“There isn’t a meditator who hasn’t soaked their cushion with tears,” my Zen teacher, Enkyo Roshi, once said to me. I was in Manhattan at her temple on Broadway, after my son’s mother and I had split up. As I listened to the birds and traffic, facing a white wall, I tried to concentrate on my breath. I only felt a ball of tension in my throat. I took a long inhale and the tears started to flow. When the bell rang I went to Roshi’s small white quarters and sat down and cried and cried. She just bowed. I bowed in return. I felt as though we were bowing to the tears, acknowledging the shared reality of sorrow, that my sorrow wasn’t just personal. And as painful as the separation was, everything would be okay.
In my own case, the blindness to class always expressed itself in an outright and very often belligerent refusal to believe that it had anything to do with me at all. I no longer remember when or in what form I first discovered that there was such a thing as class, but whenever it was and whatever form the discovery took, it could only have coincided with the recognition that criteria existed by which I and everyone I knew were stamped as inferior: we were in the lower class. This was not a proposition I was willing to accept, and my way of not accepting it was to dismiss the whole idea of class as a prissy triviality. Given the fact that I had literary ambitions even as a small boy, it was inevitable that the issue of class would sooner or later arise for me with a sharpness it would never acquire for most of my friends. But given the fact also that I was on the whole very happy to be growing up where I was, that I was fiercely patriotic about Brownsville (the spawning-ground of so many famous athletes and gangsters), and that I felt genuinely patronizing toward other neighborhoods, especially the “better” ones like Crown Heights and East Flatbush which seemed by comparison colorless and unexciting—given the fact, in other words, that I was not, for all that I wrote poetry and read books, an “alienated” boy dreaming of escape—my confrontation with the issue of class would probably have come later rather than sooner if not for an English teacher in high school who decided that I was a gem in the rough and who took it upon herself to polish me to as high a sheen as she could manage and I would permit.