4Aug

But Is It My Place?

Last winter, I attended a silent Zen retreat up in the mountains. At one point in our tightly regulated schedule, the retreat staff didn’t have our noon meal ready on time. Generally, when we walked in, our two teachers, Tony and Darlene, went to the head of the line and served themselves first, and we all followed after. But now, we found ourselves milling about in the dining room, momentarily purposeless.

At last, the meal was ready. I turned, and gestured towards Tony, who stood at the back of the room. He shook his head, and waved me forward. So I went on, got in line, and helped myself.

Moments later, one of the other priests approached me. Taking me aside, she said in no uncertain terms that we never serve ourselves before the teachers. Point taken. As a relatively new student, I am used to being corrected on this path. I nodded, and sat down.

At the conclusion of the retreat, this same priest approached me again. She said, “I need to apologize to you.” She told me she uses three guidelines to govern her behavior, taken from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. They are: Is it beneficial? (Will it be helpful?) Is it skillful? (Will my words be kind, and cause no harm?) Is it my domain? (Is it my place?)

She said after speaking to me, she realized she could answer yes to the first two questions, but not to the third. It was not her place. She was not in a position of authority at the retreat. It was not her duty to instruct me. And so, she apologized.

That last lesson, “Is it my place?” stuck with me. So often I have found myself in situations where I wanted to weigh in, to get involved.

A friend’s mother said something cruel and inappropriate. I was sorely tempted to phone her and explain what was really going on. Someone petitioning for an application with the planning commission is taking an approach that might be damaging to his case, and I have an opinion about that. Just yesterday, I chatted with a young man with a dog, and saw that the dog had a foxtail embedded in his foot. I mentioned it, yes. But to go further?

In each of these cases, that line comes up in my mind: Is it my place? It reminds me that if people want my advice, they will ask for it.

Of course, there are times when it is our place. When it is time to act. And then, I will act. I am not afraid to take the right step when it is time.

It is also interesting to me that what this priest taught me came from her mistake. That in itself is something for me to hold onto as an example.

Yes, I did learn not to cut in line in front of the teachers. But the lasting lesson I received, the true teaching, came when she made a minor correction regarding my behavior, then came back and apologized to me.

It was her willingness to be vulnerable in front of me, her willingness to look at her own actions. I was holding no grudges. I had already let it go, and would have forgotten it. But she did not. And because of that, I received this teaching.

Every day, I thank her for it.

25Jul

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.”

“Good.”

“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.”

“OK.”

“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.”

1Jul

Taking Time

To live with no regrets is something that sounds wonderful – but impossible. And yet I have found recently in small ways I have been able to do just that, by taking it a few days, a few weeks at a time.

Kay Wheeler is a spirited, strong-willed, 96-year-old former Army nurse who is a family friend. She and her husband attended the Presbyterian Church that my parents joined when they moved to St. Helena in Napa Valley over 20 years ago. A few years later, when a flood devastated the Wheelers’ mobile home park, my parents gave the Wheelers an apartment in their home to live in until they had a new residence. I did not live in California at the time, but knew of the friendship, and especially I heard stories of Kay.

When I eventually moved to the Napa Valley, and started working at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, Kay was widowed, and had relocated to a mobile home park in Calistoga. She was a Tribune subscriber, and read my stories. She also happened to get her hair done at The Ultimate Kerr, the small beauty salon next door to the Tribune. So every couple of weeks I would see her, say hello, catch up on her news, the volunteer work at the local hospital, church doings, health matters. She always gave my hand a warm squeeze, eyes twinkling.

Always, she paid attention to my life through my writing. When my partner Sabrina and I lost our African grey parrot Barney, who I had frequently written about, Kay sent a beautiful condolence card, remembering the special animals in her own life. I began sending cards regularly, too, for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, any excuse to put a bright little reminder in her mail box.

As she aged, living alone at the mobile home park proved too difficult, and Kay decided to move back to St. Helena into a senior apartment complex. I offered to help her pack boxes. Because of scheduling conflicts, with friends and relatives in town, she ended up declining my help. Instead, we agreed to meet soon for ice cream – she admitted she loved rootbeer floats.

As promised, shortly after, I made a special trip over one afternoon and took her to the local A&W for rootbeer floats. We had a wonderful time. She asked about my animals, my partner Sabrina, who she had never met, and other details about my life. She chided me about smoking, and urged me to quit. She told me stories about her time as a nurse, things I had never known. And we shared memories about my dad, who passed away seven years ago from lymphoma. Kay adored him, and he adored her right back.

It’s easy to get busy, and not find time for things. We intended to get together again soon, but a couple of months passed. Finally, though, I reminded myself that one must take time for 96 year olds. On the spur of the moment one afternoon last month when I was running errands in Santa Rosa, I called Kay and asked if she was free for dinner. She said yes. I made the trip over the hill, and picked her up. She said she wasn’t really that hungry these days – all she wanted was a bowl of soup. We went to the most popular pizza/Italian joint in St. Helena, where she had minestrone and I had pasta. We again had a wonderful conversation. After the soup, she admitted she still had room for a scoop of ice cream.

Two weeks ago, by chance, I saw Kay again. My sister Catherine was in town from Connecticut with her husband Eric and 10-month-old son Kaden, to have Kaden baptized at my mom’s church. Kay hadn’t been feeling well, but had made it to church, decked out in a straw hat covered with pink and purple flowers. During community announcements, she said, “I’ve lost my pep and energy; so, if anybody’s seen it, please let me know!”

I was thrilled to see her, because Sabrina was there, and I was finally able to introduce her. Kay smiled broadly, and reached up towards her. Sabrina, always wonderful with older people, held out her cupped hands and said, “I just wanted to let you know. I found some of that energy. Here it is.” Kay thanked her, and grinned.

Kay fell last week. They ended up performing heart surgery on her at St. Helena Hospital. I was hoping to go visit her today. My mom called yesterday to say she had passed away. She had never really been conscious since the surgery.

I will miss this dear, sweet friend. I am grateful, though, for two things.

First of all, I know she was ready to go. She was tired, and in pain, and simply plain worn out. She remained cheerful and stoic and brave and generous to the end, but it was time.

Secondly, I have no regrets. I took time for my friend. I was not a close friend, really, just the daughter of fellow church members. But I showed up for her. I kept promises. We had rootbeer floats together. And I am not left with that raw ache of thinking, “Oh, I wish I had done it differently.” Because she knew that I loved her.

24Apr

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.

23Apr

Challenging My Absolutes

On Tuesday night, I was on the edge of town at 9 p.m. pumping gas at a station. I heard a voice from the street call out, “Hey, mister – I’ll give you $5 if you give me a ride down town.”

I am easily mistaken for a man with my shorn hair, hat and bulky coat. Perhaps he would not have even asked me if he knew I was a woman. But I was annoyed. I turned towards him with a semi-scowling face, not answering immediately.

My annoyance came not from the request, but because he was putting me in the position of having to say no. I don’t like having to tell people no when they ask me for a favor. But this is an absolute for me. I never give a ride to a stranger. If I see someone stranded on the highway, I will call 911 for them. But I never stop. And even in my small town, that rule holds. It is nonnegotiable.

He stood, waiting for my answer. I finally said, “I can’t give you a ride.” He sighed, and began again to walk down the road. I watched him go. He was elderly, and carrying a cloth grocery bag. He shuffled when he moved, but I could tell it was from fatigue, not from drunkenness. I saw him try to hitchhike. No one stopped.

I stood there at the gas pump, finishing up. Something told me I needed to challenge this. What do they say in Zen? Nowhere standing? No fixed rules? I tried to think of how I could change my mind while still feeling safe.

Two years ago, my dog and I were attacked by two off-leash dogs on a walk. Since then, I have kept pepper spray in my car for our outings. I reached into the glovebox, took out the pepperspray, and put it into the cubbyhole on the driver’s side. Then I unlocked the passenger-side door and unrolled the window, drove out into the street, and pulled up alongside of the man.

“Where do you need to go?”

“Bless you,” he said.

His name was Michael. He had spent the entire day navigating the bus system in Sonoma County, and simply didn’t have it in him to walk the last mile and a half home to his senior apartment complex. He didn’t mention the $5. We both knew that had nothing to do with why I had stopped. I drove him all the way to his front door.

That one small act of kindness made it much easier for me to go to sleep that night.

13Apr

Not Knowing

Our teacher Tony Patchell shared with us tonight a famous koan or Zen teaching story.

Teacher Dizang asked the student Fayan, “What is your journey?”
Fayan said, “I’m going on pilgrimmage.”
Dizang said, “What do you expect from pilgrimmage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Tony explained that words in these stories are always multi-layered. Here, “journey” is not only literal. It can also refer to Fayan’s Zen practice. Or he could be asking, “What does life mean? Why is it a mystery?”

In Zen, “intimacy” is often used in place of the words “enlightenment” or “realization.” Many of us come to practice originally hoping for a sudden shift, an awakening, a moment of clarity that will change everything – something more akin to the Japanese word “satori.”

Tony said he prefers the word “intimacy” because it has less baggage. We slowly get closer to our Zen selves; it rarely happens like a stroke of lightening. Suzuki-roshi famously described it as walking in the fog – you eventually get wet without realizing it.

In the same way, we become intimate without fully understanding how that takes place. Tony said when we know something, we tend to lock ourselves into it. It’s like the military axiom – we’re always fighting the last war. When we don’t know things, we are open to new experiences, and ready to see people and circumstances differently.

In my own life, I immediately thought of my experiences with trauma. As a child and young adult, I learned to respond to dangerous, unhealthy situations in a certain way. At that time, they were the only options I had, and although they did not keep me entirely safe, they at least allowed me to function at some level.

I am no longer in those situations. Yet, my first impulse is often to respond in the same old ways. Such is the nature of trauma. My mind and my body yell out: “I know!” and set themselves into rigid patterns of behavior and response. It requires great courage to say, “I don’t know.” And intimacy. Because the moment I say, “I don’t know,” I have to actually look at the person in front of me as a unique individual, instead of as a representative of a class or group. I have to open myself up, and look into his or her eyes. It is a very intimate act.

Perhaps that is not exactly what Dizang meant when he spoke those words. But they certainly resonate for me.

9Apr

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).

6Apr

Kitsune – The Fox

We have vultures that frequent the green belt to the rear of our property, swooping down into the trees with a whoosh, whoosh of their wings. The sound always sets off our Rhodesian Ridgeback/Rottweiler, Teo. He leaps into the air in a barking frenzy, somehow imagining that he can capture the dark shapes. The vultures, of course, perch nonchalantly sunning themselves, oblivious to the big red dog.

This weekend, though, when Sabrina walked out onto our deck, she was startled to find a vulture lurking a mere ten feet away, sitting on our deck railing. As she told me later, “I waved my arms around to assure it I wasn’t dead.” The vulture lazily roused itself, and took off.

An hour later, after Sabrina had left to run some errands, I walked out on the deck, bringing the dogs with me. Both Teo and my lab, Ripley, sped out to the far edge, hackles raised, yipping and growling. At first, I thought they were harassing one of the neighborhood’s wandering cats. But their energy was too insistent, too focused.

I walked over towards them, and scanned the yard: tool shed, the compost pile, lots of leaves piled up near the base of nearby trees. Perhaps a raccoon? But our friends Rockie and Roquette weren’t usually out during the day. I dropped my eyes lower.

And then I saw. Right below us lay the body of a grey fox. She did not look as if she was sleeping; no animal sleeps like that. She looked as if she had fallen to her side, grown stiff, and then gone still.

I herded the dogs back into the house. The first thing I thought of was a need to cover her, to protect her from the vultures. I grabbed one of the blankets off our porch that the cats had been nestling in on cold nights, and returned to her. I didn’t look long. I simply brushed away as many flies as I could, and draped the cloth over her, then waited for Sabrina. I knew we needed to bury her, but I felt we should do it together.

When Sabrina arrived, I showed her why the vultures had been so close. Did you know that a group of vultures is called a wake? It was easier to imagine them as mourners come to pay respect, instead of scavengers. The fox was so beautiful; no predator wounds marked her body. Neither of us had ever had the chance to be so close, to spend such time looking at a fox. Death brings a strange intimacy.

We brought out a pickaxe and a shovel, and set to work digging a grave nearby. We glistened with sweat within moments, unused to that type of labor. It takes longer than one might think. I didn’t notice at first that Sabrina had shaped not a rectangle, but a circle. When the depth was right, she went to our fox, and gently broke rigor mortis, bending her into a curve. Then she picked her up and placed her into the hole, wrapping her tail up towards her head. Now she looked as if she were sleeping. Sabrina stroked her several times, murmuring, then stepped back. We filled in the hole, and were done.

But not quite. Sabrina had done everything she does so well, that touching and bonding. I, however, felt something was left incomplete on my side. For the last two days, I have been wishing I had done a simple service, recited a chant. I kept pushing the thought aside.

Tonight, I gave in to the desire. I put on my rakusu, brought my bell, chant book, incense bowl, and candle out to the deck. All alone, at two in the morning, I conducted a transition ceremony for our kitsune, the fox who came to us.

And after the last bow, I knew it had been the right thing to do.

5Apr

Opportunities

Where has the time gone? I am chagrined to see the date of my last blog post, and my dismal record of the last two months. But rather than whip myself with the proverbial wet noodle, I offer up these snippets out of those days, which have not been spent (yay!) wallowing in depression or (hooray!) reorganizing my file folders. I have actually been doing some really cool stuff. (How’s that for eloquent phrasing?)

My work with the YWCA Sonoma County has continued to expand. After the success of the writing events in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I was asked to join a cadre of intrepid souls creating a new focus group for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse, under the auspices of the nascent Family Justice Center of Sonoma County. The goal was to find a way to help survivors “tell their stories.” The other members of the team bring the skills of law, therapy, social work, and advocacy. I was invited as a writer.

What we have come up with is a wonderful six-month group that we are calling “Expressions.” The women will be creating a journal, using both the written word and art to tell their stories. I have enlisted the aid of several artist friends, who will be leading sessions on collage, photography, and block printing, among other things. Plus we’ll do poetry, directed writing…And the end result will be a book, a journal, a life story, filled with color and beauty and pain and truth. After several months of planning, the group is set to begin on April 21 (meeting twice a month), and hopefully the prep time will lessen. All of us are so excited to see this actually come together.

I will also be giving my first “DV 101” talk (the basics of domestic violence) to a class at Santa Rosa Junior College, teamed with another volunteer from the YWCA, on April 19. I used to give such talks regularly when I did this work in the South Bay, but haven’t done one in years, so that will be both familiar and a little tingly at the same time.

At my newspaper job, too, I have been presented with a number of interesting stories of late. Sometimes weekly newspapering is simply school board meetings and planning commission coverage. But other times, I am able to write about things that feel like they make a difference. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a local woman who was a living organ donor, giving 57 percent of her liver to a family friend who was battling liver cancer. She consented to tell me the story only if I focused on the importance of organ donation. So I did my research, and provided statistics on donation, told people what steps to take to become a donor, and provided websites for more information, in addition to telling her own amazing story.

And another story is coming my way soon. Two local women were recognized by our Soroptimist club for their participation in a program called Get on the Bus. The program brings children to prison to visit their mothers who are incarcerated. I interviewed the women briefly for the awards story, and they invited me to accompany them on their trip this year. So on May 7 (the bus trip coincides with Mother’s Day weekend), I will be on a bus to Chowchilla Women’s Prison. The inmates must apply for permission to see their children, and the children must be accompanied by a caretaker (often a grandparent). Get on the Bus provides the bus, insurance, three meals for the child and caretaker that day, and teddy bears and blankets for the ride home. I have contacted the prison to request security clearance, and everything looks like it’s good to go. I can only imagine that it is going to be a Saturday I won’t soon forget.

The reason I bring these things up, here on this blog, is that there is a clear connection for me between these actions I have been taking and my Buddhist vows. Initially, I was simply holding onto the ledge with my fingernails, sitting on the cushion for myself. But as I moved into the year preceding my jukai (lay ordination), I began to think more and more often: What do I have to give? In what way can I follow the bodhisattva path?

One of the first ways was taking on this blog – which is why I must now promise to come back to it. The blog is what made me realize that the path for me was to use my writing, my art, to help. To take this facility that I have, this urgency I feel to put words down, and use it to connect people, to tell stories, to create bridges, to seek justice.

So here is my opportunity. What is yours?

23Mar

From Kobe, Jan. 17, 1995 to Tohoku, March 11, 2011

The news in Japan has catapulted me back to my time in that country, my memories of that place.

I lived in Osaka and Kyoto from 1990 to 1993. I have a master’s degree in Japanese Studies, and initially went there on a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship to study at Doshisha University for a year and a half. I extended my stay for another 18 months, because I fell in love with the culture and the people.

Eventually, in September 1993, it was time to return to the U.S., It was a hard decision to make. I was deeply conflicted about leaving Japan and upon arriving in California, I experienced severe counter-culture shock, mourning the streets, smells, and sounds of Japan, as well as the loss of my friends and connections.

So on Jan. 17, 1995, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Kobe, also severely damaging nearby Osaka and Kyoto, I was devastated. The pictures in the newspaper, and those flashing across the television screens, were places I knew – collapsed highways I had driven across, flattened neighborhoods familiar to me, all the sights of “home.”

The brother of one of my closest friends lived in Kobe. His wife was pregnant, and near her due date. As was the custom, she had gone to her mother’s home in the country to wait for the birth. Her son was born that morning, the morning of the earthquake. Thankfully, he and his mother were not in a Kobe hospital. His father was among the commuters in the city, dealing with the chaos.

The Kobe earthquake was the biggest to hit Japan in 47 years. Nearly 6,500 died, and 27,000 were injured. More than 45,000 homes were destroyed.

And now we have the Tohoku earthquake of March 11, 2011, named after the region most affected in northern Honshu. The quake was of 9.0 magnitude, and geoscientists are saying it is the most massive event to have occurred in the last 1,200 years. With the compounding factor of the tsunami, at this point, there are an estimated 10,000 people dead or missing. Another 440,000 have been evacuated, and 88,000 buildings have been damaged. The most frightening unknown, of course, is the nuclear reactor plants, threatening meltdown.

Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, and experiences thousands of minor tremors each year. Nothing, however, can prepare a country for a disaster of this scale.

After 18 years, I have lost touch with all of my friends in Japan. I see their faces now – Yukari, Nariko, Machiko, Tomio, Nakamura-san, Sonoda-san, Sayaka-chan, Kenji-kun, and many more. I am praying they are each in a safe place, with food, electricity, water, and heat. I am holding them in my thoughts when I meditate, hoping that can somehow help keep invisible radiation from finding them, wherever they are.

Simon Winchester’s book, “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906,” tells the tale of that historic San Francisco quake. Winchester’s book delves into the science of seismology, and speaks specifically about the San Andreas fault. It is a fascinating read for those who want to learn more about this awe-inspiring movement of the earth.

That is the scientific part of the brain working. The heart/mind, though, is split open with grief over this event – and it will take some time before all of this human suffering can be absorbed into our world consciousness. A lot of time on the cushion.

(The Japanese kanji at the top is jishin – it means “earthquake.”)

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved