It's been awhile since I've written. A month, in fact. A month shot through with transition - a move to Hawaii, a new job, a new place, new people. It's been strangely destabilizing, lonely, sad, exciting at times. And, for some reason I can't quite place, Cheri has been on my mind.
Maybe a lot of people who read this blog will already know Cheri Maples. She knew a lot of people, touched a lot of people. Between the time she started teaching Dharma in 2008 and when she died last year, of complications from her bicycle accident, she taught all over the world. She was known for her blazing authenticity, her wisdom, and her ability to get in the mud right along with all the rest of us and work to make things better.
For me, I met Cheri in 2013, when I moved to Madison for a PhD program in counseling psychology. Over the four years that I lived in Madison I was lucky to experience many deep connections. But Cheri was one of my first friends. She and her partner Maureen and Devon and I all met for coffee just a few days after I moved to town. We all talked about Devon's retreat plans (she was going into silent, cloistered retreat for about a year) and Cheri more or less adopted me on the spot.
We met for coffee every couple weeks. Cheri was instrumental in my decision to write a social justice-focused dissertation. She nudged me to teach meditation and dharma, something I had resisted for years. She was a source of continuous support as I made my slow, difficult way through a PhD.
She was also, sometimes hair-raisingly, transparent with her own struggles. One day, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of Cargo Coffee, she sat in a chair and wept over her recent break up. Another time, she confessed that Scott Walker's reelection had thrown her into a depression. "So many people," she said, "will be hurt."
A moment that's burned into my memory, though, from just a few weeks before her bicycle accident:
We had just been sitting, talking, for hours in Cargo Coffee, when finally it was time for each of us to get back to the rest of our lives. She stood up and put her arms around me in a slow, gentle hug. Then she stepped back, looked me frankly in the eyes, and said, "I love you."
I felt thrown for a moment. Then I said, "I love you, too." Because I did.
That was the last time I saw Cheri outside of a hospital bed. A few weeks later she collided with a van while riding her bicycle. She was paralyzed from the shoulders down and also struggled to use her arms and hands.
Devon and I tried to visit her as much as we could in the hospital. But - true to a life lived so well - we had to get on a waiting list: there was always someone who wanted to be with Cheri.
The last time we saw her, Cheri was in recovery. Devon and I were about to leave the country for a teaching tour. Then we were headed into meditation retreat for the better part of a year. We knew it would be a while before we saw Cheri again and so we said our goodbyes carefully. Still, Cheri was in high spirits. She was recovering. She had just ordered a souped-up wheel chair that would, she said, allow her to play basketball someday.
Weeks later, Devon and I got the email in Denmark, the night before we started teaching a three-day workshop to psychologists. Cheri had contracted a surprise infection. The doctors had tried to treat it, but her body was still weak, and she had died.
I went to bed, shocked and sad. That night I had a dream. In the dream, Cheri was dancing, and she was made of light. It was a dream that felt as real as sitting in Cargo Coffee, as real as all the times we had laughed and pondered and meditated together. It felt, I have to say, like Cheri's truest nature, and it felt very, very free.