Monthly Archives: November 2009

21Nov

Plenty of Stress, Little Cash

I found out that I made a “top 15” list – but before you get too jealous, let me tell you the whole story.

CNNmoney.com came out with an article called Stressful Jobs that Pay Badly, and my job, news reporter, was right up there in the top fifteen. Other lucky winners included probation officers, social workers, marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors, ministers, and high school teachers.

I happened to find out about this dubious honor earlier this week, arguably one of the most stressful that I have had to date at the newspaper office. Last week, I wrote a story about a survey two high school students conducted, asking junior high schoolers how they felt about cafeteria food. As you can probably guess, the food got a big thumbs down – when was the last time you met a kid who raved about school lunches? But, I was impressed with the project. The two students had ciruclated a petition, gathered 250 signatures, written up a survey, distributed it, tabulated the results, prepared a Power Point presentation, and given a report to the school board on their findings. I thought of the whole thing as a rather light piece about student initiative, giving a well-earned voice to local kids.

Late in the game, my editor read over the finished piece and said since the results were so negative, I should probably call the head of the school’s food service, and offer her a chance to weigh in. I disagreed, thinking that the piece stood on its own. But, at her request, I made the phone call on deadline night. The food service director said she knew of the survey, was familiar with its results, and she chose not to comment. We went ahead and ran the story, and I went home with a clear conscience.

The day the paper came out, the food service director’s husband came into the office furious with all of us, cancelling their subscription, saying we had ruined sixteen years of hard work that his wife had done in the community. I learned of the reaction over the weekend. When I got into the office on Tuesday, as much as I dreaded it, I went to the school to find the woman and apologize, for it certainly had not been my intent to harm her.

The apology was an unmitigated disaster. She did not want to talk to me, and although she listened to my explanation of how the story came about, she was completely unmoved. She said the damage was irreparable, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. Towards the end, tears came to my eyes, and mumbling a final “I’m sorry,” I left.

By the time I got back to the office, the stress of the entire week came crashing down – my dog was still in surgery when all of this happened, and I was waiting for a call from the vet. While attempting to make a cup of coffee, I was suddenly overcome with sobs, and cried for a good fifteen minutes, for everything – my dog, the newspaper article, the botched apology, all of it.

The irony, of course, is that the school lunch story was one of five news stories I had written the previous week. On my way to work, stopping at the local grocery store, the director of Calistoga Beverage Company sought me out to thank me for the nice job I had done on the story about the bottling plant’s impending closure. And when I got to my desk, there was a plate of home-made brownies waiting for me with a thank you card on top, from the couple who had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, another piece that I had done, that one in honor of Veterans Day.

When covering contentious issues that come up before the Planning Commission, I am routinely criticized by people on both extreme sides of the issue who say I was unfairly favorable to their opponents. Obviously, I can’t be giving biased weight to both the “pros” and the “cons” at the same time, but that’s what travels down the grapevine. It simply comes with the job: when people are angry, when they feel their security or position is threatened in some way, it is easy to vent that frustration on the news reporter who is quoting the “bad guys.”

And, of course, there’s the measly paycheck.

So stress management is definitely one of the reasons I sit. But, as much as I would like it to be a direct-link fix, zazen provides a much more nebulous solution than that.

In Turning Suffering Inside Out, Darlene Cohen says, We see our stress as a problem to be overcome and eliminated, like hemorrhoids. We want to reduce stress, plain and simple, not merge with it, not study it, not hold it in meditative equipoise. We think that whatever we’re going to learn to conquer our stress, it should be definite, graspable. It’s difficult for us to live in the realm of not knowing, just giving everything in front of us our whole attention and suspending our worry about what comes next until it arrives. We need to cultivate a lot of faith to live that way. But this attitude may be the most intimate and satisfying connection we could ever have with our lives. Not to know exactly what’s going to happen but to do, to feel, anyway.

No matter how much time I spend sitting zazen, there will still be disgruntled readers. The only thing I can hope to change is how I respond to that anger. And even when I do my best, come forward with the most direct, open heart that I have, my goodwill gestures may be spurned. And then I will try to experience that hurt completely and fully, before taking another breath and moving forward, heart open once again.

20Nov

Relief

Ahhh….taking a deep breath.

Things are pretty much back to normal at my house, which is a very good thing. It’s not until everything gets turned upside down that I realize how remarkably smooth life is the rest of the time.

My dog, Houla, is sleeping peacefully on my bed, wearing the annoying “cone of shame,” with a bruised and swollen left side of her face, but, all in all, safe and sound. The dog door is impossible to negotiate with the cone, so I must let her in and out for bathroom breaks. I am having to remember to administer three different types of pills throughout the day, plus eye drops. (Thank goodness for the allure of wet cat food…makes pill dosing a snap!) And I am still making phone calls and writing email messages to juggle my schedule, to make sure that I can be with her most of the time, either at the house or taking her along for the ride. And yet, even with all of that, we are so much closer to the usual routine than we were three days ago. It is a huge relief.

My mind, which has been running at hyper speed with worry, planning, strategizing and future-tripping “what ifs?” has finally slowed down to a more reasonable pace. In fact, at this very moment, I think I’m actually closer to comatose than alert….but it is a welcome change to have that luxury, the luxury of turning off the alarm signals and relaxing into a rejuvenating lethargy. You may think that sounds oxymoronic. But I feel like a mouse who has just successfully out-maneuvered a ravenous tiger, and am now in the safety of my little hole for a nice, long, well-deserved nap.

Tomorrow I will return to the blogging page with renewed vigor and stamina, and fresh thoughts. For now – a restful sleep, with my dog cradled up against my belly. Wishing all of you sweet dreams of your own.

18Nov

Good News

Houla successfully went through surgery today. I haven’t seen her yet – my veterinarian thought it best to keep her overnight, because she was still groggy from sedation. Since she has such huge separation anxiety, as much as I wanted to go see her after work, I knew it would be better for her if I did not visit, because I would have to leave her again. So I am at home, waiting for morning, when I will pick her up, smother her with love and kisses, and bring her with me to work to be a pampered, special dog for the day.

Her right eye appears to be completely normal, which means that although she has lost one eye, she has not lost her sight.

When I brought her to a Santa Rosa ophthalmologist on Monday afternoon, for a check-up prior to surgery, I was still struggling with the fear that she could go blind. I was having a hard time dealing with the enormity of that, worrying about how she could possibly survive, unassisted, in our home during the day when we were at work. It seemed insurmountable.

In the lobby, there was a book: Living with Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low-Vision Dogs. I began to page through it as we waited for our names to be called. I had no idea that such a book existed. There was a section on grief, on readjustment. There were tips on training, on how to use things like scent trails (applying a fragrance like lavender) to indicate paths to the dog door, or tactile trails, like rug strips. There was information on how to reintegrate the blind dog into your home “pack,” supporting her previous alpha role (as in Houla’s case). There were even wonderful stories about other dogs becoming guide dogs, so that the blind dog may stand out in the yard and bark when she’s ready to come in, and the sighted dog goes to get her, and leads her into the house. And also, ways to reformat “play,” so even a blind dog can continue to fetch balls.

I felt an immediate and huge sense of relief within moments after opening the book. I had a sense, suddenly, that this was doable. That we could meet this challenge, even in the worst-case scenario.

It was like the discovery of sangha, community. A sangha of low-vision/blind dogs and the people who love them.

Add to that my already-existing sangha, the friends who have e-mailed and called and offered support over the past few days….and I feel very lucky indeed.

My deepest thanks.

17Nov

Wearing Shoes, Training the Mind

In Pema Chodron’s lectures from Don’t Bite the Hook, she tells the following story:

Imagine that there is a man who is barefoot. Everywhere he walks, he steps on sharp things – stones, thorns, briars. His feet are cut and burned and frozen at different times. And he thinks to himself, What I need to do is to cover the entire world with soft leather, so that nothing will ever hurt my feet again! But where could he ever come up with that much leather? And then a second thought comes: Oh! What if I just covered my feet with soft leather? Now, that I could do!

Chodron likens that thorny, prickly world to the things that bother us, things that make us uncomfortable or angry or annoyed or sad. The lesson is that instead of trying to make all of those troublesome things go away, by covering them up, what we must do instead is train the mind, cover our feet, so to speak.

During my recent days of stress and anxiety and sadness, I must admit that there was a part of me that wanted to cover up the world. I wanted there to be no suffering, no pain, no loss. I wanted to make it all go away.

I did, last night, finally, sit. And those thirty minutes gave me more peace than I had felt since this trouble started on Friday. That is Chodron’s lesson – keeping the heart open (the world uncovered, with all its flaws), and training the mind (finding equanimity even in the face of loss).

Maybe if I do it a million more times, it is a lesson that I will learn.

16Nov

Emotional Overload

Reading over yesterday’s blog post, I was struck by how unemotional it was. It brought to my attention how exhausted I feel.

For me, when things get really crazy, I simply go from one movement to the next, trying to make the best decision, then another best decision, on some kind of strange autopilot. My emotional response turns almost completely flat. I can be appropriately compassionate and externally caring, but inside everything is muted and dimmed.

There is nothing more troubling to me than seeing someone else, animal or human, in pain. It brings up such a helpless feeling, when I know that no matter what I do, how nice I am, how comfortable I try to make them, the animal or person still has to deal with their own process of suffering.

I have spent the entire day fretting about Houla: giving her medications and eyedrops, making sure she’s warm enough, trying to be near her as often as possible to give her the reassurance of my touch. I called my boss and made arrangements to have someone else cover tomorrow night’s Planning Commission meeting, so I can work from home. That way I can be with her all day tomorrow, and on Tuesday up to the time I drop her off for her surgery. On Wednesday, I’ll bring her in to work with me.

I know that I’m doing everything I can, but it just doesn’t seem like enough. And with each passing hour, I feel heavier and heavier inside, filled with an unbearable sadness. I think it would help if I could cry long and hard, but even that is beyond my reach.

I haven’t been able to sit zazen, either. In fact, it was not until typing this line that it even occurred to me that I haven’t been doing it. Maybe that’s what I need. I’ll give it a try.

When you meditate, could you send comfort to my sweet little Houla? We both thank you….

15Nov

Losing an Eye

I didn’t blog last night because I was up until 5:30 in the morning dealing with an eye emergency with my dog Houla.

When I came home from work on Wednesday night, late, Houla wouldn’t open her left eye. I called my vet the next day, but they couldn’t see her until Friday. I thought it was just an irritation, or maybe a scratch, and was anticipating eye drops or some other relatively simple solution, and so thought it could wait.

When I brought her to her appointment on Friday at 5 p.m., we soon discovered that it was much more serious. Many hours and three vet hospitals later, including a late night drive to UC Davis emergency clinic, I know now that she has to lose her eye.

The lens on her left eye fell forward (lens luxation), blocking the drainage channel for the fluid naturally created in the eye, which led to increased ocular pressure (glaucoma). The pressure caused the retina to get distorted, swelling the eye. We were hoping that the trip to Davis might mean emergency surgery to save it, but it was already too late. She has completely lost vision in that eye. There was some evidence of vision loss in the right eye, but we are hoping with treatment to save it.

Now, on Tuesday, the poor little girl is scheduled for enucleation, or a removal of the eye. She can’t see, and there’s no sense leaving the eye there, since it is causing her pain, the equivalent of having a really bad migraine.

The whole nightmare was exacerbated by the fact that my partner Sabrina is in the Caribbean right now on a cruise with a buddy of hers, so I was having to make decisions on my own, as well as trying to juggle making sure that all of the other animals were tended to, before leaving for Davis late at night, unsure when I would get home.

Houla is a 12 year old Catahoula mix, an adorable little black-and-white dog with the sweetest personality. She has been stoic, and a real trooper through all of this, but we were both exhausted when all was said and done. Tonight we are recuperating at home with a nice fire burning in the pellet stove.

Throughout the experience yesterday, I kept imagining what it would be like to lose vision. Right now, she can still see from the right eye, but she was having trouble in low light, and I had to carry her into the hospital, because she was stumbling. Throughout all of the procedures, she was stressed and increasingly exhausted and in pain. Thankfully, most of the time I was able to be right there in the room with her, which alleviated some of the fear.

I wrote a long email to Sabrina early this morning, and she was able to reach me by phone later on, so I now know that she is in agreement with me about the enucleation. It felt good not to have to make that decision entirely on my own.

Going blind is one of my biggest fears. I can imagine learning to live with the loss of the use of my legs, or even my hearing. But losing my eyes? Being unable to read and write? It would be a huge part of my identity, something that would radically change my life.

We are praying that Houla will keep the vision in her right eye. And if not – we will just do the best we can to keep loving her, keep her safe, and keep her free from pain. Throughout all of this, she can be my teacher.

13Nov

Getting Intimate with Anger

As part of the jukai process (lay ordination), each of us was asked in August to choose one of the Buddhist precepts to practice literally for a year. The intent was to select something that would be challenging, something that touched a deep part of yourself.

I chose the Ninth Precept, which deals with anger. One version reads: I vow to not harbor ill will, but to practice loving kindness. Other times it is listed simply as: There is no anger.

At first, I was drawn to the “no slander” precept, which is definitely something I could use some work on – especially at the office, where we find great delight in pointing out the shortcomings of various people we run into in the course of the day.

But something about the “no anger” precept drew me, even before I could clearly articulate why. The expression of anger for me is almost taboo. I grew up witnessing a lot of rage and unpredictable outbursts, and experienced more as a young adult living with explosive partners. Other people’s anger terrifies me. I will do anything to get away from it.

Equally terrifying is the knowledge that I myself have the capacity to get angry. I have spent much of my life burying those feelings deep in my body; although outwardly it may appear that I rarely blow up, inwardly anger resides in secret pockets, behind closed doors, and I live in constant fear that it will leak out into the open.

I have been kidding myself that I have successfully entombed that inner rage. I am listening to lectures by Pema Chodron, Don’t Bite the Hook, which deal with anger. In her words, I am hearing how my anger has nested itself into my life.

I have always been strongly opinionated. When I was very young, I was incredibly rigid in my belief system. I like to think that I have grown a great deal in the last twenty years, softening some of that extreme version of the world in clear-cut black and white sides on every topic. But there are a number of things that I still feel so passionately about, truths that I have come to through intense and hard personal work, that I can still be amazingly intransigent, convinced that I am right.

I’m talking about things like speaking out against racism or ethnocentrism or homophobia or violence against women. I’m referring to bigotry and religious intolerance and xenophobic rants. Those are the things that make my blood boil.

For all of my talk of compassion and acceptance, hearing that the local cop who happens to be a friend of mine had voted for Prop 8, taking away the right of gay marriage, I became so incensed that I had to leave the room.

One night at a club, a Filippina woman I was dating made a racist comment about the black karaoke singer. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her violently towards me, demanding, “What did you say?” It wasn’t until I saw the fear in her eyes, the way she recoiled from me, that I realized I had completely lost it, becoming as dark as the bigotry I was sworn to combat.

When I was walking downtown in Los Gatos, and a pick-up truck of guys drove by, hollering out the window at me, “Fucking dyke!” – instead of being a warrior bodhisattva, facing that assault with kindness and patience, I spun around and flipped them the bird, yelling, “Fuck you!” at the top of my lungs.

The day I saw a man strike his girlfriend and throw her to the sidewalk, I was so enraged that I began to run towards him. I had every intention of leaping on top of him and pummeling him with my fists. The only thing that stopped me was the friend who physically held me back.

Even though these particular examples make me feel ashamed, I have always justified them. I am a lesbian who has been discriminated against, and physically threatened because of my sexual orientation. I grew up in a multi-racial/cultural family, and witnessed too many examples of racism in the society at large. I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I don’t want any other woman, ever, to be afraid the way I was.

I was in the right. I was working for social justice. It’s necessary to get angry to fight back. How else are we going to defeat all this hatred?

Well, well. I wonder why I chose the Ninth Precept?

12Nov

Upcoming Schedule, Nov. 14-17 and beyond

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Nov. 14
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:35 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Upcoming closures:
Saturday, Nov. 28 (for Thanksgiving)
Saturday, Dec. 12 (for sesshin at Black Mountain Center)
Saturday, Dec. 26 (for Christmas)

Healdsburg Sangha:
Tuesday, Nov. 17
7 p.m. sit, service, and dharma talk by Beata Chapman

Upcoming closures:
Tuesday, Nov. 24 (for Thanksgiving)
Tuesday, Dec. 29 (the week between Christmas and New Year’s).

On Tuesday, Dec. 22, a special Bodhisattva Ceremony will be held.

12Nov

Accentuate the Positive!

I am listening to Pema Chodron’s Don’t Bite the Hook, and driving home tonight in the wee hours after a long day at work, one of her teachings was about something she calls “cheerfulness practice.”

Her message is that the human tendency is to focus on what’s NOT working – the unkind word, the friction, the unmet need. As an antidote, she suggests fully appreciating each positive thing that happens during your day, to retrain the mind. This can be anything, no matter how small. The point is to notice happiness when you experience it.

So, with that in mind, I’ve been reviewing my last two days. They have been hectic, and although overall the hours have been productive and relatively pleasant, I still had quite a few grumpy moments.

But, in an attempt to reframe, here are some of the good things:

  • A reader complimented me on a story from last week’s paper, and came into the office to buy extra copies.
  • My boss told me I did a good job on the photographs I took this week, and thanked me for all of my hard work on stories.
  • A co-worker who has a very elderly, frail poodle named Chica showed me her latest gadget – “doggles,” sunglasses/goggles for dogs – to help deal with the little girl’s increasing eye sensitivity. They were so adorable I couldn’t stop grinning.
  • I interviewed a new priest in town for the Russian Orthodox Church, and not only did he not flinch when I mentioned my female partner, but after the interview he gave me four of the beeswax candles he makes as a present, saying that I should use them while having a nice dinner with my partner.
  • I interviewed a couple who has been married 56 years, both of them veterans. They had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, as a birthday present for the father. It will be placed in a shadow box containing all his medals. They were so thrilled to have me there, to share in their news; both had been moved to tears by the receipt of the flag. I felt honored to be their witness.
  • The grocery store had the new graham crackers that I’ve fallen in love with – up to this point, I’d only been able to find them at Whole Foods, which is a long way away.
  • The dogs and cats greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm when I got home at 2 a.m., after spending the day alone. Kenji the kitten appeared blinking, and we’ve already had a bunch of cuddle time.
  • I got an invitation to Thanksgiving diner at my best friend’s house.
  • I called my grandmother to see if she wanted to go to the Firefighters Bingo night on Nov. 21, and she was thrilled.

What surprises me about this list is that the more time I spend thinking, the more good things I come up with. How about that? And looking back on it, as memories of each of these happy moments flits through my consciousness, I have a stronger and stronger sense of just having had an amazingly good two days.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive….

11Nov

The Existence of the Pure Heart

I’ve always loved Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies. King Lear is one of my favorites. And I know Romeo and Juliet almost by heart. I watch Franco Zeffirelli’s version with Olivia Hussy as Juliet once a year on Valentine’s Day, my own capitulation to the sentimentality of the season.

But there are plays among Shakespeare’s voluminous output that I have never read. Since I have recently discovered the joy of listening to audio books on my commute, and I also found that many of Shakespeare’s plays are available through the Sonoma County Library on CD, I’ve decided to start getting acquainted with more works of the master.

My first plunge was into the play Pericles. The choice was a pure fluke – it happened to be on the shelves at the Cloverdale Library, so I didn’t have to request it through interlibrary loan. Last week I listened to the play while commuting. On Monday I pulled my Complete Works off the shelf and read Pericles, and today I have been listening to it for the second time.

To sum up the relevant parts of the plot so I can make my point: Pericles the king and his queen Thaisa are on board ship, sailing back to his land of Tyre. In the middle of a terrible storm, Thaisa gives birth to a baby girl and then dies. Pericles brings the infant, Marina, to nearby Tarsus, to be raised until she is of a marriageable age by rulers Cleon and Dionyza. However, when Marina turns into a beautiful young maiden, Dionyza fears that the girl is overshadowing her own daughter, and she plots to have Marina killed. The servant assigned to do the deed is interrupted by a band of pirates, who kidnap Marina and then sell her to a brothel.

Whew! And that’s just part of the plot line! What happens at the brothel, though, is what drew my attention. “Gentlemen callers,” one by one, are shown into the room with Marina, having paid a special price to sleep with a virgin. Yet one by one, they leave, and Marina retains her chastity. She is a creature with a pure and honest heart. She speaks so sweetly to the men, calling upon their own highest selves, that she convinces each of them to abandon their habit of sleeping with prositutes. Each man is transformed simply by being in her presence.

When I first heard this, I scoffed. Right! If you’re an innocent, that will save you from being ravished by johns at a brothel! But later, after reading it and hearing it again, I realized that, while fictitious, Marina is a character that I believe in. She is the embodiment of good, the best of our intentions, and because of this, she not only protects herself, but redeems others as well.

One could even call her a bodhisattva, keeping her vow to save all beings.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved