Monthly Archives: August 2010


Pint-Sized Bodhi

I have been absorbed for the last two weeks with attending to the first call to compassion that the universe gave to me to accompany my jukai: the nursing of a tiny kitten, who we now know was only five days old when we got her.

Dubbed Little Bit, she has completely taken over our lives. With a three-hour round-the-clock feeding schedule, Sabrina and I have been rotating our alarm clocks, sleeping when we can, taking turns getting up to bottle feed the baby. About three days ago, we were able to stretch it out to four hours, and it felt like heaven.

Not that we’re complaining. Every day is a revelation. We are as smitten as any parents. Her tiny feet, grasping the bottle, draw oohs and aahs. We marvel at her increasing strength and dexterity, and laugh when her full belly throws her off balance, causing her to tumble head over heels. We carry her around for hours, snuggled up against our chests, giving that “skin-ship” warmth that nothing else can replace. We are slowly and carefully introducing her to the rest of the brood. Teo, the 100-pound Ridgeback/Rottweiler, loves babies, and clamors for her attention. But of course, just his tongue is bigger than she is, so only supervised play is appropriate. We mix formula, wash blankets, fret about feeding sessions where she doesn’t seem to eat as much, gloat over those times when she pigs out. We are completely obsessed.

I found myself today marveling at her very existence, the fragility of her little life, her absolute trust of us. And also the very simple “is”-ness of it all. She eats; she pees; she plays until she’s droopy; then she snuggles; then she crashes hard, and it’s time to nap for three hours again. No plans, no stress, no judgment, no fear, no wanting except for the most basic needs. A little bodhi in the making.

(I promise I will write about the jukai. I’m still working up to it…..)

Still Searching for the Words

Last Saturday I went through jukai, and am now a lay ordained Zen Buddhist.

There is so much to say. And yet I cannot for the life of me begin to put it into words. The days leading up to the ceremony were full of anticipation, so much so that I was unable to sit down at the keyboard. And then after the day itself, I was so full, so complete, that I was exhausted. The Sunday following, I hibernated, doing little more than read the congratulatory cards from the members of my sangha.

The full import hit me on Tuesday, when I attended my regular Zen sangha group in Healdsburg. The seven of us who had been through jukai showed up with our newly received rakusu. Before the sit, we did the robe chant for the first time at that zendo, and donned our rakusu, wearing them for the rest of the evening. It felt like we had all grown up in a way, entered a new phase of our practice.

I hope, over the next week, to talk about the ceremony, and what it meant to me. About my new name, and receiving my lineage papers, and becoming part of a sangha in a richer way. For now, I must leave it at this: I feel changed. I feel renewed. And I am very, very grateful to Tony and Darlene for giving me this chance to deepen my practice.


Upcoming Schedule, Aug. 28 – Sept. 7

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Aug. 31
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Dennis Samson

Tuesday, Sept. 7
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and outing to Bear Republic

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Aug. 28
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Saturday, Sept. 4
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea


I Always Say Yes

When Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle writes about his cats, he warns his readers: This is a cat column. So those that aren’t cat people can just skip it, and avoid their annoyance. It’s one of the things I love about him.

I can relate to Carroll. Surrounded as I am with animals, it is hard not to bring them up as a topic of conversation. Animal people don’t mind; non-animal people roll their eyes, and look for the nearest exit. I frequently find myself wanting to sit down at the keyboard with a story or analogy or life lesson learned from dogs or cats or parrots, and then I think, “Wait. Have I been talking too much about the menagerie lately? Am I going to drive everyone crazy?”

So, let the reader be forewarned. This is a cat post. Proceed at your own risk.

Sabrina called me at work at 11 a.m. to tell me that the guys at the plant had found a litter of six kittens in a loader. They are only two weeks old, eyes still closed. They need to be hand-bottle-fed, every two or three hours. Everybody was pitching in. Could she bring one home?

I said yes. I always say yes. Never mind the fact that only last month we brought Blizzard, our latest adoptee, the white stray, to the vet for the full treatment – neuter, de-flea, de-worm, nail clip, ear mites, vaccines – and he has now taken up permanent residence on our front deck, thrilled to be part of the family, bringing our official cat count to six. And that about two weeks ago, an orange tom cat started showing up hungry, and I am now feeding him, too, and I know it’s a slippery slope, because I’ve already named him Laser.

The kitten is the tawny rascal second from the top of the pile. We’re not sure yet of the gender – hard to tell. And no name has been decided upon. It’s only been about eight hours. But this baby is so small, it’s a little terrifying. I have tied a scarf around my neck to form a hammock, and have been carrying the baby around that way, nestled up against my chest. We feed it formula from a tiny bottle, and have to massage its abdomen to make it urinate, because it is so young. I’ve never taken care of one this small. Part of me is holding back, afraid – what if something goes wrong, and it doesn’t get enough nourishment, sickens, dies? I won’t be able to stand the pain of losing it, once I’ve become attached.

Oh – but I just breathe, and pull my heart out of my throat, and do the best I can. The next feeding is at midnight. Send us good thoughts.

Portrait of a Marriage

I just finished listening to the BBC’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein. Seventeen CDs long, it has left me immersed in the world of the 1800s and the Civil War for nearly three weeks. And now, having heard the final chapter, I am filled with a quiet ache of grief – for Abraham and Mary, for their children, and for the nation.

We all, I think, grew up with the myth of Lincoln the hero, the man who freed the slaves. And heard those stories of log cabins, reading by candlelight, splitting wood, telling humorous stories. The image of him in his stove pipe hat, his unruly hair, his gangly frame – he is an American icon. I remember vividly my first trip to Washington D.C., when I saw the Lincoln Monument, lit up in the night.

But now, having listened to this story of his life, I imagine that same statue in a different pose – leaning forward instead of sitting upright, with his head lowered, the weariness and pain etched deep into his face.

The Lincolns had four sons. They lost their second son Eddie just before his fourth birthday to consumption. Willie died at the age of 11, while Lincoln was in the White House, of typhoid fever. Lincoln himself did not have to suffer the final loss, but his wife Mary did – their youngest son, Tad, died at the age of 18 of pneumonia or complications from tuberculosis, six years after his father was assassinated. So Mary lost not only her husband, but three of her four children.

The relationship between Abraham and Mary was intense and complicated. Mary was ambitious and driven, believing strongly early in the marriage that her husband could someday be president. She took her role as hostess seriously, and did her best to play that part well. But she was also mentally unbalanced. Today, she would probably be diagnosed as bipolar. She was periodically physically abusive to her husband. There are recorded cases of her striking him in the face with a fireplace log, of dousing him with a bucket of water from a second-story window, of chasing him around the yard with a knife in her hand. She was insanely jealous of attention from other women. By the time she got to the White House, her illness had reached a point that she was going on mad buying sprees, getting herself into terrible debt. She held grudges, and meddled in politics by trying to get appointments for friends and relatives. Often, she flew into angry rages, earning her the nickname “hellcat” from the White House staff.

Even when his wife was completely out of control, though, Abraham kept his cool. He seemed to have an unending compassion for her, understanding that it was a sickness and not malice. As much as the relationship had its strains and difficulties, he treated her with love and respect.

On top of all of this personal chaos, from the moment Lincoln took office, he was faced with assassination threats, and was leading a nation that was splitting in two and heading towards war. I did not realize that from the very beginning, his life was in danger. There was a bounty on his head, raised by Southerners, the day he won the election.

The hollow-cheeked Lincoln that I know so well from pictures is a man carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders. This book gave me much greater insight into his life. But I think what moved me the most was his compassionate heart towards Mary, his wife. When everyone in the county wanted something from him, and he was at the point of exhaustion, even then – he was able to be gentle and kind to the woman he had married, whether she was acting rationally or not. That’s another kind of hero.


We Need Our Own MASH Unit

This past weekend, we went up to Sea Ranch to spend four days at a rental property with family, who had been visiting for my grandmother’s birthday celebration. Sabrina and I were very much looking forward to a mini-vacation; we had hired a pet-sitter, cleaned the house, packed our bags, and headed for the coast, ready for some down time.

It was a little more than we bargained for. Throughout the weekend, there were people coming and going, with anywhere from two to six children, ranging in age from two to fourteen. At one point, there were four under the age of eight. Let’s just say it was lively, especially for two people who are childless.

But still, we were having a good time. It was great visiting with my sister and brother-in-law from New York, who I had missed a great deal, with their little guy Ty, my special nephew, and spending time with my sister and her three boys from Tennessee. We ate good food, had a gorgeous view of the ocean from our dining room table, and when it got too crazy, I holed up in my room to read or take a nap.

The trip got cut short, though, on Saturday afternoon, when Sabrina stubbed her toe on a coffee table. What? I know, what’s the big deal, right? Well, she broke that toe, and she did a doozy on it. It was sticking out at a very weird angle. We ended up helping her out to the truck, and I drove her to Kaiser in Santa Rosa, where x-rays confirmed what we suspected. Today, she had to go in to see a podiatrist, because the toe was not aligned properly, so they had to yank on it to try to get it lined up. She’s now in bed, after being in terrible pain all day, barely able to walk with a cane.

Geez. This is getting ridiculous. In the past nine months, we have had a chipped beak (Barney the parrot), lens luxation/sudden onset glaucoma leading to loss of an eye (Houla the dog), thumb surgery to correct arthritis (Sabrina the human), two heart attacks (Barney the parrot), a scratched cornea (Michelle the human), a leg infection leading to hospitalization (Gladys the grandmother), and now a broken toe (Sabrina the human). Each incident above necessitated a trip to the emergency room, either at the veterinary hospital or the human hospital – some of them required more than one trip. (I think there were actually a couple of other incidents, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.)

My teacher Tony, upon hearing about the broken toe, said we needed our own MASH unit. I think he’s right. Remarkably, throughout all of this, everything has turned out OK. No loss of life, no debilitating damage. My whole family is still in good health, functioning, and doing the best we can to deal with each one of these challenges as they come our way.

Sometimes, in the midst of all this, I bemoan the fact that I have no time to practice Zen. I have had to miss my Tuesday night sitting a number of times, and will have to again tomorrow, as I want to be at home to help Sabrina prepare some dinner after being alone all day while I am at work. Even though I know this is what I must do, part of me chides myself for being a “bad” Zen student for being so caught up in these day-to-day crises. Then I ran across this story:

From “Zen Is Right Here” by Suzuki Roshi:

A woman told Suzuki Roshi she found it difficult to mix Zen practice with the demands of being a housewife. “I feel I am trying to climb a ladder. But for every step upward, I slip backward two steps.”
“Forget the ladder,” Suzuki told her. “In Zen, everything is right here on the ground.”


One Hundred Years and Counting

On Tuesday, my grandmother Gladys Gwillim Wing reached the century mark. Born on Aug. 3, 1910 in Oakland, she has lived through two world wars, watched the transportation system move from crank cars to SST jets, and gone from the days when you told the operator where to place your call to this crazy age where a granddaughter passes you a tiny little cell phone and tells you it’s a great-grandson calling from New York.

My entire family flew and drove in from across the country (Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Wyoming, Tennessee, Washington) to join a gathering of 135 people on Sunday to celebrate with her. Sabrina and I met Gladys at her apartment before the party, picking her up (a surprise) in a black stretch limousine. We cruised around Santa Rosa for half an hour, just so people could gaze in the windows, wondering who was inside, while we played the top hits of the 1940s on the CD player.

At the party, held at the Luther Burbank Art & Garden Center, there were tasty treats, wine and drinks, and cake, of course. Three cakes, actually – one for “Gladys,” one for “Mom” and one for “Grandma.” My aunt Alice, Gladys’ only daughter, put together a beautiful slide show to music showing the years none of us knew about, with photographs of my grandmother from her birth to shortly after her marriage. I had never before seen photographs of her skiing, on horseback, in a bathing suit on the beach, or posing with boyfriends. My grandmother, seeing the pictures of her youth, and Mama Tucker, the woman who raised her, was moved to tears.

As expected, Gladys looked fabulous. She wore a shimmery red blouse over a rainbow-colored long skirt, and her infamous high-heeled shoes that have all the colors of the tail of a peacock – which looked perfect with the ensemble, of course.

After the party, the limo took us to my aunt and uncle’s house for an after-party feast on the leftovers, where Grandma took a brief rest. Then she revived to open presents, eat ice cream, and look through the two scrapbooks that had been made for her.

All in all, the party was a rousing success. And it was only part of the celebration. Her friends at Welfare League closed their thrift shop (where she volunteers weekly) today, and held another party, and tomorrow morning, she will receive a birthday greeting on the Today Show from Willard Scott. She also received birthday greetings from Senator Barbara Boxer, President Barack Obama, and a proclamation from the mayor of Santa Rosa.

Gladys shows no signs of slowing down. As we rode in the limo after the party, she said to me, “You could do this for me every five years from here on out.” Maybe we will.


Upcoming Schedule, Aug. 7-21

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Aug. 10
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk

Tuesday, Aug. 17
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, Aug. 7
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea

Saturday, Aug. 14
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Sunday, Aug. 15
[The all-day sit has been cancelled.]

Saturday, Aug. 21
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
1 p.m. rehearsal for jukai
3 p.m. jukai ceremony

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved