On Knowledge

I just returned from a week-long informal writing retreat with my close group of women writing friends on the Northern California coast. Part of our practice together is to draw tarot cards and use them as writing prompts. We have multiple decks to choose from; one is a new deck I found recently, the Osho Zen Tarot. I randomly pulled this card, Consciousness, and this short essay resulted.

The third eye, the knowing. Sit deep into self and let go of all that doesn’t matter, the judgment, the baggage, the conditioning, the you-will-never-be-good-enough, the fear, the hesitation, the second guessing.

Become the mountain self. Hips planted on the cushion, back straight, shoulders soft but firm, relaxed, the breath moving in and out with life force, and the face soft, quiet, tender in its no concentration, in its no focus – all present, all now.

And yet, that most important part, the third eye, glowing in the center of the brow, the penetrating wisdom, the pure insight, true knowledge.

Not the intellectual dissection, not the quick wit, not the ironic tongue or the acerbic humor, not the speed of a barb –

No, this is a mist of illumination, raindrops to clear the morning, cool water scooped with a gourd outside the temple gates to slake the thirst of the weary pilgrim. To dip the gourd in the well, to pour the water over the top of your head, to wash your dusty feet…

When simply to sit, to breathe, is enough.


Fiction Writing: Caught Between Reality & Make-Believe

There are hazards to being a writer of fiction. Sometimes one gets trapped between reality and make-believe, entirely unawares.

About a year ago, I spotted a St. Bernard rambling loose along River Road, right near my house. I grabbed a leash and dashed down to get him before he fell victim to one of the cars which race along the winding curves.

He and I headed up into the large subdivision nearby, stopped at a house to inquire, and I got the dog’s name and directions to his stomping grounds.

The long driveway led to a white home. I knocked, and a man and woman answered, opening a sliding door. We spoke only briefly, I returned the dog, and trudged on back to my place.

However, it had all left an impression. There was more there. I sat down and wrote a short story about it, and all the details started to change.

I became a young guy named Dave. He was coming home from work. The dog’s name was Bear. The people at the house were odd – their stuff in piles in the kitchen, both heavy smokers, everything dingy. They didn’t seem to care that Dave brought Bear home, and when he asked them for a treat for the dog, the man (Henry) handed Dave part of a sticky donut out of a half-empty pink box on the coffee table.

I had been working with the idea of “the inside story.” The story within the story, which in this case was that Dave had a younger brother who worked at the donut shop, a brother with Downs Syndrome. That is revealed in the final scene. Eventually, the story was titled “Donuts.”

On Friday, I was revising that story for a fiction contest. I was tweaking and twisting and turning. So I was getting pretty intimate with it. It was in my marrow, the way stories get when you’re close with them.

Then on Monday, I was at work at the Tribune, and my partner Sabrina called at about 5 p.m. and said, “Hey, Michelle. There’s a woman here with a lost St. Bernard. Do you remember where he lives?”

And I said, “Oh, his name is Bear!” Then I said, “Wait. No. That’s not his name. That’s the name I gave him. I made that name up. I can’t remember his real name anymore.”

Sabrina said, “It’s OK. We don’t need his name. Just his address.”

“Right. Well, his house is up past Tom and Dobie’s, I think. It’s a long, curvy driveway. I think. On the left.”


“The house is white, and all run-down, and peeling apart, and there are old cars everywhere. Like four or five or six of them. But maybe I made that up. I don’t remember.”


“And when you first walk towards the driveway, there’s one of those above-ground swimming pools, only it’s empty, and there’s trash all around it. I’m pretty sure.”

“Great. I think we got it.”

“He’s a really friendly dog.”

“Yes. That’s what the woman said, too. Love you. See you tonight.”

I hung up the phone, thinking hard. What did the people in the house look like? No idea. All I could remember were the people in my short story. What did I say when I brought back the dog? No idea. All I could remember was what Dave did, what Dave said.

My memory of finding the St. Bernard had been completely eclipsed by my fictionalized version of the incident. I had rewritten it. There was virtually nothing left of the original.

Whoa. I’m going to have to watch that one. I can just hear myself using that excuse at a family gathering – “Sorry, must have been a writer’s blackout.”


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.


The Mystery of Vow

I know many people who are experts at what they do. They’re brilliant when it comes to investing, or they know all about gardening, or they can explain in detail exactly what makes a particular symphony such a pivotal turning point in the history of music. There are yet other people who simply have an opinion about many things, whether or not they have a strong knowledge base.

Between these two groups of people, up until a few years ago, I often found myself surrounded by friends, family and acquaintances who flooded me with words of advice – everything from what I should do with my money to what kind of coffee I should buy, from where I should live to what career I should pursue, from what spiritual path I should embark upon to what kind of music I should put in my CD player.

Much of the advice-giving happened, I believe, because the people in my life saw me as lost, as fragmented. It seemed that I needed guidance. And I was vulnerable to that impression, at times believing it myself.

But as time passed, I realized the long and rocky path I had traveled had given me a great deal of personal wisdom. I knew things. Yes, I have been a victim of molestation, sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, I have struggled with mental illness, alcoholism and eating disorders. Yes, I have attempted suicide. Yes, I was even classified for a time as permanently disabled for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Yet I survived. Slowly, slowly, I began to rebuild myself. I got clean and sober. I worked in therapy as if my life depended on it – because it did. I began to write, and there found the voice I needed to first express the pain, and eventually to begin writing about beauty.

About six years ago, for the first time, I began to feel as if I might have something to give. Perhaps I, too, would be able to find words of advice for someone. From my own experience in hell, I thought I might be able to lead another person out of the pit.

There was only one problem. I have never believed in giving unasked for advice. And no one in my life saw me any differently yet. I was still broken Michelle. So there were no seekers knocking on my door. No one thought to ask me for assistance.

Until now. Over the past four months, it seems as if almost weekly something has come up. People have been approaching me with all kinds of situations and problems, asking me to help them think things through. Not little things, either. Big things. Suicidality, substance abuse, schizophrenic episodes, fear of death, spirituality.

I am humbled by the trust these friends show in me. For each one of them, what I try to do is be fully present, listen, share what I can of my story that might have some relevance, help them look at their own resources for answers. Often listening is the most important act. I know that because that’s what I needed. I remember all the times I wasn’t listened to, all the times a doctor or a psychiatrist or a police officer didn’t hear me.

Today I was feeling so grateful this is happening, that I am finally having this chance to give back in some small way, to transform all the hurt I experienced into something good. And I was trying to figure out how it came about. Why now? Why are people asking me for help?

Then it hit me. It is because I made a vow to follow the bodhisattva path. It is because I went through jukai (lay ordination). My intention is manifesting itself in the universe.

My Buddhist name is being realized: Ankyo Kikan, Dark Mirror (my past) Joyful Reflection (my future).


It’s Not the Pulitzer, But….

Every week, I write four or five news stories, and often a column or a movie review as well. Some of them are pretty formulaic – school board coverage, previews for events like a Cinco de Mayo Festival, basic reportage on items before the planning commission or graffiti spray painted on the city park’s bathroom walls.

The feature stories get a little more interesting. I’ve covered everything from pet pigs (and pet turkeys) to men who quilt, from champion vegetable farmers to World War II veterans recounting imprisonment in internment camps, from people who came to wine country with the dream of growing their own grapes, to a woman who led me through the steps of hand-pressing olive oil from her own trees.

I’ve had mud baths, and salt scrubs, and foot massages, and attended yoga classes, and Nia classes, and Pilates classes, all in the interest of telling Calistoga visitors a first-hand account of spa indulgences for our monthly Mud City Weekender.

I’ve met a lot of interesting people, and told quite a few decent stories. Some of them, I felt, turned out quite well. And the people of Calistoga, my readers, have been kind, and I frequently receive nice compliments about my writing – one of the perks of being a writer in a small community where people know who you are.

But last week, I received an award from my peers.

Each year, the California Newspaper Publishers Association holds a Better Newspapers Competition. Newspapers across the state of all sizes submit their best efforts: news stories, feature stories, business news stories, sports stories, news photos, sports photos, photo essays, editorials, etc. The competition is divided into categories by newspaper size, so the big dailies compete against each other, while the weeklies have their own contests.

Judges from newspapers around the state select the top four entries in each category. These four “blue ribbon panel” finalists are sent to judges from outside of the state, and two awards, a first and a second place, are bestowed, and then announced, at the annual convention.

And I won! I received a second place award for a business story I wrote called “Recession Woes.” It was a good, solid piece of news journalism. I had interviewed several local merchants, including one who had been forced to close shop, as well as the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, the city’s financial director, and others in the community, assessing the impact of the recession. It was a story that, even when I had written it, I felt like, “Now, that was a good effort.”

The Calistoga Tribune, my newspaper, also won awards for a feature story (first place) and photo essay (first and second place).

So – it’s not going to my head or anything. But it sure does feel nice to have that little pat on the back every now and then, to have somebody say, “Hey, nice job.”


A Gift of a Writing Weekend

After another crazy work week, I’m off for two and a half days of a much-anticipated retreat. In a couple of hours, I will be heading to Mendocino with my friend Christi to stay two nights at a cabin. We met three years ago when a writers’ group was being formed in Cloverdale, and have become best friends. She is working on a novel about a young American woman who ends up in Germany just before World War II, marries a German man, and then finds herself alone with young children while he goes off to fight. My own writing has been sadly neglected in recent weeks, and needs a kick start.

I just got back from the grocery store, stocking up on easy-to-fix food. The plan is to hole up in the cabin, and write, write, write. It will also be the first time that we have ever been able to spend such a long time together, uninterrupted. Christi is a mother of two grade school children and a full-time high school teacher, and between our relationship/family obligations and work schedules, we’re usually lucky to eke out about two hours at a time. So the conversations on the drive and over meals, etc., are another thing we’re looking forward to.

This is something I have to thank my partner, Sabrina, for. After my writing retreat in New Mexico last summer, I rather wistfully mentioned one day that Christi and I needed to do something like that. Sabrina jumped on it immediately and said, “Do it! Make it happen! Even if it’s only for a weekend.” So, with her support and encouragement, we managed to figure out our schedules, find the perfect place, and this weekend it’s finally going to become a reality.

It’s partially fulfilling a fantasy of mine that I’ve had ever since reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift from the Sea.” The book is about relationships – primarily about marriage/love relationships, but also about motherhood and friendships. The section that spoke most strongly to me is in the section “Argonauta,” where she describes spending a week at a cabin with her sister, and “a perfect day.”

The perfect day, as she delineates it, involves the natural, right combination of everything: a morning swim, hot coffee and breakfast, shared morning chores. Then to work, in separate rooms, writing, all morning. Coming together at lunch, the relief of social contact. In the afternoon, errands, then a long walk on the beach. Evening is a return to warmth and intimacy, sharing the chores of preparing supper, and having deep, long conversations. Before bed, once again, a walk on the beach, under the stars. Then “back again to our good child’s sleep.”

What Lindbergh finds so perfect in the day is the freedom – it is not cramped in space or time, and is not limited in kinds of activity. There is a balance in physical, intellectual and social life. She says, “Work is not deformed by pressure. Relationship is not strangled by claims. Intimacy is tempered by lightness of touch. We have moved through our day like dancers, not needing to touch more than lightly because we were instinctively moving to the same rhythm.”

So, that is what I hope to capture this weekend. A natural balance, moving easily from work to conversation to preparing meals to walks to sleep.

I’ll let you know Sunday night how it works out. Happy weekend.


Live the Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four

Rain and solitude…a good combination for reflection, quiet thought, stillness of emotion. I am in that space of seeking. I seek relief from pain. I seek answers to questions. I seek light in the darkness. I seek a barely visible deer trail on the forest floor, leading out of the wilderness. I seek myself.

It is easy to fall prey to the false belief that one answer will come, an answer simple and direct, which will change everything. It is tempting to look for a pre-packaged, bottled, instructions-included solution. And yet I know that what is made to order is not made for me.

Rilke says: Try to love the questions themselves. There is no sense expecting that my seeking will lead me anywhere, not any time soon. What I must do, to follow the advice of the great poet, is to love the seeking, enjoy the quest.

Live the questions now. What better way to say it? Be there then. Live here now. In the pain, in the emptiness, in the suffering, in the middle of nowhere. When I had my first dokusan, and tearfully exclaimed, “I have been seeking a Zen path for so long,” Darlene Cohen said to me, “You are already there.”

Thank goodness for teachers. Thank goodness for poets.


My Name is Michelle, and I Am an Addict..

I have a confession to make. I am a complete, unapologetic, wildly out of control book addict. I can’t seem to stop buying them.

I have five bookshelves in my office/work space at home, and they are almost full. I’m spilling out into the rest of the house: bedside table, bookcase in the bedroom, a row of hard-bound classics on top of the piano. (The picture above shows what it looked like last summer, when I had to clear it all out to paint the room, and then somehow put it all back in order again.)

It’s not as bad as it could be, because about ten years ago, after slowly accumulating books for the first 35 years of my life, and carting them all around with me, I went through a major purge, and sold or gave away almost all of them. After that, I was lean and mean for a while. I started using the library almost exclusively. When I did have to buy a book, I would read it and then give it to a friend.

But somewhere in the nesting that has happened in the past six years, the book habit has crept back into my life. I had kept some volumes, the best of the best, ones that I couldn’t bear to part with. And now, I am adding new books all the time. I’ve been in a book group for the past seven years, so that’s one new book a month. Then I hear recommendations, or read one book that references another, or read a review, or stumble across a find on Powells.com, and off I go.

I am constantly interested in new things, and that interest always leads me to more books. So I have a shelf of books on Zen and other Buddhist writings, a shelf of books on Japanese language, a collection of Spanish books, an assortment of books on writing, a bookcase full of poetry. Then I veer off into all kinds of topics, from vegan eating to gay culture to classical music and music theory to the history of World War II to contemporary philosophy.

There is so much amazing literature out there, so much to learn, so many pages to examine! The problem is that my thirst/appetite outweighs my capacity for consumption, i.e., I have several dozen books that I haven’t read yet, and I’m still purchasing new ones. That’s where the “addict” label comes into play.

I suppose it’s better than a lot of addictions. It’s not really hurting anyone else. And it doesn’t damage my health, or ruin my relationships, or threaten my job. Sometimes it does put a crimp in the paycheck, though.

So the big resolution this year is to read, read, read! I read “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare tonight. I’ve discovered books on CD, and that has upped my ability to get in more “reading” time. There are fabulous editions of Shakespearean plays on CD, acted out with full casts. I’m listening to each play in my car during my commute, then reading it from my “Collected Works” at home, then listening to it a second time, to really get in touch with the language. Very enjoyable, and a less daunting way to tackle Shakespeare than trying to read all 1,000-plus pages of the “Collected Works” straight through.

Within the next couple of days, I plan to start on the Buddhist reading plan I’ve laid out for myself – I have lots to choose from. And lots to learn. Maybe I can control myself, and not buy any more Zen texts until I’ve read the ones I already have. Maybe not….


A New Year, New Decade

When I was in highschool, watching the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” for the first time, that date seemed so far off in the future. I was sure we’d all be travelling around in Jetson-family-like hovercrafts, and taking one small pill every day to supply all of our dietary needs.

It never even occurred to me then that in 2010, I would still feel young.

New Year’s is a good time to reflect on the past, what has worked, what has not worked, and plan for the future. I tend to get a little carried away with self-improvement plans, though, and set unrealistic goals. So this year, I’m thinking maybe I’ll space things out a bit, tackle things one at a time.

First on the list: I’m embarrassed to say this, because it’s such a cliche. But I’ve got to get a handle on my food intake, weight and fitness. This is a huge stumbling block for me, one that I have wrestled with for many, many years. I’m trying to figure out how to frame it so I can really make a positive change that sticks. Something about healthy choices: food as fuel, exercise as daily maintenance. And throw in there some Zen awareness about each mouthful, so that I know I eat in the full presence of every bite, hoping that will eliminate all of the unnecessary calories.

Second: Continue on the path I am on towards jukai, and expand my knowledge of the Zen community. I feel firmly placed within my sangha, so this should not be hard. I would like to return to Tassajara again this year, and also, if possible, make time for some short stays or even day visits to City Center and Green Gulch, since I have never been to those places. I hope to expand my reading on Zen in particular and Buddhism in general, so that I can begin to get a grasp of the wonderfully rich heritage of this tradition. I also want to re-commit to daily sitting at home, since I’ve been somewhat lax about that lately.

Third: As a writer, I have made good progress in the past year. After attending a writing retreat in August, I was much more productive than I have been in ages. I have finally started writing short fiction (in addition to poetry and essays), something I had wanted to try for years, and I am enjoying it immensely. I have two strong writing partners who I can share my work with, and look forward to continuing to build those relationships. A focus this coming year will be on moving towards a more regular writing practice, and being brave enough to submit to journals and magazines.

Fourth: Read more! Of everything!

And that’s probably enough to work on, at least for now. There are a couple other big ticket items (like quitting smoking) that I hope to get to soon, but I want to try to get a handle on these first. At least get the momentum going, anyway. I’ll have to quit smoking eventually, if I even dream of being able to be the kokyo for the Full Moon Ceremony. No way I’ll have the lung capacity otherwise!

Anybody out there have some goals for the year? Care to share? We could form an online support group!


Creating Beauty from Katrina

Yesterday I finished reading Barb Johnson’s collection of stories, More of This World or Maybe Another. Barb was the recipient this year of the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation’s Gift of Freedom award, a $50,000 grant given to a deserving woman writer so she could practice her craft without financial worries.

I attended the AROHO women’s writing retreat in August, and Barb was an invited guest. She read from her new collection (just published this October), part of a short story called The Invitation. It was funny and wise and sweet, and uniquely told in her voice. I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the book.

Barb is from New Orleans. She grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and eventually ended up in the big city, working for 20 years as a carpenter. At some point along the way, she realized she had stories to tell, and enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program.

Barb brings to life the women and men and children of Louisiana, in all their specificity, with regional color and gorgeous description, peopling a world in her pages. What is truly remarkable is that she wrote the book in the wake of Katrina. Although the storm is not mentioned in the stories, the writing of it took place living on her apartment’s balcony, surrounded by the hurricane’s aftermath. She speaks of how beautiful it was at night:

The darkness provided a relief from the visual assault that went with life in the daylight: debris everywhere, pieces of my neighbors’ lives sitting in the middle of the street, animals that hadn’t made it through the storm.

Every day, National Guard patrols would drive by, and say to her, “Ma’am…you can’t be here. This neighborhood hasn’t been okayed for occupancy.” And I’d say, “Yes, I know.” Then they’d wave and drive off, and I’d go back to writing.”

In an afterword to her book, she said:

Anyone who was in the city at that time was starving for something normal – seeing a neighbor, walking the dog, sitting down to a meal with friends. Writing was the only thing I did after the storm that I’d done before it. It was normal. Having to write under those circumstances banished forever any notion that things had to be a certain way – neat desk, good coffee, agreeable temperature – in order for me to write.

And the result of that labor, produced on a laptop on a balcony in the midst of hurricane disaster, is this beautiful book. What a metaphor for what art can be!

Sitting and working at my neat desk, with the heat on, a roof over my head, coffee brewing in the next room, I know that there will never again be a valid excuse for not being able to write. The words do not rely on perfect conditions. All that is required is showing up.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved