Consciousness Tarot-sm

On Knowledge

I just returned from a week-long informal writing retreat with my close group of women writing friends on the Northern California coast. Part of our practice together is to draw tarot cards and use them as writing prompts. We have multiple decks to choose from; one is a new deck I found recently, the Osho Zen Tarot. I randomly pulled this card, Consciousness, and this short essay resulted.

The third eye, the knowing. Sit deep into self and let go of all that doesn’t matter, the judgment, the baggage, the conditioning, the you-will-never-be-good-enough, the fear, the hesitation, the second guessing.

Become the mountain self. Hips planted on the cushion, back straight, shoulders soft but firm, relaxed, the breath moving in and out with life force, and the face soft, quiet, tender in its no concentration, in its no focus – all present, all now.

And yet, that most important part, the third eye, glowing in the center of the brow, the penetrating wisdom, the pure insight, true knowledge.

Not the intellectual dissection, not the quick wit, not the ironic tongue or the acerbic humor, not the speed of a barb –

No, this is a mist of illumination, raindrops to clear the morning, cool water scooped with a gourd outside the temple gates to slake the thirst of the weary pilgrim. To dip the gourd in the well, to pour the water over the top of your head, to wash your dusty feet…

When simply to sit, to breathe, is enough.

handicapped placard

Mundane Anguish: Behind the Smile

In November 2012, because of medical issues that I am suffering from, I had to turn my driver’s license in to the DMV. That may not seem like such a huge issue at first glance – but it has now been 18 months that I have been unable to drive. My wife works a graveyard shift, four tens a week, and so is effectively unavailable to assist me on those days. We live about four miles out in the country, so even if I wanted to use public transport, there is no way for me to access it. What this has meant, ultimately, is a major lifestyle change. I used to drive everywhere – to my job in Calistoga (which I had to quit), to writers’ workshops and readings all over Sonoma County, to visit with friends for coffee, etc.

One of the biggest losses was my Zen sangha. I belong to the Russian River Zendo (RRZ), located in Guerneville, an hour’s drive from my home. I have managed to deal with my transportation issues by various means: I have friends who provide rides, I save up tasks and errands for my wife’s days off, and I also found two wonderful senior citizens who I hire occasionally to be my drivers. But I pay them by the hour, and to have a regular commitment at the zendo, with the drive there and back, plus the time for sitting and service, is simply beyond my financial reach.

Thankfully, another resource appeared. Priest Beata Chapman, who I knew from RRZ, invited me to join her Suffering & Delight group, an online class/sangha that is for those dealing with chronic physical and/or emotional pain. Five of us meet via video conferencing twice a month, to sit zazen together, and then have a dharma talk/class. It has been a wonderful respite for me, to once again have sangha that is easily accessible.

One of the recurring themes in our group is the invisibility of our illnesses. All of us, at first glance, appear to be fine. Yet each one of us is suffering from some kind of condition which makes our life very difficult. Beata has used, a number of times, the term mundane anguish to describe what we are living with. Our illnesses/conditions are so much a part of our daily existence, that they have become routine, normalized. And each one of us does our best, as we get up each morning, to put on our best face, to smile, to get through the day, to do the most we can given the limitations of our illness.

Last week, I attended a day-long conference with about 60 people in Fremont. I was with four people I knew; the rest were strangers. Because I have a service dog, people are always fascinated with her, and drawn to her, so I always spend my first moments in these types of settings fielding the questions and interest. Everyone wants to pet her, which gets frustrating since she is working, but I typically will allow a brief hello.

During the course of that morning, at least eight people said, “Are you training her?” Ripley’s vest clearly states “Medical Alert Dog” and “Please Ask Before Petting: Working.” It does not say “In Training.” But because I do not appear to have a disability (i.e., I am not in a wheelchair or blind), and I am smiling and friendly, everyone assumes I am absolutely fine. I have no medical issues. I must be training her. Towards the end of the day, I had two of my seizure episodes at the workshop – what it looks like from the outside is that I slump forward in my chair, stop speaking, check out for several minutes. When I come to, I am slow to rise, and unsteady on my feet. It happened right in front of a group of people, but no one responded or asked me if I was OK. Only one member of my club noticed, watching me with eagle eyes as I re-entered the main room. I was leaning against the wall as I walked in – that’s how off-balance I was. I had another episode right after, and a third on the drive home. Other than my friend, only one person said something to me, just as we were packing up to leave: “I hope you feel better.”

In anger one day, after a particularly exasperating episode with someone in the public arena, I said to Sabrina, my wife, “What do I need to do, wear a sign around my neck that says, ‘Disabled’?” Because it isn’t just the loss of the driver’s license. I must deal with the fact that at any moment, without warning, I collapse. Sometimes it happens once a week. Sometimes it happens ten times in one day.

A friend of mine shared this story. Although always presenting a bright and cheerful disposition, she suffers from chronic and often debilitating pain. Because of this, sometimes walking can be difficult for her, and she has a handicapped placard. She recently went to an event with a friend, which involved a fairly lengthy car trip. Sitting in the car caused her pain to escalate, to the point that she was extremely uncomfortable by the time they arrived. At their destination, my friend said, “We can park here in this handicapped spot; I have a placard.” The woman driving said, “Let’s leave that for someone who really needs it,” and proceeded to park more than a block away. My friend put away the placard, did not say anything else, and walked the whole distance, paying dearly for it the next day. And she said to me, “I don’t feel the same way about that woman now. She didn’t see me.”

Not long ago, one of my friends said something to me about what a rough year I had had. And I thought, “Have I had a rough year?” It took me a minute to realize, oh, she means all of this I have been dealing with – the loss of my license, the escalation of the  attacks, everything. I forget. It has become so normalized, so part of my daily existence, that I simply cope. Because what are the options? I could curl up in a corner in my bed and weep, feel sorry for myself. Or I can keep trying to live my life, as best I can. Mundane anguish.

I realize there are many, many people out there who are dealing with their own invisible pain – whether it is physical or emotional. I have learned to trust my intuition, and when I sense that someone is hurting, I ask. Better to be told, “No, I’m fine,” or even risk a “Mind your own business,” than to miss the opportunity to witness and support another’s suffering. Because it is not always easy to advocate for that support yourself.

And I may, eventually, need to get that handicapped placard. Sometimes I can’t walk from the car to the store, without leaning heavily on Sabrina’s arm. I pray I will not be judged if and when that happens.



Rear view of a car on a road at dusk

Calling 911

Last night wasn’t the first time we’d placed a 911 call from the freeway. We’ve phoned in downed power lines, brush fires, stalled cars that looked like they needed assistance, or to report a ladder blocking a lane of traffic. My wife Sabrina is particularly observant of things even off to the side – she sees the stray dogs towing a chewed-off leash, or the man huddled underneath an overpass. Each time, we double-back, Sabrina at the wheel, me on the phone, as we pinpoint the location and make the call. Sometimes another motorist has already phoned in the incident. When we re-passed the man near the overpass, CHP officers were already onsite. But we could then drive home knowing that someone had responded; we had not simply driven by.

On Sunday, we had made a quick trip to Healdsburg to buy groceries. It was a day off, and we were in a silly mood, joking and laughing. When we headed back onto the freeway for the 30 minute drive home, it was just deepening into dusk. I was chattering away about something or other as we neared Geyserville, and then as we passed the first exit, I notice a white van with its lights on pulled off to the side of the road. “Wait, what was that?” Sabrina said. “What?” I asked. “On the side of the road. Before the van.” “I didn’t see.” “It looked like two children – huddled in the grass.” I knew what this meant. “Do you want to go back?” She looked at me. The mood in the truck had changed completely. We both knew the answer.

We took the second Geyserville exit, and drove through town, backtracking. It seemed to take forever. Finally, we were once again northbound on 101. Maybe the van would be gone already. Maybe. But no – as we rounded the bend, we could see the lights again. And yes, sure enough, a figure, huddled in the grass. Sabrina pulled the truck up right alongside. I opened the door and stepped out. The figure moved – it was not a child, but a young woman, with long hair. She was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair was disheveled, and she had obviously been crying. I said, “Are you OK?” She was only a couple of feet away from me. She stood up, rapidly but unsteadily, saying, “No.” But at that same moment, the driver’s side door of the van opened, and a man stepped out. An older man, in his late forties or fifties, with gray in his hair, hair parted on one side and long halfway down his neck. He was gaunt-faced, slender. He locked his eyes on the eyes of the young woman, and she did not meet my gaze – she turned to him, throwing her cloth purse over her shoulder, and walked towards him. The van was only about 20 feet away. I called out, “You don’t have to go with him. You can come with us.” She ignored me, and got into the van, her head bowed. He got into the other side, and shut his door.

It was not right. I knew that somehow this was a bad situation, that she needed help but was simply afraid to leave. Yet I was paralyzed. My instinct, my only thought, during that interminable moment of her walking, was to run after her, to grab her, to pull her into our truck. I have a history as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. There was a period of time in my life, when I was tired of being a victim, and determined that no other woman should have to experience what I had gone through, when I would have intervened by placing myself directly in between the two parties, regardless of any danger. On Sunday night, that was the only solution my adrenalin-pumped body could muster. But I knew Sabrina would not allow me to do that. So instead – I was frozen.

Finally I heard Sabrina saying, “Get in the truck. Come on. We have to get their license plate number.” Thank god. A plan. The van had taken off as soon as the young woman was inside, and because I had lost those few seconds, Sabrina had to drive fast  on the darkening roadway, hoping we could catch up. At last, we drew up right behind them. It is harder to get a license plate number at night from a moving vehicle than you might think. But Sabrina is good in a crisis. “OK,” she said. “I am going to come up alongside as if I am going to pass them. I’ll get the make and model of the vehicle, and you focus on the plate.”

I had the notepad on my lap, pen ready. Both of us had thumping hearts. Sabrina called out, “White Chevy van.” She ended up reading out the license number as well, while I frantically wrote. As soon as we passed, I dialed 911. At that point, I was ready. I had all the information. I knew where we were (Highway 101, North Bound, just passing Asti Exit), I had vehicle description (White Chevy van with utility rack on roof), I had license plate number, I had a description of what we had seen, and who was involved. As I stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, just before our own highway exit, the van passed us, and I re-verified the license plate number – much easier to read when you are the one being passed. So we were confident we had it right. The dispatcher thanked us and said officers would be on their way.

All that was left for us to do was to drive the few remaining minutes home, praying that either the police find them, or that this was all a big misunderstanding – in either scenario, wishing fervently that this young woman is now safe.

Grandma & Abbey-sm

Lessons from My Grandmother

My grandmother, Gladys Wing, was born on Aug. 3, 1910. Which means, as she will proudly tell you, she is currently 103 and a half years old. She started adding the “half” notations after the passed the 100 mark. Now, this in itself is remarkable. But if you actually meet her, you will be floored. Gladys has not lost a whit of her sharpness, her sense of humor, her lust for life. About six months ago, she finally relented and began using a cane. Just recently, she had a bit of a medical set-back, and has been more housebound. But when I spoke to her yesterday, she proudly told me she had used her newly-acquired walker to get downstairs by herself, and spent a lovely afternoon in the garden. In short, she is unstoppable.

Gladys is my father’s mother. We lost him to lymphoma in 2004, when he was only 64. My parents grew up in California, but took off for an adventure to Montana, so I spent my childhood there, visiting my California grandmothers for only a couple of weeks each summer. Then I was off on my own young adulthood journeys, often far away. I was back in Northern California when my father passed away, and I decided it was now time for me to take over those filial duties. Yes, she has two other sons in the area. But I wanted to do this – for him. What I did not realize then was what an incredible gift it would end up being for me. I am her granddaughter, yes. But over the past decade, Gladys and I have become friends, compatriots. It has been magical.

This week, my niece Abbey visited from Wyoming. She is the eldest great-grandchild, and she was celebrating her 21st birthday, off for spring break during her junior year. Four generations of women went out for lunch – Abbey, me, my mom, and Gladys. Gladys was an only child. She had four children, and now has 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Somehow, with that brood, she still manages to send all of us birthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday greetings.

This week, I was reflecting on the two things that most inspire me about Gladys: She has lived a life of service, and still, even now, she focuses on the present moment.

Gladys raised a family, and owned her own business. But for over 50 years, she has been active in service organizations. One of these is the Welfare League. She works a regular Monday shift at the Welfare League Thrift store (in purses and accessories), helping keep the shop in order. With the money that the thrift store raises, they are able each year at Christmas to provide local children with a brand new outfit and toy – last year, 1,200 children were served. They provide scholarships to local students, allow folks to come in and select clothes when needed for a job interview, and have a “clothes closet” for children in low-income families.

The Welfare League also makes layettes for new babies at local hospitals, for young mothers who have few resources. Gladys made those layettes herself for years, buying all the supplies and assembling them in her small senior apartment. There is always a new project: knitting scarves; making baby blankets, both knitted and crocheted; or the current effort, which is knitting lap throws, “for older folks,” as she said to me. Gladys is an expert seamstress, having done that job professionally, and she can knit, crochet, alter, quilt – almost anything you ask of her. And she is still doing all of that, at 103.

She is also a member of The Native Daughters of the Golden West, a group that offers scholarships, and does other community work. “We do projects for people in the service – knit things, like scarves, hats, mittens, vests.” And, she notes, back in the day, these service clubs were much more than social gatherings. Native Daughters even used to have adoption agencies.

Finally, she works with the Santa Rosa Garden Club, where she is the club historian, keeping track of the year’s events and making beautiful binders with photographs and news clippings. She keeps telling them, though, that the two-year commitment is getting to be a bit much each time she re-ups. Her small balcony is abloom with geraniums and other flowers, all evidence of her tender care.

As she said, “There’s always something to do.”

And this other aspect  I admire – the focus on the present. So often, elderly people spend their days reminiscing about the good old days, or complaining, “My, what’s the world coming to?” Although she does occasionally utter such phrases, for the most part, Gladys has evolved with the years. When her old sewing machine broke, she bought a new one, which had all kinds of whizzy, tricky parts. She learned how to use it in no time, and got down to business. When her service club hands her a new knitting project (like stretchy hair bands for teenagers), she gamely figures  out how to make them and cranks out a dozen, choosing the prettiest yarn. She reads all the local papers, watches the news, and is the first to tell me what might be happening weather-wise for my sister in New York.

Yes, if you ask her, she’ll tell a few tales about the old days. But she doesn’t live there. She wants to know what I’m doing, how my writing life is taking off, if the animals are all OK. She is involved.

And although she may occasionally complain that the dining hall serves chicken too often, or one of the residents in her apartment complex keeps leaving a hall window open, she is much more likely to tell a funny story. Even if the butt of the joke is herself – like the time she spent all day searching for her dentures, only to find them right before bed, in her own bra! We laughed over that one, we did. Laughed until we had tears coming down our cheeks.

This is my example. Every time I see her, I think, “Because of this, I do not have to fear growing old.”


The Science of Gratitude

People always say gratitude makes you happier. But scientists are actually proving that there’s a neurological link between the two things — the more grateful you are, the happier you will be.

Check out this article from The Huffington Post. I particularly like the three simple suggestions at the bottom, ways to “upgrade” your gratitude quotient on a daily basis:

1) Keep a daily journal of 3 things your are grateful for (works especially well first thing in the morning or just before bed)

2) Make it a practice to tell your partner, spouse, or a friend something you appreciate about him or her every day

3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself (OK, this one sounds a little too “self-affirmation”-ish for me, so you can leave out the mirror part – but you get the concept. A friend of mine keeps a “sparkle box.” Whenever someone gives her a great compliment, or she gets a wonderful card, or has some other tangible sign of accomplishment, she puts it in her treasure box, so she can review those things when she’s feeling less than great about herself.)


Starting Once Again

Welcome to the new, improved iteration of this blog. I posted from 2009 to 2013 on BlogSpot.com under the address rrzbeginnersmind, with over 250 posts. Those posts have been transferred, and are archived here — the last one was my New Year’s post in January 2013. You can scroll down to see them, or hit the archive tab button in the upper left corner, and find things by the month and year.

But now, I’m upgrading. The official WordPress site launches as of today, Feb. 15, 2014, with this post, under the name Practice the Way with Gratitude. Pull up a cushion. Climb on board. Relax. Read. Breathe.

And begin.


Opening a Fresh Page of the Journal

  The beginning of a new year is like opening a fresh page in a new journal — all possibilities lie ahead. Yet too often I burden myself immediately with those dreaded resolutions. Keeping with the journal metaphor, instead of sitting down to write a poem, I start making lists.

Lists of ways I could be healthier. Lists of ways I could improve my relationships. Lists of ways I could alleviate financial worries. Lists of ways I could be a better human being. And on and on.

By the time the lists are composed, all the freshness is gone, and here I am again, face to face with all of my old anxieties, fears, imagined shortcomings. I make myself promises for altered behavior, but it’s little wonder that within weeks (or even days) I am back to my old self, nothing changed at all, except a more deeply ingrained sense of guilt for having failed once again.

How to do it differently? As I think about 2013, and where I am today, the prevailing emotion that comes up for me is not dissatisfaction. It is gratitude. Here, then, is a radical jumping off point. What if I begin with what I have, instead of what I don’t have? What I like about my life, instead of what I wish I could change?

I have a reasonably healthy body that performs as it should most of the time. I can walk, run, even dance. I can hear, see (with the help of my ever-increasing number of pairs of glasses), taste, smell and touch the world around me, marveling in both its beauty and its variety.

After a younger adulthood spent in cut-and-run mode, I have established roots. I have just completed a decade working at a job I love, where I can finally say, “Me? Oh, I write for a living.” From my fascination with big cities, I have returned to small towns, learning the pleasure of being in communities where the postal clerks and baristas, the fire chief and the planning commissioners, all actually know you by name.

With those roots have come long-term friendships, the kind that go through rough spots but then figure things out and patch it all up, ending even stronger.

In this same decade, I met my wife, another axis of love and stability. And with that relationship came an entire houseful of four-footed creatures, companions I could not have when I was on the move from apartment to apartment in my many cities.

As if all of this weren’t enough, I finally have given myself permission to pursue my own personal writing, and I am being heard. I am being asked to appear at readings. Some of my poetry and creative nonfiction has won awards. I am making time to go to writing retreats, and feel as if I am with peers. I am home.

There are always trade-offs with lifestyles. Sometimes I miss the old days. But then I look around my house, our house, and I hug my dog, and a cat brushes past my leg, and a good friend calls, and I receive an e-mail with an invitation to go to a poetry slam, and my wife calls out, “Hey, babe, just made a fresh pot of coffee. Would you like some?”

And I think, “This is the good life. It’s not fireworks. It’s not parades. But it is really good.”

Because, you see, it’s not about losing 10 pounds or promising to write on a more regimented schedule or even about trying to be a better person. It’s about looking around your life, this very minute, and saying, “This is it. Wow.”

Okay, maybe I’ll try to learn to play the cello…


Writing That Makes a Difference

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), a time to bring attention to a problem that far too often remains hidden and unacknowledged.
Domestic violence is threatening behavior by an intimate partner attempting to seek control over another. It can include emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, and threats of abuse or violence to children or pets.
One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims are women, and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. However, domestic violence crosses all lines: It affects people regardless of gender, age, economic status, race, religion, nationality, educational background, or sexual orientation.
It is not just the adult victims who are affected. Thirty to sixty percent of the perpetrators of domestic violence also abuse the children in their homes. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
And the society, too, is affected. The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services. Victims of domestic violence lost almost 8 million days of paid work because of the violence they suffered at the hands of their partners last year.
Sonoma County is not immune. Last year, law enforcement responded to over 3,000 domestic violence calls. It is the leading cause of injury to local women.
I work as a volunteer with the Sonoma County YWCA, which provides the only safe house in the county for women fleeing their abusers. They also provide counseling services, a 24-hour hotline, support groups, long-term housing assistance, outreach and education to the community, and a therapeutic preschool for children who are affected by violence.
As part of DVAM, I have helped to coordinate for the second year “Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence.” For three Fridays in October, women and men will share their stories in poetry, memoir and fiction about the impact of domestic violence. We did this for the first time last year, and it was extremely powerful, both for the writers, and for the members of the audience.
The readings are scheduled for:
Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts
6780 Depot St. in Sebastopol
105 East First Street, Cloverdale
Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. at Copperfield’s Books
Montgomery Village, in their new location, 775 Village Court, Santa Rosa
I invite you to come to one of these nights and hear the brave words of these writers for yourselves. They will challenge you, and inspire you.
For more information about other events going on for DVAM throughout the county, visit theYWCA website.
Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved