perfection

24Apr

Dealing with Rejection: A Writer’s Fragile Ego

Being a writer means confronting on a daily basis the demon of ego. I waver continually between “I am so bad that I shouldn’t even be pretending,” “I’m never going to be good enough,” “Hey, I think I may be getting the hang of this,” and “Wow, I’m quite talented!”

Much of the time, I am alone with my words, so this dialogue is completely internal, and depends entirely on the mood of the moment. My writing seems to flow some days, and then I feel confident. Other days, nothing works, and I think I should give it all up.

But the real ego test is when I dare to send my work out into the world. Choosing a poem or short story to submit to a literary magazine and sending it off is an incredible act of bravery for a writer. I’m still not very good at it. Pamela Painter, a writer I worked with at a conference recently, said we should expect to send a piece out 40 times before a response. I tend to send something out once or twice, and then feel so dejected when it is returned, that it takes months for me to recover. So, clearly, I’m not quite up to the game yet.

Calyx is the premiere women’s literary journal. I believe passionately in Calyx, in what it represents, and the quality of its writing, and have donated money to them to help them continue their mission. I have been submitting poems to Calyx annually since 2006. Every year, I get a rejection letter.

This year, as usual, I submitted six poems by the Dec. 31 deadline. For the first time, I also submitted a short story. It usually takes three to four months for them to respond.

I walked out to the mail box today, and there in the stack of mail were two envelopes addressed in my hand: the dreaded SASE. Once again, a form letter thanking me for submitting, and offering me a reduced rate to continue my subscription.

It is hard to even describe what happens to my already fragile writer’s ego each time one of those envelopes arrives in the mail. I feel crushed, disabled, silenced. I am unsure that I can ever write again. (Hyperbole is another one of the side effects.)

Ironically, two weeks ago I placed second in a local poetry contest, winning a $50 cash prize. It was the first time I had ever received money for one of my poems. There was a very nice reception, where the winners read their poems to an audience of about 100 people, and the Sonoma County Poet Laureate Gwynn O’Gara introduced me, giving a beautiful analysis of my poem that left me glowing.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that I could hold onto that good moment for a bit longer, before once again plunging into the “Oh, my god, I’m never going to be a writer!” litany again? Why are the successes felt so fleetingly, and the failures held onto for so long?

My writers’ group will be holding a public reading on Friday night. These are generally a boost to my ego, since I enjoy reading aloud, and gain energy from the interaction with an audience. So within a matter of days, I will be up again. Up, down, up, down.

The challenge, of course, is to write no matter how I am feeling about it. Just like practice. Sit on the cushion, good days, bad days. Sit down to write, with or without confidence. Write.

21Jun

Does That Evil Little Voice Ever Shut Up?

In two short months I will go through my jukai ceremony. I am feeling woefully unprepared. It’s been so crazy recently – with the extra load at work, first because of a co-worker’s illness, and then because of my boss’s long vacation, and then my grandmother’s hospitalization and recuperation, and now this ongoing worry about our parrot – on Saturday, just as I was about to head out the door to my Precepts class, he had another “vascular event,” as the vet put it, and we had to race him to the emergency clinic to put him in a tank with oxygen again. He is home, but still weak, and we have no idea what the prognosis is, and that is too much to even think about right now, so we are taking it one hour at a time.

There is this naggy little voice in my head that is berating me on a daily basis. You missed your Tuesday sitting group again. I can’t believe you’ve missed Precepts twice now! And you had to find a substitute last week for doan duty! You’re not blogging regularly! When was the last time you had dokusan? Are you serious about this? What kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

It would be bad enough if the evil voice was only echoing around in my head during the day time. But it even shows up in my dreams. The other night I dreamed that Tony and Darlene were both mad at me, and took me aside to tell me how disappointed they were in me. The next night, I dreamed about my mother being disappointed in me. The next night, it was my boss. Hey, get in line! Apparently, everybody gets a turn!

In the middle of all of this mess, though, there is a tiny little voice saying, “But you’re working really hard on some big issues now, too.” The precept I chose to study for my year leading up to jukai was the one dealing with anger. For a while, it seemed that I had made a mistake, that it wasn’t the right one. But in the past two months, I have come to realize that it is exactly the right one – my anger was simply so deeply buried that it has taken a long time for me to unearth it. Lately, it is spilling out all over the place, and I am learning a lot, about anger, and about myself.

When Tony and Darlene said people were one of three types, either greed, hate or delusion types, I could never figure that out. None of them seemed to fit for me. But reading a book by Jack Kornfield recently, I finally heard an analogy that opened it up for me, and I clearly saw myself – and I knew instantly that I was a hate type, which horrified me. I’ve been burying that for my entire adult life. That’s where all that anger is.

So there’s this part of me that knows that even though I haven’t been able to keep every commitment I wanted to keep recently, I am still doing the work. I am still here, opening my heart every day, looking deeper, showing up.

I wish that other evil little voice would pipe down every now and then and give me a break. Any suggestions on how to hit the mute button?

7Feb

A Chance to Practice Letting Go of Perfection

Tomorrow I will be doan (time keeper/bell ringer) and kokyo (chant leader) at a one-day sit at Russian River Zendo. Tony Patchell, my teacher, will be acting as priest. Darlene Cohen will be out of town – so this is the first time Tony has led a one-day sit on his own. And it is my first time to be doan.

We are also going to do an oryoki meal, using the traditional set of three Zen bowls. I received an oryoki set from my wife a while ago, but have yet to use it. So tomorrow, that will be another first.

There are so many things that could go wrong! I have not yet mastered striking the bell – when I had to sit in briefly as doan at the December sesshin, I struck it so softly during kinhin (walking meditation) that only the people closest to me heard it and began walking faster, according to the signal. Those further away didn’t pick up the pace, because they missed the sound. So people started running into each other. I struck the bell again, and because of feeling so flustered, I hit it too hard, with a huge, resounding, “GONG!” Our silent meditation briefly disintegrated into a chorus of giggles by everyone present. Thinking of all the possible ways I could screw up tomorrow with my bell is making me crazy.

Last week, on Saturday at Russian River Zendo and on Tuesday at the Healdsburg group, I was kokyo. I have been having a low-grade cold with a throat tickle. And both times, part way through the chanting, my voice disappeared and I had to cough. I was completely embarrassed, and had a heck of a time recovering my voice enough to do the eko (chant response), where I’m the only one chanting. Tomorrow I am just praying that my throat behaves itself.

And then there’s the oryoki. Using oryoki is very ritualistic; every fold of the cloth, wipe of the napkin, turn of the bowl, is part of a traditional ceremony. I have seen it done, but never done it myself. I asked Tony if I could sit next to him, so I can follow his movements. He told me he wasn’t sure of all of them himself, but said we’d manage to muddle through.

The group tomorrow will be quite small, between ten and twelve people. Because of that, there will be fewer people available to do service. At this point, there is no eno (person in charge of the zendo and the whole day), so Tony and I will be covering for that role, too.

Given all of this, over the past week I have come to the realization that we will have to do the best we can, but not expect perfection. And worrying about it won’t help a bit – I know, because I worried for days, and nothing got resolved. I have to be okay with a mistaken hit of the bell, a cracking voice, a badly folded oryoki cloth, and having my legs fall asleep. It will be perfect practice for my perfectionist self.

24Oct

Loving the Critic

I don’t know about you, but I spend an awful lot of time listening to my internal critic. She’s that nagging voice in my head that tells me, over and over, ad nauseum, that I’m not smart enough, not talented enough, not disciplined enough, not kind enough, not pretty enough – let’s face it, just plain not enough of anything.

She comes to the forefront at fairly predictable times – when I’m trying something new, venturing outside of my normal sphere. Or when I’ve just given my all for something, and one person that I come into contact with looks slightly askance or raises an eyebrow, and I become convinced that they think my project, my effort, is not only less than perfect, but in fact is so flawed that I should be embarrassed that I even made the attempt.

She also surfaces disguised as envy. When I read a beautifully written paragraph by someone else, or see a gorgeously hand-wrought work of art, or hear someone play a piano etude flawlessly, she takes that moment and warps it, taking me out of that wellspring of sheer appreciation and celebration of someone else’s creation, and throws me into a self-flagellating remorse about my own ineptitude and inability to measure up.

I know where the voice originated – I can trace it back to unkind teachers, shaming parents, cruel girlhood friends. But those voices are not what haunt me now. I have taken the real life critics and internalized them to the point that “she,” the grand critic, is an entity all of her own, with me wherever I go, because she lives inside of my own head.

She is a monster of my own making. The bad news about that is that I’m the only one who can conquer her. The good news about that is that I’m the only one who can conquer her. Both are true – it is incredibly freeing and terrifying at the same time – it’s all up to me.

Recently while chanting the Metta Sutta, or Loving Kindness Meditation, I realized that here was a directive for dealing with the critic:

Even as a mother at the risk of her life
Watches over and protects her only child,
So with a boundless mind should
one cherish all living things.
Suffusing love over the entire world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit,
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

This stanza is not just about loving the world, although of course, that is also our directive, our vow. It is also about loving ourselves.

Even as a mother at the risk of her life/Watches over and protects her only child – what if the child is myself? What if the child is the ceramic clay that I have molded into a jizo? What if the child is the words I write late at night alone in my office?

So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things/Suffusing love over the entire world. Not a limited, critical mind, but a boundless mind. Not cherish only the perfect, the unstained, but all living things. Not loving just that which is easy to love, that which is flawless, but the entire world.

So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world – not just the external world, but also the internal world. Good will and love and tenderness and protection. What if I wrapped my arms around my critic, and told her that I loved her, that I would take care of her? What then?

13Oct

Wabi Sabi – Beauty in the Imperfect

I lived in Japan from 1990 to 1993, in Kyoto and Osaka. I have a master’s degree in Japanese studies from the University of Washington in Seattle, and initially went to Japan on an 18-month Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study. I extended that stay for another 18 months, because I fell so completely in love with the country and its culture.

The Japanese have a concept called wabi sabi. It refers to beauty that is imperfect, unfinished, and fleeting. Much of what we think of as the Japanese aesthetic (ikebana or flower arranging, the tea ceremony, the Zen sand gardens, the style of some of the most famous temples and shrines) reflect wabi sabi. It is exemplified by everything that is simple, modest, intimate, asymmetrical, and prone to the influences of nature through aging, rusting, disintegrating.

There are two other Japanese words that are applicable here: hade and jimi. Hade refers to things which are brilliant and ostentatious, big and bold. Jimi refers to that which is muted, natural, rustic, understated.

The Japanese love to give gifts, on almost any occasion; whether they are bringing you an omiyage (souvenir) from a trip they just went on, paying New Year’s respects, or simply sharing a meal with you, they never arrive empty handed. Through this practice of gift giving, my large circle of Japanese friends soon realized that I delighted in the aspects of their country that were jimi – and, to my surprise, they received me with greater intimacy after that, feeling I was accepting of the “original” Japan, with its vast history and ages-old traditions. I was honored that they were willing to teach me, month after month, by introducing me to all that was essentially Japanese, from sumo wrestling to koto playing, from the art of kimono to seasonal rituals at nearby temples and shrines.

A perfect example of the contrast between hade and jimi is two famous Zen temples in Kyoto, the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion). The Golden Pavilion is actually covered in gold leaf. It towers three stories tall above a stupendous reflective pond. It takes your breath away with its splendor. The Silver Pavilion is something very different. Although it was originally intended to be covered in silver foil, that never happened. The temple has been allowed to stay the way it was then, five hundred years ago, a modest wooden structure weathered by the rain and the snows, surrounded on one side by a beautiful pond, nested into the trees. It also is the site of the very famous sand garden that has a miniature Mt. Fuji at its center. Ginkakuji is known as one of the premiere examples of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

I went to The Golden Pavilion only twice during my stay, once on my own, and once with visiting family. But Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion – I went there as often as I could, to walk through the quiet gardens, to touch the weathered wood, to let the beauty sink into my soul. When I am homesick for Japan, this is what I think of: monks raking the sand garden at Ginkakuji, with the rippling reflection of rocks and twisted pines in the background, and the aging temple rising gently above it all.

10Oct

That’s How the Light Gets In

I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits album, and I heard this line in the song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

I hit the repeat button, and played the song a couple more times. That’s it – there is a crack in everything. Forget being perfect. Nothing is perfect. The world is not perfect. I, most certainly, am not perfect. But rather than despair over that, as I am wont to do…this song says to celebrate it, be glad for it, rejoice. That’s how the light gets in.

If you had told me, at age fifteen, what the next thirty years would hold for me, I would have said, “No, thanks. That sounds like one helluva ride that I am not about to go on. I have other plans.” It’s been a messy life, one full of bumps and stumbles, grief and loss, seemingly unendurable suffering. There have been, of course, good things, too. Beautiful, shining moments. But much of the time I was wandering and lost. And my pain was also heartbreaking to those who loved me, as they helplessly stood by and watched my relentless stubbornness, my cataclysmic collapses and long periods of mute retreat.

But here I am. Amazingly, still alive. Astoundingly, open hearted. Miraculously, rendered whole by the very things which I felt were splitting me apart.

And now, if I were to talk to that fifteen year old self, I would say: It’s going to get rough. It won’t always be pretty. But oh, the view, once you get there!

Not, of course, that I am “here” to stay. I’m sure there are more surprises ahead. Finally, though, I am in a place where I can actually feel tremendous gratitude for all of that living, that struggle, that cracked me open, to let the light come in.

Leonard Cohen – rock on!

8Oct

Thoughts on Utopia

Two years ago, the women’s literary journal Sinister Wisdom invited me to submit work for a theme issue they were planning on the topic of utopia. I felt flattered to be asked, and wanted to honor the request, so spent several weeks asking myself these questions: “What is utopia? Is it possible? How do I envision it?”

I finally drafted a poem about my imaginings of a perfect day. As much as I worked on it, though, it was dry and lifeless. It had no spark, no la chispa or creative ember, as writer Clarissa Pinkola-Estes refers to it. What was missing? Then my closest friend, also a writer, looked it over for me. And she said, “It’s missing the dark side.”

I knew immediately she was right. There was no shadow here, no imperfection, no texture. I tackled the poem once again, adding in all the elements that I had purposefully left out the first time: the moments of doubt, the life and death struggles in the animal world, the sharing of a friend’s pain. Instead of a utopian ideal, it became something real, reachable. I did not call the poem “The Perfect Day” – I named it “The Good Day.” Because, I realized, thanks to the wisdom of my friend, thanks to the time spent at the writing desk…that is what I want, just a good day, one with all aspects of life, the suffering as well as the joy, the hurt as well as the healing.

Here is my version of utopia – life on life’s terms.

The Good Day

Your alarm sounds first. I hear shower water,
doze, then feel your soft lips on my cheek,
saying good-bye just for now, as you head off
for another round of belabored union talks.

In morning’s filtered light, I make coffee,
scoop earth-dark grounds, add water,
fill the kitchen with aromas of two worlds,
home and a distant Guatemalan plantation.

Sipping from my cup, I gather three bowls,
serve breakfast to the other early risers in the house,
my knees bumped by wagging tails as dogs
circle, always famished, always fed.

I peel damp sheets off the bed
after summer night’s heat, float new linens
softly through the air, smooth coolness
into each crisp corner, tuck and straighten.

Picking up pen and notepad, I sit down
with yesterday’s perfect metaphor. It falls flat.
Scratch it out, roll new sounds around
on my tongue, picture the polished poem.

A blue belly lizard skitters under the couch
and across my toes, its tail sacrificed to the cat.
I can save this one, scoop the wriggling body up in warm hands
and release it to the relative safety of the rosemary bush.

The garden needs water. I pace between verdant rows,
touch thigh high corn, spy new potatoes poking
through rich soil, brush bugs off jalapeño plants,
watch the leaves unfurl as moisture seeps into the ground.

The dogs bark at the mail truck. We trot together
to the box at the end of the driveway.
I finger through bills, down to the surprise of a postcard
from Puerto Vallarta, friends on vacation, hola.

Back in the cool of my office, I escape to India,
taste chutney in the kitchen of a novel,
prepare for a Hindu wedding while parsing
each paragraph with the eyes of a poet.

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.

The mercury keeps rising. I fill the wading pool
with fresh water, call the dogs, take off my shoes and splash,
dodge and play, adding the outline of my feet
to the damp paw prints scattered across the deck.

Hungry, I open the crisper and pull out fresh
broccoli, asparagus, heirloom tomatoes.
I rinse soft tofu, slice and toss the medley into an iron skillet,
ready to sauté as you come in the door.

You say the union may strike. With good food
and love, I try to soothe the day’s tensions,
listen to the details of conflict with management,
provide a haven from the stress of the world.

We wash the dishes by hand, and move to separate corners
of the house. You unwind with a book about dragons,
and I open up the past in my journal, look for healing,
remind myself I am now safe and almost whole.

At day’s end, you and I savor one more cup of coffee,
watch the full moon spotlight nearby vineyards,
bittersweet sphere that shone on my father’s last night
two years ago, his hand in mine, my other hand in yours.

I turn back fresh sheets, snuggle in close to you.
Touch turns to passion, and we merge our two histories,
create a third that is ours, both bound and free.
When I cry out in my sleep, you will be right here.

dedicated to Sabrina, with thanks to Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Published Winter 2007-08, Sinister Wisdom

7Oct

The Physical Challenges of Sitting

Since the beginning of my sitting practice, what has been most challenging for me is the physical aspect of zazen. Most of the time, I am mentally able to sit fairly easily. I enjoy the quiet, and feel refreshed after a sit period.

But I struggle with my body. My feet go numb, and tingly. I worry that the sit period will end, and I will be unable to stand to do kinhin, the walking meditation. So I am forced to move, once, sometimes twice, to allow the blood to recirculate in my limbs.

I resist it. It seems that I should not have to move, not have to interrupt my zazen to respond to this physical demand of my body. I have tried numerous tactics: tightening and loosening my buttocks, flexing and curling my toes. But still, my legs fall asleep. Still, I must succumb to this uncooperative body of mine.

At all-day sits, the physical challenges become even more noticeable. There is the persistent problem with my feet falling asleep, now accompanied by a steadily growing pain in my back as the day progresses. For at least one of the afternoon sit periods, I am in agony, unable to get comfortable.

I beat myself up about it. I think it is a reflection on my practice. I think it is an indicator that I am not a “good” Zen student. It makes the noise in my head get louder and more obtrusive.

But still, I persist. I continue to attend the all-day sits. I no longer have “scheduling conflicts” when my Tuesday night sangha plans a double sit instead of a dharma talk. I show up.

And I have found that, as is so often the case, my recalcitrant body, stubbornly resisting my efforts to control it, has become a gentle teacher. I cannot master this situation through will alone. I am forced to come face to face with my limitations, my imperfections. The only way to silence that critic in my head is to be gentle with myself, to quietly sit as long as I can, and then give myself permission to move.

I am slowly coming to realize that “good” zazen is simply zazen: however it manifests itself, it shows me who I am, where I am. Begrudgingly, I am even coming to the realization that I am thankful it does not come easily for me. I am so attached to seeing myself as a “good student,” that were I to have perfect, uninterrupted zazen, I would be feeding that delusion, that striving and attaining. Instead, I am given this reminder: I have limits; I am a beginner.

So, imperfections and all, tingly feet and all, critical mind and all: I sit.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved