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.


We Need Our Own MASH Unit

This past weekend, we went up to Sea Ranch to spend four days at a rental property with family, who had been visiting for my grandmother’s birthday celebration. Sabrina and I were very much looking forward to a mini-vacation; we had hired a pet-sitter, cleaned the house, packed our bags, and headed for the coast, ready for some down time.

It was a little more than we bargained for. Throughout the weekend, there were people coming and going, with anywhere from two to six children, ranging in age from two to fourteen. At one point, there were four under the age of eight. Let’s just say it was lively, especially for two people who are childless.

But still, we were having a good time. It was great visiting with my sister and brother-in-law from New York, who I had missed a great deal, with their little guy Ty, my special nephew, and spending time with my sister and her three boys from Tennessee. We ate good food, had a gorgeous view of the ocean from our dining room table, and when it got too crazy, I holed up in my room to read or take a nap.

The trip got cut short, though, on Saturday afternoon, when Sabrina stubbed her toe on a coffee table. What? I know, what’s the big deal, right? Well, she broke that toe, and she did a doozy on it. It was sticking out at a very weird angle. We ended up helping her out to the truck, and I drove her to Kaiser in Santa Rosa, where x-rays confirmed what we suspected. Today, she had to go in to see a podiatrist, because the toe was not aligned properly, so they had to yank on it to try to get it lined up. She’s now in bed, after being in terrible pain all day, barely able to walk with a cane.

Geez. This is getting ridiculous. In the past nine months, we have had a chipped beak (Barney the parrot), lens luxation/sudden onset glaucoma leading to loss of an eye (Houla the dog), thumb surgery to correct arthritis (Sabrina the human), two heart attacks (Barney the parrot), a scratched cornea (Michelle the human), a leg infection leading to hospitalization (Gladys the grandmother), and now a broken toe (Sabrina the human). Each incident above necessitated a trip to the emergency room, either at the veterinary hospital or the human hospital – some of them required more than one trip. (I think there were actually a couple of other incidents, but I can’t recall them right at the moment.)

My teacher Tony, upon hearing about the broken toe, said we needed our own MASH unit. I think he’s right. Remarkably, throughout all of this, everything has turned out OK. No loss of life, no debilitating damage. My whole family is still in good health, functioning, and doing the best we can to deal with each one of these challenges as they come our way.

Sometimes, in the midst of all this, I bemoan the fact that I have no time to practice Zen. I have had to miss my Tuesday night sitting a number of times, and will have to again tomorrow, as I want to be at home to help Sabrina prepare some dinner after being alone all day while I am at work. Even though I know this is what I must do, part of me chides myself for being a “bad” Zen student for being so caught up in these day-to-day crises. Then I ran across this story:

From “Zen Is Right Here” by Suzuki Roshi:

A woman told Suzuki Roshi she found it difficult to mix Zen practice with the demands of being a housewife. “I feel I am trying to climb a ladder. But for every step upward, I slip backward two steps.”
“Forget the ladder,” Suzuki told her. “In Zen, everything is right here on the ground.”


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.


No Permanence, Joyful Open Eyes

To quote Dainin Katagiri, in “Each Moment Is the Universe

When you see in the proper way, what do you see? You see the true nature of time. In Japanese we say mujo. Mu is “nothing” and jo is “permanence,” so mujo means “no permanence” or “impermanence.” Seeing impermanence is not to face a kind of nihilism that leads to despair; it is to become yourself, as you really are, with joyful open eyes. Thinking in the proper way is not to understand life through your intellect; it is to contemplate deeply how to live every day based on wisdom. When you see the true nature of time and understand how impermanence works in your life, you can use time to cultivate your life and to keep up with the tempo of life without feeling despair. That is the basis of a complete way of human life.

The true nature of time. That is definitely something I am grappling with at the moment. One of my co-workers, in my small, four-person office, has announced that she is leaving on Aug. 11. We will be hiring a replacement, but probably not until mid-October. Three of us can put out the newspaper, but it means that no one can be out on vacation, or sick, or not carrying their weight. Since I had not taken any vacation time yet this year, and saw that my opportunities were fast disappearing, I rapidly requested a week off, just to stay at home and regroup.

My plan for this week was to catch up on sleep, do some reading, spend time on my own writing, move organically through the days. Too quickly, though, I found myself distracted by chores and “have to” items, with the sense that I was not getting the indulgence I deserved. I ended up harried and dissatisfied, instead of relaxed, exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for.

Reading this Katagiri quote, which my teacher Tony Patchell shared with me a few weeks ago, I was reminded that I was going about the whole thing in the wrong way. Well, wrong might be too strong a word. How about “misguided”? Instead of trying to create perfect days where nothing interrupts and everything goes my way, I can find much greater satisfaction in facing each moment of every day, no matter the challenges, with humor, wisdom, and presence.

Clinging to the idea of a perfect week off, or even an ideal afternoon, brings up those feelings of despair. Where is my life going? What am I doing with myself? Where do the days go? But when I focus instead on this moment, the task right in front of me, my breathing slows. My sense of harmony increases. I hear the Mozart playing in the background as I type. The brain quiets, and wisdom creeps in. It actually becomes possible to see with joyful, open eyes.


Seating for Five

We have a hummingbird feeder hanging from the eave of our covered porch. It is red, of course, since that is the color supposed to draw hummingbirds. At its base, it is wide, with five yellow sunflowers, and at the center of each is the hole from which the birds can draw out the sugar water.

We have a great deal of hummingbird activity. They are always zooming by, zipping through the air, often just over our heads. What is highly amusing, though, is that only one is ever feeding at a time. A single hummingbird always ferociously guards the feeder, chasing away any other interlopers. So it is a game of tag, of seek and chase. One approaches, then the one at the feeder dives after, and they both soar away, one in mad pursuit of the other.

Sabrina tells me that at her last house, feeling sorry for one hummingbird who always was chased away, she hung a second feeder up, about 15 feet away. Then the dominant bird simply guarded both, hovering in the air at center point, flitting back and forth to make sure no one could get to either feeder on her watch.

So tell me – why does the hummingbird feeder have seating for five? Are there hummingbirds somewhere in the world who are better at sharing their food, allowing company to sit down at the dinner table? Do some other hummingbirds have an altruistic streak, that seems to be lacking in the ones in Alexander Valley? Or were the designers of this hummingbird feeder uninformed of hummingbird behavior? Or, perhaps, the designers were optimistic, thinking if they made the feeder for five, they could cajole the birds into learning how to share?

I watch them and think, “Silly birds! We always refill the feeder. There is plenty for everyone.”

But – am I not guilty of that same behavior, in other circumstances? Holding on tight to what I have, afraid to give to others, afraid there won’t be enough left over for me? In my case, the object I hold on tightest to is time. I am fearful to commit to things because I don’t want to lose my alone time, my flexibility, my “freedom.” So I hesitate. I am less than generous when it comes to offering a helping hand. Because I think there won’t be enough left for me.

Silly bird.


Alone But Not Lonely

I’m not a big fan of large gatherings, especially meet-and-greets where you have to make small talk with a lot of people. That kind of superficial contact tends to wear me out, and it simply doesn’t give me much pleasure. But I like human contact. I enjoy immensely an evening with a few friends, and become quite animated with the energy of conversation. And I adore spending time one on one, where I can talk for hours about books, ideas, dreams, passions.

Anyone seeing me in these environments would probably classify me as an extrovert. I appear to be comfortable and at ease in these situations – and that is not untrue.

At the same time, however, I love spending time alone. I cherish the days when I am able to stay at home all day, puttering around the house, reading books, writing, having my only conversations with my dogs and cats. I find that in order to have those external energetic times, I need time alone to recharge – hours of quiet, uninterrupted space.

Sometimes, though, I manage to combine those two sides of myself, being both alone and with people at the same time, in a deeply satisfying way.

A couple of weeks ago, while researching calendar items for inclusion in my newspaper, I discovered that one of my favorite cellists, Nina Kotova, would be appearing in Napa Valley. Since the concert was set for a Tuesday, Sabrina would be unavailable to attend. I asked my co-workers if they were interested, but there were no takers. I was not about to miss this opportunity; I immediately booked a single ticket online for myself.

The concert was held at Castello di Amorosa, a recently-built replica of an Italian castle. The program included two piano/string quartet numbers, plus a cello sonata by Kotova. Knowing that the venue would draw Napa Valley’s “in” crowd, I had dressed up for the occasion. I arrived early, and watched people. Being alone gives you the opportunity to be a “spy;” it’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

We were seated in the central courtyard of the castle, in the open air. When the musicians came out, and took their chairs, it became obvious that I would not have a clear view of them, especially because there was a very tall man seated in front of me. For the first piece, I relaxed with my eyes closed, and felt the breeze on my face, imagined the notes falling into my hair, and smiled when small birds flew overhead and gave answering trills to the high tones of the violins. But before Nina came out, I stood and walked to the side of the courtyard, finding a seat on a low brick wall. I now had an unobstructed view of the stage. I watched enrapt throughout her Debussy piece; it was over far too soon.

A woman approached me later and asked me whether I enjoyed the Debussy. I said I liked it very much. She said she could tell. Apparently, my pleasure was visible. I had brief conversations with a few others about the music. I noticed a man and woman with a young boy. The man was carrying a slender musical case. I couldn’t tell what it contained, so I asked him what he played. He said he was a cellist. I said, “Oh, it’s your bow.” He told me he used to play with a member of the string quartet, but now he sold instruments, and members of the ensemble were trying out some of his instruments. He was up from Los Angeles. The young boy was studying piano.

All of this is simple, nothing earth shattering. Conversations, observations, reflections. But it happened because I was alone. I followed my desires, moving to get a better view of Nina, not worrying about whether or not that was appropriate. I was able to be fully present for the entire concert, not off in my head while the music was playing, not engaged in conversation with my partner during intermission, not closed into an inner circle of friends. I was alone but completely there.

I can close my eyes right now and hear Debussy, and feel the breeze on my cheek.


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.


Everything Changes

In a discussion this evening on the Three Marks of Existence, Tony Patchell focused on impermanence, the flux of life.

The Three Marks are (1) impermanence or inconstancy, (2) dukkha or suffering, and (3) non-self. A fourth mark is also frequently added, that of nirvana, or perfect composure, to round out the set.

Tony began with that most famous of quotes from Suzuki-roshi, when asked to summarize Zen: “Everything changes.” A full acceptance of that fact, of the absolute fact of transciency, goes hand in hand with the concept of selflessness – because what are you, if you change every moment?

Tony said that we as Zen students must first hear those words from a teacher, or read them in Buddhist writings. Then we must contemplate them, and analyze them, studying them until we can bring them to our own understanding. But even that is not enough. The final step is to meditate, to turn to zazen. Because it is only through zazen that we fully comprehend in our bodies what it means to be impermanent, to be always changing.

Impermanency – it is both incredibly terrifying and comforting at the same time. Terrifying for the obvious reasons. All the “good” things will go. When I think about losing those I love (my wife, my friends, my family members, my animals), it makes my heart clamp up. I’m a little less frightened when it comes to objects. I believe that I could recover relatively unscathed from the loss of my car, or my home, or other such items. But even there, I have vulnerable spots. I get frantic thinking about house fires, not only because I worry about all of my dogs and cats, but because I panic at the thought of all of my writings and computer files going up in flames. It’s my words that I’m attached to. Hah! Talk about impermanent!

So how, then, is the thought of impermanency comforting? When I am in a dark place, I know that it will not last. When my legs hurt while I sit zazen, I know that the pain is not endless. When I am frightened, or unsure of myself, or embarrassed, or lonely….everything changes. When I am exhausted, and hopeless, and burned out, pessimistic, angry, frustrated…these feelings pass. What an immense relief to know this is true.

Right now, I am wholly here. Now. And now again. Bam. Right here.

Pay attention. This is it.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved