This is a platform for my personal work, should anyone's interest be piqued by what they find among the frogs. Some of it has nothing to do with amphibians, while most of it represents a continuum, an arch of life that found me among frogs, and made doing something about their plight a foregone conclusion. (For instance, Collaborating With Angels is about living and photographing in an Buddhist AIDS hospice in San Francisco in the early 90s. Not a frog in sight, but I met my wife Chris there, who brought me to Portland, hence this hill I live on now, with the frogs. A deeper connection is that both Angels and the frogs are about death and dying among persecuted minorities, and how learning to love is salvation.)
Here is the first few pages of Collaborating With Angels. There are more than 90 photographs embedded in the text. The rest of the book can be found in the online magazine Subtopian: www.subtopian.com under the heading "serials."
Chapter 1 - Spring
“You’ve created Buddhist Heaven!” a Tibetan monk had exclaimed while visiting Maitri AIDS Hospice. Standing before the same threshold, staring at the front door, instead of elation I felt dread sweeping through me. I was there to talk to Issan Dorsey, a Buddhist monk and founder of both the Hartford Street Zen Center and Maitri. I hadn’t seen him in five or six years, and I was there to ask permission to document his death. As if the errand didn’t weigh enough, I was also afraid of the charged emotions I assumed must be rampant in a place where people went to die; that the hospice would be grim and relentless, desperation rising through the floor boards -- a place where there was no escaping.
Issan was entering the final stages of HIV, and several people, me included, had been asked to photograph him during the last months of his life. I knew most of the people who were helping Issan run the temple and hospice, but I was unfamiliar with the fellow who answered the door, showing me into the living room. Summoned, Issan came slowly and steadily down the long staircase from his second floor bedroom in a pale blue, terrycloth bathrobe. His carriage was as graceful and ramrod straight as ever, even the threadbare, faded robe somehow elegant. His husky voice was still quick and halting, as if the words were tumbling balls of moss, loosed in volleys down a hill, “Rob Lee ...! How are you?”
He stepped to me and kissed me on the lips, the old shine of mischievous lustiness sparking in his clear blue eyes. “How are you?” I asked, happy to see that liveliness still there, a touch surprised I was comfortable with the kiss. I knew HIV wasn’t contracted this way, but kissing a man was not something I was familiar with. But this was Issan; he had a flow that made obstacles disappear, comfort taking their place.
“Me? Oh, I’m okay. This HIV is awful, awful. My sciatica is killing me. I’m okay today.”
After a bit I asked about photographing him and he waved his hand, “Oh sure.” He paused for a moment and then, “I’m tired. I’ve got to go up to my room.” And he was gone.
I had met Issan during my time, a decade before, at San Francisco Zen Center. I hadn’t known him well but he had a way of casting a net of intimacy; it wasn’t hard to feel close to him, to feel a familiarity well beyond the extent of one’s acquaintance. He cared, seemingly about everyone, fostering an atmosphere of benevolence and warmth that was palpable. He’d been thrown out of the Navy for having sex in life boats, had been a prostitute, a song and dance female impersonator, a hustler getting lumberjacks in Alaskan bars drunk, so they’d pass out back in the room, where he could steal their money before they found out he was a man. Issan was for many years a dope fiend who kicked his heroin habit when he discovered Buddhist meditation. He effortlessly combined physical grace, street smarts, personal meticulousness -- on him a faded old Japanese hipari, patches carefully sewn and ironed, looked refined -- plus an attentive, graceful charm. His truly seedy background had left him with no illusions, had informed him; he was easily the most compassionate person I’d ever met.
My second call on Hartford Street was to photograph the Buddha’s Birthday ceremony, traditionally held early in April. Issan was feeling poorly and didn’t attend, not leaving his room. I was immediately struck by the warmth of the place, the friendly openness. My fears -- of sickness and death, of graphic suffering -- faded to background. I enjoyed taking pictures of the black robed residents standing in rows in the temple meditation hall, hands clasped over solar plexus, eyes on the floor, chanting the Heart Sutra, and then doing full prostrations to the birthday boy, symbolized on the altar by a small ceramic child pointing skyward with the index finger of his raised arm. It was pleasant being around the familiar ritual -- it had been awhile.
Maitri AIDS Hospice (Maitri is Sanskrit for “loving compassion”) came into being when a member of Issan’s congregation, a young fellow named J.D., reached a point in his battle with AIDS where he could no longer take care of himself and had nowhere to go for help. Issan took him into the temple. The small group of gay men living in the temple were horrified; they wanted their home to be a refuge from the scourge that was reaching into every part of their lives, not invite it in. Some believe Issan was simply responding to J.D.’s need but I think it went deeper than that; I had been involved in the preliminary planning with Issan and others, six years before, to turn a shuttered gay bath house into a care center for homeless people. They had wanted me to run the kitchen and teach people to cook, just as I was trying to leave cooking behind, so I begged off. The effort failed under the weight of its scope not long after. Issan was drawn to such endeavors; it was a calling. When J.D. was joined by two other fellows dying of AIDS, most of the dismayed temple residents left, and Issan called in reinforcements; four Buddhist priest friends from Santa Fe. A year after J.D. moved in, the house next door was acquired, a door cut between the two buildings, and a six bed hospice was born.
Anyone who knew Issan could see this chain of events flowing as naturally from him as his breath. Having led a hippie commune in the 60s, been in charge of Jamesburg, a back country way-station at the beginning of the dirt road leading to the Zen monastery at Tassajara Springs, and then the building director at Zen Center’s City Center, he’d always had a gift for leading residential situations. His equanimity and caring made him extremely effective in these positions, single-handedly making the “Zen house” at Jamesburg the local nexus of community for miles around. Being around Issan it was hard not to feel good about one’s self, to feel embraced. I think this story, from when Issan was City Center director, gives a sense of his gift. A very agitated man forced his way through the partially open front door of Zen Center’s Page Street building and made threatening gestures toward the several women. The intruder’s aggressiveness escalated and the women were becoming increasingly frightened. Issan’s room was nearby and he came out to see what the commotion was about. Walking up to the fellow he said, “Hi. What’s happening?”
The guy vented about the general unfairness currently the norm, to which Issan replied, “Oh, don’t you just hate that! It’s the same for me! C’mon, let’s have some tea.” Issan took the fellow to the kitchen, served him tea, gave him a tour of the building and then walked him to the door and showed the contented man out.
Maitri was a natural expression of the compassion and communal leadership Issan had demonstrated so often before, a simple extension of his gift for taking care of people. (“Simple,” because Issan’s management style seemed effortless, which didn’t mean that those who worked with him didn’t have to work their asses off). It isn’t hard for a decent and caring person to help someone in obvious need, but Issan understood that true compassion extends a hand to those who seem “well” also; we all have pain, we are all in need of each other’s support. Even while he was sick Issan’s compassion extended over both houses, the “well” and the “sick.” This is what I was to photograph, this expression of Buddhist wisdom. This “being well” is only temporal -- we will each die -- and so we are all in the same boat: we take care of ourselves by taking care of others and we bob higher on the waves.
Some time after J.D. moved into Hartford Street he told Issan he wanted to give a talk on Buddhism. Issan immediately said yes, prompting protests in the community that J.D. had severe dementia and that the talk would be embarrassing. Issan exclaimed, “We all have dementia!” J.D. gave the talk, a very satisfying event for him toward the end of his life, even if no one else could make heads or talks of it.
On my third visit Issan was feeling better and had come down from his room. He kissed me on the lips, and again I was glad to see the sexy glint in his eye; still kicking. (HIV is not transmitted by saliva.) I told him I wanted to photograph the interaction between the temple and hospice, between the well and the ill. He told me to take pictures of whatever I wanted and mentioned that lunch was probably the best time to catch such exchanges. Cringing at the implications, I haltingly explained I wanted to do a formal portrait of him every two months in exactly the same location. He immediately agreed, then he said he had to rest, “I’m tired all the time... I can hardly do anything anymore.” (To read more about Issan’s life see David Schneider’s biography, Street Zen.)
* * *
I began spending a couple of hours at Hartford Street two or three days a week. Arriving before noon I would have a bite to eat and hang around, waiting for pictures. A buffet of leftovers, lunch was often a rollicking affair, with a constantly revolving cast of characters, which might include any combination of the nine temple residents, several regular volunteers, one or two hospice attendants, the nurse and social worker, and one, rarely two, hospice residents, all sitting around the blond zebra wood of the large table. My first few visits the place bristled with cameras, as several photographers had been invited to shoot, a media-crush that worried me. One photographer drifted away, one decided to concentrate on an “AIDS hotel” downtown, and another chose to focus on a particular hospice resident. When that fellow died suddenly, the heartbroken photographer gave up the project. Within a very short time I was the lone picture taker. The more people who came to lunch the more buoyant, even riotous, the mood in the room, as each person added to the sense of shared purpose and the overall feeling of good humor. After eating, people went back to whatever lunch had interrupted, and the room quieted amid the clack of dishes as the buffet table against the wall was cleared. I would go sit in the adjacent living room, waiting for photographs. As boisterous as lunch was, when the room cleared our, it could be unsettlingly quiet.