Job meets Easter

Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
– Job 38

I ask you, what are you? You don’t know. There is only “I don’t know.” Only keep this don’t-know mind. When this don’t-know mind becomes clear, then you will understand.
– Zen Master Seung Sahn

When I started reading the Bible a chapter per morning about 18 months ago, I didn’t plan for Easter to be the day I’d transition from Job, the book of suffering, to Psalms, the book of praise. Nor did I imagine how much suffering was ahead. Like Job, I’ve since endured the loss of my entire immediate family – my husband and father, as well as several friends who were like family – and survived a scare from grave illness. At least I didn’t have boils all over my body! Oh wait – shingles, too.

Job’s suffering and my own have taught me a Zen-flavored Jewish and Christian lesson, I think – a lesson about how much we don’t know. What we experience as suffering is part of a web of personal and natural interconnection too vast and complicated for a mere human to understand. Without our experience of suffering, we wouldn’t recognize joy. So our suffering is a gift, hard as that may be to recognize while it’s going on. The best way to deal with suffering, I’m learning, is not to compound it by suffering more about it. To go through it and not around it. Not to make it bigger by trying to figure it out.

Easter morning

The lived parable of Easter tells us redemption is in the not-knowing, in what a Christian might call faith. We encounter suffering and death only in the material world we know through our physical senses. What we can’t grasp with our senses but can touch with our souls is our safety net, our salvation, our eternal life. The only part of us that suffers is the part that sees ourselves as separate from the whole, from the universe, from the absolute, from God. The only part of us that dies is the part that suffers. That’s what Christ died and rose to show us.

Forsythia branches are in bloom (thanks, Sharon!) in the office and meditation-prayer room Hal set up for me. His plants are thriving, if you needed more proof his spirit is still around. May the flattening curve of the world’s virus send us back into the world together soon. Happy Easter.

Palm Sunday of the virus

Look at the heavens and see,
observe the clouds that are higher than you.
If you have sinned, how have you affected God?
If you are righteous, what do you give to God?
Your wickedness affects others like you,
and your righteousness, other human beings.

– Job 35

To see into the interconnectedness of all living things is to see how all living things are part of a unified field that contains all, and at the same time to see that this entire field is embodied by each being.
– Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

These are my Judeo-Christian and Buddhist readings on this Palm Sunday, as I make my way a chapter a day through the Hebrew Scriptures alongside email devotionals from the Buddhist journal Tricycle.

This virus is teaching us we’re all one body. What one does affects all. The point of life isn’t to show God how much better we are than others, for brownie points toward a future reward. The point of life is emptying our selves to love and lift each other in the one mind and body that is God right now and forever. This message emanates beautifully in a small Minnesota town from the honeycomb windows of the church at Saint John’s Abbey, whose architecture was so beloved by my husband Hal.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the palm-waving crowds yelled hosanna, which is not Hebrew for “yay.” It is Hebrew for “save us.” But he wasn’t about their idea of salvation. Within a week they murdered him. Or tried, anyway. His spirit lived on and multiplied by the billion, with a message of selfless love for those with hearts and minds open enough to hear.

Science teaches us that viruses can both wreak havoc and strengthen resistance. May this time of darkness bring an era of brighter light.

A year of Hal in spirit

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness. – The Episcopal Church, from The Book of Common Prayer

One year ago today, the world lost the physical presence of my husband and soulmate Hal. There’s not much to say about my grief that a person couldn’t guess. I still miss him every day, especially in the morning, when he would shuffle out of the bedroom, see me fixing his coffee and smile through his sleepy haze. While the sharp pain of grief mellows, the missing of him will never go away.

What would be more surprising and fruitful to share with others, I think, are the good things that came from this year of loss:

  • The still-spouting gusher of love and support from family and friends who feel this grief so obviously, genuinely and intensely alongside me. I was told in books and by counselors to expect people not to understand, not to know what to say, to be awkward and slowly fade away to leave me alone with my grief. This advice has turned out to be wrong. It’s a testament to how widely and deeply Hal was loved.
  • The stupefying ways in which I continue to feel Hal’s presence, and how that’s so much more real than the greeting-card snippet of denial it sounds like. Existence in body and time is only part of how a person manifests in the world. Many years of meditative practice have convinced me we’re all shimmering within a single, universal consciousness that never changes. It’s a truth every major religion points at, and science is catching up fast. The memory of Hal is Hal. I don’t always grasp him perfectly in memory, but I didn’t always grasp him perfectly in life, either, as he would’ve been quick to point out.
  • How this difficult year has deepened my understanding of the world, enriched my Christian and Buddhist faith, and seems to have equipped me to bring that to others in need of a hand through suffering. There’s a new calling somewhere in all this. Still waiting as patiently as I can for that Polaroid to develop.

Tomorrow, this year of firsts is over, and in that respect, I’ll be glad to see it go. I’ll never again have to confront a first birthday without Hal, a first wedding anniversary without Hal, a first Christmas without Hal, a first Easter without Hal. Hopefully I’ll also never have to confront another cancer diagnosis without Hal, though he motivated me through his death to get that diagnosis before it could send me packing to where he is, so in a sense, he was here. In a lot of senses, he’s here. He sends his love. Send yours back when you see him.

A Mexican sunrise

View from the writing table

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. I’d intended this blog to be an inspiring journal of healing. Grief turned out to be tougher and less interesting than I imagined. I think my faith life, Christian and Buddhist, equipped me for a better first stage of grief than most, cushioning the initial shock, understanding Hal hasn’t gone anywhere in an absolute sense and is okay. The next stage – realization of the permanence of this loss, understanding Hal is not away on a long vacation – was slower and worse, and monotonous, nothing worth writing about, just sad day after sad day, reaching into my pocket to text Hal about this or that and realizing for the thousand-someth time that he doesn’t have his phone on him.

I’m understanding grief will never go away. But in divine mercy it does mellow and mature. Coming up on ten months since Hal’s passing, I feel the realization stage dissolving and something-like-normal life starting to return. New, vibrant faith communities both Zen and Episcopal have helped, and so has a support group, and walks and talks with a friend who has been going through loss of his own. And a big transition I crossed last month was Mexico.

Nothing is worse in grief than the first withouts – the first walk by the lake without, the first time cooking a favorite meal without, the first holidays without. Over the last several years Mexico had become so special to Hal and me, I wondered if I could handle that without at all, if I’d ever go back. The standard advice is not to avoid things you did and places you went together – your memories will be suppressed and won’t turn sweet.

Going to Mexico when the fall semester ended last month was taking that advice too soon. But I can’t stand winter weather in Milwaukee and didn’t want to wait half a year to be warm. When the plane landed I was in such a funk missing Hal I didn’t want to get off. The flight was turning around to Chicago and I could have afforded the change fare to stay in my seat and bail on the whole thing. Fortunately we were at an outdoor gate and the rush of summer-like air when the exit door opened was just enough to lure me out.

Aware of my situation, my hotel upgraded me free to a spectacular suite with a private balcony looking out at the jungle and ocean. I decided to stick it out in the luxe surroundings, but the grief was so heavy Puerto Vallarta barely registered – the first day I could’ve been in Siberia for all I noticed of the palms and breezes. The sadness did slowly lift, though, as I meditated by the ocean and Mexico began accenting Hal’s presence rather than absence. Just as I was hitting the Vallartan groove it was time to leave.

With a slice of winter break left and my between-term duties at school discharged, I hopped a flight yesterday and came back. This time when the Pacific sparkled out the plane window and Puerto Vallarta came into view on the steep sides of its mountains, I couldn’t wait to get down there and walk the streets with Hal’s Mexico-sharpened soul. For the next five days I haven’t planned much aside from reading, writing, meditation and prayer, lots of it at the beach. I’m taking it as a retreat, to celebrate the wonderful life with Hal that was, and open to vibrations of what might be next. Listo is the word here. Ready.

Hal’s moment of Buddhist grace

I came to the practice of Zen at the height of the AIDS epidemic, overwhelmed by the stress of people close to me falling ill, and without much sympathy from Christian churches. These days I have a mature meditation practice and a supportive Episcopal Church and neighborhood parish to help me through tough times, as have arrived since the death of my husband Hal in March. People have remarked how well I seem to be doing.

The truth is, life has not been so smooth in private. Meditation has been difficult. My mind wanders and frets. Praying with words brings some comfort, but I’ve always felt God already knows anything we might say, that prayer out loud is mainly for ourselves, to clarify our own intentions and to show support for one another. My grief feels far beyond language. My main intention right now is: “HELLLLP!”

In timely fashion I happened upon an article in the Buddhist journal Tricycle on Shin Buddhism, the major branch of the faith in Japan, in which chanting and not meditation is the main practice. Chanting my way through this loss seemed as bizarre an idea as breathing my way through the AIDS crisis once did. But I tried it, and the repetitive calling on Amida Buddha, somewhat of an eastern equivalent to the Risen Christ, has helped short-circuit the loop of shock and sadness in my head, reminding me to trust forces beyond my small self in coming to terms with what has happened and charting a new course in Hal’s spirit.

Shin Buddhism has been likened to Christianity in its language of grace and salvation and divine power, though some Shin practitioners don’t like the comparison, not wanting to be associated with some Christians who believe in a exclusionary and punitive God separate from our own being. Reading up on Shin Buddhism I stumbled on a coincidence involving Hal.

Last June, needing to deliver a sold painting and wanting to catch a Cubs game, Hal and I arrived several days early to the Old Town Art Fair, a prestigious show held in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. In our search for a safe place to put our van, the Old Town folks suggested we contact the Midwest Buddhist Temple nearby, which provides parking and support to artists during each year’s fair. The temple members were happy to accommodate us, and we traded a few details about my Zen practice and their faith.

Sunday service at the
Midwest Buddhist Temple

Hal was intrigued to hear about Shin Buddhism’s church-like Sunday services without long periods of meditation. He was never interested in silent sitting and contemplation, Zen-style, saying he got that in the garden and the art studio. “But I’d come with you to services here,” he said. We talked about arriving in Chicago early again and checking out the temple the Sunday before the following year’s fair.

Having cancelled this summer’s shows after Hal’s passing, our plans at Old Town had faded in my memory, until I ran across the Tricycle article and realized the Midwest Buddhist Temple houses a Shin congregation. Not only that, it turns out their service this Sunday – the very service Hal and I had talked about attending – is a memorial for those in the congregation who have recently lost loved ones.

I contacted the temple to reintroduce myself and ask about this Sunday’s service. They are glad for me to join them and honor Hal among their own. “Please plan on staying for some conversation so you can tell us more about Hal,” read the gracious reply.

Thus will my beloved garden meditator receive his Buddhist tribute. The temple is quick to point out, though, that the service is for the benefit of those left behind. Our loved ones are safe ahead of us in the pure land of immeasurable light and life.

’70s flashback: art class dork

In my childhood, art class was a source of extreme anxiety. I was clumsy with markers and tools, my poor eyesight was uncorrected, and my color blindness wasn’t discovered until I was eleven years old. Somehow no one at Dixon Elementary thought it odd that a kid who the school wanted to skip from first to fourth grade (my mother wouldn’t allow it) was unable to learn the proper names of colors. Seeing me reading the crayon wrappers, one art teacher ordered me to tear them off and use the colors bare, so I could finally grasp what seemed to be impossibly subtle differences between reds and greens, between pinks and purples and blues. I memorized the colors as I removed the wrappers and arranged the crayons alphabetically in a sixteen-slot tray. Sadly I was prone to dropping the tray.

So it was a vivid flashback when I settled into Room 375 at MIAD for my first Foundations of Drawing class and promptly spilled my new pencils and charcoal all over the floor. Using them on paper was not much more successful. The other students in class have drawing talent and appear to be warming up for actual art school. I appear to be channeling my inner second-grader. I haven’t explained to anyone except the instructor why I’m there, nor does it seem like there will be such an opportunity. I’m in for more Wednesday evenings of young people looking at my drawing board with faces that say “what the hell?

Yet I would call my first evening of formal art instruction a success. I now know that your elbow makes a good pivot for drawing a straight line, that you grip farther from the tip for broad gestures and closer for more detail, that a pencil held at arm’s length makes a handy measure for proportion, and a number of other techniques and tricks for rendering 3-D shapes and forms onto 2-D media. Because I won’t be drawing except for my own eye in producing the art I have in mind, no one needs to know that when I draw a bottle it looks like a cat. With practice in the studio I hope for the bottles to become less cat-like, and for drawing to become more helpful in visualization and planning. And the class has already helped solve a proportionality problem that was stumping me as I muse on how to capture Hal’s colors and brushstrokes and release them into new works.

The help and encouragement of other artists is inching me toward this dream too. Yesterday my next-door gallery neighbor/artist and I cranked some soaring vintage rock – T. Rex! Ringo! “Rock Show” by Wings! – and did some playing around with raw canvas and charcoal and acrylic and an amazing white goop called Extra Heavy Gel that makes a forgiving but ultimately fast-holding fixative for mosaic work. Extra Heavy Gel! Man. It sounds like a ’70s rock band. Canvas-on-canvas mosaic might be the ticket. Torn and textural. To the tune of “20th Century Boy.” We could feel Hal’s spirit jamming and laughing along.

A flash of inspiration, or insanity, or both

In the wake of graduation weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I have taught and advised students for 13 years, I have become, at age 58, a student myself. An undergraduate. A beginner.

Freshman art student

In my eulogy for my departed husband, I talked about his life’s mission to send beauty into the world for others via his architecture and art, and how that can be an inspiration for those who knew and loved him. I’ve been trying to use Hal’s outward-directed life as my own inspiration to transcend grief and go forward in his spirit.

The eulogy itself was one way of trying to point outward for others. These blogs in Hal’s memory have been another. Over the past year I’ve been writing a novel for teens and young adults based in part on Hal’s memories of North Dakota, and his passing has given the final edit a freshened message and heightened urgency. I’m working on forming a fellowship in Milwaukee for LGBTQ people of faith, not all of whom are so lucky as me to have love and acceptance from family in times of need.

Finally, there’s Oil Gallery, Hal’s studio and display space in the Third Ward, which has proved to be a place of surprising comfort and rejuvenation. I’ve been keeping the doors open as a continuation of the many fulfilling hours Hal and I spent there together. Hal was well stocked with original art in preparation for the summer show season, and he left many other wonderful pieces that for one reason or another didn’t meet his exacting standards for ongoing display. I have enough excellent paintings for a number of Hal debuts in the gallery, and his popular images of Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis and Chicago will continue to adorn the walls and shelves in the form of reproductions and merchandise. Thanks to modern technology and Hal’s care in capturing high-resolution images of all his work, any painting of the hundreds he did can be lovingly recreated on canvas, even in actual oil paint, which I intend to do in limited editions.

Still, I’ve been saddened that I’ll never have another new Hal painting to show…until a lightning bolt of what felt like either inspiration or insanity hit me. (I know from writing and teaching that the two can go hand in hand.) In part because the exact direction is uncertain and in part to build suspense, I won’t get too specific right now. Suffice to say Hal’s bold brushstrokes and colors may yet find their way into new, original artworks with two signatures, via the inexperienced hands and color-blind eyes of his partner in art and love and life.

The bolt of inspiration/insanity has been received enthusiastically thus far by a small few in the local art community with whom I’ve shared, including Hal’s and my Third Ward neighbors and friends at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where I’ve just enrolled in a six-week crash version of their Foundations of Drawing course. Hal used to say art flows from drawing. So I’m starting there and seeing where it goes. Thanks to Hal I have what might be the best art studio space in Milwaukee, fully stocked. Why not use it? At the very least I’ll gain a better grasp of what art is made of, and aim to enjoy the ride. Stay tuned.

Why I believe in God

It’s unfashionable these days to believe in God. I’ve heard faith in God called the grown-up version of believing in Santa Claus. I’ve heard God called a crutch for the weak. I’ve heard God called an imaginary friend people invent and call on during hard times.

“Black and Tan”, by Hal

I’ve called on God pretty much non-stop these past few weeks since my husband’s sudden death. God has delivered. God is keeping my head above the surface of the ocean of despair. God is real.

How am I so sure?

Science is finding less and less at the root of matter except our own watching. Einstein said, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Buddha taught the whole world is made of our thoughts.

It’s obvious if you, well, think about it. Everything changes and never stops. The electrons of the densest diamond are in constant movement. All matter is in a state of growth or decay. Nothing is the same from one instant to the next. At what point, then, is anything we see and hear “real” except in our idea of it?

Yet we can’t control the world with our individual thoughts. Our minds have to be part of something larger, like waves are part of water. Our minds must swim in a bigger mind, in the one true, unchanging mind imagining the lights and colors and music of the world. A big mind we can connect with if we loosen our grip on our self-centered thoughts, as Buddhists do in meditation and Christians do in prayer.

Buddhists don’t like to give that true, unchanging mind a human-like name or soul. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it the ultimate dimension. The Korean Zen master Seung Sahn called it don’t-know. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche calls it ultimate truth. Many Zen and Buddhist teachers refer to the absolute, as in the famed American Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron’s concept of absolute bodhichitta, or awakened heart. Taoism calls it the Tao, like an inanimate object.

Christians say God. I buy that, and I don’t think it’s just because I was raised Christian. In my young adulthood, coming out of the gay closet into a dark age of homophobia and AIDS, the Christian church rejected me, and I rejected it. I went full-on Buddhist. Through many hours of Zen meditation I learned how to detach from the sadness of how everything on earth including our bodily selves has an end, and connect with the ultimate dimension where all is united and unchanging. It brought great comfort, and it still does, now more than ever. It settled panic into something close to joy. It may have saved a life I was starting to think wasn’t worth living.

What put God back into my meditation wasn’t faith. It was logic. I never came to understand how we could be human while our source was a dimension. How we could exist with hearts and souls if we came from an inanimate object or force or “ground of being.” How we could have more personality than our creator. The water in a wave is the identical substance as the water in an ocean. Our minds and souls must be of the same nature as what they come from. For me this is what scripture means by God creating us in his own image. This is part of what Christ thundered into humanity to show.

This doesn’t mean I think of God as a white-bearded old man controlling the world like a puppet show. That’s nursery-school religion for atheists to laugh at. We move freely in God’s mind, the same way our images of others move freely in our dreams. We cause harm or good according to our connection either with our relative, temporary, illusory selves on earth or our ultimate, united, true existence with others in God.

Death isn’t an end but a safety net. The limit to our harm. God catches us. Our souls continue to exist in some way with all who were and are and are yet to be, in what Christianity calls so beautifully “the communion of saints.” My faith and reason don’t see any other way.

A blog rises at Easter

The thoughts in writing on this new blog started with the physical death of the love of my life, the artist Hal Koenig, and a eulogy I delivered at his memorial service. The eulogy used themes shared by Christianity, Zen Buddhism and quantum physics to talk about how the important part of Hal is still with us, and how the many who loved him are called to live out his kind and gentle spirit.

Immediately after the eulogy I began receiving requests for the text and questions about what it said and meant. In response I began a memorial blog to Hal that generated surprising traffic and many words of encouragement. Apparently the writing has wet a few handkerchiefs among family and friends and even some strangers. The Zen-flavored expressions of Christian faith helped a dear friend of Hal’s cross into the spirit world shortly behind him, bringing welcome smiles to her face in her final days of this life. Writing everything down and sending it into the world has helped me process more grief in the last month than I thought I’d face in a lifetime.

Words are pretty much the only thing I’m good at, and since they seem to be lifting others (not to mention myself), I’m going to keep the words coming. Easter feels like the right time to go beyond a blog in memory of Hal’s physical presence and begin anew with one to carry forward his still-living spirit, not in lament but in joy. Father Jason at my neighborhood’s fine Episcopal church spoke on Good Friday about how loss unleashes the power of regeneration. Amen and may it be so.

The blog will cover whatever I feel charged to say at a given moment, often, I anticipate, about art in words or on canvas, and the truer-than-fact beliefs that art, literature and faith express. I’ve titled the blog Capturing The Light to salute Hal’s light-based artistic vision using the language of faith and spirit. The title came to me during meditation, or silent prayer, in the voice of Hal, harmonizing with all who are one with God. Nothing is separate except in our selfish, temporary earthly minds.

Soon I’ll start the blog proper by addressing the number-one question I’ve received since the eulogy for Hal: “So are you a Buddhist, or a Christian?” The answer for Hal and me, Christian, tends to bring a response somewhere between “ohhh” and “ewww.” It’s not the hip answer some want to hear.

I can’t blame people for being less than enthusiastic. Christianity has been made creepy by churches that pack their pews with a seductive gospel of wealth, superiority and exclusion, opposite of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. I too am guilty of recoiling in suspicion when strangers proclaim a fervent Christian faith.

Yet my thirty years of Zen practice haven’t managed to turn me full Buddhist. I can’t get past Buddhism’s First Noble Truth: “Life is suffering.” But Zen does help me see the gospel of Christ in a light that fits the world and time surrounding us. Which in turn is helping me triumph against the hardest and saddest days of my life. If what happened in my life this past Lent can’t put me down, nothing can. I hope Hal’s true heart and its work in my words can help others meet the hard Lents of their lives and come out stronger in spirit.

Thank you, everyone, for being with me, now more than ever. I love you.