Missing in Action

I have not attended my regular Tuesday night sangha for a month, and I feel lost at sea because of it.

It started because the first Tuesday of the month was election day, and I had duties at the newspaper. Then I caught a bad cold, and missed two weeks, both because I felt miserable, and because I couldn’t risk being around our teacher Darlene Cohen, in her compromised state of health, with my nasty germs. And now, this week, when I was thinking I could finally go, I realized that once again I have to miss. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, our press deadline has been bumped from Wednesday night to Tuesday night, so I will be at the newspaper until late – I generally don’t get done until midnight, so there is no way that I can show up for a 7 p.m. sitting.

In the meantime, Russian River Zendo has already moved forward on the first steps towards dharma transmission for priests Cynthia Kear and Sarita Tamayo, and will complete that ceremony by mid-December. People are cooking food to support Darlene and Tony as they struggle to cope with her worsening illness, and all the tasks that lie ahead of them. I am on the food preparation list, but we are progressing in alphabetic order, and with the last name of “Wing,” I have not yet been called upon. I have written cards, and kept in touch via e-mail; but I feel woefully disconnected right at a time when I wish I was close at hand offering support.

Being sick, of course, didn’t help. It was just a cold, but it was a doozy. We have no back-up staff at work, so no one can call in sick. I had to work, even on my worst days, which meant that I came home and crashed afterwards, and needed to conserve my energy in order to show up again the next day. It’s been a while since I’ve been this ill. Finally, though, I have stopped coughing, and have regained most of my strength.

My routine has been shaken up, though. My blogging was nonexistent. My sitting practice fell by the wayside. We had pet crises at home in addition to deal with, and a number of other anxieties, and it simply felt like all my energy was scattered, going no where in particular.

Ironically, I had signed up at the start of the month for something called “NaNoWriMo,” which is National Novel Writers Month. The idea is to try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. People all over the country (and the world) participate, logging their progress via a website. A friend talked me into giving it a try. I started off with a bang on Nov. 1 and 2, and then Barney got sick, the kitten got sick, I got sick… Sigh. So much for writing 1,600 words a day. I did, at least, come up with the premise for a novel, and make a start, and I am hoping to create my own private “NaNoWriMo” soon, maybe in December or January, when things have calmed down a bit.

Because that’s something else that has dropped off. My writing has been neglected terribly. Somehow, the discipline of one thing reverberates through everything else. Sitting affects writing affects eating habits affects exercise. At least that’s the way it works for me.

So I am in sore need of my sangha, of their support, their presence, their solidity. A month on my own is far too long.



My aunt, my mom’s younger sister, spent her career teaching English as a second language at Stanford University. When she retired, she and her husband moved to Cloverdale. She decided to learn to paint – and immediately threw herself into classes, studying the masters, and within a few years, was exhibiting her work at the local arts alliance gallery. She is also a very active volunteer, tutoring at the high school, working with the Friends of the Library, and seemily involved in everything community-minded.

She has battled cancer for more than a decade, and yet despite chemo and constant health issues, she continues forward, moving her frail body always into new ventures, and always into the service of others.

Last month, she had a stroke, and was partially paralyzed on her right side. Fairly quickly, she began to regain mobility, but of course, it was still a tremendous and unexpected blow for someone only 66 years old. She had little movement of her right hand, and I kept thinking, “How unfair! Just when she has found such joy in her art!” She spent a week in the hospital, then came home to work on physical and occupational therapy.

This past week, I called her to see how she was doing. Although her speech is slower, and somewhat slurred, this is what she had to report. On election day, she had walked the eight blocks to the polls, and the eight blocks home again, unassisted. She may have to use a cane on rainy days for stability, but other than than, no more walker. The day before my phone call, she had completed her final days of physical and occupational therapy – and returned to her job tutoring at the high school.

She said her handwriting wasn’t quite what she would like. She can print, but cannot write cursive. She doesn’t have the fine motor skills she needs to paint. “But,” she said cheerily, “I was thinking I’d try some printmaking anyway.”

I am so struck by her incredible tenacity and strength of spirit. There is not an ounce of self-pity in her. She tackles each day as it comes, and moves as quickly as she cans towards healing and normalcy, refusing to be stopped by her limited body.

What an amazing example of will! May I prove as graceful if and when I face similar health challenges.


Losing a Friend

Our house is quieter today than it has been in a long time. There is no chirping, sweet voice in the background, calling out, “Hello?” whenever the phone rings. There is no scolding “No!” when the dogs misbehave. There are no happy little tunes, fragments of songs, accompanied by impromptu dance solos.

We lost our parrot, Barney, today. He was twenty-two years old, young in parrot years. Just Sunday, he was his cheerful, wonderful, mischievous self. And now, suddenly, he is gone.

Sunday afternoon, we noticed an odd little sac underneath his beak, that looked like it was filled with fluid. There are no avian vets available on nights and weekends. He seemed OK, so we waited until the next day. At our regular vet’s on Monday, they checked him out and put him on antibiotics. Yes, there was some bacterial infection there. They didn’t know what had caused it. An injury, perhaps? They sent us home with medicine, and we hoped for the best.

On Tuesday morning, Sabrina left early for work, at 4 a.m. When I was getting ready to leave at 9 a.m., I checked on him. He was clearly very weak. Our regular vet was not available. We arranged to meet another vet in Santa Rosa, and the two of us met up there at 11:30 a.m. By that point, Barney was dehydrated, frail, barely moving, unable to hold onto the perch. The vet guessed maybe a cat scratch was the culprit, since the bacteria from a cat’s claw can be lethal to birds. They put him in an incubator, rehydrated him, started tube feeding and antibiotics, and told us it would be a couple of days before we would know anything.

At 4:30 p.m., we got the phone call that he was gone. Just like that. The worst part for both of us, I think, is that we weren’t there with him. You have to understand. Barney is like a small human, a little person. He mimics the way we walk, apes our language, says, “Ahhhh,” when we kiss each other. He loves to cuddle. He has a huge, Barney personality that has framed our whole household.

And now, we have an empty cage sitting in the corner of the living room. Every time I walk by it, I turn to look at him, to say something to him, out of habit, only to remember once again that he is not there.

He would have wanted to be held. He would have wanted to lie against Sabrina’s chest, feeling the beat of her heart. He would have wanted to coo softly to us one last time.

Ah, the hurt of loss! The price of love.

The Cheerfully Solemn Jiko

Susan’s tenure as shuso or head student has ended, as we concluded the fall practice period last weekend with our three-day sesshin at Black Mountain Center, and the shuso ceremony at Russian River Zendo.

Each time I participate in a sesshin, it seems I am faced with new challenges and experiences. This one was filled with a confusing mess of conflicting emotions. There were a large number of us, about 40 students. Many who came were grappling with their grief over our teacher Darlene Cohen’s worsening health. As the reality of her weakness, and the specter of cancer, hung over the weekend, all of us were brought face to face with our own fears: What does this mean for our sangha? What does it mean for me, and my practice? How can we support each other through this difficult time?

In other sesshins, I have been buoyed by incredible lightness and energy. This time, I was exhausted. I found myself nodding during zazen periods. Twice I took advantage of the optional rest periods offered, choosing to walk in the woods rather than sit. My legs were aching; my body was heavy.

I was saved by my work assignment. On Saturday, I acted as jiko to Sarita Tamayo and Cynthia Kear, two priests who will soon receive dharma transmission from Darlene. They offered dokusan (private student interviews) throughout much of the day. As jiko, it was my job to quietly approach the student in the zendo who was next on the list, bowing, indicating that it was their time for dokusan. I then waited for them to come to the door, and led them to the separate building where Sarita and Cynthia were waiting.

I had never been jiko before. At first I felt vaguely guilty, as if I were cheating, because for most of the day on Saturday, I was unable to sit zazen with the rest of the students. I was too busy shepherding people back and forth to the dokusan rooms. But then I realized that this, too, is zazen – everything we do is zazen, if we can focus our attention properly. So I gave myself over to the task, and completed it as diligently as I could. I was going to say, just now, that I did it as cheerfully and as solemnly as I could. Then that sounded oxymoronic. How could it be both? But that is what it felt like – a practice with both cheerfulness and solemnity.

When it is time to receive a work assignment from one of my teachers, I have a tendency to want to keep doing the same job over and over again, because I like mastery. I am most comfortable knowing that I can do something without error, without hesitation. At first, I was annoyed that my teachers gave me new roles at each opportunity. It seemed inefficient, even haphazard. It has taken me some time to appreciate the teaching in this practice. For me, at least, the constant change is a push, a nudging. It means that each role remains fresh and new as I take it up, and I approach each one with a seriousness, an intensity, as I try to learn. But, at the same time, it has forced me to be light – because I make mistakes. I bobble, and take missteps. The best I can do is simply be cheerfully present, ready for a gentle correction from someone nearby. All of which is a wonderful lesson for a perfectionist with performance anxiety.

Ah, the wisdom of our teachers!

Thank you very much to Susan for being a guest on the blog for these past six weeks. It has been a pleasure reading your words.


Susan’s Shuso Blog: A Chance Encounter

I sit in a cafe working on a presentation for our Wednesday night class on foggy mind. On the table is a copy of Reb Anderson‘s book, Being Upright. A woman enters the cafe. She is silver haired, like me. She wears a t-shirt that advertises the Fiddlehead Cafe in Hancock, NH. The t-shirt is often-washed green. She sits at the next table with her back to me. When she gets up to leave, she turns my way. She looks at the book. It is clear to me that she is curious about it. I say, “This book is about the Zen precepts. It is about how to find freedom and liberation in practicing them. “Yes,” she says shaking her finger. “They are not about commandments.”

I ask her about the t-shirt. “My cousin gave it to me.” she says. “I love wearing it because it reminds me of her. My cousin lives in New Hampshire.” I say, “My son lives in Concord. I have spent a lot of time in that beautiful state over the years.” We speak of leaves turning color and falling, yesterday’s rain.

She turns to leave. Her silver hair streams down her back almost covering the Fiddlehead Cafe sign.

She points to the book again. “That bodhisattva vow is so difficult – vowing to bring others across.” As she opens the cafe door, she turns and says, “Kindred spirits.”

I smile.


Finding Compassion for Those Who Hate

I have always allowed myself to feel justified anger for unforgiveable acts – things like blatant acts of racism, or homophobia, or sexual violence. It has been a hard, bitter place in my heart, where there is no room for opening.

Talking with my teacher Tony about this, he gave me a challenge one day. He invited me to try to extend metta or compassion to the homophobe and the skinhead. I mulled it over for quite a while. I was willing to try, but I wasn’t very convinced that I could be successful.

As long as I can remember, I have been plagued by nightmares. There are many recurring themes, lots of things that I have examined and probed. And sometimes the dreams cycle towards healing, taking me to new places. Then they go back into deep hurt and terror, like that proverbial onion, always peeling one more new layer of fear and pain.

Recently, though, I had a dream that gave me an experience that I had never had before: a moment of grace.

Here is the dream:

I am a teenager, sitting with another teen on top of a car near the entrance to an alley, which leads to a path that heads to a park of some sort. We are sitting and talking, when we hear a sound. We look up, and see a man walking down the main street. He is kicking rocks, ping, ping, ping, slamming them up against people’s cars. I call out, “Hey, that’s not too bright!”

He ignores me. He turns in at the alley. I know there are dogs that live at the house at the corner, and I have a bad feeling. I see him continue to kick rocks. He hits one of the dogs with a small rock, then gives a half-assed kick to one of the dogs, then a stronger kick to the other dog. I yell at him to stop, but he ignores me.

I jump off the car, and grab my cell phone. I am going to call the police and report him, so they can pick him up somewhere in the park, and arrest him for animal abuse. Then I see him approach a stray dog. He grabs it, and starts to beat the hell out of it, kicking it and hitting it, just going and going and going. The dog is cowering, not trying to fight back at all. I start screaming as loud as I can. I wake myself up screaming, “No! No! No!”

I am sitting straight up in bed with my arms stretched out in front of me. I get out of bed, and I am sick to my stomach with the feeling of that man, beating the dog. I am standing up, but lay my head down on the bed. Sabrina woke up when I screamed, and she reaches out to me.

For some reason, I remember a Pema Chodron CD I just listened to, about putting yourself in the shoes of a person doing a horrible act, and I think of what Tony asked me to do, loving the skinhead or homophobe. And right in that moment, standing upright, with my forehead touching the mattress, I allow myself to feel what that man must feel like inside, to want to beat the dog. I am filled with an incredible sadness. It sweeps through my entire body.

It is not forgiveness, exactly, that I found. The experience has not erased that hardness I have. But it did give me one tiny glimpse into the possibility of compassion, in a place where I least expected it.


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Halloween Costume

Sometimes things just come together. How could it be that the right person, the right thing, the right place come together in a synchronicity that can’t be explained or understood?

I need a costume for Halloween. I will be on retreat at Black Mountain Retreat Center in Cazadero. (padmapeace.org). On Halloween Eve we will have a traditional segaki ceremony. This is the time when Buddhists unmask themselves. They approach the altar and call in their demons. The demons are recognized, invited in for tea, and asked to behave themselves until Halloween comes around again.

I want to be Kuan Yin. She is the archetype who hears the cries of the world. She is known for her boundless compassion. She has 10,000 arms and eyes to help her.

I know it is impossible to be literal but still, I can’t imagine how I will create a costume that represents Kuan Yin.

I go to the Legacy. This is a shop near my home that sells recycled craft and sewing supplies. Proceeds from sales benefit the Sebastopol Senior Center.

I enter not knowing what I am looking for. I see a bolt of gold fabric. I don’t know what I will do with it but I know it is exactly what I need. I give the volunteer sales person $3.00 for the fabric and I return home with it . I call my friend Peggy. “Help,” I say. “Can you help me be Kuan Yin for Halloween?”

She comes right over. She brings her sewing machine and a kimono pattern. She sews and I paint.

The back of the costume shows Kuan Yin riding a dragon. I paint eyes and hands on her sleeves and sash. My friend Corlene drops by. She shows me how to make a turban out of a piece of the gold fabric.

It takes many hands and eyes to make Kuan Yin come alive.


Upcoming Schedule, Oct. 26-31

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, Oct. 26
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Phil McDonel

Russian River Zendo:

Friday, Oct. 29 – Sunday, Oct. 31
Sesshin at Black Mountain Center to end Fall Practice Period

Saturday, Oct. 30
RRZ Closed for sesshin

Sunday, Oct. 31
Practice Period participants reconvene at RRZ:
1 p.m. Work period
1 :30 p.m. Ceremony Rehearsal
3 p.m. Shuso Ceremony


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Be Kind to Animals

A girl scout is kind to animals. This vow springs to my mind as I hear Beata, a Buddhist priest and a good friend of mine, speak about her experience with animals on the roadway.

One time she stopped for a duck who was stranded on the median strip of a freeway. She managed to shepherd the duck to the side of the road amidst speeding cars and angry drivers.

“I probably wouldn’t do that again,” she tells me. “It was truly dangerous, but there is something about cars and animals, dead or alive, that evokes a need in me to stop and care for them.” In Buddhist practice we speak of this need as an awakening of bodhichitta, the desire to love and be present for all beings.

This morning on the way to Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, Beata sees a dead deer in the middle of the road. Because she is driving with a friend she doesn’t want to inconvenience, she chooses not to stop and move the animal to the side of the road.

She says she is in a lot of pain. She wishes she could go back and move the deer out of the way of oncoming traffic. For years she has always stopped to help animals in distress. This time she didn’t’ stop. But she did renew her vow.


Susan’s Shusho Blog: Anger

Last night our precepts class was about anger or not harboring ill will. There are those in the Buddhist community who believe it is possible to abolish anger and all the other defilements.

In Mahayana Buddhism we believe that growth lies in getting into the thick of things. Let the branches of the thicket cut and scratch until you are willing to let go.

Even with awakening, there is always more to do.

I told a story about being part of a practice period at Green Gulch Farm in 1998. I was in kindergarten Zen. I felt overwhelmed by the schedule. I was confused about where to be when. I had difficulty keeping track of chants and vows. I did know, however, when my toes were stepped on. I could recognize anger in myself, but I didn’t know what to do with it.

I have volunteered to do a job. It was something mundane and seemingly unimportant, like passing out questionnaires. When I notice a young man passing them out without consulting me I am furious. “That is my job,” my inner voice yells. What do you do with fury when you are on a silent retreat?

I go to the practice leader, Reb Anderson. He tells me to go sit on my cushion until the anger burns up. Last night I tell this story. I also tell people about the ring of fire Reb describes in the book Being Upright. “There is pain around every Buddhist’s meditaton seat,” he tells us . . . “It forms a ring of fire.”

Around the inner ring is an outer ring of fire composed of anger . . . aggression . . . hate . . . ill will and violence. It is the outer ring of defenses that needs to be broken through in order to see the pain within.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved