Sunday, February 18, 2007

Now What?

Yesterday I attended a funeral service for one of the monks (a nun, actually, though we only have one word for a monastic which, in English, translates to either monk or nun.. in my order, we tend to use the term 'monk' regardless of the gender) of my order who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last Sunday. Although we knew that she was ill, it came as a shock because she had had a surgery that had gone unexpectedly and quite happily, very, very well. Her physical parameters had been steadily improving, the doctors were pleased with the speed of her recovery, and to all intents and purposes, it appeared to all of us that she would make a full recovery. Her family had visited her in the morning, and she was lucid and seemingly doing very well. She was eating, she was cheerful, and there was no reason to expect anything other than for her to continue on her road to recovery. By the time her husband returned home, however, (as he pulled into the driveway, the phone rang..) he received a call that she was in critical condition, and that he was requested to return immediately to the hospital. Before he was able to get there, though... she had died. And just like that, in the space of a heartbeat, everything had changed for him.

I am disappointed because I had to leave partway through the service. This wasn't a willing choice on my part, it was because I was committed to work, and was unable to make any sort of arrangements that would enable me to stay throughout the service... I'm not sure whether this is, all in all, a benefit or a detriment; from one point of view, it sort of sucked because I had to leave partway through a service that I very much wanted to remain and take part in.... from the other point of view it is good because I was necessarily forced to recalibrate my mindset into a work routine that did not leave much room for dwelling upon the inherent sadness that is part and parcel with such a day...

This is, I think, a comment on life where the very good, the partly good, the not so good, and the very bad always stand either hand in hand, or at least within arm's distance of one another... there is, it would seem, very little white and black in life... and instead, so very many shades of gray. This makes things complex, but also simple I think...

It is in the attempt to 'pigeonhole' each situation and experience into the requisite 'good' or 'bad' categories that we often find ourselves being tied into knots of confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, and other types of suffering...

Perhaps it would make more sense to simply accept that things in life unfold just as they are, and leave it at that... without trying to impose our human limitations and judgments onto inherently unclassifiable circumstances... it never fully works, and it only gives us all headaches anyway...

As we were driving to the place where the service was to be held, it seemed to me to be either a very suitable or very unsuitable day for a funeral.. depending upon how you choose to look at it...

The sky was high and blue with a bright sun and a few scattered fluffy clouds scudding around... the branches of the trees and the blades of tall grass were encased in glittering sheaths of ice... it looked like the world was encrusted with diamonds...

We missed the turnoff for the place, at first... and ended up driving around for awhile until we saw a woman walking her dog, and stopped to ask for directions... she stared at me, in my vestments, for a brief moment, before telling us where we could find the place... I wondered if she had any 'there goes the neighborhood!' thoughts as she went on her way...

As we drove along, I saw a starling sitting in the road, obviously hurt or stunned. I pulled over and got out of the vehicle, walking back to where it sat, and gently picked it up. It didn't struggle, and it didn't seem to be especially afraid of being picked up and held by a huge, strange creature... it just sat there, placidly, and gave me the gift of its trust while it serenely stared at me with its glittering black eyes, waiting to see what I would do next, it seemed. I walked a way off the road, carefully negotiating the slippery ice (it would be awkward to fall on my ass while carrying an injured bird!) and set the little fella down next to a tree in a soft bed of ground ivy. Immediately, it spread its wings and flew off, apparently as healthy as could be... so that was a little strange. I apparently walked up to a healthy bird, fully capable of flying off, and simply picked it up. When I got back into the vehicle, my wife reminded me to wash my hands as soon as we got where we were going, apparently in an effort to save all of us from contracting avian bird virus. She is always very thoughtful when it comes to things like avian bird virus.

People had come in from all over the world for this service. The decedent was very well loved by everyone who knew her. She was an extremely unassuming, kind, quiet spirit.... she had absolutely no ego. And her understated directness captured the heart. This tiny little monk, who always somehow remained in the background, seeing that all of the essential details were being taken care of, without any fuss or bother... never asking for recognition or thanks, had, nonetheless, managed to earn the love and respect of everyone whose life she touched. She was a force of nature. I don't think that anyone who ever met her would argue the accuracy of that statement.

Her husband of 54 years is our priest and teacher. Understandably, his life is irrevocably altered by the loss of his wife, and the love of his life. They were so very much in love, and so very connected, that my heart aches for him. He isn't alone, but he is cast adrift just now... and there isn't very much that any one of us who so love him can do to fix the situation. All we can do is simply be there, and to try to help him to stand up in it. They say that time heals all wounds... but, I think that isn't exactly true. I think it is more accurate to say that time helps us to withstand the wounds that will never heal. He is very sad. I am very sad. She has left a huge empty space in all of our hearts.

I think it is fortunate that he was recently ordained as a priest (they had gone together to the main temple of our order in this country for a month long retreat. When they returned from this, she was showing the first symptoms of her sickness. He went back to the main temple to be ordained as a priest a week later, and upon his return the full extent of her illness had become apparent, and she was hospitalized at that time) when he was, because, as a priest, he is expected to start his own temple. This gives much needed purpose to his life, and, I believe, may very well be the mechanism that enables him to heal. For the time being, we are very much in a state of mental and emotional disruption. The regular monastic schedule that we follow as a community (albeit a very small ((and now, sadly, smaller by one...)) community) is suspended until further notice... naturally, we will each follow our individual schedule of daily spiritual practice, but for now the community is somewhat in need of healing...

Naturally, a good part of the distress that I am feeling is the result of my projecting his unfortunate circumstance onto my own life.

I think that this is one thing that anybody who has ever felt an uncommon love for another human being shares; the underlying fear that one day this will all necessarily have to end, and that there isn't a thing that we can do about it. It is going to happen, and one of us is going to be broken by it.

This is what it is to be human, I guess... and there is no getting around it.

Earlier, I stated that the good and the bad often (or always) stand hand in hand... this is true in this case as well, I think. When death strikes close to home, it affects each of us. If it is to serve any good purpose, I think it is to remind us that time is fleeting, and that life is impermanent, and that our own death is approaching... moment by moment, and that perhaps we should take a good, honest look at our priorities!

We won't be here forever, and neither will our loved ones be here forever. We don't know when any one of us will be the next to go... we only know that it will happen.

What we do know, is that we are here... now... and that those loved ones who are alive are also here with us. Perhaps for years.... perhaps for seconds.

Our lives are flying past us, and we can't do a thing to slow the passage of time. Each day of life brings us one day closer to death. It is one day less that we will have to spend with those that we love.

So, I think the message is that we cannot afford to waste even a second. Since we are born into this life, only to be taken out of it again some time later... it would seem to me that while we are here, the most important thing that we can do is to love one another, as fully and as completely as possible.

Rather than focusing on what we can get, and keep, and take, perhaps, in light of the fact that everything that we collect throughout our lives becomes as nothing at the moment that we die... we should focus our efforts instead on learning how to give of ourselves. Completely, and without reservation or condition.

This is what it is to love.

Giving of our understanding and tolerance helps us to see the beauty and the perfection in others, rather than the faults (of which each and every one of us has many!). Giving of our love and kindness helps us to realize the value of compassion.

When it all comes down to it, I think the reason for our existence, if such a thing as a reason actually exists at all, is for us to learn to transform our spirits, to love all living beings, to learn how not to be afraid to give completely of ourselves, without reservation... and to do what we can to make the lives of those around us a little better, and, perhaps, to ease the burdens of those around us in some small way.

When somebody dies, those who know them and love them don't remember what they had, they remember who they were, and this is what they miss.

As I write this, my wife is at her computer typing away at something... I know that one day, we will be forced apart by death... and it scares me to the point of paralysis to actually consider that this is true and that it will take place.... but, I know that it is a fact of life. What I also know is that until that time comes, I will love her with all my heart with every breath and with every beat of my heart.

One day we will be gone... but at least for now, we are here... and the wind is blowing through the branches of the trees outside, the sun is shining, and my wife is beautiful, and soft, and warm, and alive... and I am more thankful than I can say.

Not so far from where I am, sits an old man, in a house that at least for now is filled with relatives who came to say good by to one who has passed on. In the next few days, they will slowly leave and return to their own lives, leaving that old man alone in an empty house. No matter what he offers, and no matter how much he may wish it, he cannot get his wife back.

The line between life and death is very, very thin... and none of us knows where it lies.... and in the space of less than a second, any one of us could find ourselves sitting in that empty house asking ourselves, "Now what?".

Maybe it would be wiser to ask that question right now.... and to learn, very quickly, how to give of ourselves.... totally.

By doing this, by living in the present moment, completely, by loving, and giving, and smiling beautifully, we learn how to savor each and every moment that we do have together...

That can't be so bad, can it??

So... as I sit here, I ask myself; "Now what?"

The only answer that makes sense to me is to give of myself as completely, and as totally, as I am capable of doing.

For me, at least... this is what it is to live honestly, with honor, and with dignity.

Perhaps by giving, I can make life better for one woman that I love with all my heart, and, hopefully, for one old man who is sitting alone in an empty house.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Please Volunteer!

When I first walked into the room where we normally host the cocktail hour, I immediately suspected that I was in the wrong place. There were no chafing dishes, no salad bar, no serving tables at all! Not only that, but there was no DJ equipment, and no sign or evidence whatsoever that a wedding reception cocktail hour was planned to take place there, whatsoever!

I turned around and went back to the office to ask one of the Banquet Managers whether there was to be a cocktail hour for this party...

He answered to the affirmative in his deep resonant voice in its thick Hungarian accent;

"Of course! Cocktail hour in here, dinner in there!"

I stood there, gaping... (very suave)

His eyes narrowed, ever so slightly, and then, apparently to assist me since I was so obviously addled, he went on with more instructions regarding the party at hand. "This is non-alcohol bar."

And then, just in the event that my language comprehension skills had entirely failed me for some reason, he decided to helpfully explain what this meant;

"This bar... NO ALCOHOL AT ALL - just soda, juices, water, and many frozen drinks. Perhaps you will prepare ice-ed tea... and, if you wish, non-alcoholic beer."

"Great.. got it. Thanks." Was my reply... I tried to keep the disappointment/annoyance from showing on my face.... I have worked these types of parties in the past, and as a general rule (read: in every single case thus far!) they suck balls.

So. This is a wedding. No food. No music. No drink. No nothing... the guests will be bored and annoyed.. at least enough of them to make life.. ah.. interesting for the staff...

Oh well... you gotta work with the hand that you are dealt, right?

When the other bartender showed up, it was someone I had never worked with, and whom I had only seen tend bar once or twice... he's a nice enough guy, a little inexperienced, but, every single one of has been there.... it would be alright......

"Hey, how's it going?" I called out in greeting as he approached the bar where I was setting up.

"Not so good, not so good.." he replied.

(Uh-oh... what is that all about?)

"Why? Did something happen?" I asked.

"My brother is gone." He said.

"... ... ... ... (???!) ... ... ........... uh.. gone?"

"He passed away... he was killed... he died... in a car crash... back home in the Dominican Republic... hedrovehiscaroffacliffinthemiddleofthenightandwedon'tknowifhewasdrinkingorwhat.... he was 27 years old... I have to leave to go there tomorrow morning and my passport expires today! I'm just going to try to get there... I'll worry about getting back once I'm there..."

"... (holy shit)... um... wow... I'm really sorry, man... I... I... don't know what to say.... ... sorry."

"What can you say? There are no words..... but thank you..."

He went on to say that he was only working to get enough cash so that he could pay for incidentals on his trip... some food... tips... etc. When I told him what sort of party we had...he was, um.... less than elated.

We got set up, the doors opened... and in came the guests...

"Hello! What would you like, sir?"

"Lemme get a screwdriver."

"I'm very sorry sir, today we have a non-alcoholic bar. I can offer you soda, juice, fruit punch, iced tea, water..."

"Um.... aa-ight then... lemme get a gin & tonic."

"Ah... we don't have any alcoholic beverages whatsoever at the bar today, sir.... may I offer you something else, perhaps??"

"Oh! Tha's right! No alcohawl.... I guess I'll just have a glass of wine then..."

And this is pretty much how it went all night.... and then there was the line... or lack thereof..

fifty to over one hundred people... all shouting out what they want... simultaneously.

"Yo!! Gimme two Piña Coladas!" (we prepare virgin frozen drinks for the non-alcoholic bars)
(This came from somewhere to my right, and some distance back in the crowd... along with many other shouted orders from everyone at once...)

I continued to serve the person standing at the bar directly in front of me...


"There's a line sir... I'm helping the guest at the front of the line... I will be happy to help you, just as soon as I have served the other guests who are ahead of you....."

"I just want my two Piña Coladas!"

"I understand... but there are people ahead of you.. ... I'm sorry..."

"Yo asshole... just get two glasses, and pour the fuckin' drinks into 'em for me, okay?"

I was suddenly and instantaneously stricken by 'elective deafness' and continued on with what I had been doing...

My 'friend' pushed through the crowd, and worked his way around to the side of the bar;

"Just give me my drinks. I ain't waitin'"

I shot him a glance.. and continued to work without replying....


"Yes sir.. I did. And I will be happy to give you your drinks....."

I served the next person in line.


"I am going to make a fresh pitcher just for you, my friend..."

"Oh.... that's cool.... but could you hurry?"


I served the next couple at the bar...

My 'friend' inhaled to speak to me once again.. but I cut him off;

"I will need to see some ID from you, my friend..."


"My apologies... you look young to me... I'm on camera, you understand.... " and I indicated the surveillance camera mounted on the wall.

"Damn!" - Off he went in search of some ID. When he returned, I had his drinks ready and waiting, and off he went... happy at last. I was happy as well, since I wouldn't have to contend with an angry mob for allowing him to cut in front of them... by the time he returned with his ID, his turn in line had come up.

.... and so it went for the entire night..... after the cocktail hour, we moved into the main reception hall... where, if anything, it was worse. They had a buffet... of sorts.... chicken wings and some rice... these poor folks were broke, that much was obvious... and I'm sure that they did their very best to have the best celebration that they could afford. This much is understood, and the entire staff, to their credit, does as fine a job for the low-budget parties as they do for the extravaganzas.... but, at the same time.. it hurts us.. since we work primarily for tips, and at these parties nobody tips. They don't have it... we know that ... we all struggle, too... but it's hard to put in a grueling 8 to 12 hours and walk away with nothing.... but, its all part of the deal. Thats the industry, I guess....

I am going to request, in writing, that the venue obtain and issue to me one white armband with a prominent bright red cross affixed to it.

If I am going to be a volunteer, I should at least have the privilege of looking like one!!

Our combined take for the entire night?? (this is the amount, in tips, that we split between us...)



Not a single, solitary, red cent.

On top of this, when I was leaving for the night, the owner shouted, railed, ranted, threatened, and stomped his feet over how we were going to be forced to care for the new bars that he had just ordered, how anything other then what he wanted would not be tolerated, and that strict measures would be taken, that we had better not be the one who would be made an example of, etc., etc., blah-blah-blah... (I personally make it a point to clean everything that I use, and to leave it in better condition than how I find it when I come in... but I always seem to be the recipient of these sermons.....). I just stood there, impassively gazing at him until such time as I could extricate myself with as little social awkwardness as humanly possible... and off I went into the cold night. Time to go home at last.

And that my friends, is how my day went yesterday....

Saturday, February 03, 2007

All of it...

'Go home!' ends September...
Lot's of worries... how to pay bills?!
What will I do?

October brings new job
New possibilities
High hopes for better days

November unveils changes
Promises not kept.
Bitter disappointments.

December rolls through
Happy holidays!
Then, long sad walk home.

Again, no job!
What is wrong with me?
Why is this happening?

Brisk January winds.
Cold and fresh!
Unforseen opportunity!

February finds
me studying hard
so much to learn!

Life blossoms
like an early spring flower;
unexpected beauty

How lovely!
Such a wonderful scent!
Oops! A bee!

Everything changes
but, at the center
I am still and tranquil

If worry did not
drive me from my bed
late at night

I would miss the beauty
of seeing the moon
through wintry branches

Even the unexpected
twists and turns
have something to offer

Breathe in, breathe out
problems, solutions
I would not choose

to miss even a moment
of the profound beauty
of my life unfolding

Spit into life at birth
taken out again at death
and in between?

This is life
and what the world has to offer
I am thankful for all of it