© 2003 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
One of the many reasons Jeanne and I decided to move across the continent from Nova Scotia to Vancouver was that there were shrines in California to which each of us hoped we might make regular pilgrimages.
In my case, the shrine in question was Robert and Virginia Heinlein’s home on Bonny Doon Road in Santa Cruz. I did manage to visit my shrine—exactly once—and wouldn’t you know, it was closed that day.
Yes, that’s right: the one and only time I managed to put together the necessary combination of spare time and spare cash, by evil luck I got there on a day when Robert’s health was poor and he was not feeling up to receiving visitors after all. Ginny was apologetic but quite firm on the phone. Both were unnecessary—much as I yearned to see their famous circular home, I would sooner have cut off my own ears than cause Robert a moment’s discomfort or Ginny a second’s inconvenience. If you’re ever curious to know what Moses looked like as he stared helplessly over the razor wire at the Promised Land, just come see me and I’ll show you a photo of me, standing outside the closed front gate of Bonny Doon, pointing like a fool at Robert’s mailbox and trying to smile.
And then they moved to Carmel, and then Robert died.
Two months after that, my wife finally got to visit her own shrine…and ended up stumbling into mine. Without me. How twisted is that?
Jeanne is a Zen Buddhist monk. There are more different flavors of Buddhism than there are of Christianity, or Islam. The Tibetan bunch are probably the best known in America at present. Jeanne’s lot are of Japanese lineage, and in particular Soto Zen—farmer Zen, as opposed to Rinzai or warrior Zen. Their main headquarters in North America is the San Francisco Zen Center, on Page Street, which was founded in the early 60s by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese abbot. Suzuki Roshi also founded two other temples, outside the city. One, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, is right on the coast, just north of the city by Muir Beach.
The other is a remarkable monastery called the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a place of terrifying beauty with a terrific hot spring, tucked high up in the Santa Lucia mountains near Jamesburg. It’s so remote and inaccessible that the only sane ways to get up there are by chopper (which would be impossible to land) or by taking their specially equipped four-wheel drive “stage coach” up a 14-mile one-lane dirt and rock road that features at least a dozen perfect places to plummet two miles to destruction, and at least one unexpected new one every trip. You park your own vehicle at the base of the mountain, and retrieve it when you’ve had all the fun you can stand up there.
In July of 1988, Jeanne finally managed to put together both the time and just enough money to fulfill a lifelong dream, and be a guest student—i.e., to spend two weeks at the Tassajara monastery, immersed in intensive meditation dharma study and work practice. By “just enough money,” I mean tuition, planefare and pocket change. A sweet cousin in San Francisco, Ralph Parsons (long dead now—God rest you, Ralph), drove her from the airport to the stage coach terminus at Jamesburg. Tassajara took care of all her needs for the next few weeks. Then on the last day of her stay, she learned by phone that something had come up, and Ralph would not be able to pick her up after all. She began gloomily figuring that she would have to hitchhike many miles along the Carmel Valley back to the Monterey airport.
And then she happened to remember she had the phone number of someone she knew in the area…well, sort of knew…who actually lived only a handful of miles away. In Carmel. Virginia Heinlein.
She hesitated for a long time. Ginny had met her face exactly once, in the middle of a Worldcon at which her husband was the Guest of Honor. Furthermore, Robert had died only two months earlier, in May.
Finally she worked up the nerve, dialed the number, explained her situation, and asked if Ginny could possibly pick her up at Jamesburg and get her to the airport.
Early the next morning, after being dropped off by the stage coach, she told me, “this huge vehicle pulled up, driven by this tiny woman, and she basically drove me home with her and fed me lunch, and then sort of collapsed on me.”
They spent hours together. Ginny wept, and spoke of Robert and their years together and his passing and the sharpness of her grief. Jeanne, I’m quite sure, worked her magic—when my wife takes on her Aspect and raises up her Attribute, she is a Healer without peer. She’s like Travis McGee’s friend Meyer: she can share pain better than anyone else I ever met. Ginny, in kind, gave Jeanne a half-hour Master Class in how to run a writer’s business for him, upon which she has drawn ever since—thank God!
And she also gave her the Dollar Tour.
Poor Jeanne, trying desperately to memorize each moment and every detail to recount to me later, got to sit in Robert’s desk chair. She put her fingers on the keyboard of his word processor. She saw his discharge hanging on the wall above it. She saw, and touched, The Cannon. Ginny showed her photos, and original manuscripts, and souvenirs of world travel with Robert, and the last home they had shared.
And then it was time, and Ginny drove her to the airport and dropped her off in time for her flight. When Jeanne got home to Vancouver…well, let’s just say she was extensively debriefed.
I eventually had the pleasure of visiting Tassajara myself, with Jeanne and our daughter. (And recommend it to you even if you have zero interest in Buddhism; see http://www.sfzc.org/zmcindex.htm for information.) But by then, Ginny had moved all the way across the continent to Florida, and was once again as expensively far away as she had been when she and Robert were in California and Jeanne and I were in Nova Scotia.
In the years that followed, two or three times I came within an inch of getting to visit Ginny at home, in Florida. Each time something went wrong at the last minute. Once I spent the night in a motel literally a few hundred yards from her door. (I mention it in my novel CALLAHAN’S KEY.) The connection just never quite happened. We spoke countless times on the phone, over the years, and we corresponded regularly for over a quarter of a century…but I was only in the same room with Ginny three times: the first time was the night Robert became the first GrandMaster, and the second and third were at MidAmeriCon in Kansas City.
I cannot tell you how much I envy Jeanne the intimacy and access she lucked into—nor do I think I can convey just how terribly grateful I am that she was blessed to be there at that time of times, charged with the calm energy that comes from sitting zazen on a mountaintop, to offer spiritual comfort and company and a superb crying shoulder to someone I, we all, loved so much, just when she needed it most.
Robert would have been pleased to know that happened. A satisfactory irony (much like Zen itself). Seeking to give my wife something she needed—by agreeing to eat my own cooking for a few weeks so she could realize a dream—I ended up doing a posthumous favor for the man I owe more than anyone but my parents. Life is strange.