going,” I said. “You need blood bad.”

At the end of my morning meditation session, I rise quickly, dust off my pillow, and rush out of the prayer hall, slipping between the slow-moving monks. I slam a hand into the heavy monastery door and fall out into the frozen air, seeking a private place to cry.

The monastery is situated on acres of preserved forest and meadow along the base of Mount Tremper. I race along a gravel path that leads up a hill into some trees. Now that dawn has arrived, the sky is gray. Mist rises from the ground, and dew drips from the tall pines along the path’s edge, blurring the outlines of everything. I could be walking into my own mind: my sorrow is dissolving the world.

I feel rather than see a waist-high garden gate, built of pine logs. I untie a frayed rope, swing the gate inward, and walk across patio stones till I face an eighteen-foot-tall Buddha sitting cross-legged on a deck made of thick logs. He has been carved from a great slab of stone two stories tall, just enough rock chiseled away that the Buddha’s limbs are fully rounded, and his body seems to float before me: a man resting on a cloud of nothing. His expression shows an exquisite calm, and the peace of the Buddha flies into me immediately, like love’s well-aimed arrow.

I don’t know how long I stand before this seeming apparition. I must lose consciousness, for I wake up on my knees on the stone patio. A strong outdoor light above the Buddha beams over my head into the gray forest behind me. Though I can sense the tall pines and low, bushy ferns, I can see nothing but the Buddha. I’ve never been enchanted by a material object before. I’m Jewish; I believe that God is intangible, even indescribable, an omnipotent force that exists beyond the human senses. But here I am, bent before a statue of stone, trembling.

I was right that night on the side of the highway. Jeff didn’t get out of the hospital for a very long time. First he spent a month in an isolated unit receiving chemo as well as blood transfusions. Then we prepared for a second bone-marrow transplant: Jeff’s last chance for life, the doctors said. They warned us that Jeff had less than a 5 percent chance of survival, and if he did survive, he would most likely suffer myriad side effects and be on medication for the rest of his life.

I was not allowed to spend the night with Jeff. When visiting him, I had to wear a hospital gown, mask, hairnet, and gloves. Still, I’d lie next to him for an hour or so, and we’d hold hands through plastic. I’d nuzzle my masked face against his hospital pajamas. “I have to try,” he said late one night. Minutes later, he wept: “I don’t want to die in a hospital. This isn’t where I want it to happen.”

Jeff slept about eighteen hours a day for the next two months. When he was awake and not throwing up, we looked over our cabin plans. I had sketchbooks, instruction manuals, and floor plans. Jeff wanted me to hire people to begin on the second story while he was in the hospital, so we would have a home to return to. (Doctors had told us our trailer was not adequate housing.) I thought we should incorporate a guest room, because we could end up needing a live-in nurse if I returned to my teaching job to support us.

“I don’t want to add any walls to make a room,” Jeff said. “The house is small enough. Walls will make it feel like a warren. And we can’t make it bigger. That’s too much.”

“But, Jeff, what if I can’t do it all, the working and the caretaking? What if we need someone else?”

“You’re not always going to have to help me so much.”

I said nothing.

“Don’t look like that,” Jeff begged. “How am I supposed to fight if you’ve already given up?”

We didn’t yell during these fights: we whispered and sighed. I remain amazed at the personality’s ability to hold on to its delusions of importance, even before the most truthful mirror of all: death. We clung to our cabin’s floor plans the way worshipers fumble with their worry beads.

The practical question was: How could we design and build a house if we didn’t know what Jeff’s physical abilities would be, or even if he would be alive?

The intellectual question was: Now that we were forever wedded to the world of medicine — the most technological, inorganic, expensive world on our planet — could we still live by ecological values? Or were we doomed to be a part of what poisoned the earth, rather than what healed it?

The spiritual question was: Could we compromise and not feel that we had given up?

And there was one more question I had not asked: What was the most compassionate thing to do?

That question was simple, and I knew the answer, knew it deeply, without a doubt. The compassionate thing was exactly what Jeff was doing, and what I was trying to do: to live with kindness toward all life, regardless of hopes and fears for the future, or lack of one.

“Stop moving!” one of the master monks commands, breaking the silence of the prayer hall. “Be still! You are running from your life.”

Is he yelling at me? During my second two-hour meditation, my mind has scampered like a mouse across the fancy wooden floorboards, seeking out any morsel of thought or dream to distract me from the story inside me. Can this monk tell my mind isn’t empty, but full of restless sadness as loud as wind howling off a mountain?

I hold my stance: eyes lowered, hands in the required position. I don’t look around, for the monks criticize us even for shifting our eyes. Part of me chides myself: I have given up one of my few free weekends to be imprisoned in stillness, yelled at by old bald men, awakened at 4 am ., and forced to work long hours in the yard and the kitchen. Another part of me, though, senses that the wisdom I need is here, even in the words of this stern monk.

He is walking around now. I can hear his footsteps, feel them vibrate the wooden floorboards underneath my cushion. People have warned me about this part of the meditation ritual. The monk carries a wooden stick, much like a schoolteacher’s yardstick. At times, the monk will square off behind a student and bring his stick crashing down, first on the left, then on the right shoulder.

The point of this violence? Students are not to doze during meditation, and certainly not to daydream. The stick brings them back into the present moment, people explain. “And it loosens your shoulder muscles,” the monks like to say, “if you find yourself getting tense from too much sitting.”

Smack! Smack! I hear the stick thwack hard against one shoulder, then another. I am not convinced. Life has smacked me around enough.

On Sunday, I get up at 4 am ., before prayer, to kneel one last time in the garden of the gigantic Buddha. I want to believe a secret is pulling itself out of the ground here, invisible yet audible, and I want more time to listen to it. The wind is strong this morning, knocking trunks and branches about, so that, as I lower myself onto the ground before the altar, I am surrounded by creaks and whispers. Perhaps trees talk, voicing their different clicks and clacks, each sound relaying meaning to their kin. Can I learn anything from this music?

While I listen, I keep my eyes focused on the silent Buddha. Why does his placid face seem so full of kindness and life, rather than the cold apathy of stone? Before it, I feel comforted. I do not feel alone.

Thoughts roll out of my consciousness, one after the other, like boulders down a steep hill: Is Jeff right? Can we strive for a pure, green way of living when so much of his survival is based on violating those values? Am I too weak, too greedy? This month, without consulting Jeff, I signed a right-of-way form for the electric company, which promised me a free hookup in exchange for my signature. I wanted power so I could write on my computer inside a well-lit cabin, and I got it. Are human productivity and the earth’s health incompatible? What about writing and off-the-grid living? What about Jeff and me?

My mind aches. Do I need it to work harder? Or maybe I need to shut it down, so I can hear another voice within me.

I sit. Birds begin to make sleepy sounds. A few flutter nearby, tiny birds — sparrows and finches. My breath quickens, as it did every time I tried to meditate in the zendo. The pain grows with each breath. I feel disease inside my own body, eating away my flesh, my blood and marrow, hollowing me out till I’m just a deflated hide.

How could Jeff get sick? I squeeze my eyes shut, but the tears come anyway. How could fate take away his strength, that glow of invincibility we shared for only a few golden summer months? I lean over my knees, coughing out my sadness in rough sobs. Never before have I felt the finality of death. Now, at thirty-one, I bang my fists against it. I do not want this human life anymore, this shallow experience so limited by its finite nature.

The wind picks up, and the creaking grows louder. Then I hear one final crack over my head. A branch as big around as two arms falls to the ground beside me.

I look back to Buddha, his still, stone face.

When Jeff finally emerged from the hospital, he looked like no living person I’d ever seen. He was as thin as a political prisoner and shockingly yellow, like scrambled eggs. He wobbled when he walked, like a fawn just pushed out of its mother. Yet he would accept no help. “I need to make my own muscles,” he said when I offered him a hand.

For months we had lived in a subsidized housing unit attached to the hospital, because Jeff had daily appointments for blood transfusions that lasted six or seven hours. Not until early spring were we able to visit our long-abandoned land. At this point, Jeff had a fanny pack that held a miniature pump for his iv medications, so we didn’t have to hang the plastic bags from the car coat hook. The iv fed as well as medicated him, so we didn’t even have to worry about food.

The drive seemed strangely long. We’d done it so many times, racing through darkness, that driving the speed limit on a sunlit afternoon felt like a dream. Even more strangely, we didn’t talk. For the first time in that car, we were silent.

When we crossed the Connecticut River into Vermont, Jeff reached over and placed his hand on my knee. I could feel his fingers fluttering — a side effect of one of his medications. Every five minutes or so, he’d move his hand forward, then back, or give my knee a weak squeeze.

“The colors,” Jeff said softly. “The colors.” I didn’t understand at first. Then he added, “Everything’s so different under natural light.”

I urged the car faster till we were on our dirt road, then the muddy hump we called a driveway. I got out to open Jeff’s door, but of course he already had the door open and his feet hanging out over the frozen ground.

“Let’s not go to the house site,” he said. “Let’s go to the brook.”

“There’s two feet of snow on the ground.”

“That’s ok.”

I went first so that Jeff could step in my boot prints. It was a long walk. Only an idiot would strain himself this way after being tied to a hospital bed for half a year. I wanted badly to turn and put my arms around Jeff, but every time I paused, he said: “Keep going. If I stop, I won’t be able to start again.”

We could hear the brook before we could see it. It was wild, full of ice and froth and just about spilling over its banks. In summer it was so low we could walk across it, stone by stone. Now it was more than waist high. Trees ripped out by their roots bobbed in its roiling waters, along with fence posts, huge hunks of debris, and even rocks. The water was brown with earth.

Jeff sat on a fallen log, breathing hard. I sat down beside him and hugged him. Even through both our coats, I could feel his heart thumping.

“Baby, we’re here,” I said.

Jeff rested his head on my shoulder. Then he pushed me back and pointed. “Check out the wash behind you.”

I turned around. The entire back bank had slid into the brook. What once had been a steep slope covered in hemlock was now a mudslide in motion. “We must’ve lost seven acres of land right there,” I said, marveling.

“And more’s going to go.”

We sat in silence after that. Despite the spray thrown up by the river, we were not too cold. After so many days and nights locked up inside hermetically sealed buildings, the fresh air felt like medicine itself, the real kind, instantly healing and causing no harm. I breathed it in, grateful.

When Jeff touched my face, it startled me: that fluttering touch. For the first time in months, we kissed. We weren’t supposed to. Jeff’s immune system was still down and would be for half a year or more. He was still required to wear a mask and gloves in grocery stores and movie theaters.

His lips were softer than I remembered them. They fluttered, too. It was then I realized that all his muscles were continually wincing and flexing, over and over, never able to relax, no break at all. When would he heal, I wondered, or at least be released from this vigil of pain? I tasted my tears before I felt them on my cheeks. All I wanted was to offer Jeff relief. If only kisses and love could take away pain and disease.

Jeff smoothed a hand over my hair and down my cheek. He insistently brushed away my tears. Then he turned back to the river and the disappearing bank. We were tired and did not need to speak. We no longer needed to know the ends of things. Instead, we would focus on the beginnings, however imperfect and finite they might be.

Our cabin, for example, might start off connected to a grid, but over time we could get a few solar panels; we could make more electricity than we used and contribute to others’ independence from nuclear power. And even if synthetic as well as organic material resided within our cabin’s walls, the hybrid structure could continue to grow more earth-friendly, changing with the land it sat upon, and with its owners.

Yes, illness and grief were a part of us, indefinitely — but so, too, were love and the ability to listen and learn over time, however long that might be.

A loud crack split our silence, and a middle-aged pine leaned over the river, then fell into its moving waters. Jeff put his arm around me, and we watched the river carry it down.

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