Abbot's Journal Vol 67, January 22, 2009

by Norman Fischer | January 22, 2009 at 1:07 PM

En route: SFO to SEATAC

Glum today. Covered with, coated in, saturated by sorrow. I'm surprised this has been so sad for me. What's so sad? I miss Alan, yes of course, and it's bad, but somehow grief is always - and in this case too - more than this. It evokes life's strangeness. Its basic fleeting ungraspability. We have no idea, I have no idea, what is going on, and a death like this makes that clear, destroys any illusion of life's making any solid sense. All the reasons for the sadness, understandable enough, don't actually explain it.

The airport so confusing with so many people going here and there, the stuff of busy purposeful contemporary life, the orange plastic trays in the glitzy airport fast food places, the perfume ads, the ads for business consultants featuring Tiger Woods, the shops selling golf shirts, swatch watches, travel gear, magazines and books, none of it making any sense at all, just makes me sad. Maybe dirt, grass, sky would be an improvement. The massive ceiling in the airport isn't made of wood or any identifiable human-scale material. Where am I?

I feel quiet, quiet and sad.

The image in Zen of the traceless path, a bird's path in air - is lovely. And for a long time I've felt that as a guiding principle or desire, that my life be traceless, that I live and die without any mark, pure and simple and clean. But now I feel sad that life goes by so quickly and so little happens. Even with all the many marks Alan has made, and the many remembrances of them now, the many vows to keep his memory alive (Sherril's passion to do this, Makor Or's etc.) - it amounts to so little in the face of the starkness of his absence that even as I write this I can't understand and don't really believe and may never believe. Hard to describe this feeling. The vagueness of it. (Though I guess I am constantly writing about it in the poems).

The funeral was on Thursday - a week ago now - after his body had returned late Wednesday night from Baltimore.

We were picked up at Sherril's house by a limo, taken to the shuel that was already buzzing with the beginnings of the crowd, maybe 1500 people before it was done, that eventually spilled over from the sanctuary into Koret Hall. We went into a smaller conference room for the kriya, the short ritual in which the family receives black mourning ribbons and tears them. Then we filed into the sanctuary. We were more than a half hour early but the place was already full, everyone quite silent. The casket was in the middle space, near where we sat in the front row, and it was surrounded by people chanting psalms in a low murmur. I joined the group and later the family did too. Lots of quiet tears. A weary, grim, restrained feeling. Finally I sat down next to Betty and her daughter Rachel, a dignified young woman. Held hands with Betty throughout the service. It was good to see her again after so many years.

Micah began by convening the group and reading Psalm 90. He introduced Dorothy who gave a long sweet eulogy, based on the long conversation we'd all had with her a few days before, reflecting on Alan's life and our various experiences of him. She expressed wonderfully her own love and appreciation for her apprenticeship under him ("I have a file at home labeled ‘How to be Rabbi Lew'"). Then everyone in the family spoke. Sherril bravely and with subdued dignity read five of Alan's poems (that had been made into beautiful broadsides for the funeral and were posted on the walls as we walked in), without comment. A professional, she knew what to do and was capable of it. Then Carol, Jason, Malka, Steve, Hannah. Malka had written a letter to Alan last summer, when he'd collapsed at Elat Chayyim, and had nearly died. The letter, he'd said at the time, had moved him to tears. Hannah spoke of the beautiful day of driving down the coast to get home after she'd heard of the death, the sea and the sky and the shimmering mountains, and how her dad was not now locatable in a body, but she could see him spread thinly over everything. Jason read more of Alan's poems, and told funny anecdotes about their childhood. One of the poems said, "After doing yoga for half an hour, meditation for forty minutes, and prayer for an hour I felt better for a few minutes." Carol was also poised and funny, as was Steve, who turned out to have inherited Alan's ability to speak on his feet. Then Sister Bernie spoke of Alan's courage in his work with the homeless in the City, and at the end also broke down, as all the others had, as she spoke of Alan as her spiritual mentor, the person she went to for support and advice (I didn't know she'd had that relationship with him). I was last. I repeated several times "This is not a speech I ever wanted to give, this is a terrible day, a terrible week." Leaving the podium, I hit my head against the door of the open ark (emptied of torahs). Later I put the words I spoke onto the website.

There was a large procession of limos and cars to the cemetery in Colma, with a full police escort and traffic blocked along the way. The casket was suspended with straps over the deep fresh grave and lowered slowly down by workers. Many of us shoveled dirt onto the casket, and kept doing that until the hole was entirely filled. Very loud thud as each shovel of dirt hit the box. Then less so as dirt covered dirt. The workers tamped the dirt down and rolled turf back over it. Alan used to speak of this as tucking the person in, as you tuck a baby in at night, with covers up around the neck. He'd done this sad job at this cemetery many times before, knew the people well who were now burying him, all the workers, the cemetery administrators. Sherril bent over and touched and kissed the ground. It was difficult to leave.

In seminar we have been studying the Heart Sutra. I had good intentions to read Red Pine and Dalai Lama's books but hadn't much, because I am so familiar with these teachings it is hard to do.

That all phenomenal existence is empty - and that there is no suffering - has always seemed completely to be true and is true now, even in the sorrow. Because I know there is nothing to be sad about. Still, as I said in one of my talks, "love dictates that there be tears." Judaism says "bound up in the bonds of life." Buddhism says "free of self existence, empty, at peace." Different but not incompatible. Bonds that are beyond bonds. Emptiness not different from form.


Norman Fischer