The Twelve Days of England
written 11/21/00, edited and put on site 6/28/04
Kidney pie. I must have some kidney pie, I thought as the Boeing 767 hurled me toward England. I didn't know quite why I was going there. Economically it was not the ideal time for a vacation, but I figured that if I could have the experience of eating that unsavory sounding dish, that somehow the trip would be justified. I let the earphones slip down to my shoulders, gave up on the movie, and slid into hypnagogic sleep in which soon appeared a topographical map of the UK constructed of what my deeper realms must have taken to be a kidney pie. It looked like a pie with a browned crust perforated with fork holes, but there were bits of dark smooth innards sticking out. I poked a hole in the center, stuck a pencil in it, tied a string to the pencil and brought it to a spot on the uneven edge of the crust. Close observation of the string at that point revealed a number which I wrote on a blackboard to the northeast of which a miniature numeral two appeared; to the west an x. As I found myself reassembling into consciousness it occurred to me that the key to appreciating the country I was bound for lay in the formula "kidney pie times the radius squared = England." I turned my head to explain my revelation to my traveling companion, an Englishman named Grahame Petchey, but he was asleep. I remembered when Grahame first called me to tell me of the accident.
We were supposed to go to the San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm on a Sunday morning in July of 1999 to join with other disciples of Shunryu Suzuki in each presenting a brief memory of our teacher as part of the effort to gather support for a project to preserve and archive his lectures. Grahame called to say he would not be able to make it and asked me to extend his apologies to the others. He said that his teenage son Mark had been in an automobile accident and was in a coma in the hospital. I remember the difficulty I had just hearing and accepting what he was telling me in a most polite and unemotional manner. I had to ask him to repeat himself. After that I went to the hospital almost every day to join family and friends in an on-going round-the-clock vigil and in the effort to communicate with and bring back someone who seemed far gone. We meditated with Mark, talked to him, read to him, played him music, sat around and talked to each other, and watched on as various physical therapists worked with him. His friends from school made him more than a 1000 colorful origami paper cranes which hung in his room and filled it with hope.
The doctors said he wouldn't live and he did. They said he wouldn't come out of his coma and he did. Every step of the way the doctors were worst case pessimists, the therapists and nurses gave hope, and the family led by Grahame and his wife, Hideko, kept the faith. Mark has very serious brain stem damage and will surely never be back to so-called normal, but his parents see to it that everything that can be done for or with him is done and he continues to slowly recover. One of the current goals is for him to be able to drink water so that the tube can come out of his stomach. He can already eat prepared food that is fed to him. His speech therapist credits Mark with two words, mom and me, and the goal is for him to be able to speak some before long. That might seem like false hope to someone who hears the unintelligible vowel sounds he makes during the day, but he's recently started articulating consonants in his sleep. He's patient, laughs a lot (especially when I'm teasing his father), and has good spirit, showing no signs of bitterness or excessive frustration. Grahame spends full time with his son and his son's situation - struggling with government and insurance company bureaucracies, coordinating an army of standard and alternative doctors and therapists and other helpers. Hideko works in another city four days a week and spends a busy three day weekend with Mark. Another caregiver lives at the Petchey home. Mark may have more stimulus than he would like. He goes to the local high school and junior college which have programs that he fits right into.
I'd first met Grahame in 1969 at Tassajara Springs, Zen Mountain Center. He had come to visit his old teacher, Suzuki Roshi, and to see this fledgling attempt to create a Buddhist monastery in the Western world. Ever since we'd first set up Zen practice at Tassajara in early 1967, I'd been waiting to meet this early Zen pioneer who I'd heard so much about from the older students. He'd begun his study with Suzuki Roshi in what seemed to me to be the ancient spring of 1962. He was the first Westerner Suzuki had ordained as a priest and sent to Japan to study. There was always talk of his coming back to help out, to be an example of unmoving zazen and unwavering concentration on following the path, to bring to us what he'd gleaned from his years of practice.
At Tassajara, I followed Grahame around during the day when I could get away from the obligations of the schedule and kept him up at night in his cabin asking about Zen in Japan and early Zen Center. He was tall, dignified, formal, and agreeable. I was greedy for him to stay, to join us as had been prophesied. We all, especially Suzuki, wanted him to stay. Surely there was nothing else to compare with what was happening here - it was the fulfillment of all we'd ever hoped for in our search for meaning and truth - we were studying with Suzuki Roshi and establishing enlightenment in the West. But it soon became clear that Grahame's life had drifted away from the Zen Center, his path parted from his original teacher, and the sad fact sunk in that he was just dropping by to say hello at the alma mater before going back to the language school he had started and managed in Tokyo.
Thirty-one years later Grahame and I had ended up living a fifteen minute walk from each other in Sebastopol, a town of 7,000 in the wine country North of San Francisco. It was quite convenient for me while I was working on the biography of Suzuki Roshi. Grahame was right there to answer my queries, his wife Hideko to help with Japanese language questions. Their son Mark had even made a video of the temple where Suzuki was born and he helped the trim on my dining room doors. We all used to see each other once a month or so, but since Mark's accident we'd been a lot closer.
Mark was to have joined Grahame on the latter's yearly trip to England, but of course that was canceled. Grahame’s sister had died in August but he couldn't go to her funeral. So now, fifteen months later he was on his way - to visit the graves of his sister and parents, to see an aunt, his only surviving relative, check in on the family home, visit some old friends, do some visiting with me, and possibly to find some consolation and respite in the environs of his youth. I had no good reason to go other than to see England for the first time with an old friend who knew the turf and who would surely appreciate having a Yankee companion for part of the trip to assure an element of disorder.
We were only a few hours on our way, but already I had found traveling with Grahame to be pleasant and comfortable. This was not only because he had taken care of all the reservations and is a good conversationalist, but also because he had broken and sprained his ankle and was on crutches. This in itself would not be enough to make him a good travel companion. It would seem to be the opposite. I had to carry both our bags; however, due to Grahame's careful planning, when we arrived at the airport we were met by a skycap with a wheelchair. She pushed him and I pushed our bags in a luggage trolley and we passed the hoard of people in line and went straight to the front and this sort of treatment continued every step of the way including getting seats with more leg room. I realized that a set of collapsible crutches and a minimum ability to act could make a significant reduction in the tedium of travel.
We stayed the first night in a hotel located next to the station where the express train from the airport terminates. This must be the most convenient link to any major airport in the world - fifteen minutes of smooth sailing to downtown London. While Grahame took a nap in his room and, after a brief yet entrancing conversation with the young French room cleaner in the hall, I ventured out on the streets. I stood on the corner and took in my first un-busy view of this motherland I realized then I'd read and heard so much of all my life. I watched English people in English clothes walking down English sidewalks, driving English cars on English streets made with English bricks. I walked inside an English store to see some English goods for sale. It was so exciting to me. One peccadillo I've got in traveling anywhere, even going downtown where I live, is that I always feel like I should buy something if I walk into a store. I went into a store just to see what an English store looked like and realized that I indeed needed something they carried. I bought six picture post cards, and soon was drinking a latte, eating a lamb-kabob and dashing out greetings and observations on the cards so I could quickly fulfill postcard obligations. I chuckled as I wrote the same words on each one.
"The streets are clean, many of the buildings look old and full of character, the people seem to be fairly affluent and from all over the world, and there’s a pub across the street with a hanging sign, a hanging outdoor lamp, and flowers on vines hanging from the second floor window sills."
But, I wondered, what type of flower is that? And, are the people friendly?
I went out to answer both questions at once. I picked a bit of vine with a flower and entered the pub, but no one there knew what it was. Even the lady at the street-side flower shop didn’t know. Neither did her husband. I was sent to the florists at the station across the street and the woman there didn't know. So I went back to where I got the flower and started going up to people on the sidewalk. Everyone would stop and try to help but no one knew the name. I did get to talk with scads of the local natives - old folks, school kids, businesspeople, an Indian with a turban, a Pakistani, - an interesting cross section.
So the cards went out saying just "flower" but I could report that in my first hours in England a random sampling of the populace in the vicinity of Paddington station proved them to be exceedingly agreeable and friendly. I sent cards to my mother, sister, first son, second son and almost ex-wife, an English neighbor, and one to Hideko and Mark and the fine young Australian woman who lives with the Petcheys and feeds and changes and dresses and works and plays with Mark.
Another thing about England that was a terrific relief - they all spoke English, and, since I didn't get too far into the hinterland, English I could understand. The only foreign country I'd traveled to where English was spoken was Canada so I kept expecting communications problems. I was in England for twelve days and I continually had the surprising experience of going up to someone in a shop or pub, straightening myself, taking a deep breath, searching mentally for the correct thing to say and then realizing that my default language was theirs too. And they were so pleasant and polite while still maintaining a crisp air of formality and educated polish. Like Japanese, they obviously enjoy expressing their national identity in their use of words and phrases. All language is to me a type of music and the English I met maintained the rhythm and verse of their homeland's spoken song with the cultured training of a well rehearsed chorus - though they didn't stand in rows. There were words you don’t hear in America, except in movies, like "lift," "tram," "loo," "launderette," and my favorite, "queue," with it’s mouthful of vowels meeting in a simple diphthong. Sometimes I'd be struck by the precision in their use of language and at others by the playfulness or cheerfulness. My cheap umbrella was difficult to keep closed and a woman called it a "temperamental brolly."
The written words likewise caught my attention with their unique texture, mood, and good humor. I lingered over signs that said things like: "Skittles Function Room," "Hound and Hare," "Mind your step," with its cousin in the Underground, written and frequently announced, the ubiquitous "Mind the gap" (between the landing and the subway car) which came to me to be the echoing motto of this land broadcast by Big Brother and Big Sister as the doors were about to open or close. "Mind the gap." "Mind the gap." In a pub I saw "Mind your firkin head" on the way to the W.C. which read on their respective doors, "Firkin Male" and "Firkin Female." The most important signs were written on the pavement to be read just before crossing a street. They read: "Look Right" and "Look Left" and have certainly saved from lethal auto impact many a foreigner who had forgotten that they drive on the wrong side of the street over there. It’s strange how something so simple could be so confusing - to me anyway. It’s just the opposite from what I’m used to, but I could never figure out which way to look for sure and developed the habit of looking both ways which is always a good idea.
Grahame and I spent the first three and the last two days of our trip together doing some visiting in which we had a common interest. For instance, he kindly acquainted me with a generous sampling of the most enjoyable pub scene and its warm feelings of camaraderie and lack of concern over smoke, even cigar smoke. For purposes of anthropological inquiry I continued to delve into this realm throughout the trip. As a result of this research I can report further proof of the good-natured character of the people therein, that Guinness Stout on draft nobly defended and maintained its alpha position on my suds list, and that pubs close at eleven and people go home and everything's dead except in the cover-charged West End night life area of London.
Together Grahame and I took a train to visit Irmgard Schloegl now called Myokyo-ni, her Japanese Buddhist name, myo meaning subtle, kyo, mirror, and ni, nun. They call her "Venerable" Myokyo-ni, a title that had once been suggested for Suzuki instead of "reverend" or "sensei" or "roshi" and rejected - thank goodness. I'd heard of this German woman Buddhist since I first arrived at Zen Center. For twelve years starting in 1960 she had studied at Daitokuji in Kyoto, in but not limited to the environs of Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Everything I'd heard had hinted at her stalwart perseverance and no nonsense style. I talked to her on the phone and she was only willing to meet me if I brought Grahame. He was most happy to comply.
Before joining her for tea I walked downstairs and Grahame rode the stair tram, a seat on a rail, to inspect the zendo. It was cozy and immaculate. There was a photo on an altar of Christmas Humphreys, founder of the London Buddhist Society in 1924 and one of the first people from the West to write about Zen. A student who was diligently oiling the wood on a ceremonial chair greeted us and explained that Venerable Myokyo-ni, now eighty, could no longer come downstairs and that students now went to her room for lecture and some services.
Myokyo-ni walked with two canes and her eyes shone bright from her shaved head when she greeted Grahame though she admonished him that she could not kiss a man. It had been almost forty years since they’d met in Japan. She had come to London in 1972 and set up a zendo at the London Buddhist Society's center with the help of Christmas Humphreys. When he died Humphreys left his home to her as a center. She's still the head of the London Buddhist Society. Grahame, it turned out, had sat zazen there in 1966.
He had been conducting a weekly zazen group at his apartment and wanted to move it to the Buddhist Society and hold daily sittings there. At that time, he said, Humphreys had to be persuaded to allow forty minute periods of zazen at his center - with the added innovation of sitting on cushions on the floor. Before that there had only been ten minute sittings once a week in chairs. Humphreys had said that for Westerners to meditate for long periods could be dangerous, even promote insanity. He also had concerns about scruffy people coming in off the street rather than through the Buddhist Society. Grahame told Humphreys that Reverend Suzuki (as he was often called up to that year) at the San Francisco Zen Center had run an open zendo without experiencing any terrible problems. But Humphreys did not share Suzuki's appreciation of hippies. Humphreys' concerns were assuaged when Grahame brought in a recently arrived Japanese Rinzai Zen priest, another Suzuki, to preside. They only did it once at the Buddhist Society before deciding on another venue, but it was a precedent-breaking all day sitting.
As our meeting continued, I forgot about Myokyo-ni as a precious bit of history and experienced her as a living teacher with no stink of Zen. She was gracious and straightforward. She did speak about Buddhism though, and got into a discussion with Grahame about the importance of emphasizing the basics of original Buddhist teaching and the life of Buddha.
They talked about all the seemingly needless hardships imposed by their seniors in Japanese temples in the sixties. Myokyo-ni said she trusted the traditions and the hardships, that she'd put some thought into making the way easier for her students, but said these traditions developed over a long period of time and there must be a good deal of wisdom in them. "They are there to quell the fires within us, and it's going to be hard anyway," she added.
She asked us if we'd like more tea then, when we answered in the affirmative, hit her wooden clackers to call a student in. I glanced at him as he whisked off the tray to replenish our cups and adding the look on his face to the few interactions I'd had in my brief time at her center, surmised that her students were being subjected to no Byzantine tortures such as those Grahame had gone through in the halls of Soto Zen's premiere monastery, Eiheiji - no fraternity type razzing, no culture-based screw-turning and peculiarities of Japanese priest craft such as interminable periods of seiza (sitting on the shins) all day long till one vomited, no beatings for minuscule infractions of precious form. I suspected that the hardships undergone by her students were reasonable and invigorating by comparison.
Grahame noted how closely the environment of her center resembled that of the essential elements of a Japanese training temple: discrete dress, few props well tended, a monk sweeping in the garden, clean lavatories, wiped woodwork, attentive disciples, the simple beauty of the garden and house. It was a handsome large building with well tended grounds. Myokyo-ni had said they could afford it because it was in Luton, widely considered one of the worst places in England. I remembered that whenever I'd said to anyone that I was going to Luten that they'd asked, "Why do you want to go there?"
Grahame and I also made a sort of pilgrimage to Cirencester (according to various English folk correctly pronounced something that sounded close to "Sister"). It is the home town of Nona Ransom, Suzuki Roshi's influential and eccentric English teacher from his college days. She was known in these parts for having taught English to Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, and his young wife, Wan Jun, with whom Miss Ransom was close. We sat quietly with others at her Quaker meeting house on Sunday morning and stayed for lunch. I met a woman there who said, "Oh you’re from Northern California. Not Bolinas?" I said I’d lived there for nine years but not now. She said she went there on occasion to visit an English writer named Charles Fox who I told her I’d had lunch with the prior Saturday. Serendipity.
The only person at the Quaker meeting house who had known Miss Ransom was a man in his nineties, Dr. Edgar Hope Simpson, still practicing medicine. He took us to a plaque on the garden wall that had her name on it and reminisced about finding her lifeless in 1969 lying on a couch clutching a framed photo of the Empress. I was glad to hear that because that's what I'd said in Crooked Cucumber, though I'd gotten it second hand. Not that it matters - just a detail among details, but a touching one that shows where her heart was at the end.
In London there was another Ransom-related get-together. I climbed three flights to Harry Ransom Rose's apartment and met him and his wife while Grahame was slowly hobbling up toward us. Harry Rose is 77 this year, looks fit, and holds himself well. He was smartly dressed with coat and tie, and seemed right away to be a cultivated English gentleman. He was a young Russian boy, a refugee from the Bolsheviks, when he was adopted by Nona Ransom in China in the early thirties. He had been a great help to me when I was gathering info on Miss Ransom for the Suzuki bio and I was most happy to meet him and his wife in the flesh. Over devilishly early pre-lunch drinks, succulent poached salmon and miraculous French wine, the conversation was lively and fascinating to me as new shards of the Ransom puzzle were revealed.
Young Shunryu Suzuki had been her English student and live-in house boy for a year and a half. In that period of time she went from ridiculing Buddhism as idol worship to sitting zazen and offering incense before her Buddha statue whose mudra had once been used as an ashtray. Later she had gone to Eiheiji as a guest student and stayed there for six weeks, possibly the first foreign woman or even foreigner to do so. She remained a Quaker, but had come to respect Buddhism. Because of this experience Suzuki gained confidence that Westerners could study and understand Buddhism and his desire to go to America to teach became firmly established.
Harry Rose made a point of how mean Miss Ransom had been to him until she died - never a kind word. He said she saw everything as black or white, that to her everything was decided and therefore she could understand nothing. That corresponded to what others had told me of her. She was well-bred English lady with a closed mind that Suzuki seems to have been able to pry open a bit through a long period of jousting. Suzuki said they argued all the time and even got into spats where she'd chase him around the house. Harry was eternally grateful to her though for having adopted him, a procedure he said that had no legal standing. It seems that his father, a Russian officer from the Czarist government, had it in mind to ship his son off to a Nazi youth camp. Miss Ransom, who appears to have been a spurned lover or would-be lover of Harry's father, wouldn't hear of it. It sounded like she almost kidnapped him to save him. Harry has been working on a book on all this for ten years. He showed us the photo of the Empress Wan Jun that Miss Ransom was holding when she died.
Grahame likewise hung on Harry's comments on Miss Ransom. Grahame had spent a good deal of time visiting her in 1966 when he was in England. He'd had dinner with Harry back then and had helped me make my initial contact. We all laughed when I said that some people who'd read Crooked Cucumber and even some who'd heard Suzuki speak of Miss Ransom speculated that they might have been lovers. Of coarse anything can happen behind closed doors and frequently does, but the considerable gap in their age, height, race, and status, and their similar formality, conservative upbringing, discipline, and adherence to tradition all but rule that possibility out.
After lunch, Grahame brought out a scrapbook the subject of which was his son Mark. It started off with photos of Mark as a tall, handsome, active teenager. And then he turned to the page with Mark in a coma in intensive care after the auto accident that killed the driver, his best friend (no drugs, booze, or speeding). Seeing these photos brought on in me a tinge of sadness. They'd given me a ride a week or so before - to the local July 4, 1999 fireworks display. The photos and news clippings followed Mark's progress - slowly coming out of his coma after four months, moving back in to his family's home to a hospital type bed in the living room. Turning the pages revealed his gradual progress in purposeful movement and non-verbal communication.
We walked around Harry Rose's house inspecting many excellent paintings by him plus a few very fine ones by his father and by his wife. He showed us his library with an impressive collection of volumes in English, Russian, and French. He talked about his past. He'd been a bomber pilot in WWII and I was surprised at the sensitive pangs of guilt he still felt for the suffering he was sure he'd caused. He'd been a news editor for the BBC for twenty-five years and had gotten to know some of the best minds of his day: Bertrand Russell, Kingsley Amis, and he was especially close to [Grahame's trying to remember this name] from the London School of Economics. From his personal relationships and extensive reading he'd come to the conclusion that no one has a solution to the conundrum of life, no religion or philosophy had articulated to him any final truth. He said he was unable to commit to any religion or organization because he didn't want to loose his independence of thought.
Grahame responded by telling Harry about Uchiyama Roshi, a well known Soto Zen master he'd had a close relationship with since 1965. In their last meeting shortly before Uchiyama died, he told Grahame, "I'm a Zen priest of many years. Now I'm about to die and I don't know where I'm going." Harry said that's what honest people say.
On the 777 flying back, each seat had its own fold-out screen which had a clear picture. The sound was good too. I didn't know the two were possible on a plane. I watched two fascinating hour-long Discovery Channel shows on amusement parks and roller coasters. Afterwards, Grahame asleep beside me, I replayed the trip. I'd walked all over London, made a play, and seen lots of sights - Oxford, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace where I stayed in a nearby pub, the Jewel Tower, Parliament, Westminster Abbey (the clock chimed just as I walked up from the Underground), Westminster Cathedral, walked to the top of Saint Pauls, and the Tower of London with the Crown Jewels. There I saw the big screen video presentation on and explanation of the Crown Jewels with Pomp and Circumstance (I think) playing in the background. I rode the moving sidewalk by them twice. Whoa. It's just like religion I thought - impressive symbols that make us feel warm and secure.
What a vacation. I'd been treated to delightful meals, teas, and tours by a young relative, a charming publisher, friends of friends, a friend of my sister's, blessed fans of my books, and a former mate's daughter and her husband - they lived near Windsor Castle with jumbo jets flying low overhead and they almost had bought a home that butts up to the wall of the castle which would have made them next-door neighbors to the Queen. I had a great time with an actress named Gayle Hunnicutt, a close friend of my sister whom I'd gone to school with and who's married to columnist Simon Jenkins whose voice I heard but he was busy so we didn't meet though I enjoyed his articles in the Times. Grahame and I had a delightful afternoon and evening in Tame visiting and playing music with some high school kids who'd lived in Sebastopol as part of an exchange program - and with their friends and parents. We stayed in the home of a prison guard and I was so impressed with the compassionate humanity of his attitude toward the inmates he supervised. The folks that run the Shambhala Center put me up for four days, I gave a talk there, chatted with people about lots including Trungpa Rinpoche, and heard Linus Bewley, who will be the director there next year, play Bach on saxophone at home and rockin' Euro-Afro jazz one Friday night at the African Center in crowded Covent Garden till two A.M.
I was eager to get back to my young son Clay, dog Lola, cat Maxi, someone special, and work in my house with an empty master bedroom. Grahame was eager to get back to Mark, Hideko, and the upcoming Drive Survive event put on by the Mark Petchey foundation. And once again he would go through his nightly ritual with Mark. He turns the lights off, puts on the same soothing hemi-synch music, and recites the same healing loving words and then goes to bed.
I remembered an exchange between Harry Rose and Grahame. Harry said that all monastic disciplines he knew of seemed to be so full of difficulty and deprivation. He asked Grahame if he thought it was really worthwhile and necessary to put oneself through these sort of trials, trials like Grahame had gone through in week-long sesshins at Zen Center and in his two lengthy stays at grueling tradition-bound Eiheiji. Grahame answered that while he was at Eiheiji he did indeed have an extremely difficult time, but there was another factor to consider. At Eiheiji, he explained, there was a beautiful massive gate to the outside world. But there were no doors to the gate and he was free to walk out anytime he wished. "But in my present situation with Mark, I experience pain and difficulty of dimensions many multiples of what I went through at Eiheiji. The difference is that this time there are doors and they are closed. There is no escape - by my standards. I'm in the crucible."
"Just what exactly is a crucible?" I asked Grahame on the plane.
"A crucible," he said, "is a pottery dish you put into high fire to melt metals. As a chemist I used them to reduce a substance to its basic elements in a few specks at the bottom. In any path to understanding you eventually get into the crucible. That is where I am right now. And the difficulties I experienced in the path are of great value to me now that there's no way out."
The plane flew us in our cramped crucibles back toward our lives in California and we were not too pleased with the food. I'm easy to please, but I had been apprehensive about the food in England. I was surprised to find the food there, especially in cosmopolitan London, to be a great treat. The kidney pie was okay.
It's been almost four years since I wrote this piece. Since then, Mark continues to make progress though he still cannot speak. The tube did come out of his stomach not long after we returned. He does understand everything that's said around him and continues to laugh when I poke fun at his dad. I hear that, in an attempt to curb last-minute binge drinking, the pubs are not required to close so early anymore. I know that some barristers were trying to let them stay open all night but I don't know where that all stands now. When I sold my house, our dear cat Maxi stayed and is now with another family. But my boxer Lola, like Clay, enjoys both my ex Elin's and my domiciles. That "someone special" I mentioned is still a dear pal whom I visited in Australia last August. The Petcheys have a new home and Mark has his own room where he can get a break from the flow of visitors that come and go. And on the wall at the entrance to the living room is a photo of the Empress Wan Jun that Miss Ransom gave to Grahame long ago.
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