Who Am I To Give Advice?

I have found myself in the awkward position recently of having people ask me for advice. Not little advice, like, “Can you recommend a restaurant?” or, “Do you know of a good place to find organic produce?” Big advice. Questions like: “How can I live with having screwed something up really badly?” Or “Should I leave my job and move to another state, because I may have found a temporary escape from a bad situation I’m in right now?”

Wow. Me? You’re asking me?

One of the friends has asked for advice over email. That’s a little easier for me, because I can read the note, and then sit with it for a day or two, mulling it over. But the second friend asked me today in person, face to face, while she was crying. I found myself sitting there quietly, listening, and listening, and listening. It was so much to process. A third friend, also in the room, jokingly said, “Oh, you’re just sitting there with your Buddha expression.” If only!

It is not because I am feeling tranquil and calm and serene. It is because I am slowly sorting through things, trying to make sense of my feelings. Because what comes up first is: Who the hell am I to be giving advice to anyone? For goodness sake, look at my life! Look at all the wrong turns I have taken. Look at all the pain and suffering, the missed opportunities, the ridiculously convoluted path that I have followed to get me to where I am now. Me, offer a road map to someone else?

But I keep sitting, quietly. And the other voice surfaces. Yes, it says. You have experienced a great deal. But each pain, each loss, broke your heart open a little bit wider, and taught you a little bit more about compassion. Without all those twists and turns, you would not have this poet’s soul. You would not have the desire to reach out to others. You would be closed off and broken, and you are not. You are whole. You survived.

So now I find myself in this place, where people I care about ask me for advice. What shall I say?

In a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, I penned these lines:

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.

That is what I learned during those long, hard years. No one had answers for me. Only I had the answers. What I needed was friends who would listen to me talk, friends who would compassionately hear me try to figure out exactly what it was I needed to do, searching through my own soul’s truth.

Today I remind myself of that. After some thought, I offered a few tangible suggestions to these friends, strategies for planning. But the most important thing I could do, in the end, was listen, and remind them, in turn, to listen to themselves. The most important answers always lie within.


If Only All Theater Was This Good

I saw some of the best drama I’ve seen in ages – and the actors were all kids.

The show was called “Prop 8 Love Stories,” presented by Cinnabar Theater. The actors are between the ages of 10 and 17. They interviewed couples, gay and straight, about their relationships, and then presented a montage of the results.

One of the things that was fascinating is that the actors’ genders do not necessarily match the genders of those they interviewed, so a boy may portray a lesbian, a girl a gay man, a girl a straight rabbi father….

Although the couples are mixed, they all have a gay connection. The rabbi and his wife have a gay son. A young woman engaged to be married to a young man talks about the process she went through when her father came out as a gay man. And then there are lesbian moms, gay dads, everything else. It’s fascinating.

The project is the brain child of creator/director Brian Glenn Bryson, but it is co-written and directed by 14-year-old Dezi Gallegos (who also acts in it, wonderfully!), and there is original music, composed by 16-year-old Audrey Maye Tatum, with choreographed dancing, so there are some elements of music theater, as well.

The interviews examined the dynamics of couples, families, coming out stories, fear and discrimination, the Prop 8 battle, death and religion, weddings, and ended with a section on “hope.”

These kids beautifully and tellingly explored what it is like to be in a relationship completely unlike their own life experiences – since they were portraying, in some cases, an 80 year old man, or a dad with three kids, or two moms talking about how they met. If only those in the cast were changed, this kind of theater would be worthwhile; those teens (and pre-teens) have learned something they will never forget.

But of course, their message is going much further, as they stand on stage with their words of compassion and fear, bewilderment and hope, yearning and dreams. This is the sort of drama that should get extended runs, playing to audiences around the country, with kids from Kansas and Louisiana and Alaska taking on these roles. This is about opening hearts, one audience member, one cast member, at a time.

We went with a group of friends to see it performed at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa (the Unitarian Church). The kids also performed at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

It is showing again in Petaluma on the weekend of July 16 and 17 at Cinnabar Theater. If you happen to have either of those nights free, and live close enough by – get a ticket and go. You’ll be glad you did.


The Latest Rendition of "The Dog Ate My Homework"

I really have been trying to get back into a regular blogging routine. Where once I was posting five times a week, lately I have been lucky to get in two. It seems that there is always something that comes up. Each thing, in and of itself, sounds perfectly reasonable. But as a list, it begins to resemble the kid telling her teacher why her math assignment is late once again.

My list thus far has included: “I had to take my grandmother to the hospital.” “My parrot had a heart attack.” “I was up all night at the newspaper.”

See what I mean? Well, this week, I was resolved to get back on track. Ah, but wait. Are you ready for the latest, greatest excuse?

“The dog scratched my eye.”

On Wednesday night, for once I got home early on a deadline night from the newspaper. I was going to get a good night’s sleep, and spend the next several days catching up on things, including blogging. It was 10:30 p.m. – Sabrina was already fast asleep; she wakes up at 3 a.m., starting work at 5 a.m. in Santa Rosa. I crawled into bed, and as I was lying down, my lab Ripley flopped down next to me in the dark, closer than I realized. Suddenly I had an excruciating pain in my left eye. She had unintentionally stuck one of her nails directly into my eyeball (not the lid, the eye). I capped my hand over the eye and drew my breath in sharply and audibly, loud enough to wake Sabrina up. “What’s wrong?” I was barely able to talk. The pain was incredible. I wasn’t sure at that point what I would find when I uncupped my eye.

After a few moments, time enough to get my breath back, I went to the bathroom to look. My eye was tearing, and very red. But what was alarming, was that I could actually see what looked like a rip in the white of the eye. We called Kaiser – and then what had been an early night turned into a late one.

I was lucky, and it ended up being only a few scratches to the cornea, with no damage to the eye itself. There were particles of dirt from Ripley’s nails in the eye, so the nurses did a 20-minute saline/water rinse to clean out the eye, I was given antibiotic eye drops for the next five days, and painkillers to help me sleep for the next couple of nights – REM sleep is the hardest, because your eye moves rapidly, so the painkillers help alleviate that.

But here comes the excuse part. I was told to rest my eyes for at least a couple of days, not reading or spending time on the computer. I managed to get through all of Thursday, only cheating by checking my Blackberry. By the end of the day, my eye was tired.

It’s feeling much better today, after a second night’s rest, and so I am daring to sit down at the keyboard.

Really, though. Enough is enough. Could we get through just two weeks without a trip to a hospital or an emergency room? Barring any more unforeseen disasters, I truly will be blogging on a more regular basis!



I am stuck in a frittering mode…frittering away time. I guess it’s partially because I am recovering from three weeks of hyper-alertness, after all the emergencies and interrupted sleep. I finally had a weekend with no need for extra trips anywhere. Add to that the 90+ heat, and it was a recipe for extended naps.

I have a long list of things I want to do. The basics are to get back into my routines: of blogging, of sitting, of writing, of reading, of walks at the river with my dog. Then there’s the piano I haven’t touched in months now, the piles of magazines that remain unopened, the e-mail in my inbox that I want to respond to but haven’t made the time.

On Thursday, I had a meeting at the YWCA, my first, to begin volunteer work. I used to work as a volunteer doing domestic violence prevention advocacy, mostly community outreach. What I like best is giving talks to various groups, educating people about domestic violence, and potentially getting the word to victims. I have wanted for the past year or so to reenter that world. I finally made the phone call a month ago, and a new team of outreach volunteers met this week to brainstorm on plans. It felt good to take that first step. But now I have to do a bunch of reading, to refresh my knowledge on the subject, and I need to actually start making time in my weeks to do the work. One more thing to add to the list.

What I know about myself, is that when I am busy, I can get an amazing amount done. When I am idle, I do it like a professional. Everything stops. It’s hard for me to be in the middle. Moderation has never been my strong point. And going from inertia to movement is always tricky – I’m never sure exactly how to start the proverbial ball rolling again.

I try setting schedules. Apparently that works for many people, but it never has for me. Whenever I write up a week’s plan, or even a day’s plan, I completely veer off course almost immediately. And then I berate myself for being so unreliable. Patterns, patterns. Sometimes it is a curse to know yourself so well.

How do you deal with time management, and getting out of the drag of inertia? Any thoughts on setting goals without setting yourself up for failure?


Upcoming Schedule, June 26 – July3 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, June 29
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Michelle Wing

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, June 26
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Saturday, July 3
Closed for Fourth of July Weekend

Sunday, Aug. 15
8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. all day sit

Special Event:
Sunday, July 25
Dharma Float: kayaking trip & discussion of Dogen
(contact Debi Papazian to sign up)


Sometimes Life Throws You Curve Balls

It’s been a long ten days. Only ten days? I’m just now getting caught up on my sleep. My grandmother is on the mend – this saucy photo that I snapped today is proof of that. She spent a week in the hospital, but has now been released to a skilled nursing facility. The first two days there were rough; she had been in bed for days, and just getting dressed was taxing. Trying to walk with a physical therapist completely exhausted her. But today, for the first time, she was truly her old self again, spirited, strong willed, full of energy, and determined to get home as soon as possible.

I have been making daily trips to visit her, doing what I can to cheer her up and keep her motivated. I brought helium balloons and flowers, a stuffed animal duck, and a solar-powered dancing flower. I stopped by the grocery store to pick up Entemann’s glazed donut holes, her favorites. I plied her with M&Ms. Her drab walls were cheerless; I wanted to brighten them with posters of garden scenes, but found that no one carried such posters, after searching everywhere. I had to settle for posters of puppies and kittens. At least they’re colorful and cute.

Most important, of course, has been simply being there. Kissing her hello, touching her hands, smoothing her hair, calling her “Lady Jane.” I don’t even remember why I started calling her that, but it’s a nickname that I picked up, and it fits.

The beauty of all of this has been the closeness I have felt, being able to be there for her, and also being able to be a support person for my uncles Ken and Lee, my aunt Alice, and my other relatives that have been involved in her care. Gladys is my father’s mother, the father that I lost six years ago to cancer. In his memory, I am grateful that she is surrounded by all of our love.

In the middle of all of this, Sabrina and I had another crisis at home. On Monday, I had spent a full day at work, capped by an evening school board meeting. I returned home at 9 p.m.; Sabrina was already in bed, since she wakes at 3 a.m., leaving the house early to start a 5 a.m. shift each morning. I greeted the dogs, let our parrot Barney out of his cage, and went to my office to work on some paperwork. At midnight, I was getting ready for bed, and I went to put Barney back in his cage. He was up on top. As I asked him to get in for the night, I saw that he was wobbly and unsteady. His breathing was erratic, and his chest was heaving. Alarmed, I picked him up and held him. He was clearly in distress. I went to wake Sabrina. “Something’s wrong with Barney.”

She sat up blearily, and shook herself awake. We started making phone calls. We’ve been in this position before, unfortunately – there are no pet clinics in the area with 24-hour avian specialists. The closest is U.C. Davis. We finally found a doctor at Pet Care in Santa Rosa who said she could stabilize him for the night, giving him oxygen and fluids, until he could be seen by an avian vet. We made a 1 a.m. trip to the emergency clinic. He was placed in a glass tank with oxygen, and given subcutaneous fluids, because he had been vomiting and was dehydrated. It was a long night. We had to leave him there, and make our way back home.

We were both exhausted, having just spent the last four days in emergency mode with my grandmother. We took the day off work, and spent the morning going to veterinary clinics, getting x-rays and bloodwork done. He was in the hospital for two days. Walking past his empty cage at home each night was breaking my heart.

We finally got word – it was the same problem he had experienced three years earlier, when he had been diagnosed with high cholesterol, a problem that occurs in African greys. He had been on cholesterol medication for a while, and we had radically changed his diet, and then stopped the medication, thinking he was alright. When I asked the vet what exactly happened that Monday night, she said, “He was having a heart attack.” Thank god I was awake, and I noticed.

So – now Barney is safe at home, on the mend, and from here on out, on birdy Lipitor.

And we are feeling exhausted, but grateful. Right now, everyone is doing okay. It would be nice to have a couple of days of boredom, just for a change of pace.


The Fragility of Life

On Wednesday I pulled an all-nighter at work, working 31 hours in two days. I got home about 7 a.m. I had received a phone call the previous afternoon from my uncle Ken saying that my grandmother, Gladys, was not doing well. She has had a sore on her leg for the past week, and had made several trips to the doctor, and it seemed to be getting worse. Ken was up at his cabin in the Sierras. My other uncle, Lee, was helping out with care, but Kenny was keeping me in the loop.

When I got home, I decided to call to check on her to see how she was doing, knowing that she is always up by that hour. (She lives in a senior apartment complex.) She answered the phone, but sounded groggy, and said she’d woken up in a lot of pain. I asked her if a nurse would be checking on her, and she said yes. I told her to keep me informed, and said I’d come in that afternoon to make sure she was okay. My plan was to sleep for four hours, and then head in.

Thirty minutes later, the nurse called. Grandma needed to be seen by a doctor right away. It looked like a staph infection, and it was spreading. I got on the road, and before we knew it, I was being told that she needed to be admitted to the hospital for IV antibiotics.

It turned into a very long day. We were able to reach Kenny, and he was back in Santa Rosa by 6 p.m. Lee showed up too, after he got off work. But for most of the day, it was just me and Gladys, first at the doctor’s and then at the hospital, going through admissions, then the endless intake questions, the lab tests….

For the past four days, I have been making daily trips to the hospital, sending out e-mail updates to my large extended family, and keeping track of everything with cell phone calls while we try to coordinate all those things that need coordinating.

Gladys is going to be 100 years old on Aug. 3. She is a feisty, active, amazing woman, who has rarely been sick a day in her life. The whole family is involved right now in planning a huge centennial birthday bash for her. This unexpected reminder of the fragility of life, especially of the life of a 100 year old woman, has made us all hold our breath.

My grandmother hates to be a bother to anyone. I am so intensely grateful that I made that 7 a.m. phone call on Thursday, because she knew I was home, that I was available, and that I would be there in a second. (Thankfully, I didn’t tell her that I had been up all night – otherwise, I am positive that she would have tried to take the bus rather than inconvenience me!)

I love this woman with a fierceness that I cannot even begin to describe. We have grown so close, especially over the past six years, since I lost my father (her son) to cancer. When my dad passed away, I vowed to honor his memory by strengthening my relationship with his mom, and being there for her in as many ways as I could as she aged. As is usual with these vows, I think I have benefited at least as much, if not more, than she has from the extra attention. She is nearly 100 years old, and I know it is only a matter of time until I must lose her. But until then, I’m going to fight for every minute I can get.

We are hopeful that she will be discharged from the hospital on Monday or Tuesday, and then we will plan from there. Things may be a little different now. She might not be quite as independent. It’s going to be rough for her. I hope I can help her through the transition.


Upcoming Schedule, May 29-June 6

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, June 1
7 p.m. sit
7:35 p.m. kinhin
7:45 p.m. sit
8:20 p.m. service

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, May 29
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea

Saturday, June 5
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea

Sunday, June 6
8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. all day sit


Ripley’s Birthday

Today is Ripley’s birthday. She is five years old.

Ripley is my sweet, adorable, smart, loving, yellow lab. She is named after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movies, because at the time I got her, I was having a lot of trouble with nightmares, and I wanted a kick-ass girl to help me fight the bad guys. Upon meeting her, my co-workers teasingly said I should have named her Petunia, because of her far-from-imposing disposition. I believe that, like me, when push comes to shove, the capacity to fight is there – in the meantime, she is a gentle soul.

What do you give a dog for her birthday? Her favorite thing is to spend time with me. So, I brought her to the office. We spent the day at the newspaper. This meant, in addition to lying under my feet at my desk, three trips next door to Kerri’s Hair Salon for dog treats, three walks around town to visit people at the Chamber of Commerce, the Planning & Building Department and the grocery store, and, best of all, a stop at Scoops & Swirls.

At Scoops & Swirls, we walked in and I announced that it was Ripley’s birthday, and I wanted a cup of frozen yogurt for her. The young man at the counter didn’t blink. He said, “Tart?” which is the closest flavor to vanilla. I said sure. He served up a small cup and handed it to me. I asked how much. He smiled and said, “No charge; birthday yogurt is on the house.” Ripley didn’t even have to share.

Now that we are home, she is in her usual spot, at my feet on the floor while I work at the computer in my office. After I change into my pajamas and crawl into bed, she will leap into the air and land full-bodied onto my stomach and chest. She lies that way, stretched the full length of my body, with her head on my chest, for about half an hour each night, until she gets too warm; then she moves to the foot of the bed, or gets onto the floor. She needs that contact, that embrace, to connect with me at the end of every day.

I love this dog. There is no pain, no sadness, no loneliness, no despair that she cannot ease. She makes me laugh more, and smile more easily. Every year we are together, my heart grows a little bit more.

Happy birthday, Ripley. May you have many more.


A Tale of Two Literary Doctors

I recently read two novels, one right after another. The first was “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards. It had been a gift from my mother. The second was “Sing Them Home” by Stephanie Kallos. I had been waiting to read it with much anticipation, after loving her first novel, “Broken for You.”

It was entirely coincidental that I read them as I did, sequentially. They were different in style, and in overall scope. But they shared one very poignant and haunting theme.

The timeline in both books began with a young married couple in the early 1960s. In both, the husband was a physician, the wife a homemaker, soon to be a mother.

In “Memory,” the doctor’s wife goes into early labor in a snowstorm, and he has to deliver his own child at his clinic, with only his nurse in attendance. He safely delivers a healthy baby boy. Unexpectedly, while his wife is semi-conscious, he realizes there is also a twin – a baby girl. But when he delivers her, he sees that the child has Down Syndrome. Rather than put his wife through what he thinks will be a horrible discovery, he gives the infant to his nurse and tells her to bring the baby to an institution. Later, he tells his wife the baby was stillborn. And this lie, slowly and surely, destroys them both.

In “Sing,” the young wife has several heart-rending miscarriages. When she finally carries a child full term, the doctor keeps checking her eyesight, but never tells her why. Over the ensuing months, and then years, she struggles with ongoing bouts of fatigue and clumsiness, always blaming herself. Finally, she has terrifying episodes of vision loss.

At last, she goes to another doctor, a family friend in a neighboring town, and demands to know what is wrong with her. He listens carefully, and tells her that she has multiple sclerosis – and he also reveals that her husband has known it for years.

When reading “Memory,” it is hard to believe that Down Syndrome children were once taken from their families, locked up in wards, denied access to public education, and even denied medical care, on the grounds that they were going to die soon anyway.

Special education programs, group homes, day facilities, and other forms of family support have made it possible for most disabled people to be active and involved in the world today.

And in “Sing,” it is equally hard to believe that a doctor would keep from an adult patient the nature of his or her own illness, and even more egregious that a husband would do so. But that was the common medical practice not so many years ago. It was thought that patients who were told the truth would somehow not handle it properly.

Now, of course, most people believe in talking openly of disease, and even of death and dying. We write living wills, we call in hospice, we have grief counselors. Everything is centered around the patient’s right to know.

But this all makes me wonder. What novels, written 40 years from now, will make readers look back at 2010 and say, “Oh, god, how sad! I can’t believe they were so blind!” What routine decisions do our surgeons make in the operating rooms? What procedures do patients undergo that those readers will remember, faintly, as they turn the pages, and shudder, thinking of needless suffering and loss?

It is comforting to think that we are moving closer to a compassionate health care system. Comforting….but true?

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved