By Judith Toy
“Blessings galore roll down on us all.”
~R. Philip Toy in his last journal entry, February 2013
A Zen nun once said to her student, “If you’re not laughing, you don’t get it.” I have laughed at the absurdity of my husband’s death often, as he lay dying and since. The “Whatever is fickled, freckled, who knows how?” of the following spring was more tenderly green than any former spring.
“When you die,” I asked Philip a month or two before he died, “what would you like me to do with my life?” “Way will open,” he said like a true Quaker. I thought he might have said, “Get thee to a nunnery,” or “Find yourself another partner,” but no. No such easy luck with that one. Honestly, it struck me funny. It was just like the non-answer to “Honey do these jeans make my butt look too big?”
The other day I was sitting on my cushion when a wave of loneliness hit me hard. I began to cry. Through mindfulness training, I have learned to recognize my negative feelings and communicate with them, not to push them away. I imagined my loneliness as an infant I held in my arms: “There you are again my little Loneliness,” I said silently. “What do you need from me?” “To party!” answered my little Loneliness without missing a beat.
I burst out laughing on my cushion. Lost my composure. Okay, I get it, I said. My loneliness wants me to lighten up, not to wallow in widowhood. Even the word widowhood has a homey sound to it. Like neighborhood. And trust me, there are many of us elder women in the widowhood neighborhood these days. All in the same boat. So why not laugh at ourselves? Wear purple? Wear our trousers rolled?
Also in his last journal entry, my husband Philip wrote, “My angels are gathering.” Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Writer’s writer Natalie Goldberg once said, “I consider writing practice a true Zen practice because it all comes back at you.” She wrote “you can’t fool anyone because it’s on the page.” Let us ask Natalie, does this mean our words are carved in stone? And further, do they “come back at us” just because they are in print? Print is cheap in these days of self-publishing and three-dimensional printers. Far too many a printed page has been re-purposed as a poop catcher in the bottom of a parakeet cage. I say words are both ridiculous and sublime. I was offered this lesson once while writing haiku on rocks with a feather dipped in sea-water on the sea-breezy shore of Swann Island, Maine.
Take the word Zen. People seem to like the word. They associate it with everything from restaurants and magazines to motorcycle maintenance. Say Zen five times fast. Now take the word Hen. Say Hen five times fast. Now take both words, Zen Hen, and say them 20 times fast. Imagine the Zen Hen. Why does she not cross the road? To get to the no-side, of course. She doesn’t want to just do something; she wants to sit there. “Before God we are all equally wise and equally foolish,” Albert Einstein offered.
No matter how closely sorrow dogs us, no matter how thoroughly grief wrings tears from our eyes like a twisted washcloth in the hands of a hammy wrestler, we still need to laugh. Laugh hard and often. Our ability to crack up is one of the finest of the Creator’s blessings that roll galore on us all. The Dalai Lama’s a fine example of that. My ability to see humor in the face of adversity is a gift from my father. Growing up with Daddy was like sitting 24-7 at the front table of a comedy club. As a teen, I didn’t appreciate his one-liners before breakfast. But that didn’t stop Dad’s ongoing repartee. Five-foot-five with his shoes on and strongly resembling one of Santa’s elves, Daddy would stand at the bathroom mirror in his t-shirt, lean close to the mirror and tell himself in a stage whisper with gusto, “God, you’re good looking.” Then he’d call to me, “Daughter, get my barbed wire collar.” “Your what?” I’d ask every time. “My barbed wire collar. I’ll need it to fend off the women today.”
Cartoonist Madden shows a business man in a suit, jacket and tie on top of a mountain, toting his briefcase, approaching the guru who sits bearded and bare-chested in full lotus, a helicopter in the background: “What’s the meaning of life? But make it quick; I’ve got an appointment in half an hour.” We all have an appointment with our last breath, don’t we?
That is why the Zen masters teach mindfulness of death. Back in the day, they would take their students on field trips to the charnel ground—when there was such a thing as a charnel ground where bodies were burned — and they would sit and meditate on the sight of char-broiled bones, flesh hanging from some of them in shards, the smell of burning human flesh, the amazing resilience of the human skull stripped of skin and hair, empty of brain. Blessings rolled in when the students came to realize after perhaps hours or days meditating there, that each moment is indeed precious. Time is the best teacher. Problem is, it kills the student. None of us is getting out of here alive.
I recently led a silent retreat on a mountain nearby at Southern Dharma Retreat Center. We get a mix of students — some with a mature sitting practice who have no problem keeping the silence, others who are new to the whole idea. The story goes that there were four students in one room. On the first day, they all maintained silence. But as the day relinquished itself to night, the night light began to flicker in their dorm room. “Oh, the light is going out,” said one student. “Mind that you keep the silence,” said the second student. “Why do you two want to talk?” uttered the third student. “Ho! I’m the only one who has kept Noble Silence!” said Student Number Four. Then they all laughed heartily but quietly as possible.
Have you ever tried to laugh quietly? My mother’s killer cat Willie will attack you, drawing blood, if you laugh loudly. This cat wants silence and only silence. I call him Willie Roshi. We keep a reused Resolve Carpet Cleaner spray bottle to warn him that if he so much as spits in advance of an attack, we will spray him in the face with water. Any cat abhors water; the spray bottle does work to keep him at bay. I accidentally walked into the bathroom without the spray bottle: the cat was in the bathroom sink doing whatever cats do in the bathroom sink. I was shocked, as was he. I screamed bloody murder and his back went up like he’d stuck his paw in a socket, he made a sound I had never heard a cat make, and we both ran the other way. It was a cartoon. But I could not laugh, because if you laugh, Willie attacks. So there I was in side-splitting hysteria, holding my laughter in. It’s the same basic principle as the students and the night light. We are so made that it is hard to crack up in silence. Still, to be able to laugh is one of the great blessings and a great relief, as long as you don’t have a bad-humored killer cat on the premises.
Judith Toy, author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness, is grateful for the joys of partnership with her late husband Philip Toy, who loved to pun. She is thankful for her two daughters, her six grandchildren, and extended family and friends for standing close by her during these difficult last eight months, and for their good jokes. For her funny late father, and her elderly mother who is always willing to laugh at an old saw she’s heard numerous times throughout the years. Toy will lead three upcoming mindfulness retreats: November 1-3 in Tuscon, Arizona, Evergreen Sesshin at Cloud Cottage, Black Mountain, December 7-9, and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” at Great Tree Women’s Zen Temple in Weaverville, Jan. 1-3. See www.cloudcottage.org for details.