The fall of 2004 was what was called my tangaryo practice period. Simply put, it was my first practice period, and I stayed in Tassajara from late September 2004 through early April 2005 without ever leaving. My teacher suggested it; it was common practice in Tassajara's early days, but I was the only person during that time period who never left. Thanksgiving wasn't quite the halfway point, but it was a much-needed break in the schedule.
Thanksgiving 2005 I was on the kitchen crew, and in the middle of a drama about when, where, and whether I was going to be ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest (I was, in January 2006). I was what they call the fukuten in the kitchen. The fukuten is what you might call the kitchen manager. I supervised the crew, made sure the food got out on time, and occasionally did some cooking myself. I had been on the crew in the spring practice period, and during the summer guest season I'd been a guest cook, so I knew the kitchen well. I had turned 50 in October, in some ways was as happy as I'd ever been. However, the drama around ordination and the drama in the kitchen made it a stressful time. This was easily one of my most difficult practice periods, and that was one Thanksgiving that I barely ate before bolting to the bathhouse.
It was to be seven years before my next Thanksgiving at Tassajara. In the interim, I'd left San Francisco Zen Center to get a Master of Divinity degree at Naropa University, and spent a few years with my dad while my mother was dying of Alzheimer's. I returned to City Center (the San Francisco practice center connected with Tassajara) as tenzo, and went to Tassajara in May of 2013. I was still there for Thanksgiving, not in the kitchen, and actually sat down and ate the whole Thanksgiving dinner. I did, however, still make it to the bathhouse for my traditional Thanksgiving pilgrimage.
Brenda Rooney worked at the Stratford Festival in PR/Marketing, and we met when her boss asked her to take me to the green room for coffee. I’d written a research paper for law school on the three Stratfords, and continued to visit with some of the folks I’d met during the process. Brenda’s husband, Robert, was an actor as well as a directing intern at the Festival, they had two daughters, and Robert’s brother Andrew lived with them as the girls’ caretaker.
When Brenda invited me to their house to visit, I had no idea it was to open the door to one of the most significant relationships of my life – not only my friendship with Brenda, but also my relationship with every member of the family. I arrived, that first time, to find that Brenda wasn’t even there. Instead, Andrew let me in and assured me she’d show up eventually. He gave me a cup of tea, and I met Rebecca and Caitlin. Sure enough, Brenda did appear sometime in the next half hour, and it was chaotic as both girls wanted to share things with their mother, and Andrew had news of his own to pass on.
I never did meet Robert that day, though I met Tottenham Hotspurs, their cat. The chaos meant that I blended into the woodwork, something that appealed to me at that point in my life. I enjoyed it, and eventually did get some time to talk with Brenda. Over the years, when I stayed with them for several days, I would sometimes go to bed down in the basement (in Oakville) and wake in the morning to find one or more additional guests sleeping on the sofas in the living room. Their generosity made everyone feel welcome - it was open house for many of us, and I felt incredibly lucky.
From Stratford, to Oakville, to Quebec, I went wherever the Rooneys lived, and from the start, developed an individual relationship with each member of the family. At one point in Oakville, Andrew was working, and Brenda and Robert were putting together a CD launch to support voter education in South Africa, so they were working non-stop. I took a week’s vacation and went up to drive the kids to school stuff, cook the meals, and even do the laundry, so they could focus completely on their work.
Brenda and Robert were the most politically active people I’d ever met. I did a few things in high school and college, but they opened my eyes to the world and what one or two people could do to make a difference. They were involved in the Arts Against Apartheid movement in Canada. Robert directed the big benefit/fundraiser concerts in Toronto, and Brenda did the PR for them. I happened to be with Brenda when we saw the film of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison. She wept, and I wanted to, but felt I hadn’t earned that right. The CD I mentioned earlier raised more than million dollars for voter education for the first election in South Africa in which the black population could vote.
Robert, sadly, died in January 2016. Brenda continues with her work and her family. Their impact continues in me, and through me to all of you who read this. None of us knows what impact our lives and our writing will have on the world. We can only live and write and love and breathe, and know that everything we do matters. Thanks to all of you for what you give in your lives and in your writing.
Strange, in a way, since I only met Mr. Rooney once, and that, briefly. I was at Steeler's training camp in Latrobe, dropping off some jerseys and footballs to be signed for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. Mr. Rooney was there when I dropped them off, and came over to chat with me. There is an unfortunate tendency for me to insert my foot into my mouth at moments like this, and sure enough, I managed to say something that was embarrassingly inaccurate.
As the weather gets colder, including last weekend when it got down to 19 degrees Farenheit, winter is unmistakably on its way. Do I miss the ocean? You bet. And I have no regrets. I'm home. I'm where I want to be, doing what I want to do - write, run workshops, and starting in February, teaching a weekly version of Gary's curriculum here in Pittsburgh. Thanks, Mr. Rooney - for your service, your kindness, your inspiration...
In the past week I learned about the death of Janet Chapman, who came to her first Writers Retreat Workshop the year after Gary died. My niece, Anna, came to visit my dad and I while she attended a wedding nearby. I spent all of Saturday (and a little bit of Friday) watching the first Breeder's Cup weekend held at Del Mar Race Track (built by Bing Crosby and friends). My sister-in-law, Hope (Anna's mom) had a book reading and signing for her third Christian romance novel, which was held at our new local bookstore. And in the wider world, there was another senseless shooting, today is election day, kids went trick-or-treating for Halloween, retired mare Songbird sold for $9.5 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sales, and more men were accused of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
I could walk to the library from our house on Homer Avenue, and often did. Those were the years when a first-grader could safely go out for hours with friends, even sometimes alone, and a parent didn't need to worry. Well, except for the time I got caught in a thunderstorm and tried to shelter under a huge pine tree with some boys. The woman who lived in the house with the tree invited us inside, knowing how dangerous it was, and I said yes. The boys ran home.
My heart aches with grief over some of the events of the past weeks. And when my heart aches, I turn to books for solace. This morning I was browsing USA Today online and ran across an article on Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, on display in the New York Public Library. It was the first time I'd seen the originals, and as the writer of the article said, they looked loved.
It isn't that books can change or take away our grief or sadness. They might provide a brief escape, but we do always finish the story. It's more that they bring us into contact with others. The writer, who understood us without ever knowing us. The characters, who felt so much as we did. And other readers, who find a similar joy in discovering the same beauty.
So when I walked in that bookstore and smelled the books, I was back in the library of my childhood with Lad and Black Beauty. I was back on the street, peering into the jungle of mystery on the corner across from the cemetery, imagining what was inside the green branches.
Carol (Doc) Dougherty
An avid reader, writer, and student, with a penchant for horse racing, Shakespeare, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Wake Up and Write Writer's Retreat Workshop