An Introduction — Blog Guest

For the next six weeks, I will be sharing this blog with sangha member Susan Spencer. Susan will be installed as the shuso (head student) at the fall practice period led by teacher Darlene Cohen. The practice period begins tomorrow with a one-day sit at the Berkeley Zen Center, and her induction, and ends with the final shuso ceremony at Russian River Zendo on Oct. 31, following a three-day sesshin at the Black Mountain Retreat Center. In between, Susan will teach two classes on the precepts, host practice teas with everyone signed up for the practice period, do weekly work practice at the zendo, and make daily entries here in the Russian River Zendo blog.

The theme of the fall practice period will be Shila Paramita, or “Uprightness” and its importance to the practice of considering our state of mind as primary. The focus will be looking on the precepts as a way of cultivating a calm and steady mind.

Susan moved to California from Minneapolis in 1998. She met her teacher, Darlene Cohen, at San Francisco Zen Center where she practiced until moving to Sebastopol in 2001. She presently practices at Russian River Zendo, where she participates in the life of the sangha in many ways, including acting as head gardener.

My own introduction to Susan was through her work as an artist. Susan is the marvelously talented and whimsically playful ceramicist that invited all of us into her studio last year to plunge our hands into clay, to make jizo figures for the zendo garden.

Here’s how it will work: Susan’s posts will appear each day with a main headline that says “Susan’s Shuso Blog:….” with a secondary headline for the day. Each of her posts will also be accompanied by her photograph. I will still be acting as “blog master” – she plans to send me the text each morning by 10 a.m., and I’ll post as soon after that time as I am able.

My own posts will continue as usual, about three times a week, interspersed between Susan’s blogs. You’ll know they’re mine, because they WON’T have her photograph, or the “Susan’s Shuso Blog” header.

Comments welcome, remember. I know that Susan would love feedback. This is her first time doing something like this.

Clear as mud? OK, let’s go!


Changing Hurt to Hope

One of the things that fell to the wayside when I was struggling with my own depression was reaching out and helping others. It took all I had, day to day, just to deal with my own life. But when things began to lighten, one of the first resolutions I made was to get re-involved in some way, because I missed that sense of giving back in a tangible way.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I worked as a volunteer in the field of domestic violence prevention, and also did rape crisis hot line work. I did a number of things: wrote letters, accompanied women to court, trained other volunteers. But what I enjoyed most was giving talks to groups in the community about domestic violence, educating people and raising awareness.

A couple of months ago, I contacted the YWCA in Sonoma County to ask about volunteering. The outreach team was newly formed, and while brainstorming ideas for the upcoming Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, I came up with the notion of combining my passion for social justice with my passion for words – the result is “Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence.”

We have solicited poetry, “flash” fiction (1000 words or less) and memoir from writers in the county on domestic violence. On three nights in October, the writers will read their words at public events, and a representative from the YWCA will give a brief talk on domestic violence, and the services provided by the Y. The events are set for Oct. 8 in Sebastopol at the Center for the Arts, on Oct. 15 at the Arts Council of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, and on Oct. 22 at the Cloverdale Arts Alliance First Street Gallery.

It has been a challenging and fun project. A team of three volunteers, working with the YWCA’s volunteer coordinator Donata Bohanec, has been meeting at least every other week since mid-July, writing up press releases, setting writing guidelines, securing locations for the events, making plans. I have also been coordinating submissions, and so have been in contact with writers. It feels wonderful to be doing something that matters, even though it is a little terrifying, because there’s always the chance that it will flop – we didn’t have much planning time, because we got a late start, so we’ve been playing catch up.

In the meantime, I am working on my own submission. Because I am a writer, for one. And secondly, I am a survivor of domestic violence, which is one of the reasons that this issue resonates for me at my very core.

For more information, go to the YWCA’s website at this address. (FYI – if any of you are considering writing an entry, I have extended the deadline to Oct. 1. Just send me an email and let me know that an entry is on its way. wingpoet@gmail.com)


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…..)

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.


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


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.


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.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved