Saturday, October 1, 2011

Writing That Makes a Difference

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), a time to bring attention to a problem that far too often remains hidden and unacknowledged.

Domestic violence is threatening behavior by an intimate partner attempting to seek control over another. It can include emotional abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, and threats of abuse or violence to children or pets.

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims are women, and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. However, domestic violence crosses all lines: It affects people regardless of gender, age, economic status, race, religion, nationality, educational background, or sexual orientation.

It is not just the adult victims who are affected. Thirty to sixty percent of the perpetrators of domestic violence also abuse the children in their homes. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

And the society, too, is affected. The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year, $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health services. Victims of domestic violence lost almost 8 million days of paid work because of the violence they suffered at the hands of their partners last year.

Sonoma County is not immune. Last year, law enforcement responded to over 3,000 domestic violence calls. It is the leading cause of injury to local women.

I work as a volunteer with the Sonoma County YWCA, which provides the only safe house in the county for women fleeing their abusers. They also provide counseling services, a 24-hour hotline, support groups, long-term housing assistance, outreach and education to the community, and a therapeutic preschool for children who are affected by violence.

As part of DVAM, I have helped to coordinate for the second year "Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence." For three Fridays in October, women and men will share their stories in poetry, memoir and fiction about the impact of domestic violence. We did this for the first time last year, and it was extremely powerful, both for the writers, and for the members of the audience.

The readings are scheduled for:

Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts
6780 Depot St. in Sebastopol

105 East First Street, Cloverdale

Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. at Copperfield's Books
Montgomery Village, in their new location, 775 Village Court, Santa Rosa

I invite you to come to one of these nights and hear the brave words of these writers for yourselves. They will challenge you, and inspire you.

For more information about other events going on for DVAM throughout the county, visit theYWCA website.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

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.

Monday, July 25, 2011

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.”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

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.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

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.

Friday, April 22, 2011

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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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.

Friday, April 8, 2011

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).

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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.

Monday, April 4, 2011


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?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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.")

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Our sanghas have, in the last weeks, completed the final ceremonies in farewell to our teacher Darlene Cohen. On Feb. 25, her funeral was held at Green Gulch, and on March 1, we conducted her 49th day service at the Healdsburg sangha, the day signaling her spirit's departure from this world to the next.

I had never been to Green Gulch Zen Center before. The zendo is a beautiful, spacious, high-ceilinged building, with a large Buddha at the center altar. The room was packed with people. I learned later that nearly 300 people were in attendance. Tony told me he had only seen the zendo that crowded on one other occasion - when the Dalai Lama came to speak. That gives you some idea of the far-reaching appeal of Darlene, the number of lives she has touched.

The service was surprisingly simple, despite the 20 or more people involved in the opening procession, and the large number of priests in black robes. We ended it with a group shout for Darlene - of joy and of grief - which felt entirely appropriate.

I was surprised to find myself unemotional. I think it was too big a group, with too much going on. I tend to shut down in those kinds of situations.

On March 1, we had a more private service, for the 49th day recognition. I acted as kokyo (chant leader), and we offered chocolate, tea, and incense, as I then chanted these words:

Through the power of your wisdom and compassion,
aid Darlene at this time of transition. She has taken
a great leap. The light of this world has faded for her.
She has entered the vast presence, borne
by her karma into the ocean of all existence.

Compassionate ones, care for your daughter, Darlene,
with the endless merit of your great vows. May she
together with all beings be completely enlightened.

It was at this service I felt tears in my eyes. Because this is my home sangha, the one where I imagine Darlene sitting next to Tony, giving a dharma talk. It is here I was looking directly at Tony, seeing his pain and loneliness. Here, I was feeling our mutual loss.

May we all find strength and comfort with each other.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Street Corner Challenges

Today in Calistoga, two young men set up a table at the corner near the post office with political propaganda. They were there to speak on behalf of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. All well and good. But their main signs were two large face shots of President Barack Obama, with a drawn-in Hitler moustache.

The post office is just next door to the Tribune office. All day, people stopped in to vent, speaking in outrage about their reaction to the use of Hitler as an image. We explained that we were aware of the men, that they had been present in Calistoga the previous year and we had run a story on them, and we were choosing not to cover it this year - because that's precisely what they want, more press coverage.

Still, it was making my own blood boil. I hated the fact that they were out there. At lunch, my boss Pat and I decided to hop in the car and drive out to Home Plate cafe for grilled cheese sandwiches (me) and fish and chips (her). The stop sign out of the parking lot put us directly alongside the men at their table. One young man stepped clear of the sign, gestured towards it with his hand, and looked up at me with an inviting expression.

And I calmly flipped him off.

He wagged his finger at me, equally calmly, with a "Tsk, tsk" look, and then we drove away. As soon as we left, I regretted my reaction. What made it even more ironic, even comical, was that on that very morning, on the way in to work, I had been listening to a book on CD by Thich Nhat Hahn called "True Love" about the practice of awakening the heart. He spoke extensively about calming the mind before action, so that one can reach out with love. I don't think he meant to be calm while giving someone the finger!

It gnawed at me for a couple of hours. Finally, I walked over to the corner, and apologized. I said, "Earlier, I flipped you off, and I wanted to say I'm sorry." The young man said, "Oh, I don't remember you. There have been a lot of people who have flipped me off." I then said, "What I have a problem with is..." And he said, "It's the moustache, right?" And I said yes. He then proceeded to go into a nonsensical political diatribe equating Obama (and every other president since Kennedy) to Hitler because they are "budget cutters," saying their policies of "depopulation" are the same as genocide. I listened for a few moments, attempted to explain how Hitler should never be used in any comparision, then realized it was fruitless. I wished him luck with his free speech, and turned to go.

In the end, then, I accomplished little in the way of communication. No minds were changed on either side. But I did, at least, clean up my mess by acknowledging my bad behavior. And that left me feeling much more at peace than I had after the moment in the car.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hard News

As a small-town community journalist, much of the time I cover events and happenings which range from the tedious (school board proceedings and planning commission deliberations) to the repetitious (annual fundraisers, parades, benefits and other activities). There are also many feel-good stories: new businesses opening, personal profiles of remarkable citizens, tales of unusual pets or hobbies.

The Calistoga Tribune is a serious, dedicated little newspaper, and we take our job to heart. We do not flinch from the real news. So we also deal with the tensions that do arise, when conflict breaks out in the city council, or economic woes plague local businesses, or budget crisis threatens to bankrupt the city coffers.

For me, though, as a journalist, the toughest stories are the accident and crime stories. When two teen-agers driving drunk are killed on the Silverado Trial when they veer in front of another driver, and they are all local residents, or when, like last year, a young man is gunned down in his car, the first murder in Calistoga in decades. Or when a local school board trustee's daughter is stabbed to death in a nearby city, or a Calistoga mother accidentally runs down an elderly pedestrian in a crosswalk, killing her instantly.

These are the painful stories. My job as a reporter is to call the people involved, to find out the facts, to get the news. But the last thing I want to do is to interfere in any way in these moments of shock and grief. I feel like a horrid parasite, an intruder. What I have to do, to get myself through it, is remind myself if I can do it well, I will be doing the person a favor, letting them tell their story with as much grace and honesty and dignity as possible - always respecting any request for a comment that is "off the record" during the conversation.

A few weeks ago, three elderly women were housesitting for an artist in town. Returning to the house after dinner at a local restaurant, they interrupted a burglar. The man indicated he had a gun under his shirt, and said if they didn't cooperate, he would shoot them. One managed to escape to the back yard and call 911. After some time, the other two were able to get away and lock themselves in a bathroom. The burglar (now kidnapper) fled, stealing a pickup from a neighboring property. A SWAT team, sheriffs and police arrived, but were unable to locate him. It turned out later he had left his cell phone plugged into an outlet near the studio. With that information, they identified him, and put out a bulletin. The next week, the man called police and turned himself in.

It turns out that the brother never did have a gun - it was only pretend. So this terrible burglary gone bad has now turned into something very serious because of an imaginary gun - three counts of kidnapping, two counts of elder abuse, one count of abuse, plus the count of burglary.

Initial reports described him as itinerant, but I heard he had at some point lived in Calistoga. He was a Latino man, and his name was unusual. I asked our former city councilmember, a sort of Latino ambassador, if he knew who his relations were. He said he was pretty sure he was kin to a local restaurant owner. I know this restaurant owner, so I went over to speak to him. I asked the hard question: Is this man your brother? The answer was yes. The weight and heaviness showed in his body. This man, this good man, has carried so much. He lost his teen-age son to cancer when I first started writing for the Tribune. He has another young son who has been in a lot of trouble lately. He has been struggling with the restaurant, trying desperately to keep going, putting in long hours, never taking a day off. And now this.

He told me the brother had been in an accident 18 months ago, run over by a car. Since then, the brother had "not been right in the head." He had been making poor decisions, unable to determine right from wrong. Still, this restaurant owner, my friend, was making no excuses for him. He said, "He must pay for his mistakes."

When my friend told me all of this, I knew as a journalist I should be writing it down, preparing to put his words into my next follow-up story. But in that moment, I could only see his eyes, his sadness, the terrible burdens he carried. I walked up to him, and said, "I'm so sorry." And I gave him a hug.

He needed that hug much more than the community needed the facts.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Walking with a Busy Mind

Our teacher Tony sent us an e-mail last week saying he noticed that our kinhin (walking meditation) could use some work. He asked us to watch a nine-minute video on YouTube to pick up some pointers.

The video is by a priest living in Japan. He has numerous instructional clips online, covering a wide range of topics. The format is very simple - just a priest in his robes, alone, standing in a tatami mat zendo next to a scroll, in front of a video camera.

His offerings about kinhin are very basic. He says to walk following the rhythm of the breathing, feet slightly apart gently in alignment with the hips, talking small steps roughly equivalent to half a step forward at a time. When reaching a place where you must turn, make the corner sharp, not curved. The gaze is to be focused one meter ahead, just as in zazen. He says, "There is no need to look anywhere, because in kinhin, we don't go anywhere."

He says to make the walk very simple, almost casual. "The feeling of dignity is not achieved through great self-awareness."

But it is the comment right at the end of the video that really spoke to me. He said kinhin is tricky, because as soon as the body moves, the mind moves. "That's why kinhin is very, very stormy." He said to simply be aware of it, come back to this presence, and go on.

I was so relieved when I heard him speak those words. All along, I thought it was just me. From early on, kinhin has been the most challenging part of my sitting practice, because my mind goes romping through the room, creating all kinds of chaos. I struggle to keep my gaze focused. I do things like count the number of people in the room, look at everyone's socks, plan the upcoming service.

At one of my first all-day sits, kinhin nearly did me in. Each time we went for walking meditation, I found myself embroiled in the most relentless criticism of everyone I was sitting with. I was critiquing everyone's haircuts, their clothing, the way they walked, the sounds they made when they breathed in the zendo. My head was filled with seething negativity. It was horrid. During dokusan, I spoke to Tony about it, and he said, "Wow. You're the first person who's ever told me something like that." I looked at him in shock and embarrassment. Then I realized he was kidding. Obviously, I was not the first.

Over time, now that I have been practicing a few years, I have managed to calm my kinhin, and make it more of an extension of my zazen. It is still a little edgy, but no longer filled with criticism. Sometimes it is even meditative.

What a relief, though, to hear these words by this priest. That kinhin creates a stormy mind. Now I know there is a biological connection - when the body moves, the mind moves. Knowledge is power. Insight can be a balm to a troubled spirit.

Now when I walk with a chattering mind, I can catch myself, come back to the present, and take another step. Just like zazen. Return to the breath.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Single Bow

A single bow can change a life.

The story goes that our teachers, Tony and Darlene, forty years ago, entered San Francisco Zen Center. On a staircase, they passed a Japanese monk. He stopped, and bowed to them. There was a presence, a fullness, an embodiment in the movement, a "now." In that simple gesture, all of Zen tradition, all of the dharma was carried. Tony and Darlene knew this is what they wanted to learn, and to pass on.

The Japanese monk was Suzuki-roshi, and the bow is what began the path leading to the eventual establishment of my own lineage at Russian River Zendo.

Now, in this time of loss, priest Cynthia Kear reminds us we must trust our own Buddha-nature, our own bodhichitta, knowing our practice will continue. She said, "We are the recipients of Darlene's dharma transmission; but now we are also the transmitters."

Everyone has been living up to that expectation. It is not just newly dharma-transmitted priests Cynthia and Sarita Tamayo Moraga who have taken on the duties of our several sanghas. To give Tony time and space to grieve, senior students have stepped in, giving dharma talks and leading services for the past two months. People have been reaching out to each other with special zazen sessions, offerings of dokusan (private interviews), and plans of one-day sits.

Mostly, though, we have simply been available to each other. There have been many warm, heartfelt hugs, kind words, expressions of care. I have never once felt alone in this.

Darlene herself, the last time I saw her, said to those of us gathered there, that we could all be dharma transmitted. I have thought of that often. How do I, in my everyday life, in my words and my movements, carry the message of Zen? How do I pass on kindness?

If I were to bow, what would someone see?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Give Your Cow a Large Pasture

I have worked at the same job for the past nine years, and my boss has watched me along my Zen journey, from the initial steps, eventually to choosing Tony Patchell as my teacher, up through lay ordination this past August, and now through this period of loss as our sanghas deal with the death of Darlene.

She is a Presbyterian. Our other officemate is Catholic. One day, in the midst of a casual discussion about dealing with an interpersonal issue, my boss surprised me by saying, "You know, you are the most spiritual person I know." I was dumbfounded. All my life, I had felt I was completely lacking in the spirituality department. When I asked what she meant, she said she didn't know anyone else who incorporated a spiritual practice into their daily life as much as I did. This is what she had determined from hearing me speak about sesshins, sewing practice, meditating, and dharma discussions, all as they came up in the normal course of conversation in our very small office.

That was about six months ago. In early January, my boss was going through a lot of personal family stress. She came to me and said, "I think I need to start meditating. Can you tell me how?"

I explained in very basic terms the fundamentals of zazen, such as posture, breathing, and hand position. I also removed possible hurdles immediately: I told her she could sit in a chair and I said ten minutes at a time was fine to start off. She asked, "Am I supposed to make my mind blank?" I laughed and said, "Oh, no! You'll never make it blank. Just try not to get attached to anything that comes up. When a thought arises, look at it, and let it go."

The next week at Russian River Zendo, someone brought up that problem of "busy mind" during zazen. Fellow practitioner Dick Bates had a wonderful analogy to demonstrate how crucial "busy mind" is. He said in biology, most mutations are useless, not helpful or beneficial in any way to the creature they occur in. But, if all mutations were to cease, the organism would be deprived of those rare times when a profound, wonderful change occurs. Dick said in the same way, most of the stuff floating through our minds is pure rubbish. But nestled inside of those racing thoughts are the kernels of creativity. If we could, as we sometimes wish, completely control our thoughts, nothing new would ever be born again.

So, to new practitioners like my boss, the best advice is that of Suzuki-roshi, when he said to view your mind as a cow. Then give your cow a large pasture, and watch it.

(By the way - actually being inside of a very active spiritual community, I most humbly decline the title of "most spiritual" - but it was a pleasant moment hearing someone else could see that part of me I had been seeking for so long.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

One Loss, All Loss

The topic at each dharma talk I have attended in the last ten days has been grief. How could it be otherwise? It is staring all of us in the face. We are, every one of us, coping in our own way: numb or raw, crying or cried out, wanting only to sleep or insomniac, seeking the company of others or retreating into solitude.

Because losing someone we love rips open our world, turns everything upside down. And in this case, losing a teacher, it can have even greater ramifications. Because it begs the questions: Where do we go from here? What holds us together? How do we go on?

In a talk on Tuesday, priest Cynthia Kear spoke of Healing Into Life and Death by Stephen Levine, in which he referred to "one loss, all loss." He meant that when we experience one death, it brings up every loss we have ever encountered - other deaths of those dear to us, failed relationships, betrayals, lost hopes and dreams. It is as if the death is a black hole that expands into a pit of despair over everything that has ever brought us feelings of sadness and loss.

I certainly have been experiencing this phenomenon over the past weeks. Six years ago, I lost my father to lymphoma. Many things make this time all too familiar. He was 64 years old, born the same year as Tony. My mother was born the same year as Darlene. When my dad passed away, my parents had just celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary - Tony and Darlene had been together 40 years. My father underwent treatment at the same hospital in San Franciso where Darlene was a patient. And he was gracious, brave and spiritual throughout his illness, making sure that all of us in the family would be taken care of in his absence.

Cynthia spoke of the death of her sister, and how it felt so crazy to have to do things like go to work and pay bills and take care of daily chores, when none of that felt important. I remember walking from the hospital down to a nearby coffee shop to get a latte for my mom. I was passing people on the street, and I thought, "Do you live here? Are you going to a job, or shopping? Or are you grabbing something to eat before you go back to the hospital, where your sister is dying, or your mother is having a liver transplant, or your daughter is battling cancer?" It felt so odd to see all these people walking around as if it was a normal day, when it was not normal. There was nothing normal about it.

Cynthia said gone are the days when we could wear a black arm band to let everyone know we are grieving, to let them know to treat us tenderly. She's right - we have no way to indicate to the world, "I am suffering. I am in pain. Please, do not expect too much from me."

I have been thinking about my father every day. Some of it is good - there are good memories, nostalgia and sweetness. But there is also much hurt, and loss, and a tightness in my chest, even though six years have passed. He died on a night with a full moon. Tonight there is a full moon. That always triggers a response, a deep longing in my heart.

And each thought of him circles back to Darlene. My first meeting with her, the words we shared, the journey we took together over the past four years. I want to write it all down, put it into a record. Don't lose it, don't lose it - there is an urgency to the feeling. In the same way that I struggled to hold onto my father, wanted to retain every memory of him.

"One loss, all loss" sounds like too much; it sounds painful. And, in truth, it does hurt. But, as the Leonard Cohen song says, having a crack is good - that's how the light gets in. It is only broken hearts that can open to the compassion of the world.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Darlene Cohen,Oct. 31, 1942 - Jan. 12, 2011

Darlene Cohen, Su Rei Ken Po, Great Spirit Manifesting Dharma, passed away at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

I received word via email just as I was about to leave the house for work. The extended sangha planned to sit vigil with her body for the next day and a half.
I was heartbroken, because it was deadline day at the newspaper, and I knew I could not leave to go and be with her.

But after I arrived at the office, I received a second email, saying the vigil went through the night and until noon on Thursday, and people were particularly needed and wanted during the wee hours of the morning. So when I finally wrapped up the paper at 3 a.m., I drove to Guerneville.

I arrived at 4 a.m., to see the zendo softly lit up with candles. There were four of my sangha members there, sitting. Darlene's body was laid out on a covered table. She was dressed in her priest's robes, wearing her lavender rakusu that we recently sewed for her. Her body was covered with flower petals people had bestowed as offerings.

I came into the hushed room, bowed before her, and offered a few petals of my own. I touched her sleeve. It was as if her spirit was still in the room, as if any moment she would open her eyes and smile at me. It was only then I felt the rush of grief.

Moving towards the back wall, I selected a zabuton and zafu, and began to sit. A few more people came, and a few people left. My sangha members approached, and gave me hugs. It was beautifully silent, and the candles cast flickering light on the altar. A gentle rain began to fall.

After sitting for two hours with Darlene, I felt it was time to go. I had been up for nearly 24 hours straight, and still had an hour to drive home. The coffee shop at the base of the hill had just opened up , so a latte helped with that last stretch.

There is sorrow, but also a deep joy in my body right now, a profound gratitude. Darlene is no longer suffering in the body. She was able to pass on her lineage, and her sangha is pulling together in a wonderful way. We will get through this. And I feel privileged to have had her in my life, even for this brief time.

Farewell, Su Rei Ken Po. And thank you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

And Also Laughter...

Emotions are odd things. They flit about like butterflies. Even something that seems as heavy as grief cannot be held down long - before you realize it, a buoyancy appears out of nowhere, a lightness, and you find yourself laughing.

Haven't you experienced this? When my father was ill with lymphoma, I remember well the times in the hospital, when I was so worried, so scared, and felt helpless. But my father was a man with a wonderfully glowing spirit, someone who paid attention to people, who listened and cared. I watched him interact with the nurses and phlebotomists and aides, as each came into his hospital room. He knew all of their names. He asked them about their families, their dreams and goals. His particular talent in life was in the area of financial planning. So during his weeks in the hospital, he helped one nurse figure out how to go back to school. He helped an aide find financing for a new home. He gave of himself, and because of that, his room was a place of hope and smiles instead of despair.

Our teacher Darlene is a sprightly, impish woman, with a spark of mischief in her eyes much of the time. Beata Chapman said when she visited her in the hospital, Darlene set about trying to "hook her up" with one of her nurses. She whispered with glee, "I think she has lesbian tendencies." And then pushed the call button to bring the nurse into the room. Instead of lying in bed, thinking about death, she was playing matchmaker.

When a person is sick, they don't cease to be themselves. They are still who they were before: funny, mischievous, intelligent, generous. Or cranky and obstinate. Being sick may occasionally exacerbate those qualities. But the basic person remains the same underneath. I think it is the people on the outside who change, the people who are grappling with grief, fearful of loss. We are sometimes so afraid that we treat the ones we love as if they are already gone. We act as if we must begin our mourning now, to prove that our love is true.

But no. There is both sadness and joy in grief. It is perfectly acceptable to sit next to the one you love and laugh long and hard, even if they are dying. There is room for everything. Allow each emotion to come as it will. Laugh when you can. There will be time enough for tears.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Metta for the World

A friend tonight thanked me for my recent blog posts, saying they were helping her to deal with the shootings over the weekend in Arizona. I, too, have been reading the headlines, and struggling to find sense in the random violence. Part of me has pushed it away, kept it apart, because there is already enough personal tragedy nearer at hand. Can I hold more pain? Do I need to embrace this, too?

Priest Beata Chapman, speaking on grief, encouraged us to "build the inclusion muscle." She asked us to add to our experiences of the subtleties and nuances of grief as they arise, because they won't always be what we expect. And I believe she would also tell us, in addition to mourning the losses and hurts in our own lives, to take in the deaths of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, to absorb the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Right now I feel I must simply say a Metta Sutta, a Loving Kindness Meditation, for the many people in my life who are in need of that extra support. And, perhaps as importantly, I am in need of giving it.

Metta for Darlene Cohen, my teacher. Her hospice nurse has told us her time of passing is only a few days away. She has completed her goal of giving dharma transmission to two of her students, and is spending her final days with her husand Tony Patchell. She told us on Saturday she is touched beyond words to see how her community of students is forming a dharma grid, even before her death.

Metta for Larry Kuzdenyi, the weather man for the Calistoga Tribune. An avid golfer and amateur rain watcher, Larry calls in the rainfall total for the newspaper every week. In the fall he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy. He is now recuperating. Tomorrow, he has a CAT scan to see if the treatment was successful. My thoughts are with him tonight.

Metta for Doris Muramatsu, a member of the band Girlyman. In her late 30s, two months ago Doris was diagnosed with CML, a rare form of leukemia. It is treatable, with a good prognosis. She is blogging about her journey of healing at Caring Bridge. The band will return to touring at the end of the month, with a modified schedule - including a gig in Sebastopol.

Metta for Mike Parsons. I just interviewed Mike a few weeks ago for an article I wrote on internet safety. He is a retired police officer, who worked on a special task force on internet crimes. In a note apologizing for not getting back to me with a photo, he explained that he'd been distracted last week, because he'd just been diagnosed with lymphoma. He was optimistic, saying the prognosis was good with treatment, but he still has four months of chemo followed by radiation ahead.

Metta for Pat, Ramona and Noah, who are dealing with their own personal pain and confusion. May you all stay safe, until everything can be worked out.

Metta for Gabrielle Giffords, and for the families of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman and Christina Taylor Green, and for all the citizens of Arizona who are reeling from this loss. May our political hate-mongering come to an end, before any more lives are sacrificed.

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.

* * *
Even as a mother at the risk of her life
Watches over and protects her only child,
So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things.
Suffusing love over the entire world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit,
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Going Into the Body

The danger, as is so often the case, lies in our heads.

In a dharma talk earlier this week, priest Beata Chapman spoke to us about experiencing grief as a body experience. Far too often, we disconnect, go into our heads, spin off into emotions that float unattached, when what we really need is to center ourselves in our physicality. A very Zen directive, exactly what our sitting practice guides us towards each day.

Beata said when we learn to witness our own suffering, by being present with it, it develops our capacity to witness the suffering of others. She said staying with the body sensations gives us the empathy for all the implications of existing in the form world - aging, pain, hurt, death. She admitted that what she was asking us to do was a paradox - expansively reach out right when our inclination is to close up and shut down. She refers to it as "opening the heart in hell."

But paradox is exactly what Zen is all about. It is a practice of things which cannot be done, and yet, each day we vow to do them.

Beata said we speak of "taking refuge," but for her, that does not mean "taking shelter." Instead, it means going into the body, into the present moment. The "namu kie butsu" phrase we recite when doing our sewing practice of the rakusu, said with each stitch, translates as "I take refuge in Buddha." But another translation is "I release myself into the now."

Darlene is facing her death with grace and equanimity because she is staying in her body and in the now. I could see it in her face when I looked upon her yesterday morning, as it shone in her eyes. That is the latest teaching from her. I, too, must remember I have a body. I, too, must settle into the now, into this moment. As the grief comes, when it comes, I must allow it to sink down into this body of mine so I can experience it fully, and then release it, going on to the next moment, until it arises again.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Creatively Facing Death

I would like to write over the next few days about the topic I have been pushing away - the reality that has been consuming our extended sangha for the last several months.

Our teacher Darlene Cohen is dying. There is no way any longer to sugar-coat it, or hold onto false hopes. We will be losing her very soon. Grief is such a tricky emotion. It comes at each of us differently. And with each one of us, differently on each day. Because I have not been one of the people who has been able to see Darlene over the past two months, I have responded by absenting myself, both physically and emotionally. I have found excuses to miss my regular sangha, some real, some created - extra burdens have arisen at my job; more demands have come up in my personal life. I have avoided writing in this blog, because here it seemed I might have to address the impending loss.

Over all, I have felt mostly a numbness, a lack of emotion. This has been aided by my distance, and perhaps that was my real impetus. On Tuesday, I went to my regular sangha, and sat. Beata Chapman was the visiting doshi for the night. Just before her dharma talk, she asked if there were any announcements. Susan Spencer, our wonderful resident ceramicist/jizo teacher animatedly said, "Darlene is going to have a cardboard coffin, and on Thursday, I will be holding a workshop at my studio for people to get together and decorate it."

I felt as if I had been socked in the stomach. All my careful avoidance tactics were stripped away in that one sentence. Decorate her coffin?

Intellectually, I understood this could be a healing act, a time of community gathering and mourning. But I was emotionally unprepared for the finality of visualizing a coffin, and everything that comes with that: death, funeral, cremation. I realized I was holding much more inside than I had thought.

Today, we held regular services at Russian River Zendo. We were told that Tony might be present, but Darlene would not see anyone. Cynthia Kear served as doshi, and I was the doan. Shortly after we arrived, Cynthia told me Darlene had said she would like to see all of us after the second sitting for about 10 minutes. By the time the second sitting ended, there were more than 30 people in the zendo. We all quietly went upstairs, unsure what we would find.

I had last seen Darlene at Frederika and Pete's wedding on Nov. 28. I almost cried when I walked into the living room - she looked so tiny and frail. But her face lit up and she said, "Michelle!" And then greeted each of us by name. She was propped up on the sofa, and had us all gather around her, sitting on the floor. Although it was clear it took some effort, she spoke to us for a few minutes, as a teacher speaking to her sangha. And she sparkled with wit and love, even in her weakened state.

Later, in Cynthia's dharma talk, she said that Darlene had shared with her about looking into Tibetan death practices, working on ways to face her own end. Darlene had said to her, "It's amazing how creative I'm having to be around all this!"

It is time for me, as well, to creatively face this death. So I will write over the coming days about grief, loss, sangha, support, and other imponderables.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Comfort Zones

It is so easy to take things for granted, I find, when I move through the world. Without even realizing it, I establish comfort zones all around me, places where it is easy to be who I am.

A simple example. I have been a vegetarian for the last 20 years. My immediate family, and my closest circles of friends, all know this about me. So whenever I am in a social setting with them, they go out of their way to be accommodating. Even the book group that I have been a member of for the past eight years prepares vegetarian options for each dinner when we meet.

On Christmas, Sabrina and I were invited to have dinner with a dear aunt and uncle who had never before hosted us for that meal. My grandmother, another aunt and uncle, three cousins, two of their wives - all told, there were 13 of us, every one of who I had been with on many an occasion, but never exclusively, on their turf.

We sat down at the beautifully decorated table, and the food was brought out - and I realized suddenly that almost every dish had meat in it. The first course was soup and Caesar salad. Couldn't do the salad - anchovies. Thank goodness, Sabrina and I had made the potato leek soup. But then, it was ham, pasta with shrimp, a bean casserole with bacon, deviled eggs . . .

The worst part is feeling that I will embarrass my hostess by having an empty plate. Luckily, there was a fruit salad, and mashed potatoes. I put the fruit salad in a bowl, and centered that on my plate to take up space, then ladled up a big dollop of potatoes. Then I picked up a dinner roll and some black olives, and ate as slowly as possible.

What I realized, at the end of the meal, was how much I have come to take for granted the fact that so many people in my life make my vegetarianism a non-issue. I wanted to go right home and write thank you notes to everybody.

Similarly, I move within the comfort zones of established social networks, a job that I have held for eight years, a marriage that is secure and nourishing, a sangha I can call my home. Who knows what else I've grown blind to?

Staying in familiar places has not always been my modus operandi. During my first 35 years of life, I averaged almost one address change a year. Before this job, I had never worked anywhere longer than two years. My longest relationship was five years, but the average was closer to 18 months. Permanency wasn't even part of my vocabulary.

Back then, you may have been able to chide me for not having staying power, but you certainly couldn't have said I was afraid of new things. So it is interesting, now, to be in this place in my life where I find that perhaps I have settled in so comfortably that it is time to readjust.

Maybe it is time to step out of the comfort zone a little more regularly.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

RItual in Daily Life

In a dharma talk recently, Susan Spencer spoke about ritual in daily life.

She said the ritual we use in the zendo, from the roles of doan and kokyo, chanting and incense burning, stepping on our left foot as we enter the zendo, or bowing in front of the altar, are not mere rules. They create a container, a space within the community, so something else can happen. She emphasized it is not about being perfect, but about intention.

Outside of the zendo, ritual can be just as important. It is created, once again, by intention and consciousness. It can be formed by something as simple as pouring a cup of tea. If you pour the cup of tea with your full awareness, picking up each object with both hands in its turn, giving each step your complete attention, being absolutely in the moment - you will create a ritual. The person you pour tea for will feel the difference. It will become a spiritual act, a transformative moment.

Susan asked us to reflect on the rituals in our own lives in an exercise after the talk.

Frederika Haskell recalled watching a ritual her parents performed every day which informed her deepest beliefs about love and marriage. Each night, when her father returned home from work, he sought out her mother, wherever she was in the home. He went to her, took her in an embrace, said she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and kissed her. The routine of it, the trust and stability, gave a foundation to the marriage, and gave Frederika expectations about what a true relationship should look like.

Phil McDonel spoke about his morning ritual with his wife Barbara around coffee, an elaborate, two-pot, caffeineted and decaffeinated preparation, exacting in its execution, but more importantly, a time each day they spent together, before heading off in separate directions.

Each of us had our own ideas of how to respond to the query. I love ritual, myself. I adore the aspects of Zen that build familiarity with their routine. Chanting is my favorite, so any services are high on my list. I like memorizing the chants, so I can intone them without a chantbook in hand. My week at Tassajara summer before last was truly wonderful because of the extensive ritual at the large zendo - there were more bells, clappers, incense, chants, services, and a greater number of people participating, so it all felt marvelously other-worldly.

But even in my daily life, I adore creating ritual. I have rituals with my dog - rituals are great with dogs, because they love them, too. They crave routines, and look forward to repeated behaviors. I do many things a certain way - I turn my Coke tab a quarter turn. I line up the seam of my to-go coffee cup with the lid. I fold laundry precisely. My desk and work space are always neat and tidy, with everything just so. This may sound silly - my friends sometimes joke about my OCD tendencies (obsessive/compulsive disorder, for those of you not in the psych-term world) - but it is more than that. Each time I do one of these things, I am being present and aware. I am coming out of the ether into the moment, to touch the object at hand.

What I would like is to make into ritual some of my other activities. Someone asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote regularly or only when inspired. "I write only when inspiration strikes," he said. "Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp."

Something to keep in mind for 2011.