How do we pay attention? How do we attend to what is right in front of us, whether it be a loved one who is dying, a homeless person, the cashier in the local food store, or simply slamming the car door shut? What motivates us to take care of others? How do we separate ourselves from the “other”? These are some of the questions that New York’s poet laureate, Marie Howe, holds in mind as she writes her poetry.

Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison, Zen Buddhist teachers and the founders of New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC), are friends with Marie Howe and she is a guest teacher in the NYZCCC’s Foundations in Buddhist Contemplative Care Training program. On a bright winter Sunday in March, Chodo and Koshin spent the morning with Marie Howe and her daughter, Inan, in New York City. Over bagels, cream cheese, and tomatoes, they spoke with Howe about poetry, caregiving, and paying attention.

Marie Howe: Oh, it was a joy. The days and weeks with my brother Johnny were some of the happiest times in my life. It was one of the few times in my life where I didn’t feel like I wanted to be anywhere else. I’m a restless person and I got to be with him for hours and hours and hours. Finally, we could just be together. And I got to read while he slept and look at his face and get him ice water and talk and tell stories. And just the way the hours would pass was so sweet.

I took care of him growing up, but then he became my spiritual advisor when he was in his twenties. And it feels like in any friendship, there’s that mirroring back and forth of your deepest truths—and our souls were connected from a very early time. He got very sick. And at one point he was lying there in bed and he said, “You know, Marie, my worst nightmare was that I would be lying here dying, and you’d be feeding me one of those stupid milkshakes. And now it’s happening, and I’m so glad you’re here.” I loved it.

RCC: Who took care of you after he died?

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