Monthly Archives: May 2010


Upcoming Schedule, May 29-June 6

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, June 1
7 p.m. sit
7:35 p.m. kinhin
7:45 p.m. sit
8:20 p.m. service

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, May 29
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea

Saturday, June 5
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Sunday, June 6
8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. all day sit


Making Connections

I buy gas regularly at the same “Fast and Easy” cheap gas station in Cloverdale. One day when I had gone inside to purchase a drink, as I was waiting to pay, I overheard the young male cashier speaking in Spanish to a Latino customer. I was surprised, because he appeared to be East Indian. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m impressed. Your accent sounds Indian, but you speak Spanish.” He smiled, and said that he was Pakistani, and spoke native Urdu. He told me that he had picked up a little Spanish since moving to the United States, since so many of his customers were Latino. We spoke briefly about languages, a topic that I love, and I told him my name was Michelle. He said he was Rasheed, and extended his hand. We shook, and smiled. In that small way, a simple friendship was born.

Often when I stop for gas, I’m in a hurry, and just fill up and go. But if I have time, and see Rasheed through the window, I step inside to say hello. We greet each other by name; he asks me about my job; I ask if he has decided yet to make the move from St. Helena to Cloverdale. It is nothing earth shattering, or monumental – but both of our faces light up with smiles when we see each other.

There is another regular employee at the gas station, an older man who I thought might be Saudi; he had an accent I couldn’t place. But I had also noticed several times that he was wearing shirts with Native American images on them, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. He was friendly, but in our exchanges I had never moved beyond the point of basic acknowledgements.

This morning, I was on my way to a medical appointment in Santa Rosa. It was pouring rain; I had been up the previous night until 5 a.m. after working nearly 18 hours on deadline day at the newspaper. I was nervous about the procedure I was about to undergo at the lab, and I was cognizant of time – I needed to get gas, stop at the ATM for cash, and get on the road.

At the gas station, after I turned on the pump, I decided to go inside to purchase a cup of coffee. As I stepped inside, I saw Rasheed to the rear of the store. I called out, “Hello, Rasheed!” Then I saw that the other man was also on duty, which was a surprise; usually there was only one person at the station at a time. In that moment, it suddenly struck me as unfriendly to greet Rasheed by name while ignoring the other man. So I turned to him and held out my hand. I said, “I’m Michelle. I should know your name.” He introduced himself as Gil.

While he rang up my purchase, we lamented about the unseasonal stormy weather. I mentioned that I worked for a newspaper in Calistoga, and that next week three outdoor school graduations were scheduled; I was praying that the rain would stop, so they wouldn’t have to be held in the high school gym. And with that innocent statement, a wonderful opening came. Gil said, “I went to my daughter’s graduation in San Diego last week. She got a 91 percent in calculus. She made the President’s List.” He was smiling broadly.

I pressed him for details. His daughter, a high school drop-out, had just completed a B.A. in Business in San Diego. She was returning to Sonoma County this summer, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Business at Sonoma State. He told me that as long as she had a C average, the casino would pay for her tuition. I asked, “You’re Native American?” He said yes; he was from Arizona, but his wife was a Pomo Indian. Their daughter’s education was being paid for by the tribe, with monies from River Rock Casino. Throughout the conversation, Gil was beaming. I congratulated him repeatedly, and told him how happy I was that he had been able to attend the graduation, and said he must be very proud.

With a final “Congratulations!” and smiles, we repeated our names one more time, and I turned to go. In that short five minutes, I had completely forgotten my anxiety about my appointment. I was no longer looking at my watch, wondering if I would be late. I was not worrying about the rain or the traffic. Instead, I felt buoyantly, exuberantly connected. It was an incredible gift to have been the person to receive Gil’s good news. I held it in my heart like a treasure for the rest of the day.

In “Zen Is Right Here,” there is this anecdote about Suzuki Roshi:

A student asked Suzuki Roshi if he kept an eye on his students to see if they were following the precepts, the Buddhist guidelines of conduct.

“I don’t pay any attention to whether you’re following the precepts or not,” he answered. “I just notice how you are with one another.”

For me, the experience today was a reminder to put aside all of my thinking and planning, my concerns about my own life, and whether or not I am a good person, or whether or not I will find happiness, and all of those other daily worries. Instead, slow down, pay attention, and look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters in the world. In those small moments of connection lie deep fulfillment and joy.


Ripley’s Birthday

Today is Ripley’s birthday. She is five years old.

Ripley is my sweet, adorable, smart, loving, yellow lab. She is named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movies, because at the time I got her, I was having a lot of trouble with nightmares, and I wanted a kick-ass girl to help me fight the bad guys. Upon meeting her, my co-workers teasingly said I should have named her Petunia, because of her far-from-imposing disposition. I believe that, like me, when push comes to shove, the capacity to fight is there – in the meantime, she is a gentle soul.

What do you give a dog for her birthday? Her favorite thing is to spend time with me. So, I brought her to the office. We spent the day at the newspaper. This meant, in addition to lying under my feet at my desk, three trips next door to Kerri’s Hair Salon for dog treats, three walks around town to visit people at the Chamber of Commerce, the Planning & Building Department and the grocery store, and, best of all, a stop at Scoops & Swirls.

At Scoops & Swirls, we walked in and I announced that it was Ripley’s birthday, and I wanted a cup of frozen yogurt for her. The young man at the counter didn’t blink. He said, “Tart?” which is the closest flavor to vanilla. I said sure. He served up a small cup and handed it to me. I asked how much. He smiled and said, “No charge; birthday yogurt is on the house.” Ripley didn’t even have to share.

Now that we are home, she is in her usual spot, at my feet on the floor while I work at the computer in my office. After I change into my pajamas and crawl into bed, she will leap into the air and land full-bodied onto my stomach and chest. She lies that way, stretched the full length of my body, with her head on my chest, for about half an hour each night, until she gets too warm; then she moves to the foot of the bed, or gets onto the floor. She needs that contact, that embrace, to connect with me at the end of every day.

I love this dog. There is no pain, no sadness, no loneliness, no despair that she cannot ease. She makes me laugh more, and smile more easily. Every year we are together, my heart grows a little bit more.

Happy birthday, Ripley. May you have many more.


Baking a Cake, Finding Sangha

Tomorrow, members of our sangha will be meeting to bake cakes for Buddha’s birthday celebration, which will be held on Sunday. Our sangha has a tradition of preparing Boston cream pies, using Darlene Cohen’s mother’s recipe.

This year, I will not be among the cake-baking team, having been given a reprieve by Tony Patchell because he knew I’ve been swamped at work the last couple of weeks since my boss is out of town. I will instead be spending the day taking a much-needed rest and relaxation break with my partner Sabrina.

But I will miss being part of the cake crew. I have participated twice, and both occasions proved fertile ground for stretching myself.

The first year, I had just started to attend Zen sittings in Healdsburg. I was a sporadic attendant, very hesitant about my participation, and unsure about whether or not this was the place for me. I showed up at the cake baking day, held at Phil and Barbara McDonel’s house, with the same half in/half out mindset. At that point in my life, I was terrified of cooking. I was able to do very simple baking, by myself, like chocolate chip cookies. But something complicated, like these cakes, was way beyond my comfort level. And to do it in front of other people? So, what I did was watch. There were seven or so people there, and so no shortage of hands to help. I pretended that no one noticed that I wasn’t actually doing anything. I just moved from one side of the kitchen to the other, chatting, munching on the snacks that were out, watching. But I didn’t do a single thing to help.

The second time I went to bake the cakes, I was much more firmly entrenched in my practice. I was sitting regularly, and had begun to feel a part of the sangha. I had also begun to teach myself how to cook. From the moment I arrived, I was a part of the team, instead of just an onlooker. I was assigned to make the cake batter.

For those of you not familiar with a Boston cream pie, it consists of a layer of cake, a layer of pudding, topped by another layer of cake, all of which is covered in rich chocolate frosting. Because we were expecting a big crowd at the party, we were going to make two cakes.

I was right in the middle of the action, doubling the portions, making enough for two cakes. But somewhere along the line, I missed the concept, and didn’t realize that each completed cake had, essentially, two cakes inside it, so that there would be four cakes total to bake. I made all that batter, and poured it into two cake pans, and popped it into the oven. We were all watching it expectantly, to see how it was doing. And I said, “Wow, it’s really rising high.” Eventually, somebody figured out that I had poured two cakes’ worth of batter into each cake pan — oops!

Initially, I panicked. I had been feeling so much a part of the group, so good about belonging. And then, feeling that I had screwed up, all of my old fears about inadequacy and rejection, etc. came up. I wanted to disappear. I began to make another batch of batter right away.

But then, a funny thing happened. We got creative, and we started thinking our way out of the problem. It turned out that the cakes still baked okay, all the way through. And we found that we were able to slice the mushroomed cap off the top, salvaging it as a separate layer. The whole thing ended up working after all. And through it, there was humor, and forgiveness, and community.

That was the first day I understood what sangha meant.


Calming a Room Full of Crying Quintuplets

At our Precepts class on Saturday, we broached the topic of mindfulness as a way of bringing a monastic-like focus into a lay life. We talked about Dogen’s exhortation to use everything from cleaning the temple to personal hygiene as an exercise in mindfulness practice. Darlene Cohen said especially in lay life, focusing on tasks like doing the dishes, or folding laundry, or preparing meals, can bring those monastic forms to life, deepening our experience of an integrated nature of reality, a sense of “all is one.”

I have a tendency to try to be “efficient” in my movements. By that, I mean reaching for something with my left hand while sliding something else closer with my right hand, and nudging the refrigerator door shut with my knee, and at the same time talking on the phone. Sheer madness. I catch myself at it all the time – trying to carry too many things at once, balancing precarious loads instead of making a separate trip. Losing the thread in a conversation with a friend, because I am checking the balance online in my checking account. Making lists of the lists of the things I have to do.

The two most frenetic times of the day for me are right when I first wake up and when I first walk in the door, returning home from work. As I have mentioned, we have three dogs, five cats, and a very opinionated parrot. We have recently added a stray who we have dubbed Bliz (short for Blizzard) to the mix, who we are feeding twice a day — all white, he blew in on a cold rainy day, half starved and very scared. Who could refuse?

When I wake up, the dogs race to the kitchen and circle until they are fed. The cats, too, run to the counter, and pace up and down, while I am preparing the dog dishes. Barney (the parrot) is covered at night. He begins his one truly obnoxious sound, a very high pitched squawk, which is his demand for immediate attention — fresh water, fresh food, and yogurt dipped treats, please.

I have to open a can of dog food, scoop out dry dog food into three bowls, get out two separate pills for two of the dogs on meds, open a can of cat food and put that out, and uncover Barney, and take care of his food needs, all in the shortest time possible in order to avert complete cacophony.

It is a bit like having six-month-old quintuplets who have all awakened from a nap at the same time starving, and you’re just one poor mom.

That’s just the inside crew. Gordy is patiently waiting outside the French doors on the deck. So I grab another can of cat food, and feed him outside, then on to the latest addition, over to the tool shed to pick up Bliz’s dish, back into the house again, one more trip, and finally, everyone has breakfast. The whole thing gets repeated when I come home from work.

The other night, though, I had a “wake up” moment. I came in, bustling as usual. I took off the dogs’ collars (they have to wear bark collars when we’re out), fed them dinner, put out the cat food, and was generally racing around. Barney was putting up a terrible fuss. He was just squawking and squawking. I checked his food dish. It was full. I opened the cage so he could get out and go up top, and rushed over to take care of some other detail. He kept squawking. I looked up at him in exasperation and said, “What?” He continued to make a racket. I was losing my patience.

Then it hit me. I walked slowly over to the cage, taking a deep breath. I put my face up close to him. “Hi, Barney.” He nuzzled up against my cheek. “How are you? Did you have a good day?” He cooed, and bobbed his head around, prancing back and forth a bit, with a few good-natured chortles. That was all he wanted. He just wanted me to see him.

I have been trying, these past few days, to reframe my mornings. The dogs will always be excited about breakfast. Barney will always get wound up and impatient. But I can bring some calmness, some grounding to the experience, if I take each step purposefully, touch each animal one at a time, as if they are the only one in the world at that moment. Saving time is much too costly in the long run.


Sitting Alone with Ourselves

The act of sitting alone with ourselves on the cushion is on the one hand so ordinary, so simple. It is quiet, no fireworks, little ceremony. A human being sitting still on a cushion in a hushed room, that is all.

And yet. At the same time, it is the most extraordinary thing in the world. It is precisely what so many of us spend much of our lives trying to avoid. We fill up our days with busyness and noise and social interaction, with drama and intrigue, aspirations and dreams. We are constantly moving and striving, reaching ahead or desperately trying to hold onto what is slipping away.

Beryl Markham, a female aviator who grew up in Africa in the early 1900s, lived a life of adventure and boldness. Her childhood was spent learning to hunt wild boar and other creatures of the African jungles with the Masai people. She also raised horses with her father, eventually becoming the first licensed female horse trainer in Africa to support herself at age 16 when her father lost the family estate after several years of severe drought. Soon after that, she learned to fly an airplane, and became a freelance pilot, in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1936, she made a solo flight from England to Nova Scotia, the first woman to make the westward Atlantic crossing solo and the first person to make it from England to America nonstop.

In her memoir, West with the Night, Markham talks about the real challenge of that 20 hour flight. Surprisingly, it is not the fear of death, or the technical aspects of flying. It is the huge expanse of time that she had to sit alone with herself.

She said:

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents — each man to see what the other looked like.

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind — such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

The Atlantic crossing, really, was not simply a feat of a woman and a plane, a show of technical mastery and bravery. It was also, in a way, a grueling tangaryo, a 20-hour straight period of zazen, sitting upright in a very small plane, balanced atop fuel tanks, with much of the flight taking place in the dead of night, with almost no visibility. It was truly a meeting of oneself, the stranger.

And so, when we sit, we too are undertaking a hero’s journey. Crossing to the other side, whether it is to the other side of the Atlantic in a small plane, or to the other side of our own fears in our own rooms, requires a hero’s courage and steadfastness.

Rendering the ordinary extraordinary – and ourselves face to face with the stranger. No small task.


The Beige of Buddhism?

When Buddha attained enlightenment, his first teaching was “the middle way,” his term describing the path which led to liberation. He referred to it as life of moderation between the radical paths of sensual indulgence and asceticism.

In a dharma talk on Saturday by Darlene Cohen, she warned us not to mistake this teaching as a literal mandate to walk right down the middle of everything, striking an absolute compromise. As she impishly said, “This is not the beige of Buddhism!”

The Middle Way is not an average, a mean. It is an inclusion of every possibility, all the time. As an example, she said that many of us had just returned from sesshin, following an ascetic schedule for four days. At sesshin, we eat what is served to us. We sit until the bell rings, walk kinhin until the bell rings again, sit again. We forsake personal choices, and take assignments. we sleep and eat communally, and do not speak.

But at the end of sesshin, we go back to our ordinary lives. We return to our jobs, our families, our everyday cares and concerns. And at another point in time, perhaps we will revel loudly and gaily, eating more than we need, spending money on lavish things. Even then, we can still be a Buddhist.

I like the idea of variability, of change. In the same talk, Darlene also discussed equanimity. Again, equanimity does not mean a constant state of sameness, one stable emotion. Instead, it is a steadiness developed from long-term sitting that allows every emotion to be experienced fully, so that we shy away from none of them, permitting each to wash over us as it arises, and then naturally passes away.

Begone, beige! Hello, technicolor!


A Tale of Two Literary Doctors

I recently read two novels, one right after another. The first was “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards. It had been a gift from my mother. The second was “Sing Them Home” by Stephanie Kallos. I had been waiting to read it with much anticipation, after loving her first novel, “Broken for You.”

It was entirely coincidental that I read them as I did, sequentially. They were different in style, and in overall scope. But they shared one very poignant and haunting theme.

The timeline in both books began with a young married couple in the early 1960s. In both, the husband was a physician, the wife a homemaker, soon to be a mother.

In “Memory,” the doctor’s wife goes into early labor in a snowstorm, and he has to deliver his own child at his clinic, with only his nurse in attendance. He safely delivers a healthy baby boy. Unexpectedly, while his wife is semi-conscious, he realizes there is also a twin – a baby girl. But when he delivers her, he sees that the child has Down Syndrome. Rather than put his wife through what he thinks will be a horrible discovery, he gives the infant to his nurse and tells her to bring the baby to an institution. Later, he tells his wife the baby was stillborn. And this lie, slowly and surely, destroys them both.

In “Sing,” the young wife has several heart-rending miscarriages. When she finally carries a child full term, the doctor keeps checking her eyesight, but never tells her why. Over the ensuing months, and then years, she struggles with ongoing bouts of fatigue and clumsiness, always blaming herself. Finally, she has terrifying episodes of vision loss.

At last, she goes to another doctor, a family friend in a neighboring town, and demands to know what is wrong with her. He listens carefully, and tells her that she has multiple sclerosis – and he also reveals that her husband has known it for years.

When reading “Memory,” it is hard to believe that Down Syndrome children were once taken from their families, locked up in wards, denied access to public education, and even denied medical care, on the grounds that they were going to die soon anyway.

Special education programs, group homes, day facilities, and other forms of family support have made it possible for most disabled people to be active and involved in the world today.

And in “Sing,” it is equally hard to believe that a doctor would keep from an adult patient the nature of his or her own illness, and even more egregious that a husband would do so. But that was the common medical practice not so many years ago. It was thought that patients who were told the truth would somehow not handle it properly.

Now, of course, most people believe in talking openly of disease, and even of death and dying. We write living wills, we call in hospice, we have grief counselors. Everything is centered around the patient’s right to know.

But this all makes me wonder. What novels, written 40 years from now, will make readers look back at 2010 and say, “Oh, god, how sad! I can’t believe they were so blind!” What routine decisions do our surgeons make in the operating rooms? What procedures do patients undergo that those readers will remember, faintly, as they turn the pages, and shudder, thinking of needless suffering and loss?

It is comforting to think that we are moving closer to a compassionate health care system. Comforting….but true?


Letting in the Sun

Since sometime in late December, I have been struggling fairly continuously with a bleak and utterly dismal depression. It had nothing of the poetic to it. No grand internal explorations or even that oft quoted dark night of the soul. It was pure dullness, a lack of spark. It was simply a dreariness, an inability to find pleasure or yearning or even ache.

It was like the blanket of ash coating Iceland following the volcanic eruption. Perhaps, at its source, there was spectacle, lightning, fire. But for the farmers, those left with the fallout, there was only the dreary work of shoveling soot, tromping through foot-deep muck, trying to save livestock, calming the wild-eyed horses. And an eerie, unending silence, as if somehow the entire world had lost its ability to sound.

Moving about in my cloak of invisible ash, I have gone to work, taken care of my dogs, done the household chores most in need of doing. I have shown up when I needed to show up, for the most part, except on those days when the proverbial ash grew so heavy, that I could not even leave the house. But I cut out all of the extraneous things, the things I love (or used to love) that required too much energy – the book group I’ve been part of for seven years, the piano lessons, even my writing group. I conserved. I saved my strength.

I had been here before. The heaviness had come and gone in the past, and so, somewhere inside of me, I trusted that it would end again. And yet still, that trust wavered. The months grew so long.

On Friday, I walked out onto the deck and looked across the yard at our newly planted garden. It was the same garden that had been there the week before, with slightly larger young plants, true, but the same. No, not the same. It was resplendent with possibilities.

I breathed. I looked out across the valley. It was as if someone had scrubbed the very air with newness and light. Someone let the sun back in.

I went to sit zazen with my Healdsburg sangha for the first time in three weeks tonight. The light followed me into the room. It went in and out of my body with each breath. And then on, to the bodies of my sangha members sitting with me, supporting me. I was bathed in sunlight.

No judgment. Enjoy what is here now. Be ready for what may come. Trust. Sit.


Upcoming Schedule, May 8-25

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, May 11
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Darlene Cohen

Tuesday, May 18
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk

Tuesday, May 25
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Cheri Anderson

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, May 8
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea

Saturday, May 15
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Saturday, May 22
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Sunday, May 23
12:00 p.m. Buddha’s Birthday Celebration
pour tea over baby Buddha’s head
potluck, birthday cake, music

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved