It's Forever Already

Gary Kline

        Shortly after my arrival at Zen Center, Layla, the tall, bald woman priest I'd seen coming down the hall to lead the noon-time chanting with several other people had said, “Welcome to Zen Center. We all hope you like it here.”

        I nodded my thanks.

        Layla then asked, “So, how long do you think you'll stay here?”

        My smile instantly broadened. “Forever!” I said, then added, “Well, hopefully!” I knew my speech was too garbled to say anything more.

        Layla put her palms together, and bowed gracefully. I returned the bow with left palm and right fist, and she turned when someone called to her.

        It was sometime after the two-month mark of living as a guest student when the powers-that-be began asking what I had planned about continuing to practice at Zen Center.

        I was glad to finally be living independently and figured it was time that I made living on my own permanent. It had taken until age 30 to run away from home. Having made that decision and learning that there were no rooms available in the monastery, it was my obligation to find some living quarters in the neighborhood.

        Following that, possibly in the coming years, find some way to earn a living, eventually find a girlfriend, possibly get married--the whole nine meters; although to even imagine too much might surpass the heights of absurdity, considering the weight of my physical disabilities.

        At any rate, sometime in the early spring of 1976, I began asking around. Most, if not all, of the people able and willing to split living arrangements were women. None of the situations seemed anywhere near a path to romance, but then, since it meant getting to continue practicing at Zen Center, it was worth it.

        Two women in their 30's dragged my green folding chair down the steps while I walked down hanging onto the railing. Each pushed me to her apartment. The first young lady, Judy, lived on the ground floor. We decided that some sort of blanket could be jury-rigged in the bedroom. Judy said she could push me from the apt to the zendo for pre-dawn zazen, and home after the last sitting . Another time my prospect, a tall, thin young lady named Samantha, pushed me up to the top of the Page Street hill, then left on Buchanan and another several dozen yards to a tall brick apartment building. Inside, it was several yards to a short hop of four stairs to the elevator. I didn't let her struggle with me and the flimsy wheelchair. I got out and climbed the steps, hanging onto the left side of the hallway. We rested in her three-room flat. Samantha brewed us some green tea and we listened to her Joan Collins LP “Both Sides Now.” This chick was on the pretty side and I would have been willing to accept her offer if the powers-that-be hadn't come up with an even more convenient offer.

        One of the more senior Zen priests, Reb Anderson, and his wife, Rusa, would move out of their room two doors behind the front office. There was a full bath along with the room that faced Page street. Reb was hard to read, an emotional cypher; I'm guessing that neither he nor Rusa appreciated having to move for the likes of me, but that was the Center's agreement. And reflecting back, that was the most rational solution given the totality of the situation


I kept up my early-morning trips to the basement (or ground floor) to meditate in mornings for a period; then in my apartment for the late afternoon zazen.

        Since my residential chores didn't take that much time, by late spring I had my mother sent my Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Now I could continue my freelance writing. There were some surplus desks around and one came my way. I spent several weeks on a mat in my sleeping bag, but eventually got a regular studio couch. And one straight-backed office chair for guests.

        By May things were much as they had been while living at home. A simple bed that gave me a place to sit and more easily dress in the morning. I also had the small desk for my typewriter. It had drawers for my typing paper and miscellaneous pens and pencils.

        My official job--or my soji--was keeping the mailing list of the Wind Bell up to date. It was a simple obligation; it only required a couple weeks every quarter. That was a small price to be allowed to live at Zen Center.--Room and board was still a few hundred dollars every month. So I was all set.

        The main purpose of a Zen Buddhist monastery was to promote solitude and enable practice of meditation. Living communally, sitting zazen, doing one's obligatory chores--whether the chores were helping in the kitchen, serving food cleaning the halls or the tatami mats in the meditation hall--these chores were our individual soji. Maintaining the subscriber's list for the Wind Bell was my communal task. A young fellow, Mike, somewhere in his early twenties was asked to take care of washing my clothes and keeping my room clean. In other words, I was Mike's soji. It rubbed part of me the wrong way to be someone's work-chore, so I made the job as light as possible. I tried to keep my bathtub clean myself, but Mike scoured it much better than I in less than three minutes, so I left him with the job of cleaning the tub once a week and doing my laundry. One time I went for six weeks between clothes washings, Mike and I agreed that three weeks would be better. I kept my room neat. Other than dusting the tile floor every ten days to two weeks, I figured I wasn't that much of a burden.

        Sometime in May or June I met a girl name Jill. She had dropped out of the University of Idaho, Moscow, and was scarred with boyfriend problems. Given my disabilities, I was not romantic material. Not only was I disabled, but unemployed. Perhaps even unemployable. I did understand the problem--how Gary-Kline must have appeared to any young woman who was looking for some degree of romance. These girls doubtless had no clue how hard I was trying to succeed as a writer. But it likely wouldn't have made much difference even had they known ... or cared. So, while Jill and I were a couple, nothing approximating romance happened.

        “I know what you want!” Jill said one sunny Sunday afternoon. She had pushed me into the Castro District and went over to a tree by the sidewalk.

        I got out of the flimsy chair shakily and sat beside her. “What?”

        “You want to kiss me!” she said, with dramatic effect and laughing, and wagged her finger. “That's for starters. But nothing's going to happen. Nothing!” When I turned and pretended to grab for her, Jill sprang to her feet. “C'mon, Gary. Let's go on and go part way up the hill and sit in the sun.”

        I was sorry now that I had jumped down to sit beside her because it was hard to climb back into the wheelchair. But Jill grabbed hold of the hand grips and held it steady. Moments later we were on our way back into the sunshine.

        Pushing me up the hillside turned into a serious chore, but eventually, we were about 75 feet from the walk. This time I stayed in the chair, my feet firmly planted on the blacktop path. Jill sat beside. She did most of the talking. About her father who had gotten physically abusive. And her step-mother whom Jill despised. That was why she had dropped out of college and made her way to San Francisco. Where she was going, or how much longer she would be a guest student were unknowns. It was time, she said, “to live in the always of the present.”

        On Market Street near Page was a huge movie theater, decades past its prime, that showed not-too-old releases for a dollar during the noon hour until mid-afternoon. A few times, Jill and I ventured down to Market Street. She held back the wheelchair while I helped break the forward movement with feet and the left-hand break. We saw three or four movies that summer. Jim Zivic and Andrew Main took me down hill to the Market Street theater at least twice and afterwords Jim ran the wheelchair and me, full-tilt, back up the Page Street hill. That was the most physically exciting event because I expected the wheelchair to fall apart at any moment. For the most part though, Jim and I hung around more inside the zendo. Dragging me and the push chair demanded serious effort!

        Sometime around my brief (and sadly Platonic) involvement with Jill, the powers-that-be asked if I would be interested in being what is called “lay-ordained” in the Zen tradition. There is no “spreading the Buddhist gospel” or any such thing in the Buddhism. If one is lay-ordained, then one has joined the Buddhist sangha-- those who are committed to following the ways that the historical Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. Following the Zen tradition, I would need to sew a very precise mini-robe called a rokasu that symbolized the larger, traditional monks' robe.

        I bowed to whomever was sent to ask me the question. I think it was Patricia Phalen. I pointed to her own handsome blue rokasu and said that there was no way I could do that precise quality of work myself.

        “Don't worry!” she said. The group will help you. Everybody will take turns while they are working on their own rokasu. Then, in time, you'll have your own.”

        I felt both humbled and honored; I bowed again, turned my wheelchair around and went on to grab a cup of black coffee before lunch. Green tea was served with every meal, but I was still into the hard stuff. High octane, leaded, black. Tommy Dorsey was in the narrow, closet-sized room. So were Phillip Whalen and a couple other caffeine junkies.

        “I've heard rumors that Mr. Kline may soon join the sangha,” Phillip said. “Officially, that is.”

        I turned the wheelchair back toward the great room. Patricia and the others with her were gone. “You heard?”

        “Through the grape vine.”

        I took a coffee cup from the stack and Tommy kindly filled it half full for me. “So then, some time in the next 75 years you'll be a member of the sangha,” he said with a chuckle.

        Phillip and Tommy raised their cups in a salute and mine clinked with them.

        The ways things happened in the Zen tradition was not set by an exact day, month, or year; things happened when the roshi thought was appropriate. If Baker-Roshi felt you were ready to be lay ordained within a year or two of when you began your practice, it happened. It could be shorter or longer. Becoming a monk or a nun (or usually called a priest) happened on the same schedule.

        It was largely objective, naturally, although I think a chunk of the decision had to do with your behavior. To the best of my knowledge, no one who came constantly in a sulky or pissy mood became a Zen priest. From what I noted among my fellow adherents, Zen was fairly common-sensical. Zen, like the other schools that traced the path of the historical Buddha, was concerned with the everyday realities. The important things were happening here and now.

        Among my favorite outings were the trips to Green Gulch Farm, which meant a trip across the Golden Gate bridge and miles along California State route #1. It was a twisting, curving highway that clung to the ocean side hills until it reached the farm. Green Gulch comprised a very few acres smack on the Pacific. I had to rely on someone pushing me in the push chair and there were few buildings accessible. Among the places I could be pushed was the barn. This was where the farm's guest students' slept, as well as where Roshi lectured when he visited.

        Six or seven acres of arable land between two very steep hillsides; the Zen Center restaurant and the grocery used the produce grown on the farm by guest and student labor. Visiting perhaps ten or twelve times lent a sense of connection to the land. Another thing was that the few acres that were cultivated were reminiscent of the one acre of garden when I was a small boy where life was lived in the sunshine.

        One of the last things Jill and I did together was attend a live ballet. I was let in on the ground level, but still had to climb a few steps. The floor looked like part of a basketball court. Jill parked me by the bleachers in the out of bound area and sat in the chair immediately behind me.

        The music came from a couple of huge loudspeakers. The dancers were tall, slim, and very muscular. The ballet was entirely unknown to me; seeing the sweat flying from the foreheads of some of the girls as they spun and twirled is burned in my memory. It gave me an appreciation for ballet that it was anything but a sissy occupation. The performing life of most ballet dancers is very short, brutally physical, and except for a tiny minority, pays virtually nothing.

        Jill left a week or three later. Zen Center had been interesting, but it didn't hold anything special for her. A couple of the girls in the office asked what I was going to do without Jill to keep me company.

        At first I was at a loss, then said something sappy like, “Oh, there are plenty of fish in the sea!” I was more than a little bummed out as I drove my ancient motorized wheelchair down the hall to my room. I sat at my desk for quite some time that morning, pondering my next move. It was now late August; going on nine months since my arrival. What now, indeed, what now?

        Zen Center swirled with people. Parties assembled occasionally at Baker-Roshi's house one house uphill for the famous and near-famous. These were people like Governor Jerry Brown, Stewart Brand-- who penned the Whole Earth Catalog--as well as Michael Murphy and Dick Price, the co-founders of the Big Sur resort of Esalen. Almost invariably the parties would migrate to the lobby of Zen Center. Always, somebody came and dug me out of my room. I didn't mind being the token cripple, but it occasionally irritated me to have to meet and greet. For me, Zen Center became increasingly lonely. Mike Murphy patted me on the head when I mentioned loneliness. Apparently, I was supposed to be impressed at being in his presence--or that of any of the other near-famous people who showed up at the monastery. Gary Snyder was among the poets and artists who visited occasionally. Gary and Phillip Whalen did poetry readings for the residents. Since Phillip still lived in the building, I saw him several times a day. We even discussed poetry and literature a few times. Nevertheless, as late summer turned into early autumn, my mood of isolation kept growing.

        Every month or two, I corresponded with family members, mostly my mother “It's interesting,” I wrote, “that the majority of the people here are physically healthy, but messed up emotionally, or even spiritually. And with me, it's just the opposite. I'm fine emotionally, but messed up physically! Life is strange sometimes.”


        By mid-autumn I was sitting mornings and evenings in my room. The trip down to the downstairs level was getting too much, I said sometime in October. I was given a square meditation mat and sat, mornings and evenings, within clear view of the open door to my room. The overseer appeared at random times to see that I was indeed sitting! And correctly. Usually it was Ed Brown, and several times he cleared his throat and indicated that my posture needed to be straighter-- I appreciated this kind of discipline.

        I had taught myself to sit cross-legged more than ten years before, and my self-teachings had been virtually dead-on. The only thing that was off a bit has been how I breathed. Ed, among others, taught me to breath more deeply, more fluidly. This was one lesson that I carried over into other parts of my life. When I was not doing formal zazen.

        While living largely on the main floor gave me a break physically, I still had to be up very early, fully awake, mindful, dressed, and sitting correctly. I did oversleep a few times! My Aunt Myra bought me a 13” color TV set. (I'm not sure why she bought the television since I rarely watched it and had not asked for it. Maybe she had feared my conversion to Buddhism and was trying to maintain my orbit in the secular world. To me, there really was no gulf.) At any rate, the clock radio that Mother had eventually sent up really was enough to keep me attuned to the “outside world.” I had originally put the radio in the great room and tuned it to a classical music station that played quietly and unobtrusively. But shortly I had settled into what had been Reb and Rusa's room behind the offices, I moved my clock radio into my desk. It was an effective at waking me up, but also kept me up to date about the news and events outside the monastery. (Zen Center got The Chronicle daily; it was available for everyone to read as well. Usually, the newspaper was appropriated by Phillip and other senior monks. Still, I didn't mind reading the day-old newspapers during an afternoon coffee break.)

        Sometime in November I began to question my plans to stay at Zen Center indefinitely. I talked over the idea of taking a few classes at San Francisco State with Lew Richmond and Ed Brown. They both thought it might do me some good, help my restlessness, and even lead to some kind of career. The university was on San Francisco side of the Bay, although several miles distant. Getting there independently would be an issue because few, if any of the San Francisco buses were equipped with wheelchair-lifts. Other possibilities that were reachable by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system were Berkley or Hayward. The BART system was modern, well engineered, and was designed with a number of disabilities in mind. Because attending any one of the institutions of higher learning ran into serious-money, eventually the Zen Center administrators got in touch with the California Department of Rehabilitation.

        Vivid recollections of the meeting with the Ohio Bureau of Voc Rehab nightmared to mind when I heard that I would be dealing with yet another governmental bureaucracy. Both Mrs. McDermott's and Mr. Wheeler's faces and words were seared into my memory. I recalled them both sitting in my parents' home in Mansfield and hearing the edict.

        Mister Wheeler's statement of fact was blunt: “You are horribly handicapped, and I, being charged with the responsibility of looking out for spending the taxpayer's money wisely--I've got to make some hard decisions.” Followed by his conclusion that college would do me no good-- and thus a waste of taxpayer money--by saying, “I'm denying your request that the Bureau send you on to college out of state.”

        The woman I met just after the first of the year was the polar opposite of the overweight and officious Mrs. McDermott. She was somewhere around my age, fit and attractive, with a positive attitude. I liked Kathleen Shields straight away.

        I was up front about having been turned down by my home state.

        “Well, we take a different approach here,” Kathy told me. “We look at what people can do--to see how far they can reach and how far they want to reach. And from what I've heard about you, I think there may be a lot of things that you can do to be a productive member of society. This is whether or not you decide to live here or outside then monastery.”

        Upon hearing that kind of introduction to the way things were in California, I fell madly in love with Kathy. I wanted to get down from my wheelchair and kiss her feet. I didn't mind at all when she said I would need to take a battery of tests to assess my skills. Her department could tie me up for months with tests and I wouldn't mind. If it furthered my education, all the tests they had would be a piece of cream cheese!

        Rehab quickly found me a used secretarial desk--one with an ell for my typewriter. They also bought me a used IBM Selectric to type on. I was smiling ear-to-ear when some guys moved out the old wooden desk and put my new, quite large desk in the corner near the front window.

        (In the years since these events, I looked back at the raw political realities. Ohio's governor had been Republican conservative James R. Rhodes--among the original Nay-sayers; California had the progressive Democratic Jerry Brown. Jerry always was and remains a positive force.)

        In February a large chunk of my family visited Zen Center on a day that was blessed with full sunshine. My mother and sister and her husband were there. So were my cousins Skip and Lois, and Skip's mother, my favorite aunt, Leah. They spend several hours touring the building that had designed more than fifty years before by Julia Morgan.

        We had tea in the dining room about an hour after lunch. My sister said, “I guess this really isn't a cult!--Of course I do know a little something about Buddhism.”

        Aunt Leah said, “Well, Skip did check this place out, Barbie. He would have known if it wasn't right.”

        Mother asked me about rehab. “Did you say they're going to test you pretty soon?”

        “Sometime in March,” was my reply. “A series of tests to see what I might be best at. They think it'll be something like Technical Writing. I have no idea.”

        “And then they'll send you to college?” Barbara asked.

        “I think so. Or it may depend on how well I do. I don't know. I'm open to whatever they say.” I sipped my green tea and looked into the garden of concrete statues. It felt good to be around family for the first time in more than a year.

        Barbara reached over, biting her lips firmly together while frowning, and squeezed my left shoulder. “Whatever happens, I sure wish you the best. You're my favorite brother! I think you know that by now!”

        It turned out that math was my highest-ranked score from the series of exams that the Department of Rehabilitation gave me. I was certain it would be my English; but that was second. Kathy Shields was pleased to have such a highly ranked client; meanwhile, I re-doubled my efforts to be a faithful, practicing Zen student. I have always felt a strong loyalty to my chosen religion and by studying some of the night classes there, plus doing my zazen, and continuing to perform my tasks with the Wind Bell I maintained my enthusiasm.

        My plans firmed up in early spring. It made perfect sense in whatever direction I looked. What I wanted out of life was what most guys wanted: a good job, a girlfriend and eventually a wife, then maybe even a family. To have a decent job as seriously disabled as I was meant having a solid education. I had the basics behind me from my years at Ohio State, Mansfield. So, going full-time would mean another two or three years; if my disability meant part-timing, it would be three to five years. Then I would be employable---and here I mentally flipped off Mrs. McDermott and Mister Wheeler. Finding a girlfriend and the rest of it---well, that was To-Be-Determined.

        Because of the novel that I finished in late March, Baker-Roshi found me a young and upcoming New York literary agent named John Brockman. The story was a in the crime genre. My hero was a hustler; a pimp and gambler, a man who was good with the Colt Bisley .454. He was running from a Mafia hitman. Roshi got a kick out of it and so did Lew Richmond. Lew got a kick out of one of my female characters, Friendly, a slightly dippy twenty-something hooker. I thought the story might be an easy sell. John Brockman wasn't so sure, but he took my manuscript in hand, we shook hands, and he left, promising to be in touch after he had time to shop the novel around.

        Around May, Kathy Shields laid out her reasons why I should choose Berkeley over Hayward. “For one thing, the campus is closer in case you decide to live here,” she said when we met in my room. “Another thing is that Cal is certainly better known and you'll probably have better profs than at Hayward. The big reason is what Ed Roberts did when he went to Cal.”

        “Who is Ed Roberts?”

        “He's had polio. Very severe case. Completely paralyzed from the neck down--”

        I interrupted with a whistle and a frown.

        ”--still, after fighting for years, he got the entire administration at Berkeley to make just about all buildings wheelchair accessible. I can't be sure, but I think Berkeley is the only university in the country with as many accessible buildings and its kind of program for the physically disabled. It's the first school in California anyway.”

        And that pretty much decided it.

        Sometime in early summer, Lew Richards and Ed Brown told me they were concerned for my physical well-being if I left Zen Center for the outside world.--Roshi had the same concerns, I understood. They let me know that I could continue to live here without practicing formally if I wished. It would be something like how Okusan lived. Suzuki-Roshi's widow was still here years after her husband's death; she no longer sat. If that would work out. I thanked them and said that while I might be back --- and sooner rather than later--I wanted to at least give Cal a try. See how I could do in the real-world. I explained that I wanted to see what I could do with a career as a technical writer or even a mathematician. Live as a householder, like Yvonne Rand.

        jIM zivic and I took BART over and I finally found a severe slumlord dive. It had no tub, only a foot-deep step-down shower without a curtain. It was $125 a month for one room, a toilet an “inset shower,” and a tiny kitchen. There was no table. Fortunately, Mother flew up, did a deal with the slumlord, and got me a better place. It was a converted garage. Two rooms: kitchen and living room with a bathroom with bathtub. At the time I signed a year's lease, the present occupant had a motor from a VW van in the living room area. That would need cleaning away, the concrete floor would have to be scrubbed clean of the oils and grease. Then I would be set to move in.

        Jim Zivic left Zen Center for a room in Berkeley several days before I said my goodbyes and left on August 3rd. Nineteen months almost to the hour.

        Layla and her husband, Jim, stopped by to wish me the best in college. I shook hands with both. Layla recounted my enthusiasm when I had first arrived intending to devote the rest of my life to Zen.

        I said, “I guess sometimes 'forever' gets here sooner than you think!” I chuckled and added, “Y'never know: I may be back real soon... .”

        Before I left, many of my friends came to wish me the best. They all said I was welcome here anytime. To visit; maybe even to live. That warmed me and I left, stumbling down the many steps to the car feeling warm and fuzzy. I took a last look at the Page Street building, understanding very well, that this place had given me a new chance at whatever life I was able to create for myself. Put in simpler terms, it was where I had been reborn.

        My Berkeley address was 2012 1/2 Haste Street, only a few blocks from campus. Mother and Jim cleaned up the place once the previous tenant got rid of the VW engine. Mother got several pieces of used furniture as well as pots, pans, ands and dishes. She also found a very thick lime green carpet, about 12 by 12 feet. It covered the floor from the couch almost to the bathroom toward the front of the apartment. The carpet would make it possible to move around the room without getting bursitis in my knees; this had been a common, and sometimes serious problem since I was 19. There were two matching end tables and three dissimilar lamps. One lamp was for my large steel desk; the others for the end tables.

        The studio couch went flat against the bare south wall. The desk in the northwest cornet by the window of the once-garage. We bought a new tiny, square kitchen table with two plain steel chairs for the kitchen. Zen Center gave me the rickety, marred white coffee table I had been using for the TV set; the end table fit nicely beside the desk. There was an ancient, gas stove in the kitchen. It must have dated from the 1930's, was chock full of grease, and a royal hotel for cockroaches. The stove demanded endless scrubbing and bug-bombing, but of course, in less than a week, the roaches moved back to their old home. That first night, with all three lamps burning, Mother, Jim Zivic, and I had take-out from the Mexican restaurant up on Telegraph and Haste, and watched TV. Jim slept on a tiny 6x3 foot piece of foam by the west wall, Mother slept in her sleeping bag by the front door, and I slept on the couch.

        For the first time in my 32 years, I had my own apartment. I was pleased with myself.