On the Floor of Greens
4 - Bolinas
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After Sunday brunch cleanup at Greens, the mimosa glasses hung upside down in their slots at the beverage bar, the heavy rubber floor mats hosed down and stacked at the delivery landing, I hopped into Cloudet, my trusty little gold Honda Accord, and zoomed over the Golden Gate Bridge looking down on the sunny Bay filled with white sails I prefer to see from dry land. Through Mill Valley neighborhoods on secret shortcuts, up Mount Tamalpais then down to the bend that reveals Stinson's people-speckled crescent yellow beach which ends in Seadrift's finger of expensive homes twixt ocean and Bolinas Lagoon and beyond that finger and the ocean's inlet into the lagoon, Bolinas, hiding on her Peninsula which uses that finger to say "Shush, don't tell I'm here." Through Stinson's two lanes of Highway one creeping by the Sand Dollar Restaurant, around the Egret and Crane laced lagoon with clam diggers in high rubber pants wadded into the thick salt mud, taking the signless left back around to the secret side of the lagoon, by Art Espene Carpenter's cabinet making studio, left at the nursery bulging with bamboo and wisteria, past the white wood school house, the Webbers' rows of organic lettuce, Walter Murch's two story home with a black horse in the corral recovering from the dye and trauma of a role in Black Stallion, up through the Eucalyptus grove, onward between the firehouse and cattle grazing on fields watered with aerated sewage spray, down Elm to the entrance to Agate Beach State Park at the tip of the big mesa and sliding to a halt on the left side of the road (one ticket for parking on the wrong side in nine years). Back in Bolinas, Bobo, Briones, home, Liz's, the deck, the tide pools, the ocean, the sky bright blue with billowy white clouds and no fog for today. "Lizzy! I'm home!" And there she is - sweet smile and a hug. Love the drive and love to arrive.
Liz is rehearsing alone her piano part for a Mozart concerto that evening at the Community Center wherein an oboe will play the violin part and she'll cover the orchestra's role with help from a standing bass. The oboist had just dropped off the music. "Oh heck," I say, "I'd hoped we could go for a walk on the beach before it gets dark.
"We can go," she says. "Just give me an hour. The tide will be further out then anyway and we can get around the point."
"Don't you have to practice more than that?"
"No. I just want to go over it once."
"Aren't you afraid you'll make a lot of mistakes?"
"I won't make any mistakes."
I look at the thick book of notes running across the parallel lines and try to imagine how ten fingers and one brain can cope with it all without a month of rehearsal. Hoards of notes in slanting stacks for the right hand and piles toppling over each other for the left for page after page. When I play a song out of a songbook on a guitar I just look at the chords and the words and remember the tune and I don't even remember it correctly. She can sit and read an opera and hear the music in her head. If I play a Rolling Stones or Cole Porter song she corrects the tune I come out with. If I check to see what note I'm going to sing it takes me a second to figure out which one it is on the page and then how to play it on the guitar. And tonight she'll play ten thousand or so without fear. She rehearsed. We took the walk. That night the concert was spectacular and I didn't notice any mistakes which doesn't mean there weren't any but she said there weren't. Good lord.
I'd known Liz since 1970 when she first came to Tassajara. I was twenty-five and she thirty-six at the time. I was attracted to her from the first moment I saw her. Her eyes were wise and beautiful and she was yummy buxom and soft and twinkled. And her smile. Not that I tried anything. I just appreciated her, especially talking to her. She was married to a talented and successful Japanese American painter. Their door to the ZC was the mellow (still mellow) Berkeley ZC. She was a student at Tassajara in '75 for the practice period (leaving the kids for three months with her husband) when I was the director living with my wife Dianne and baby Kelly. I'd go bum a camel non filter from Liz sometimes in the evening after zazen before the firewatch walked around hitting the wooden clackers. She was one of those rare people who can keep a pack on hand and just smoke one or two a day - or none. I was the type who could smoke one or two a day if I had none on hand and had to go somewhere to bum them. You didn't see cigarettes much at Tassajara which was good for me. As the director, I talked to everyone and I liked everyone, but I didn't get that warm comfortable feeling with everyone. We'd talk for a moment or two during breaks or crossing paths on the way to and from the hot bathes. She said that the first time she picked up that there was a serious bone in my mind was during a summer bonfire gathering when I sang acapella a folk song collected by Carl Sandberg, the piercing ode to death, "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon." After Dianne and I had returned to the city we would visit Liz sometimes in Bolinas. She and her husband broke up and Dianne and I broke up. It's the American way.
Actually, Dianne had a seminal role in Liz and me getting together. After eight years of being a couple and almost three of marriage we'd come to an impasse. She was getting tired of me and tired of being a round the clock mom while I was working sixteen hours a day at the ZC's grocery store, the Green Gulch Greengrocer. Things had been fine at Tassajara but they'd gotten lopsided in the city. I'd been a ZC company man for ten years and wanted a break and ZC needed a break from me and the abbot, Richard Baker (who I'd always gotten along with) and I were nonetheless arguing a lot at the time about the grocery store and he was tired of hearing about me drinking and smoking pot and being a bad influence on others. One night while having dinner with my sister and her husband and Dianne and I were each complaining about our dissatisfaction with our lives at the time. I said, "I quit."
"Quit what?" she asked.
"Quit it all. Quit the store. Quit being a priest. Quit living with you. You can have the freedom you want. I quit. I quit. I quit. I quit. I quit." She was speechless for a moment but then said that maybe it wasn't a bad idea. I suggested that I take two and a half year old Kelly and go off. She could work for the ZC and after three months I'd come back and we could see what we wanted to do then.
The next day we went to Tassajara because as a former head monk I had to attend the end of the practice period question and answer ceremony for the current head monk. After the ceremony I talked with Baker Roshi and as I said, 'I quit,' he said 'You're fired.' He was also mad at me because I'd just attended a neighborhood meeting in our mostly black area and there were only conservative older blacks and cautious Zennies there and I had drunkenly gone on like some sixties student radical about the endemic racism of society and disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor as being the major cause of crime in our neighborhood. He didn't disagree with my points, but I was just being too much of a loose cannon. It was time for me to move on - at least take a leave of absence.
On a Monday morning Dianne and I stood on the sidewalk in front of the City Center. It was pretty close to the first day of spring. The Toyota Corolla station wagon was packed and Kelly was in his car seat drooling and nodding. We were sort of gulp-gulpy, not mad at each other at all, just full of anticipation and a little sad. We'd been lovers from the first day we'd met at Tassajara in '68. She was such an innocent flower child and it was a hot summer day. I invited her to take a walk down creek and we skinny dipped and just fell into each other on a big flat rock beyond where most people went. Before long we were sleeping together regularly and getting up in the cold dark to put on our lay robes and go to the zendo to sit zazen. How great to be in a disciplined meditation community that didn't reject sexuality (nor encourage it). And now she'd be working with the community again. She already had been offered the job of buyer. She'd be driving a truck and loading and unloading. And I wouldn't be doing that sort of thing and checking out people at the cash register and spraying the organic lettuce to keep it fresh. What a change.
Baker Roshi was back from Tassajara as well and he came out to say goodbye. "You don't have to leave," he said. "You can stay at the grocery store or do something else. I was just a little mad at you but I appreciate you. We can work it out."
"I appreciate you too," I told him. The guy had taken on such an enormous task - working tirelessly early morning till late doing the impossible job of filling the sandals of our late great founder Shunryu Suzuki, being a teacher to hundreds of students at the three centers, trying to figure out how to make the community continue as a Zen practice center that supported itself as much as it could and depended on fundraising as little as possible. "I'd like to stay and help out," I said, "But we know it's good for me to get out of here for a while - and I need to develop my own strength away from you and the old ZC umbilical." We bowed and he left Dianne and me alone.
Dianne was checking to make sure that I'd taken everything that was necessary for Kelly -diapers, clothes, toys, goat's milk, and bottles. "Well, I guess you have everything you need, she said nervously. "And I'm sure he'll wean now Two and a half years - oh, Kelly!" He continued to sleep. She gently kissed the top of his head. "And take care of Bendo," she said rubbing the car. BENDO were the letters on the vanity license plate that a Japanese priest named Yoshimura had helped me to choose for the car. It came from an important work written by Dogen, founder of Soto Zen in the twelfth century, and meant "negotiating the way."
Then she asked something that is strange we hadn't discussed. "Where are you going?"
"Good question," I said. "Well, I thought I'd go down to Big Sur and visit Kathy." Kathy was a beautiful woman who I knew from Tassajara. She was very bright, young, beautiful, and recently separated from her French Zen fanatic husband.
Dianne scrunched up her face closing one eye, twisted her head in quick deep thought and said, "Oh don't go see Kathy. She's a good person, but you don't love her. Go to Bolinas and see Liz. That's who you love."
And so I did. As Dianne and fellow Zennies and grocery store co-workers stood by the car and waved, I drove off northwards toward Bolinas. And stayed for nine years.
When Liz got home from teaching music at the local elementary school later that day, Kelly and I were just coming up from the beach. She welcomed us and, upon hearing what the situation was, said we could stay as long as we wanted.
The next morning Liz and her kids went off to school leaving Kelly and me to play around her funky old home, a sort of beach house or weathered gray wood above-the-beach house that she had lived in for twenty years and which had grown with occasional tacked-on additions through the years. She slept in the studio, a twenty by thirty foot single room building that her ex had built for his painting. It had two rows of north facing skylights on the flat roof, north for the soft indirect light that artists prefer. There was a lot of gray wood deck - between the main house and the studio and behind the house and on the front and back of the studio. Down below the studio was a little shed where a surfer named Richard lived. Before he went off to ride the waves, he puffed on a joint and we got acquainted. I didn't have any appointments so I joined him. Ah, high in the morning. What a way to start a day. Richard left, but his dog stayed with Kelly and me, an old shaggy critter named Boar. While I cleaned up the kitchen, Kelly climbed all over Boar who just sat there with his tongue hanging out panting happily.
As the day warmed up I put Kelly in a carrier mounted on my back and we went off on a walk. Boar didn't follow us. He was an old homebody. We made it all the way across the mesa and down to the lagoon and the home of a writer I knew there named Charles Fox, a tall, handsome Englishman who had been struggling with MS for a few years. We sat out on his deck and watched birds taking off and landing in the bulrushes behind his house while Kelly crawled and staggered around - as two-year-olds do - inspecting all sorts of sea shells and other treasures that lay about. Charles had written novels and a good deal about racing cars and racers. He'd written for Playboy and for True, the rugged he-man magazine of America. The sort of people who read True might have had a hard time accepting worldly-wise, charming, humorous, dope-smoking, long haired, libertarian Charles at face value. I remembered True from its more popular days in my youth. Mainly I remembered the covers such as one with a soldier of fortune and a buxom blonde in some jungle tomb surrounded by an army of sharp-toothed rats about to devour them. Their khaki shirts and shorts were torn and already streams of blood were trickling from their tanned skin. As a youngster I'd stare at these covers at the periodical rack of the local pre Seven Eleven locally owned snack and soda store and be mesmerized by the rats and blood and breasts and guns and all. Kelly was too young to appreciate that aspect of Charles's persona though. He was enjoying chewing on a piece of home made bread in a break from inspecting the marsh from the edge of the deck. Charles asked me what I was going to be doing and I said I didn't know but that maybe I'd try to write something. In recent years I'd mainly just studied Buddhist stuff. I'd studied some Zen writings in the original Japanese and Chinese and made some study books for Zen Center's libraries; I'd written a lot of songs in the past; but I hadn't written any stories or poems to speak of since I was twenty or so. Aside from being a Zen student, writing was all I knew. Charles then gave me the best advice I've ever heard on writing. "The key to the writer's art," he said in his British accent, "is to apply the seat of ones pants to the seat of ones chair."
Kelly and I continued to wander around town. At a mud-puddled cross-roads in the mesa's outback at one point we were surrounded by three snarling, mangy dogs. A long stick had proven sufficient to ward them off and from that day on I always walked with such a pole when perambulating those environs. Sunset found us a top a cliff overlooking the Ducksberry Reef jutting out Southward into the Pacific. I imagined an early three masted sailing vessel stuck on it.
"Down Daddy," I heard from behind me. Ah, I thought he was asleep.
I slid the kid carrier off my back and pulled Kelly out of it. "You're getting heavy." I pulled him out and he wandered off a few feet. It wasn't the type of cliff you'd fall straight off of - more of a steep sandy slope - but I told him to be careful about the edge. Then I crossed my legs as he investigated some of the microcosms around him. But as I sat and drank in the pinks and purples of day's end, the enormity of the change in my life overwhelmed me. For a decade, since I was twenty-one, my only doubt about the future had been whether I'd stay at Tassajara or go to the farm or the City Center, whether I'd be work leader or dishwasher. Now I had no idea what was next. I had severed the tie that bound. Of course I could just hop in the car and go back but I had ruled that option out. So there was nothing in the future slot and little in the identity box. The sunset was spectacular but not enough that eve to quell the wave of insecurity that wiped me out.
I began to rock back and forth and groan and to say, "What am I going to do? What am I going to do?" and continued for some time. Then an amazing thing happened.
Thirty-one month old Kelly came over to his thirty-one year old father and put his hands on my head and said, "Lie down Daddy. Lie down and die."
He gently pushed my head back and I went with it. My legs uncrossed and stretched out and as I lay back his hands cushioned the back of my head as it settled on a rock. "Lie down, Daddy," he said again, "Lie down and die. There. Now die all the way. Close your eyes and die all the way."
I closed my eyes and could hear him walk away. I lay back and all the doubts and pain in my thought poured out and I lay there completely comfortable and wrapped in a blanket of warm light.
"OK, Daddy," I heard him say to me, I guess a few minutes later, "You can be alive again. Get up." As I got up, he repeated, "You can be alive again. Let's go to Lizzie's."
The sun was down and it was getting dark. A cool breeze nipped at us. Kelly and I walked along the edge of the cliff to Liz's and I knew that life was going to be exciting and all new. And I wondered how the creation those words had come out of my little son's mouth.