My aunt, my mom’s younger sister, spent her career teaching English as a second language at Stanford University. When she retired, she and her husband moved to Cloverdale. She decided to learn to paint – and immediately threw herself into classes, studying the masters, and within a few years, was exhibiting her work at the local arts alliance gallery. She is also a very active volunteer, tutoring at the high school, working with the Friends of the Library, and seemily involved in everything community-minded.

She has battled cancer for more than a decade, and yet despite chemo and constant health issues, she continues forward, moving her frail body always into new ventures, and always into the service of others.

Last month, she had a stroke, and was partially paralyzed on her right side. Fairly quickly, she began to regain mobility, but of course, it was still a tremendous and unexpected blow for someone only 66 years old. She had little movement of her right hand, and I kept thinking, “How unfair! Just when she has found such joy in her art!” She spent a week in the hospital, then came home to work on physical and occupational therapy.

This past week, I called her to see how she was doing. Although her speech is slower, and somewhat slurred, this is what she had to report. On election day, she had walked the eight blocks to the polls, and the eight blocks home again, unassisted. She may have to use a cane on rainy days for stability, but other than than, no more walker. The day before my phone call, she had completed her final days of physical and occupational therapy – and returned to her job tutoring at the high school.

She said her handwriting wasn’t quite what she would like. She can print, but cannot write cursive. She doesn’t have the fine motor skills she needs to paint. “But,” she said cheerily, “I was thinking I’d try some printmaking anyway.”

I am so struck by her incredible tenacity and strength of spirit. There is not an ounce of self-pity in her. She tackles each day as it comes, and moves as quickly as she cans towards healing and normalcy, refusing to be stopped by her limited body.

What an amazing example of will! May I prove as graceful if and when I face similar health challenges.


Susan’s Shuso Blog: A Chance Encounter

I sit in a cafe working on a presentation for our Wednesday night class on foggy mind. On the table is a copy of Reb Anderson‘s book, Being Upright. A woman enters the cafe. She is silver haired, like me. She wears a t-shirt that advertises the Fiddlehead Cafe in Hancock, NH. The t-shirt is often-washed green. She sits at the next table with her back to me. When she gets up to leave, she turns my way. She looks at the book. It is clear to me that she is curious about it. I say, “This book is about the Zen precepts. It is about how to find freedom and liberation in practicing them. “Yes,” she says shaking her finger. “They are not about commandments.”

I ask her about the t-shirt. “My cousin gave it to me.” she says. “I love wearing it because it reminds me of her. My cousin lives in New Hampshire.” I say, “My son lives in Concord. I have spent a lot of time in that beautiful state over the years.” We speak of leaves turning color and falling, yesterday’s rain.

She turns to leave. Her silver hair streams down her back almost covering the Fiddlehead Cafe sign.

She points to the book again. “That bodhisattva vow is so difficult – vowing to bring others across.” As she opens the cafe door, she turns and says, “Kindred spirits.”

I smile.


Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 26-31

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 26
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Phil McDonel

Russian River Zendo:

Friday, Oct. 29 – Sunday, Oct. 31
Sesshin at Black Mountain Center to end Fall Practice Period

Saturday, Oct. 30
RRZ Closed for sesshin

Sunday, Oct. 31
Practice Period participants reconvene at RRZ:
1 p.m. Work period
1 :30 p.m. Ceremony Rehearsal
3 p.m. Shuso Ceremony


Susan’s Shuso Blog: Birdseed

This morning I learn why it is important for me to follow my daily ritual of honoring the altars and sitting zazen before daybreak. Darkness gives cover to things that call for my attention. Today I rise at 6:30, light incense at the garden altar and then, before sitting, my eye travels to the bird feeder.

I have been away, the feeder is empty, the birdbath needs water, the plants are dry. I don’t have the discipline to sit with these demands. Instead of sitting, I walk to the back of the house where I keep the birdseed. I am startled by a raccoon. He looks up at me with a look of total unconcern. The look says, “Who are you to interrupt my breakfast?” I yell: “Get out of here!” I throw a shoe at him and miss. He saunters off behind the woodshed and I am left with the task of picking up scattered birdseed and minding the seed bag.

For the past month I have been drawing in a small sketchbook for a project sponsored by the Brooklyn Art Library. The theme for my sketchbook is “HELP.” I draw a woman screeching “HELP! HELP!” I draw a raccoon with paws tearing open a seed bag. I brush on glue and scatter birdseed over the page.

Last Saturday I attended a workshop on brush painting given by Michael Wenger at San Francisco Zen Center. I heard him say: “Painters don’t have to sit as much as people who don’t paint.”

Did I draw in the sketchbook as a way of avoiding zazen or was it zazen itself?


Forty Hours of Intense

Today I completed 40 hours of volunteer training with the Sonoma County YWCA, a requirement before being able to do direct client work such as advocacy, hot line answering, court accompaniment, etc.

Over the past three weeks, we have learned about a wide range of topics: the cycle of violence, child abuse, human trafficking, elder abuse, sexual assault, abuse against the developmentally disabled, victims’ assistance programs, the legal system, , batterers’ treatment, cultural competency, communication skills, therapy, county and city resources through Health & Human Services, and YWCA services such as their safe house, therapeutic preschool, counseling, crisis line and advocacy.

This is not my first time to got through such a training. I completed one as a volunteer in 1993 in Sunnyvale, where I volunteered at the Support Network for Battered Women, and then went on to co-teach two trainings as a volunteer. I also completed a similar training with the Mid-Peninsula YWCA in Palo Alto. So most of the information was not new – but it had been a while, and it was good to brush up on things, and also to learn about the resources and agencies in Sonoma County, since I’ve never done volunteer work up here.

What was taxing about the training, for me, was how much all of it brought up things from my past. It was down-right alarming how many topics were broached that touched upon areas of my own life. And when I say “areas,” I mean the tender spots. Just to name a few: 12 step programs, self-harm/cutting, eating disorders, mental health issues, various and sundry insensitive comments about DV (domestic violence) survivors, rape, molestation, gay/lesbian issues, being on disability….

As each item came up, I was alert and vigilant, wanting to make sure that no misconceptions came across. I wanted to protect whatever group was being spoken about, acting as its representative, since generally it was fairly clear that no one else in the room identified themselves as a member. I was able to speak out. But then I would go home, and doubt myself, and worry that I had spoken too much, overexposed myself, taken up too much space. It was a constant dance, throughout the training. Very taxing, very confusing.

Mostly, though, it made me feel stuck in the quagmire of all of those old pains. Until I brought it up with Sabrina. She said, “But Michelle, all of those things for you, most of them, anyway, were years ago.” And she’s right. I need to remember that I have moved past them. Much like a favorite coffee mug dropped to the ground, then glued back together, the scars are still visible, but I am whole. I am not irreparably broken; I can be of service – I can help.

And helping is exactly what I plan to do.

Happy Ending

Little Bit is home!

I am feeling grateful to the universe that in this one instance, just this one time, there is a happy ending to the story. I know, it could have been otherwise. Life is pretty iffy. But today, things turned out OK.

Yesterday Little Bit was removed from the oxygenated atmosphere, and although she’s still breathing somewhat rapidly, and has pneumonia, she can and should recover. We were able to pick her up from the vet hospital this evening, and can administer her medications at home over the next two weeks. She is playful, happy, thrilled to be out of her “glass box” home that she’s been in since Tuesday.

The fear we had was that, at some point, that damn piece of nipple that started this whole thing would still end up in her bowels and cause a blockage. Happily, yesterday afternoon, Little Bit threw up the offending piece, intact. It had been in her stomach the entire time.

The nurses and doctors at the vet clinic were all smiles as well. They, too, were pleased to have a happy ending – all too often at an emergency clinic, that’s not the way things turn out.

Thank you to all who offered metta, good thoughts, prayers, kind words. Your support was and is greatly appreciated.


She’s a Fighter

The last 36 hours have been gut-wrenching. Little Bit is still at the vet hospital. My partner Sabrina and I have ridden a rollercoaster of emotions, with each phone call from the vet sending us up to hope, or down to despair.

The very good news: Little Bit has recovered her spunk, is eating heartily, and is very responsive. She is fighting this. And it doesn’t appear that there is any blockage, so that fear is gone.

The not so good news: Her lungs are still very compromised, because there is mineral oil aspiration. Earlier today, we were told that she would never be able to live outside of an oxygen tank, and knew that the decision to put her down was imminent. But moments later, the vet called again to say they had taken a new x-ray, and much to their surprise, the lungs showed improvement – against all of their expectations. So there is still hope.

When I called Tony in tears yesterday, he said, well, Buddhists don’t really pray….but, heck, people pray. Pray!

So I’m praying. And some good friends who are Catholics have called in the saints. Do what you can. Send out a good thought for Little Bit.


A Tiny Life

We are in the midst of weaning our kitten, Little Bit. She has been resistant, often still wanting the bottle and refusing to eat the various foods we have tried: second-step weaning mixture, like a gruel; kitten food; moist kibble; baby food. We have been at our wits’ end, trying to make sure she gets enough nourishment.

Yesterday I had her at work with me, and was trying to feed her. She hadn’t eaten much at all so far that day. I was using the baby bottle to pour the gruel into a small dish. She had previously gnawed through the tip, so it was open at the top. She was acting frantic for food, but wouldn’t lap out of the bowl. She was grabbing for the bottle. I finally decided to see if I could use the bottle to let her chug some liquid down, even though the nipple wasn’t all there. But – in the middle of that, she took a big bite, and ripped off most of the rest of the nipple and swallowed it.

We called our vet, and he was worried that it might cause problems, blockage in the intestines. He recommended trying to get her to vomit. She only weighs 1 lb. 7 oz. I didn’t feel confident doing it on my own. Our regular vet is in Santa Rosa, but I was in Calistoga, so I brought her to the vet there. We induced vomiting, but no nipple piece came up. The vet then gave her some mineral oil, hoping that at least it could help her pass the piece from the other end.

But she was miserable. By that night, it was clear that it was not just trauma from the day’s event. Something was wrong. We ended up making an emergency trip to PetCare in Santa Rosa. She had aspirated either vomit or mineral oil, and was struggling to breathe, in danger of developing pnemonia. We were told that the diagnosis was “guarded” – less than fair. We left her in their care, driving home in tears.

This kitten, who we have bottle-fed and nurtured for the past five weeks, has become like a baby for us. We are both feeling devastated. My feelings are compounded by guilt: I shouldn’t have let her use the bottle. I should have brought her to the vet more quickly. I should have brought her to our regular vet. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I called just a few moments ago, and the doctor said she is doing slightly better, breathing without quite as much effort. I am just praying she is strong enough to make it through.

A Minor Glitch

There’s always a bug to work out the first time, isn’t there? While trying to ready Susan’s first blog post, I thought I could get it all set up and save it, then just hit “publish” later on, on Sept. 19, and the post would carry the date stamp of Sept. 19. Nope. Not true. The post carried the date stamp of the date/time when I saved it as a draft. Hmmm. Learn something new every day in the blogosphere….

So — I did some reverse engineering, and fixed it. (Don’t ask for details. It wasn’t very pretty.) But now Susan’s first blog post does appear, as it should, on Sept. 19, the first day of her official start as shuso, and I was left with the task of filling up this silly little space here. With my ramblings. Lucky you.

I promise to have something more profound to share tomorrow.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved