Monthly Archives: July 2010


Fire Fish in the Night Sky

Friends of ours are renting a beach house at Bodega Bay for the week, and a large group of us descended upon them for the day to socialize, eat good food, watch the beach from the big picture window, and generally enjoy each other’s company.

The group included three teen-age boys (sons of our friends Annette and Kathryn), plus one of their friends, and a girlfriend. They are a nice group of kids, comfortable to be with, and unintimidated by a houseful of 45-year-old-plus lesbians.

After a lip-smacking dinner of homemade macaroni and cheese topped off by peach cobbler and blackberry pie, we all walked down to the camping area by the beach to watch 16-year-old Will perform “fire poi.”

I had heard about his talent, but this was the first time I witnessed it. For those of you unfamiliar with it, fire poi are constructed from chain, with kevlar-blend wicks, that can be soaked in fuel (such as kerosene) and set on fire. The performer then holds one chain in each hand, with the flaming ends suspended, and twirls them through the air, creating patterns of spinning light in the dark.

Will started out using glow sticks. He has now become quite proficient with fire poi, completely self-taught. And, he jokingly states, he has only set himself on fire twice. We were in a large, open sandy area, so there was no danger of burning anything. There were twelve of us sitting on piles of stacked logs, waiting for him to begin.

It was a spectacular show. The fire whirled around Will’s head, circling in slow arcs, then more and more quickly, the flames sometimes large with tails, then smaller again. He spun them over his head, under his legs, at his sides, turning about. Butterflies, weaves, magical loops. Within a few seconds, we heard voices. Other people walking through the campground had seen the lights, and were drawn to the show. They approached, watched until the end of the first act, and hooted and cheered. A young boy asked Will eager questions about how he had started. The group stayed while Will did a second act of performances, and then asked if he would be back the next night to do more. Will promised to return.

I had never heard of this type of performance art before. Kathryn, Will’s mom, told me it was “koi” and that at the end of the chain were metal fish. I later discovered that this was a running joke, since the name is actually “poi,” which sounds close enough to “koi” that the family has adopted the alternate name.

When I see a 16 year old boy on the street, I often feel a little distant and removed. That period of my life seems so long ago. And I am untrusting. I’m not sure I know where that teen is coming from. In other words, I close myself off. So having this experience tonight was good. Here’s this 16 year old boy who not only is a nice kid, but he has this amazing, unexpected, wildly interesting talent. He does something I’ve never even heard of before, and he does it well. He performed graciously and gracefully, answering questions, putting on a show. It was a treat.

I have to keep myself open. I never know when I might run into fire fish in the night sky.


No Permanence, Joyful Open Eyes

To quote Dainin Katagiri, in “Each Moment Is the Universe

When you see in the proper way, what do you see? You see the true nature of time. In Japanese we say mujo. Mu is “nothing” and jo is “permanence,” so mujo means “no permanence” or “impermanence.” Seeing impermanence is not to face a kind of nihilism that leads to despair; it is to become yourself, as you really are, with joyful open eyes. Thinking in the proper way is not to understand life through your intellect; it is to contemplate deeply how to live every day based on wisdom. When you see the true nature of time and understand how impermanence works in your life, you can use time to cultivate your life and to keep up with the tempo of life without feeling despair. That is the basis of a complete way of human life.

The true nature of time. That is definitely something I am grappling with at the moment. One of my co-workers, in my small, four-person office, has announced that she is leaving on Aug. 11. We will be hiring a replacement, but probably not until mid-October. Three of us can put out the newspaper, but it means that no one can be out on vacation, or sick, or not carrying their weight. Since I had not taken any vacation time yet this year, and saw that my opportunities were fast disappearing, I rapidly requested a week off, just to stay at home and regroup.

My plan for this week was to catch up on sleep, do some reading, spend time on my own writing, move organically through the days. Too quickly, though, I found myself distracted by chores and “have to” items, with the sense that I was not getting the indulgence I deserved. I ended up harried and dissatisfied, instead of relaxed, exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for.

Reading this Katagiri quote, which my teacher Tony Patchell shared with me a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I was going about the whole thing in the wrong way. Well, wrong might be too strong a word. How about “misguided”? Instead of trying to create perfect days where nothing interrupts and everything goes my way, I can find much greater satisfaction in facing each moment of every day, no matter the challenges, with humor, wisdom, and presence.

Clinging to the idea of a perfect week off, or even an ideal afternoon, brings up those feelings of despair. Where is my life going? What am I doing with myself? Where do the days go? But when I focus instead on this moment, the task right in front of me, my breathing slows. My sense of harmony increases. I hear the Mozart playing in the background as I type. The brain quiets, and wisdom creeps in. It actually becomes possible to see with joyful, open eyes.


Seating for Five

We have a hummingbird feeder hanging from the eave of our covered porch. It is red, of course, since that is the color supposed to draw hummingbirds. At its base, it is wide, with five yellow sunflowers, and at the center of each is the hole from which the birds can draw out the sugar water.

We have a great deal of hummingbird activity. They are always zooming by, zipping through the air, often just over our heads. What is highly amusing, though, is that only one is ever feeding at a time. A single hummingbird always ferociously guards the feeder, chasing away any other interlopers. So it is a game of tag, of seek and chase. One approaches, then the one at the feeder dives after, and they both soar away, one in mad pursuit of the other.

Sabrina tells me that at her last house, feeling sorry for one hummingbird who always was chased away, she hung a second feeder up, about 15 feet away. Then the dominant bird simply guarded both, hovering in the air at center point, flitting back and forth to make sure no one could get to either feeder on her watch.

So tell me – why does the hummingbird feeder have seating for five? Are there hummingbirds somewhere in the world who are better at sharing their food, allowing company to sit down at the dinner table? Do some other hummingbirds have an altruistic streak, that seems to be lacking in the ones in Alexander Valley? Or were the designers of this hummingbird feeder uninformed of hummingbird behavior? Or, perhaps, the designers were optimistic, thinking if they made the feeder for five, they could cajole the birds into learning how to share?

I watch them and think, “Silly birds! We always refill the feeder. There is plenty for everyone.”

But – am I not guilty of that same behavior, in other circumstances? Holding on tight to what I have, afraid to give to others, afraid there won’t be enough left over for me? In my case, the object I hold on tightest to is time. I am fearful to commit to things because I don’t want to lose my alone time, my flexibility, my “freedom.” So I hesitate. I am less than generous when it comes to offering a helping hand. Because I think there won’t be enough left for me.

Silly bird.


Alone But Not Lonely

I’m not a big fan of large gatherings, especially meet-and-greets where you have to make small talk with a lot of people. That kind of superficial contact tends to wear me out, and it simply doesn’t give me much pleasure. But I like human contact. I enjoy immensely an evening with a few friends, and become quite animated with the energy of conversation. And I adore spending time one on one, where I can talk for hours about books, ideas, dreams, passions.

Anyone seeing me in these environments would probably classify me as an extrovert. I appear to be comfortable and at ease in these situations – and that is not untrue.

At the same time, however, I love spending time alone. I cherish the days when I am able to stay at home all day, puttering around the house, reading books, writing, having my only conversations with my dogs and cats. I find that in order to have those external energetic times, I need time alone to recharge – hours of quiet, uninterrupted space.

Sometimes, though, I manage to combine those two sides of myself, being both alone and with people at the same time, in a deeply satisfying way.

A couple of weeks ago, while researching calendar items for inclusion in my newspaper, I discovered that one of my favorite cellists, Nina Kotova, would be appearing in Napa Valley. Since the concert was set for a Tuesday, Sabrina would be unavailable to attend. I asked my co-workers if they were interested, but there were no takers. I was not about to miss this opportunity; I immediately booked a single ticket online for myself.

The concert was held at Castello di Amorosa, a recently-built replica of an Italian castle. The program included two piano/string quartet numbers, plus a cello sonata by Kotova. Knowing that the venue would draw Napa Valley’s “in” crowd, I had dressed up for the occasion. I arrived early, and watched people. Being alone gives you the opportunity to be a “spy;” it’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

We were seated in the central courtyard of the castle, in the open air. When the musicians came out, and took their chairs, it became obvious that I would not have a clear view of them, especially because there was a very tall man seated in front of me. For the first piece, I relaxed with my eyes closed, and felt the breeze on my face, imagined the notes falling into my hair, and smiled when small birds flew overhead and gave answering trills to the high tones of the violins. But before Nina came out, I stood and walked to the side of the courtyard, finding a seat on a low brick wall. I now had an unobstructed view of the stage. I watched enrapt throughout her Debussy piece; it was over far too soon.

A woman approached me later and asked me whether I enjoyed the Debussy. I said I liked it very much. She said she could tell. Apparently, my pleasure was visible. I had brief conversations with a few others about the music. I noticed a man and woman with a young boy. The man was carrying a slender musical case. I couldn’t tell what it contained, so I asked him what he played. He said he was a cellist. I said, “Oh, it’s your bow.” He told me he used to play with a member of the string quartet, but now he sold instruments, and members of the ensemble were trying out some of his instruments. He was up from Los Angeles. The young boy was studying piano.

All of this is simple, nothing earth shattering. Conversations, observations, reflections. But it happened because I was alone. I followed my desires, moving to get a better view of Nina, not worrying about whether or not that was appropriate. I was able to be fully present for the entire concert, not off in my head while the music was playing, not engaged in conversation with my partner during intermission, not closed into an inner circle of friends. I was alone but completely there.

I can close my eyes right now and hear Debussy, and feel the breeze on my cheek.


Loving A Rogue

Two months ago, a scrappy white stray tom cat showed up at our house. It was a blustery, rainy day. That, combined with his color, led us to dub him Blizzard. At first, hungry and skittish, he was vocal about wanting food but would not come anywhere near us. We dutifully put out wet and dry food twice daily, and established a routine. He was always around near mealtime, but then disappeared.

Gradually, though, he began to stick closer and closer to the house, for more and more hours of the day. Within a couple of weeks, he surprised me by coming right up onto the floor of the shed where his food dish was as I was filling the bowl. A few days later, he rubbed up against my leg. I tentatively reached out a hand, and he allowed me to pet him. I was exultant. We had won him over.

But although now Blizzard spends all his time nearby, and loves to rub against me, and purrs loudly when I bring the food, he is filled with mixed messages. He frequently swats at my hand as I fill the bowl. Sometimes the claws are drawn in, and it’s just a tap. Often, though, he draws blood. He has been in the middle of a caress, and suddenly turned and grabbed me around the leg with both front paws, sinking in deep. Two days ago, while happily greeting me, all at once he jumped up and bit me on my calf, again drawing blood.

I believe part of the problem is the fact he is unneutered, and we hope to trap him soon, and take care of that. But beyond that issue, it seems that Bliz has been living in the wild for some time, and has gotten a bit confused about how to appropriately express love and affection. Let’s just say he sends lots of mixed messages.

And yet – every day, twice a day, I go out there to feed him. I stay centered in my body, trying to calm him as much as possible. I pay attention to his body language, and remain alert to what he may be trying to tell me. When he whacks me, I am startled, but I have never been mad or thought to myself, “Fine. No more food or love for you!” I simply regroup, refocus, and keep right on loving him.

Blizzard is very docile and sweet with the rest of our cats, never instigating any fights. A couple of toms from the neighborhood have begun showing up late at night to terrorize him, and I hear him in the wee hours, squalling. I jump up from my bed, and rush out, to chase away the intruders, and Blizzard saunters off once again to his post underneath the shed, where he spends the night. In other words, I have adopted him, for better or for worse, just as surely as if he were any of my other animals.

What amuses me, thinking about it today, is that I tolerate this erratic behavior from a cat without a second thought, when I am so sensitive when it comes to human beings. Blizzard may very well rub against me and purr one moment and bite me the next, but it doesn’t in any way lessen the amount of love I have for him, or the amount of patience I bring to the relationship. I am not thinking about my needs and wants when I approach him. I am thinking about what he needs, what is going on for him.

Why, then, is it so hard to do that with humans? When my mother hurts my feelings, I question her love in the absolute. When a friend snaps at me, I retreat in silence and resentment, instead of extending a concerned hand of compassion. When my boss is in a bad mood at work, I am convinced that it is something I have done, and I fret all day about how to make it right, even though I don’t know what “it” is.

Then I go home to this stray cat, Blizzard. I am patient and compassionate and loving. I willingly lose sleep to protect him. I offer myself up to him day after day, making myself vulnerable, because I know that he wants to love me – he’s just not sure exactly how to do it yet.

Ah, loving a rogue. I need to learn to treat everyone in my life as if they were a scrappy stray cat that showed up at my door.


Everything Changes

In a discussion this evening on the Three Marks of Existence, Tony Patchell focused on impermanence, the flux of life.

The Three Marks are (1) impermanence or inconstancy, (2) dukkha or suffering, and (3) non-self. A fourth mark is also frequently added, that of nirvana, or perfect composure, to round out the set.

Tony began with that most famous of quotes from Suzuki-roshi, when asked to summarize Zen: “Everything changes.” A full acceptance of that fact, of the absolute fact of transciency, goes hand in hand with the concept of selflessness – because what are you, if you change every moment?

Tony said that we as Zen students must first hear those words from a teacher, or read them in Buddhist writings. Then we must contemplate them, and analyze them, studying them until we can bring them to our own understanding. But even that is not enough. The final step is to meditate, to turn to zazen. Because it is only through zazen that we fully comprehend in our bodies what it means to be impermanent, to be always changing.

Impermanency – it is both incredibly terrifying and comforting at the same time. Terrifying for the obvious reasons. All the “good” things will go. When I think about losing those I love (my wife, my friends, my family members, my animals), it makes my heart clamp up. I’m a little less frightened when it comes to objects. I believe that I could recover relatively unscathed from the loss of my car, or my home, or other such items. But even there, I have vulnerable spots. I get frantic thinking about house fires, not only because I worry about all of my dogs and cats, but because I panic at the thought of all of my writings and computer files going up in flames. It’s my words that I’m attached to. Hah! Talk about impermanent!

So how, then, is the thought of impermanency comforting? When I am in a dark place, I know that it will not last. When my legs hurt while I sit zazen, I know that the pain is not endless. When I am frightened, or unsure of myself, or embarrassed, or lonely….everything changes. When I am exhausted, and hopeless, and burned out, pessimistic, angry, frustrated…these feelings pass. What an immense relief to know this is true.

Right now, I am wholly here. Now. And now again. Bam. Right here.

Pay attention. This is it.


Who Am I To Give Advice?

I have found myself in the awkward position recently of having people ask me for advice. Not little advice, like, “Can you recommend a restaurant?” or, “Do you know of a good place to find organic produce?” Big advice. Questions like: “How can I live with having screwed something up really badly?” Or “Should I leave my job and move to another state, because I may have found a temporary escape from a bad situation I’m in right now?”

Wow. Me? You’re asking me?

One of the friends has asked for advice over email. That’s a little easier for me, because I can read the note, and then sit with it for a day or two, mulling it over. But the second friend asked me today in person, face to face, while she was crying. I found myself sitting there quietly, listening, and listening, and listening. It was so much to process. A third friend, also in the room, jokingly said, “Oh, you’re just sitting there with your Buddha expression.” If only!

It is not because I am feeling tranquil and calm and serene. It is because I am slowly sorting through things, trying to make sense of my feelings. Because what comes up first is: Who the hell am I to be giving advice to anyone? For goodness sake, look at my life! Look at all the wrong turns I have taken. Look at all the pain and suffering, the missed opportunities, the ridiculously convoluted path that I have followed to get me to where I am now. Me, offer a road map to someone else?

But I keep sitting, quietly. And the other voice surfaces. Yes, it says. You have experienced a great deal. But each pain, each loss, broke your heart open a little bit wider, and taught you a little bit more about compassion. Without all those twists and turns, you would not have this poet’s soul. You would not have the desire to reach out to others. You would be closed off and broken, and you are not. You are whole. You survived.

So now I find myself in this place, where people I care about ask me for advice. What shall I say?

In a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, I penned these lines:

The phone rings. A friend struggles with her marriage’s end,
asking for answers. I make my words a mirror
of her own wisdom, know I cannot predict
what will grow in someone else’s garden.

That is what I learned during those long, hard years. No one had answers for me. Only I had the answers. What I needed was friends who would listen to me talk, friends who would compassionately hear me try to figure out exactly what it was I needed to do, searching through my own soul’s truth.

Today I remind myself of that. After some thought, I offered a few tangible suggestions to these friends, strategies for planning. But the most important thing I could do, in the end, was listen, and remind them, in turn, to listen to themselves. The most important answers always lie within.


If Only All Theater Was This Good

I saw some of the best drama I’ve seen in ages – and the actors were all kids.

The show was called “Prop 8 Love Stories,” presented by Cinnabar Theater. The actors are between the ages of 10 and 17. They interviewed couples, gay and straight, about their relationships, and then presented a montage of the results.

One of the things that was fascinating is that the actors’ genders do not necessarily match the genders of those they interviewed, so a boy may portray a lesbian, a girl a gay man, a girl a straight rabbi father….

Although the couples are mixed, they all have a gay connection. The rabbi and his wife have a gay son. A young woman engaged to be married to a young man talks about the process she went through when her father came out as a gay man. And then there are lesbian moms, gay dads, everything else. It’s fascinating.

The project is the brain child of creator/director Brian Glenn Bryson, but it is co-written and directed by 14-year-old Dezi Gallegos (who also acts in it, wonderfully!), and there is original music, composed by 16-year-old Audrey Maye Tatum, with choreographed dancing, so there are some elements of music theater, as well.

The interviews examined the dynamics of couples, families, coming out stories, fear and discrimination, the Prop 8 battle, death and religion, weddings, and ended with a section on “hope.”

These kids beautifully and tellingly explored what it is like to be in a relationship completely unlike their own life experiences – since they were portraying, in some cases, an 80 year old man, or a dad with three kids, or two moms talking about how they met. If only those in the cast were changed, this kind of theater would be worthwhile; those teens (and pre-teens) have learned something they will never forget.

But of course, their message is going much further, as they stand on stage with their words of compassion and fear, bewilderment and hope, yearning and dreams. This is the sort of drama that should get extended runs, playing to audiences around the country, with kids from Kansas and Louisiana and Alaska taking on these roles. This is about opening hearts, one audience member, one cast member, at a time.

We went with a group of friends to see it performed at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa (the Unitarian Church). The kids also performed at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

It is showing again in Petaluma on the weekend of July 16 and 17 at Cinnabar Theater. If you happen to have either of those nights free, and live close enough by – get a ticket and go. You’ll be glad you did.


The Latest Rendition of "The Dog Ate My Homework"

I really have been trying to get back into a regular blogging routine. Where once I was posting five times a week, lately I have been lucky to get in two. It seems that there is always something that comes up. Each thing, in and of itself, sounds perfectly reasonable. But as a list, it begins to resemble the kid telling her teacher why her math assignment is late once again.

My list thus far has included: “I had to take my grandmother to the hospital.” “My parrot had a heart attack.” “I was up all night at the newspaper.”

See what I mean? Well, this week, I was resolved to get back on track. Ah, but wait. Are you ready for the latest, greatest excuse?

“The dog scratched my eye.”

On Wednesday night, for once I got home early on a deadline night from the newspaper. I was going to get a good night’s sleep, and spend the next several days catching up on things, including blogging. It was 10:30 p.m. – Sabrina was already fast asleep; she wakes up at 3 a.m., starting work at 5 a.m. in Santa Rosa. I crawled into bed, and as I was lying down, my lab Ripley flopped down next to me in the dark, closer than I realized. Suddenly I had an excruciating pain in my left eye. She had unintentionally stuck one of her nails directly into my eyeball (not the lid, the eye). I capped my hand over the eye and drew my breath in sharply and audibly, loud enough to wake Sabrina up. “What’s wrong?” I was barely able to talk. The pain was incredible. I wasn’t sure at that point what I would find when I uncupped my eye.

After a few moments, time enough to get my breath back, I went to the bathroom to look. My eye was tearing, and very red. But what was alarming, was that I could actually see what looked like a rip in the white of the eye. We called Kaiser – and then what had been an early night turned into a late one.

I was lucky, and it ended up being only a few scratches to the cornea, with no damage to the eye itself. There were particles of dirt from Ripley’s nails in the eye, so the nurses did a 20-minute saline/water rinse to clean out the eye, I was given antibiotic eye drops for the next five days, and painkillers to help me sleep for the next couple of nights – REM sleep is the hardest, because your eye moves rapidly, so the painkillers help alleviate that.

But here comes the excuse part. I was told to rest my eyes for at least a couple of days, not reading or spending time on the computer. I managed to get through all of Thursday, only cheating by checking my Blackberry. By the end of the day, my eye was tired.

It’s feeling much better today, after a second night’s rest, and so I am daring to sit down at the keyboard.

Really, though. Enough is enough. Could we get through just two weeks without a trip to a hospital or an emergency room? Barring any more unforeseen disasters, I truly will be blogging on a more regular basis!


How to Eat with All Your Senses

On Saturday night, Sabrina and I decided to celebrate the second anniversary of our wedding with a special dinner out. An acquaintance had raved about the food and atmosphere at the Madrona Manor, located just outside of Healdsburg on Guerneville Road. I drive past its front gate every time I go to Russian River Zendo. I knew it was pricey, and an extravagance. But it seemed the perfect choice, and we managed to get last-minute reservations for 8 p.m.

Oh – we had no idea what we were in store for! The food was beyond anything we could have imagined. It is French cuisine, with local produce, and a Sonoma twist, prepared by chef Jesse Mallgren, born in San Francisco and raised in Sonoma County, but trained at some of the finest restaurants around. We chose from the “compose your own menu” selection, which allowed Sabrina to have seafood and meat for almost every course, while I had a rich selection of vegetarian entrees.

For Sabrina: scallop sashimi with borage, Meyer lemon, uni and fresh wasabi; Lobster “cuit sous vide” with carrot, fennel, pea and coriander; abalone; northern halibut with corn, miso, dashi and porcini; lamb. For me: beets with gorgonzola; haricots verts with burata, hazelnuts and truffle; potato gnocchi with peas, mint, pistachios and creme fraiche; and the Madrona Manor Signature Cheese Course, around the world in cheese.

But that is just a small piece of it. In between each course, we received little “palate ticklers,” tiny taste tests to ready ourselves for the next bite. A slice of hollowed-out radish filled with butter, or a yogurty-drink beside a single ravioli. A dish of strawberry sorbet to freshen our mouths before moving on to the next taste.

Part of the beauty of it all was the presentation. Every course was brought in a plate or bowl especially designed to showcase what it was serving: a large, broad-brimmed bowl with only a small dip in the center to hold the food; a long, angular plate divided into four sections, each containing one small bite; tiny glasses; perfect little spoons.

And with this, another part of the beauty was the portion size. We were given just enough to enjoy the flavor, enough to appreciate what we were eating, not enough to sate ourselves. We ate, we tasted, we relished each bite, but we did not stuff ourselves. We were on a journey of exploration.

The dinner stretched out over three hours. The service was impeccable, and constant, but not stiff. We felt pampered, without feeling that we were about to make a grave misstep by picking up the wrong fork. We were served each course, had time to eat leisurely, then a few moments to ourselves to talk, and enjoy the ambience. We sat outside, on a covered porch, in the summer evening, looking out over lush gardens.

It was an absolutely luxurious experience of being in the now. I cannot remember the last time I was so present with my food. The newness of the tastes, the surprises, kept us continually open. I was aware of every plate, every wait person that approached and laid down a new fork, every shift in the room.

To cap the evening, it turned out that we had met one of the servers before at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner. She remembered that it was shortly after our wedding and mentioned that. We said yes, and told her we were celebrating our anniversary. Moments later, she reappeared with two large plates with tiny cups of creme brulee at their centers, and the words “Happy Anniversary” written in gorgeous script with chocolate sauce on the edge of the platters.

(We still had dessert coming, of course: Chocolate to the Fourth for Sabrina, with devils food, soft Gianduja ganache, sorbet and mousse, and Strawberries & Cream for me, with orange financier, lemon verbena and brown butter sable. Plus they sent us home with clear plastic bags of caramel corn, tied with brown ribbon.)

Oh, what a dinner! After, at home, I found myself wishing I had taken pictures of the food, captured each course. But then I had to smile at myself. No, no. It’s better this way. It was exactly as it was supposed to be. Perfect for those three hours.

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