spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Farewell to Chloe


PictureChloe when I meditate/Alison R.
By Thursday, one of Rashad’s friends will have taken Chloe, my dog for the month of July, to another temporary home. In a somewhat pleading email to Rashad, who is in Europe, I suggested that Chloe could come back after my Ring Cycle week of opera in Seattle. I don’t know if this will happen. Moreover, I don’t know if more time with Chloe will make me ready for my own dog.

The upsides of hosting this little dog have far outweighed the couch cushions with nibbled corners or the chewed up $500 dental implant “flipper”. Possibly my willingness to appear in public with a perceptible gap near a front tooth attests to my improved mental wellbeing. This I will credit to Chloe.

Although the little dog has been with me for just one month, she has been a fine teacher and with a few minor adaptations, her lessons will surely make me more fully human.

Chloe liked to be stroked and scratched. Her body language made it clear what she liked. I appreciated her obvious pleasure as it reminded me that there are good alternatives to verbal communication. I tend to rely a lot on striving to make sense and to find the right words.  

Chloe has taught me other valuable lessons about priorities. Her affection never depended on my grooming or clothing choices. She never looked up with an expression of “not that sweatshirt again.” She did, however, seem to favor a black coat that hung on a doorknob, and she wagged her tail when I put on shoes.

In the time I spent with her, I saw how Chloe was very much in the moment. Meditation has made that one of my goals as well. This did not preclude her being obedient. She never needed much convincing that going where I wanted to go was good for her too. And heeding Chloe’s needs did encourage discipline and consistency in me. Once the dog has gone, I wonder if I will don my coat and walking shoes with alacrity and head out into the neighborhood four or five times a day.

Dogs-at-home friends have said that this past month of unconditional love will surely convince me I need a live-in animal of my own. But there has been a downside to this temporary dog care. I very much wanted to attend an all-day training Oakland, a forerunner to a longer program wherein I would learn to be a Buddhist activist. I missed the program because Chloe couldn’t be left for an entire day nor should she have been crated in the back of a car from 10 until 5. Moreover, every plan anyone made that included me during the month of Chloe had to take into account my time constraints. No all-day film festivals nor whale-watching trips. If I choose to have a dog without access to a yard, I will choose to be measuring out my life in dog duties … to paraphrase Eliot’s “Prufrock” and his coffee spoons.

Downside notwithstanding, the Chloe positives are sure to matter more in favor a future dog. For one thing, dog company has been an uncomplicated pleasure unlike other pleasures that frequently involve two-legged beings. And her forays into the world, no matter how many times we passed the same rubble or she scrambled through the same weed patch, were always lessons in curiosity and trust. By far the best gift from Chloe besides the comfort of her closeness was a sense of what it is to trust. Her physical nearness told me everything I needed to know about how things were between us. And yet, I am undecided. So be it.

This Blogging Life


Picturemea culpa /frischundsauber
Weebly, thanks for hosting my website, “spiritflowsthru.com.” In October, 2011, my friend Kate taught me how to use you to share my insights online. Before starting a weekly blog posting, I was a worship associate at the San Francisco UU church where I enjoyed thinking, writing, and speaking my “truths” at the lectern.

Posting each week was a goal I set myself. Here I vowed to scour my soul and my immediate world, imagining a reader might find humor or inspiration or something of interest to take away or take to heart. Planning, thinking, and looking at the world with this intention to publish each week helped me pay attention.

Despite intending to come from my own life, I sometimes worried that nothing interesting had happened or I had no original insights in a particular week and rather than skip a week, I got help. It wasn’t “wrong” to rely for ideas on sources outside myself. It wasn’t “wrong” to quote a Rumi poem, even if it did fill space. On occasion I paraphrased bloggers and thinkers who carried intellectual weight, especially Tara Brach and Pema Chodron. There was never anything unethical about citing others as long as I made clear what was original and what needed to be cited. And luckily, Kate could read me with unerring accuracy. She helped me come out from behind another’s insights.

However, having now a sincere commitment to learning and living the Buddhist precepts about an ethical life, especially the first two precepts – cause no harm and don’t take what isn’t freely given – I have turned my attention to living an ethical blogging life. So dear Weebly, I admit that sometimes I have used your blank expanse to share a story that wasn’t freely given, and the slant I took in its retelling may have hurt the people in it. 

A recent influence that has prompted this mea culpa, in addition to Buddhist precepts , is the eleventh episode of “Orange is the New Black” a series on Netflix. I was touched when I saw what happened because someone took what wasn’t freely given and caused harm. By the time I had gobbled up episodes one thru ten, I knew Piper had been in prison for a while, but I also knew that shortly after she entered prison to serve her 15-month sentence, she had shared with her fiancé anecdotes about some of the inmates in Litchfield Prison. However during episode 11, he retold them on NPR in an attempt to advance his career as a writer with something to say; his humorous disclosures hurt the feelings of the women in those stories. And by the eleventh episode, Piper had developed empathy for many of her sister inmates. Sadly, the pain her stories caused when they were retold could not be undone and that pain would have repercussions.

Her fiancé’s on-air retelling of Piper’s first reactions to her incarcerated sisters is hardly the series’ most gripping portrayal of the dehumanization these women faced in Litchfield Prison, mostly at the hands (and other parts) of the mainly male establishment. However, I did identify with Piper’s fiancé’s desire to get attention, to be perceived as interesting by sharing Piper’s prison anecdotes, to get attention and maybe published. I won’t say more about Piper and Litchfield Prison as that would be unfair.

So it is probably a wiser course to complete my confession about honesty and causing no harm with reference to the Buddhist precept of “not taking what’s not freely given.” I have been told that the ethical value of the precepts is less about being taken as commandments and more about being understood as an invitation to be mindful about how I go about in the world. As for thieving, I am not likely to go into Macy’s and try to come out with a pair of socks I didn’t pay for. I did that once and it was so easy, I turned around and put back the socks. But that was very long ago. More recently, in addition to sharing stories in my blog, I have talked about others who did not give me permission, always aware that in those instances people listened, and I liked being the center of attention.

In conclusion, dear Weebly and readers, I will continue to be aware of honest attribution, of being honest about my limited perspective and of causing no harm as I tell my “truth.” Perhaps someday when I write fiction, I will create characters who won’t mind being talked about as well as characters who do mind very much but find interesting methods of retribution. Meanwhile I will watch “Orange is the New Black” and continue here with you.

July 24th, 2013


PictureRev. Lien thanks me / Alison R.
Anyone can google “Dharma transmission” so it is not that secret. And I think it is okay to say I had the privilege of playing a small role in a Dharma transmission ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center. I can’t say much more about this formal, full robe affair whereby the lineage of Buddhist ancestors and teachers passes from the Buddha all the way through living teachers to a student or students who then become priests by virtue of their Zen practice and Buddhist studies. 

So it was the woman who is my practice teacher had her secret week of ceremony and received the dharma from her teacher, coming into her own authority and qualifying to open a sangha of her own if she so chose. And she chose me to play a role in the ceremony.

I ask to be forgiven for being inexact in matters regarding this particular ceremony because it was not open to the public and because my actual role was minor – about one hour altogether on the two afternoons I made the rounds with the three priests as they honored ancestors and teachers whose likenesses or symbols were upstairs and downstairs, indoors and outdoors at the Zen Center.

As I said my role was minor. I walked behind the priests, ostensibly to add formality to the chanting, bowing and processing throughout the Zen Center. I will just say that my job involved flower petals and water. And when we were finished, I followed last minute instructions to offer the petal water to a tree or in the garden rather than dump it unceremoniously in the toilet.

Not only had I joyfully accepted a role in a dharma transmission, I would have a lesson transmitted to me, a lesson about my ambivalence toward instructions. When about a year ago Lien became my practice teacher, she made it clear that she was not a therapist and the matter always before us was meditation. As teacher, she frequently told me what to do, that is “instructed” me and I just as frequently complained to my “real” therapist how much I didn’t like being told what to do.

But prior to the actual ceremonies, I did attend an instructional session in the Buddha Hall for those chosen to participate. No way would I skip these instructions, having once before skipped an instructional evening with unhappy results. I recalled how I had bumbled through a one-day sit at the Zen Center because I chose to skip instructions. I vowed not to repeat that mistake and perhaps embarrass Rev. Lien as she became a priest.

Clearly, sidestepping instructions, written or oral has been part of my history. It could have been me trying to reduce anxiety. Expecting to be anxious whether programming a smart phone or knowing right from left in a dharma transmission, I might have imagined greater happiness if I avoided the anxiety of not understanding the instructions and further eroding my already shaky confidence.

True to form, I was anxious during the instructional evening held in the Buddha Hall at the Zen Center. Even as the half-hour devoted to my very small part in the transmission ceremony was laid out and I heard where to go and what to do and when to turn and where to stand and how to this and that… I was gripped with dread that at some critical moment in the ceremonies I would not remember right from left.

I needn’t have worried, of course. For as it turned out, I made many missteps, including pointing my toes toward the Buddha and having a hole in one black sock, but always someone would kindly point out where I should be standing or walking and despite the formality of the priest’s black robes, their folded cloths placed ceremoniously on the floor for their many bows, they guided me with kindness. And my mind-heart opened to more than my anxiety. I softened toward instructions.

When later in the week I met with Rev. Lien to discuss my meditation practice, we talked about the ceremony. I asked her if I could write about it despite its being secret. She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no. What kind of instructions were those? Zen instructions, of course and my mind-heart opened further to this trembly freedom, the one that comes with no instructions to follow. Rev. Lien said I was beginning to understand Zen and she laughed. Funny how understanding Zen is the same as just understanding.

PictureRashad's dog, Chloe/Alison R.
Was my impetuous act one of generosity or of madness? I agreed to keep Rashad’s dog, Chloe, for the month of July while he was in Europe. It’s not as if the dog and I were well acquainted. In fact, the night I met Chloe is the night I agreed to take her. Perhaps it was the way we met that prompted the impetuous yes to Rashad’s query about caring for the dog. As my friend and I came into his house, this little dog bounded across the room into my arms, clearly preferring me to any other dinner guest. She had me at hello.

So it is with a certain bemused curiosity that I look at my decision-making process if impulse can be called a process. I am finding that bemused curiosity also helps me balance the other feelings that come up in the process of caring for a small leaping creature in a condo with no yard. I feel hyper-responsible, if there is such a condition, certainly less free to come and go. Very much like a parent.

Although we are in the first week of this month-long adventure, it is certainly with bemused curiosity that I note how quickly the dog has figured out our routine for taking her on her necessary forays into the neighborhood. She knows that going downstairs means we take the stairs. She always turns left immediately outside the building and from there explores the world according to trails of smells left by other dogs. Back from the walk, she knows to head for the elevator. It’s not a long ride from the lobby to the second floor, but it is enough time for Chloe to position herself for an adroit leap out just as the elevator doors open. I couldn’t say how other dogs get on or off elevators, but that Chloe figured it out so quickly impresses me.

Without access to an enclosed yard, Chloe has to be in a harness she doesn’t like if we are to go on our multiple strolls through the dried up grasses of neglected lawns on McAllister, Laguna and Golden Gate. She cowers when I put on my black coat because she knows we are going out and this will mean a harness and leash. She can’t be trusted to obey traffic signals or second-guess the speeding cars on Gough. When Chloe is home with Rashad, she can always go downstairs through a doggy door into a yard. Safety is not an issue.

Rashad had told me his dog doesn’t bark, so it was with bemused curiosity that I heard her growls turn to full throated yaps when she saw shadows from blowing trees.  I will have something to tell Rashad when he gets back.

Clearly, in the month of July, Chloe and I will be partners on “the path.” I have been searching out web sites that purport to teach dogs to meditate. So far the suggestion I like best is the one that must be intended for owners of small dogs because the instructions say to lay the dog on the owner’s chest and synchronize the dog’s heart beats to one’s own. Maybe this will happen spontaneously. When I lay Chloe on my chest, I feel incredibly peaceful but then need to use a clothes brush.

It is certainly with bemused curiosity that I observe Chloe’s decorum while I am in my morning meditation. She doesn’t leap on me or bound around the room in a high-energy mode, but lies at the foot of the bed on the cushion I have put out for her. Being with Chloe always produces a Zen state if Zen state means being in the moment.

As well as a practice in being present, a dog is serious business, so it is with even more bemused curiosity that I observe the annoyed, pleasurable, and burdensome emotions that arise since I assumed responsibility for another’s being, in this case Rashad’s dog Chloe. And we are only going into week two.

PictureRelish Too? / Alison R.
They appeared overnight. Trucks must have driven them to the neighborhood; city workers then set them down randomly or by plan in the Fillmore Plaza, near the park at Steiner and O’Farrell, and in front of the post office. They are different ages and each has a preoccupation or occupation. My friend Abe called them “dummies.” Willis said they were made of bronze or tin. After I clanged on the hot dog vendor in the plaza, I agreed with him.

Seward Johnson’s sculptures “Celebrating the Familiar,” which appeared suddenly at Fillmore and O’Farrell, surprised me. The day before they hadn’t been there and then there they were: mariachis strumming their guitars; a woman reading to her child; a man grilling hot dogs; a soldier holding the flag, just home from war, being hugged around the knees by his daughter.

The pieces are entirely bronze. The Seward Johnson website says that the skin on the pieces is a traditional bronze patina, and the opaque colors come from the type of paints used on airplanes. The figures are resistant to climate conditions. Each is coated with a thin film of incrylac and a final coating of wax. Johnson’s “people” also live in New York, Osaka, Houston, Washington DC, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Paris and even Istanbul.

I delighted in the suddenness of their appearance in my world, in their ordinary human pursuits. To me, they looked like what people mean when they talk nostalgically about simpler times. They certainly brought to mind the notion of “American values” old style.

Not long after these figures showed up, the Supreme Court, wittingly or not, began undoing the familiar past and  expanding the legal definition of marriage, to include what we in San Francisco find somewhat commonplace – love between same-sex couples. Someday when statues that celebrate the familiar appear in the public square to represent American values, wedding rings will be prominently depicted in gold or silver as men embrace men and women embrace women. Married men will push their bronze buggies holding their smiling bronzed babies and women married to women will watch their sons or daughters play stickball or kick soccer balls. And people passing these sculptures in public places will smile, perhaps remembering the excitement of those bygone days. Recalling what it felt like to be present for the momentous legal shift in this country. And if such sculptures appear in this city, some will recall that same-sex marriages resumed a day or two before the annual Pride Parade, an event that drew millions of cheering Americans to this city in celebration.

Kate Kendall, Executive Director of The National Council for Lesbian Rights celebrated the Supreme Court decision with a reminder that in many places relationships and families of same-sex couples are not respected.

“There will still be many places in this country where stigma, lack of dignity, hostility, and harassment are daily realities. But … those who are bigots, haters, ignorant, or cruel—their days of having power over us are numbered … those who would deny our humanity are outnumbered by those who embrace us.”

So I could almost wish that someday a bronzed Fox News pundit could be seated for eternity at his bronzed news desk, smug and wrong. Passersby could shake their heads, remembering that once there were people who disseminated fear and ignorance and pretended it was information. Those who stop to smile may recall how love and marriage won over fear and ignorance.