Monthly Archives: February 2011


Street Corner Challenges

Today in Calistoga, two young men set up a table at the corner near the post office with political propaganda. They were there to speak on behalf of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. All well and good. But their main signs were two large face shots of President Barack Obama, with a drawn-in Hitler moustache.

The post office is just next door to the Tribune office. All day, people stopped in to vent, speaking in outrage about their reaction to the use of Hitler as an image. We explained that we were aware of the men, that they had been present in Calistoga the previous year and we had run a story on them, and we were choosing not to cover it this year – because that’s precisely what they want, more press coverage.

Still, it was making my own blood boil. I hated the fact that they were out there. At lunch, my boss Pat and I decided to hop in the car and drive out to Home Plate cafe for grilled cheese sandwiches (me) and fish and chips (her). The stop sign out of the parking lot put us directly alongside the men at their table. One young man stepped clear of the sign, gestured towards it with his hand, and looked up at me with an inviting expression.

And I calmly flipped him off.

He wagged his finger at me, equally calmly, with a “Tsk, tsk” look, and then we drove away. As soon as we left, I regretted my reaction. What made it even more ironic, even comical, was that on that very morning, on the way in to work, I had been listening to a book on CD by Thich Nhat Hahn called “True Love” about the practice of awakening the heart. He spoke extensively about calming the mind before action, so that one can reach out with love. I don’t think he meant to be calm while giving someone the finger!

It gnawed at me for a couple of hours. Finally, I walked over to the corner, and apologized. I said, “Earlier, I flipped you off, and I wanted to say I’m sorry.” The young man said, “Oh, I don’t remember you. There have been a lot of people who have flipped me off.” I then said, “What I have a problem with is…” And he said, “It’s the moustache, right?” And I said yes. He then proceeded to go into a nonsensical political diatribe equating Obama (and every other president since Kennedy) to Hitler because they are “budget cutters,” saying their policies of “depopulation” are the same as genocide. I listened for a few moments, attempted to explain how Hitler should never be used in any comparision, then realized it was fruitless. I wished him luck with his free speech, and turned to go.

In the end, then, I accomplished little in the way of communication. No minds were changed on either side. But I did, at least, clean up my mess by acknowledging my bad behavior. And that left me feeling much more at peace than I had after the moment in the car.


Hard News

As a small-town community journalist, much of the time I cover events and happenings which range from the tedious (school board proceedings and planning commission deliberations) to the repetitious (annual fundraisers, parades, benefits and other activities). There are also many feel-good stories: new businesses opening, personal profiles of remarkable citizens, tales of unusual pets or hobbies.

The Calistoga Tribune is a serious, dedicated little newspaper, and we take our job to heart. We do not flinch from the real news. So we also deal with the tensions that do arise, when conflict breaks out in the city council, or economic woes plague local businesses, or budget crisis threatens to bankrupt the city coffers.

For me, though, as a journalist, the toughest stories are the accident and crime stories. When two teen-agers driving drunk are killed on the Silverado Trial when they veer in front of another driver, and they are all local residents, or when, like last year, a young man is gunned down in his car, the first murder in Calistoga in decades. Or when a local school board trustee’s daughter is stabbed to death in a nearby city, or a Calistoga mother accidentally runs down an elderly pedestrian in a crosswalk, killing her instantly.

These are the painful stories. My job as a reporter is to call the people involved, to find out the facts, to get the news. But the last thing I want to do is to interfere in any way in these moments of shock and grief. I feel like a horrid parasite, an intruder. What I have to do, to get myself through it, is remind myself if I can do it well, I will be doing the person a favor, letting them tell their story with as much grace and honesty and dignity as possible – always respecting any request for a comment that is “off the record” during the conversation.

A few weeks ago, three elderly women were housesitting for an artist in town. Returning to the house after dinner at a local restaurant, they interrupted a burglar. The man indicated he had a gun under his shirt, and said if they didn’t cooperate, he would shoot them. One managed to escape to the back yard and call 911. After some time, the other two were able to get away and lock themselves in a bathroom. The burglar (now kidnapper) fled, stealing a pickup from a neighboring property. A SWAT team, sheriffs and police arrived, but were unable to locate him. It turned out later he had left his cell phone plugged into an outlet near the studio. With that information, they identified him, and put out a bulletin. The next week, the man called police and turned himself in.

It turns out that the brother never did have a gun – it was only pretend. So this terrible burglary gone bad has now turned into something very serious because of an imaginary gun – three counts of kidnapping, two counts of elder abuse, one count of abuse, plus the count of burglary.

Initial reports described him as itinerant, but I heard he had at some point lived in Calistoga. He was a Latino man, and his name was unusual. I asked our former city councilmember, a sort of Latino ambassador, if he knew who his relations were. He said he was pretty sure he was kin to a local restaurant owner. I know this restaurant owner, so I went over to speak to him. I asked the hard question: Is this man your brother? The answer was yes. The weight and heaviness showed in his body. This man, this good man, has carried so much. He lost his teen-age son to cancer when I first started writing for the Tribune. He has another young son who has been in a lot of trouble lately. He has been struggling with the restaurant, trying desperately to keep going, putting in long hours, never taking a day off. And now this.

He told me the brother had been in an accident 18 months ago, run over by a car. Since then, the brother had “not been right in the head.” He had been making poor decisions, unable to determine right from wrong. Still, this restaurant owner, my friend, was making no excuses for him. He said, “He must pay for his mistakes.”

When my friend told me all of this, I knew as a journalist I should be writing it down, preparing to put his words into my next follow-up story. But in that moment, I could only see his eyes, his sadness, the terrible burdens he carried. I walked up to him, and said, “I’m so sorry.” And I gave him a hug.

He needed that hug much more than the community needed the facts.


Walking with a Busy Mind

Our teacher Tony sent us an e-mail last week saying he noticed that our kinhin (walking meditation) could use some work. He asked us to watch a nine-minute video on YouTube to pick up some pointers.

The video is by a priest living in Japan. He has numerous instructional clips online, covering a wide range of topics. The format is very simple – just a priest in his robes, alone, standing in a tatami mat zendo next to a scroll, in front of a video camera.

His offerings about kinhin are very basic. He says to walk following the rhythm of the breathing, feet slightly apart gently in alignment with the hips, talking small steps roughly equivalent to half a step forward at a time. When reaching a place where you must turn, make the corner sharp, not curved. The gaze is to be focused one meter ahead, just as in zazen. He says, “There is no need to look anywhere, because in kinhin, we don’t go anywhere.”

He says to make the walk very simple, almost casual. “The feeling of dignity is not achieved through great self-awareness.”

But it is the comment right at the end of the video that really spoke to me. He said kinhin is tricky, because as soon as the body moves, the mind moves. “That’s why kinhin is very, very stormy.” He said to simply be aware of it, come back to this presence, and go on.

I was so relieved when I heard him speak those words. All along, I thought it was just me. From early on, kinhin has been the most challenging part of my sitting practice, because my mind goes romping through the room, creating all kinds of chaos. I struggle to keep my gaze focused. I do things like count the number of people in the room, look at everyone’s socks, plan the upcoming service.

At one of my first all-day sits, kinhin nearly did me in. Each time we went for walking meditation, I found myself embroiled in the most relentless criticism of everyone I was sitting with. I was critiquing everyone’s haircuts, their clothing, the way they walked, the sounds they made when they breathed in the zendo. My head was filled with seething negativity. It was horrid. During dokusan, I spoke to Tony about it, and he said, “Wow. You’re the first person who’s ever told me something like that.” I looked at him in shock and embarrassment. Then I realized he was kidding. Obviously, I was not the first.

Over time, now that I have been practicing a few years, I have managed to calm my kinhin, and make it more of an extension of my zazen. It is still a little edgy, but no longer filled with criticism. Sometimes it is even meditative.

What a relief, though, to hear these words by this priest. That kinhin creates a stormy mind. Now I know there is a biological connection – when the body moves, the mind moves. Knowledge is power. Insight can be a balm to a troubled spirit.

Now when I walk with a chattering mind, I can catch myself, come back to the present, and take another step. Just like zazen. Return to the breath.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved