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

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PictureFoxie blends with the garden
I last reported being picked up from Happy Tails where I vacationed while my one and only saw plays in Ashland. That was June. I recounted our visit to Creston, up the windy roads to see the rescue dogs living their last days happily and sometimes finding homes, which I should have said in my last report to you, but didn’t. Since then, we have had a garden planted in our back yard. So many tiny plants we hope will thrive, covered in reddish-brown bark chips.

One day soon after the garden was completed, I discovered a way through the fence, so I slipped out of the yard and ran into the street where I met a big dog and a woman with a baby carriage. My one and only saw me scampering in the street and called. I hustled home. Living rural like we do gives me chances I didn’t have in San Francisco or Oakland where traffic and other scary possibilities kept me on a tight leash.

Speaking of scary, whenever an orange man with yellow hair appears on TV, my one and only makes horrible sounds and rushes to change the channel. We have been watching more of Property Brothers and Chopped Jr. than usual. Then we saw the Olympics. Hopefully, the orange man will not be around much longer. I do not like our energy when we see his face or hear his voice.

Another thing I don't like is that on Thursday nights just before six, my one and only hustles me into her car and drives across the street where she parks the car with me in the front seat. An hour later, she returns and we go back across the street into our driveway.  I used to love Thursday night because of meditation. I could see as soon as she placed the blue garden chair in the living room and rearranged the other chairs that people were coming over. That was a cue for me to drag my toys into the center of the room, ready to chew on them as soon as the three chimes sounded. When everyone was still, I might try to get into someone’s lap or jump on my one and only as she sat with her downward glance. I wonder if I had squeakers in my toys when we meditated in San Francisco or Oakland? With meditation in Los Osos, I know all the squeakers have been removed. As for being present, I don’t remember it as a problem. Maybe my being in the room is annoying because rural dwellers have more allergies due to how the wind blows. And they may think I contribute to their difficulties. Claiming dog dander, one lady said she couldn’t sit in our living room, even with the door open.

There were a few days, just after five in the morning, when we drove directly from Starbucks to the part of Los Osos called “Cuesta by the Sea.” There we sat in the semidarkness of the house of my one and only’s early rising son. He likes to go fishing before the sun is up. We waited on the couch for my one and only’s granddaughter to get out of bed. That house is not my favorite place to visit because I am not allowed on the couch. My one and only calls her eight-year-old granddaughter, “Officer Emily” because she issues orders and enforces the “no dogs on the couch” rule. Once, my one and only was ordered to heat water and put a bit of it in a bowl so ice cubes could slightly melt – for the purpose of morning hydration. I was impressed by how patiently my one and only went back and forth to the kitchen, heating water and pulling ice cubes from the fridge. Of course, she requested that Officer Emily say “please,” which she did.

My one and only says that living near her family allows her to practice patience. She is still practicing because a sliding door being installed in the place of a window hasn't been completed. The yard is still full of debris from the unfinished work. Someone was supposed to come and finish and someone else was supposed to clean up before the weekend. Because those someones are friends of the family, my one and only is practicing and practicing. 


PictureFoxiebeau home from Happy Tails
I know you are eager to catch up on my comings and goings. While my one and only was in Ashland at the Shakespeare Festival, I was at Happy Tails kennel in San Luis Obispo becoming a dog with friends. I didn’t fight or bite. I singled out a small furry white lovely. I spent happy days cavorting with her and similar small canines, cementing my reputation as a Happy Dog.

My one and only was delighted to learn from the kennel staff, whom she called numerous times from Ashland, that I was a “Happy Dog” and doing very well. She had imagined me snarling and attacking and being kept inside, all alone. She knew I could get along with Cooper in San Francisco, but she often saw me lunging at other dogs as we walked the trails that pass close to our house in Baywood Park.

Delighted that I am this happy animal rather than a fierce predator, my one and only wants to reward me with a dog of my own. She thinks I would appreciate a sidekick. With this in mind, our first “let’s look” excursion was a trip to Creston, which is north of our house and inland. You have to drive up winding roads that sometimes don’t have a line down the middle. We went to visit animals at Meade Canine Rescue. There we scoped out little dogs for one who could come and live with us.

My one and only had made a friend who lived on the property in a house with 10 little dogs and a couple of larger ones. Maureen made much of how well behaved I was while the resident dogs “checked my license plate.” Though they liked barking at me, I took a ho-hum attitude and marked the yard. We did not find a take-home animal there. Six little ones we might have liked Maureen had already adopted. Then we climbed to the upper house where 40 more dogs lived with the lady whose name is on the rescue because it’s her acreage. Dogs alive at Meade would otherwise be euthanized if left at shelters. Most are unadoptable. Some are blind and others are too senior to change their ways.

We can’t bring home a little dog who doesn’t enjoy children and almost all the Chihuahuas are yappers and that won’t do either. One cute dog always slept in its owner’s bed and never got out of the habit. That wouldn’t work for us because sharing the bed with my one and only is a “me only” option. Driving back down the hills from Creston, I believe my one and only may have been having second thoughts about bringing another animal into our lives. Although we have not really begun to explore our options, I think she should give it some time. If I have to associate with other dogs, I wouldn’t mind going back to Happy Tails where I feel encouraged to be my best self.

It is obvious to everyone who knows me that I am growing up and outgrowing my bad habits. On Father’s Day, for example, my one and only was happy to take me to her son’s house for a barbeque. I did not run from the yard through the open gate into the street. I didn’t bark or lunge at Shiloh, the big dog that lives there. I didn’t nip at any children, not even the smallest ones who crawled past me. I didn’t beg for food, even with the smell of meat coming from the grill. I ate from no plates children left lying around.

At our house, I notice that sometimes I am encouraged to go outside without a leash. I can get into the car as soon as the orange door swings open. More and more, my one and only urges me to be independent. I will be a good role model if and when I do get a pet. And it is a big “when” and a bigger “IF”.

PictureZenkei Blanche Hartman (Google image)
I did not go to to pay my respects when I learned that Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Senior Dharma Teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, passed on May 13. But I did send my condolence to Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt, who received dharma transmission from Blanche and who was my teacher at that time. Responding to my email, Liên included this thought: “May I be able to transmit her loving kindness in any small measure.” The “I” in the email was Liên but could just as easily have referred to me. 

Blanche was one of the first women to lead a Zen training temple outside of Asia and was revered and loved for her kindness, wisdom and service. She was the chief sewing instructor for the formal robes to be worn by those becoming priests and lay leaders, an important part of Zen practice. She instructed me when I was Liên’s student and tried to assist Liên in sewing consistent and even seams on her robes prior to receiving dharma transmission from Blanche. In this official ceremony wherein one becomes a priest, Liên would follow in Blanche’s lineage from Shunryu Suzuki, and I would assist with ritual tasks.

It is partly because Blanche has died and a lot because of Liên’s deep loss and her expressed wish to transmit loving kindness that I cry while meditating. And I also know some shed tears are tears of regret for my short and imperfect career as a Zen student in San Francisco. It’s silly to blame Liên for my failure to do better in the Zen tradition, but I do think she imagined me, her first student, farther along, more highly developed given my age and less reactive than I actually was. I can’t explain not following her instructions, so that unlike Lien’s other students I would not qualify to sew my rakasu, the traditional Japanese garment worn around the neck by those who have completed the precepts class to become lay ordained.

Blanche would not be instructing me while other students, who followed directions and didn’t miss classes or fail to do the homework and successfully completed the precept class, would get those instructions on piecing together strips of cloth into a brick-like patterned bib in preparation for their jukai or ordination ceremony. I’d like to think if I were again to choose a Zen path I would not argue with my teacher, but graciously take instruction. It is true that in the years since Liên and I agreed that I should not be her student, I have become more curious about and less resistant to other people’s points of view. Perhaps accepting people and things as they are will continue to be a lesson and gradually the judgmental self will settle down, and I will be less defended and more willing to have an “Oh?” attitude rather than try to foment an opinion and defend it.

 In a 2001 Dharma talk reprinted this month in the Buddhist magazine “Lion’s Roar,” Blanche  said that when we see that life is impermanent, we may wonder, “Well, if my life is a gift, how shall I use it, how shall I give it back, how shall I express my appreciation for it, or completely live this life which is wonderful and evanescent?” I hear Liên’s words as a skillful answer to Blanche’s question. “… transmit her loving kindness in any small measure.”

As I See It


PictureFoxiebeaux sitting in the morning sun
Although I try to keep a close watch on my one and only, there’s a lot I don’t see and some of what I do doesn’t make sense. Of course, being this small limits my perspective. And it's true that what I see depends on if I am on ground level or being carried chest high, which would be about five feet off the ground. My one and only claims to have been three inches taller a few years ago, but she says she is shrinking. 

One thing I don’t understand is why my one and only would choose to name the animals in her life and omit the names of people in the short autobiography she wrote to be distributed on New Member Sunday when the minister introduced new members of the UU Fellowship in SLO. This seemed very strange to me. If she wants people to know about her life, she has a funny way of saying so. Why call attention to Otto and Leeloo, two previous pitbulls who belonged to her son but spent time with her And this was years ago? I think more people would be interested in knowing her if she at least summarized her years in therapy with a round number rather than refering to two pitbulls.

And she did go on about me, concluding that new member autobiography with this paragraph: “Two highlight of my recent life have been Foxiebeau, the rescue Chihuahua terrier mix who is an assistance dog and can go everywhere I go, and practicing Buddhism, although presently I am exploring nonduality as part of my meditation practice. I keep in touch with friends and acquaintances in the Bay Area with visits and through my blog, spiritflowsthru.com, which is currently being guest-written by my dog.”

Notice how I got the full formal spelling of my name (sans le chien) whereas she didn’t name her sons, nor grandson and granddaughter. Nor her sister and brother for that matter. And she has a niece. Not only did she leave out the names of four beloved sitters in sangha, she skipped over the many SF UUs she misses. Of course, to go on about the kindnesses that were part of being a UU in SF, especially her part in Small Group Ministry and her years reflecting from the lectern as a Worship Associate would have taken up a lot of space and been a long look back. Maybe she was thinking that detailing the past isn't much use, seeing as it is behind. And that is just the recent past. In farther back pasts were all the beaches she called home while living in Southern California, her 11-year marriage followed by 66 years of mixing and mingling without a lasting match. Just to say. I also have to point out that mentioning our blog at the very end of her autobiography smacks of product placement. Did she really want everyone reading that new member autobiography to proceed directly to spiritflowsthru.com? What's that about?


PictureFoxiebeau loves the new rug
About a week ago, my one and only drove her car, the little orange one that can’t carry much, into an intersection when it wasn’t her turn, and a gardener’s truck knocked the car sideways. Although I wasn’t in the car, she did have two eight-year olds she picked up from school in the back seat, wearing seat belts. Although not hurt, they were really scared by their very first car accident. They saw the window on the passenger side shatter and fragments of glass fly into the car. The sound of the little car smashed by a truck was terrible for them. It would have been for me. Luckily I wasn’t there because I'd have been in the passenger seat.  Despite the small size of the car, it could still be driven even missing its window and with a door caved in.

Once her son came to pick up the girls and after she had exchanged information with the Spanish-speaking truck driver, my one and only drove home her broken car and called the insurance company. The closest repair place would be a 44-mile drive mostly on a freeway the next day. I hoped my one and only would not want my company because the wind could blow into the car and as the CHP who pulled her over said, glass might blow in her eyes and she could kill herself and others.

The mishap with the gardener’s truck and the Scion IQ occurred at 4pm, but by 5:30pm that same day, my one and only was navigating a blue minivan borrowed from her son to a scheduled meditation in the UU church in SLO. My one and only, though upset, said she had to meet this obligation. Despite letting my one and only go out again on the road in a car of his within an hour of this mishap, you can imagine my one and only’s son, freaked out, scared and angry!

In fact, my one and only is currently on Grandma Probation. She has lost transporting privileges. For how long I don’t know. Right now, we are driving a big white car that is a rental car. It has doors to the back seat as well as doors to the front seats. Nevertheless, when my one and only is requested to take her grandchild to school or go get her, she has orders to climb the hill, thread her way along dirt trails through a grove, head around the campus and pick up and deliver through whichever gate is opened. I think it is good that my one and only has forgiven herself. It may take the others longer.

As for me, I faced my own Central Coast trauma this week, spending part of a day at Happy Tails, a doggie day care and boarding facility in SLO. I didn’t know of this plan to leave me with professional strangers and lots of small dogs – I only like Cooper and he’s in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the morning we went there in the rented four-door big car, a girl walked me to a spot away from my one and only, took off the leash and left me sitting by a wire fence with other small animals. A dog near me looked like Cooper, white and fluffy. Half a day went by before my one and only came back. I got good marks for not attacking other dogs. I suspect my good behavior has earned me other stays at Happy Tails, especially if my one and only wants to be gone longer than a few hours.

This past week has been intense! My one and only continues to work on her equanimity as well as her driving. I had a bath, and we took delivery on a bright new rug. Oo bla di oo bla da. Life goes on.

PictureThis Scion IQ can't carry much. So no retail therapy for us.
Recently, my one and only has been singing the relocation blues. If it weren’t for the Warriors winning 73 games, passing the record set by the Chicago Bulls, and playing well despite Steph’s injuries, my one and only would have one less diversion to count on. She’s backing a winning team, so why this sadness? It’s not where we’re located. My one and only loves Los Osos /Baywood Park; she loves being in nature and taking me for walks. We travel the red marked habit trail from east to west and back. We see mountains, the ocean at the estuary. We hear birds and commune with trees, each in our way. She even likes the sound and feel of wind. We are getting used to the down side of rural living – that no stores are within walking distance. Buses are limited and, of course, no BART. But we don’t have traffic congestion like we had in the Bay area. And we don’t have the noise. It’s been no comfort for my one and only to be reminded that moving rattles everyone who does it. Our last year and a half has included many moves, but this one is definitely the most radical. And not just because we aren’t city dwellers any longer.  

My one and only takes comfort in having made good on her wish to create meditation groups so she could sit with others. That happens three evenings a week. One evening, she sits in the six o’clock semidarkness of the UU Fellowship’s sanctuary in SLO. We pronounce it “slow” instead of saying San Luis Obispo every time. And we say UU so we don’t have to say Unitarian Universalist.

What could increase her sense of wellbeing? I suppose she might try shopping. That works for a lot of people and it makes sense; after all, we moved from a studio to a three-bedroom house. Our blue mailbox across the street fills up with coupons from local stores welcoming us to Central Coast and promising deep discounts. But so far my one and only has stopped by at the fitness center to redeem her coupon for one free smoothie. A drawback to hitting Costco, Home Depot or Target to redeem other coupons is her small car. We just can’t race out, coupons in hand and fill up the back seat with furniture and gadgets. The back seat is so cramped it can’t comfortably carry two regular people who don’t fold up. We have accommodated meditation practitioners in lotus position. Without passengers, we mostly keep the seatbacks flat to comfortably carry two bags of groceries. When we did go to Couch Potato to buy a dining room table and four chairs, we had to rely on my one and only’s son and his promise to pick up the furniture once it made it from the warehouse to Morro Bay. This youngest son lives not far, owns a truck and a minivan, but his fetches and carries are limited by his full life.

From my point of view, we need to readjust our expectations. Maybe get rid of them. My one and only moved here in part because she wanted to be near her son and granddaughter in case the eight-year-old needed an ally as she adjusted to the possibility that her father might remarry. She told herself she was that person. She could move into the neighborhood and make herself available and important. Didn’t happen that way. Even before the movers arrived at the start of March, relationships in Los Osos had been working out, so by the time she arrived, frazzled but intent, adjustment had taken place; the woman her son will marry had moved into the house with her son and granddaughter, and everyone seemed satisfied. They were repainting, redecorating and readjusting.

Foolishly, my one and only took it hard and personally when her son asked her to return the duplicate key he had long ago made for her. As a result, I see her sitting with her eyes closed many times a day these last several weeks. Not just the three nights, she set up for meditation practice with others. I trust that in all those sits she practices sympathetic joy for her son’s happiness, more of the same for her granddaughter’s growing love for the woman who will marry her daddy as well as some SJ for the woman who will soon be part of our family. Hopefully, before the wedding, my one and only will stop it with those relocation and readjustment blues, which I have been told sound a lot like all the blues she’s ever sung. “Waaaaaaah: What about me?” Meanwhile the wind blows, the fog rolls in and birds sing.

Dharma Lullabies


My one and only pops dharma talks the way some people pop sleeping pills. Those Buddhist teachings are meant to awaken meditators, not put them to sleep. But my one and only is not sitting lotus-like on a cushion. She is in bed. Possibly she meditates; after all, she is aging and will someday do her final meditations lying down. But now, she is restless an hour or two too early for us to get coffee, or do anything, unless we want to do it in the dark. When I see a faint light and hear a voice other than my one and only’s in the bedroom, I know she has tuned her iPad to a dharma talk and wants it to put her to sleep.

At three in the morning, who teaches doesn’t matter. It’s a special voice she’s after. Not too soporific nor too soprano. If a giggly monk cracks dharma jokes, that’s no good either. There’s a Spirit Rock speaker she likes in person, but emanating from the iPad, his voice is a monotone, and she can’t sleep. One teacher from a Redwood City sangha is really smart, but he often clears his throat, and she finds this won’t do. As a rule, she never chooses foreign voices, although once she did fall asleep to a French woman’s heavily accented, giggly voice. But that happened only once. The topic must have done the trick.

When I am restless or upset at an unreasonable hour, I too like a soothing voice. Kind tones calm me unless I am really riled up, then wrap me in my comfort coat and tighten those Velcro straps. Maybe dharma talks issuing from just the right voice are my one and only's electronic comfort coat. The dharma of the Buddha thus spoken could assure her she is on the path awake or asleep. The soothing voice is school at its best at three in the morning when the path is not obvious. About five in the morning, we will awake for coffee and a walk; and once settled back at the house, she will sit for awake meditation. Kudos to my one and only. From the first three singing bowls through the last, she stays focused and aware of whatever arises even as I wrestle an orange and blue lion plus kong with a squeak for a roar. In the picture you see me toy in mouth during meditation.

Up the hill just past Paso Robles Street we can see Quan Yin.
About six doors down, this truck lives in the driveway.
​While living in the Bay Area, we thought a lot about diversity. Not just the different sorts of dogs that went up and down the elevator in The Grand where we stayed on the 14th floor. All manner of people lived and worked in this apartment building of 23 floors. Now we are in Los Osos, where people are predominantly white. But when we walk on 14th Street, we are still aware of diversity. For example, I see that many houses on the block sort of look like ours, but not as cared for. Others may have once looked like ours, but owners have gone to a lot of trouble to glitz up the yard. These houses please my one and only, especially if she sees a plaster Quan Yin. Buddhist statuary in the yard reminds her to send Metta to all beings, whether or not they study the dharma or put money and effort into their property or if they have multiple RVs parked in their driveways, or even if they don't have a driveway, having graveled the entire front of the lot.

I, on the other hand, like the undergrowth, or weeds as they are called. I like that the street and the neighbor hood is dotted with empty lots where tall wild flowers whip around when the wind blows hard. Why I like dirt and untended plant life is obvious. As for our weeds, the previous owner of this house did what he could to give this house curb appeal, so weeds have not sprouted to excess and do not detract from our clean lines. Of course, we haven’t been here long enough to take blame or credit for anything. It is my opinion that my one and only's son will do his best to make this house a very good house for us. Clearly, many different needs are being met up and down our street.

While my one and only was excited to capture the image of Quan Yin in the yard on our morning walk, I urged her to snap the cheese truck. Cheese is one of my favorites, so I am watching for this truck to leave the driveway and head in our direction. It is only about four doors down the hill from us, and if I am alert, we can signal it before it gets out of sight. So far it has not moved. I am sending Metta to the cheese people.
PictureFoxiebeau is intimate with his toy.
I’m curled up on the couch. We’ve been out for our morning coffee at Los Osos Starbucks and it’s still early. My one and only is sniffling. It sounds like she is crying. I don’t know if she is happy or sad or both or something entirely else. She is sorting through notes from lectures taken over long periods of time; they’re strewn across the wide counter that separates and joins the kitchen and the dining room. We don’t have a table yet, so this counter is it. I sense there is a connection between the sounds she makes and the writing on those papers.

Suddenly she proclaims, “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” “Dogen Zenji” she finishes, maybe so I will know she is saying someone else’s words. I don’t know Dogen Zenji. His name starts with a sound I recognize as what she calls me when she explains to strangers why I may not like them. “Foxie is a “rescue dog.” Dog. En. Zen. Ji. No disrespect intended. You could say that as a dog, I am enlightened. I practice intimacy with all things. Sniffing is intimacy, isn’t it? Liking one person and not another shows me being true to my nature. That is the nature of this dog; perhaps not all dogs. I have heard some people say about their dogs, “She likes everybody. She will jump on you. Down, Clownie; off, Thistle. A big difference between enlightened animals and unenlightened other species is how easy it is to explain our behavior. 

I digress. My one and only stumbled across these study notes from past Buddhist classes as part of her pawing through papers not yet assigned to a file folder or crumpled for recycling. To my way of thinking, this ongoing style of creating order is highly disorderly. She’ll head in one direction, double back, take time-out to play Letterpress or watch a basketball game because it’s March Madness. When once again she looks at the material, she becomes engrossed in its wisdom. It is this, I believe, that produces the sound I heard earlier. A sigh of recognition for the truth, for the remembered experience of receiving the handout or scribbling the words of wisdom during a workshop or class at the Zen Center, at Spirit Rock, or at the East Bay Meditation Center. Could be tears for not having the teachers close at hand as she recalls their energy, the tone of their voices, the way one of them peppered her dharma talks with profanity.

As for profanity, my one and only is using less recognizable profanity since our relocation to Los Osos. It’s because her granddaughter has issued a list of words for which substitutes must be employed. Fargo is at the top of our list these days when the eight-year-old is within earshot. Crab, Shiitake—these other words sub for the standards. With no minors within earshot, my one and only may revert.

As for this morning, we are following Dogen Zenji and practicing empathic attunement to our own experiencing. This means that we listen without judging, and we meditate so as to bring an open, noncritical, intimate listening, seeing, and feeling back to our life again and again. I am not really doing any of the above. I am lying in the sun part time, drinking water, playing with toys, and practicing low growling when I hear people in the neighborhood. Thus am I true to my nature.

PictureChewbakka in the grip of Foxiebeau!
This guy I'm chewing on is Chewbakka. I chose him at the pet store. Once I got my teeth into him, he couldn't be pried loose. Growling at the young saleslady and at my one and only as well, I stood my ground. You can't take me into a dog store and expect me to come away with nothing fun. I may need useful junk like a harness, leash and a raincoat, but I am not attracted to the displays. I would have liked a Warrior's sweater or hat but the NBA must not have licensed the store we went to to sell Dub stuff. Sad, really! I left the store with Chewbakka gripped tightly by its fur. I think we are enough the same color that people on the street thought one of us had two heads. Whatever... they smiled at us.

I was left alone briefly the other day while my one and only went downstairs to pay her last rent. She was smiling when she came back. She told me the ladies who take the money said they would miss her and me. I was surprised to hear that in the past year we have lived here no one complained about my growling and snarling, about how I try to lunge at other animals, sometimes so hard I slip right out of my faux fur coat. With me gone, this place will be safer for the other animals. I am sorry about that.  My one and only said she was bragging about me, exaggerating my specialness. She told the ladies who work here that I take selfies for my blog. Obviously I can't do that. Maybe brag is a synonym for telling a lie.

Sometimes after a refreshing nap, I think about the book my one and only says she wants me to write. One day when I woke up with this thought, we went for a walk around the block and stopped in at Creative Growth. This studio is for artists with disabilities who sculpt, weave, draw, construct, paint and make flower pots. My one and only calls it heartwork and asked the working lady if it would be okay to find pictures for my book. Was there a policy on using the pictures? We did not get an answer that day, so we need to hurry back and follow up. Even if the lady says we can use the heartwork, my one and only hasn't decided who would read the ramblings of a rescued chihuahua-terrier? She think having the answer to that question could help us choose what to show.  I wonder if my one and only isn't finding another excuse for avoiding the joy of taking dictation from me!  If I could avoid her entirely, believe me I would! As for pictures, my suggestion is to really show my perspective and feature photos of various grasses and plants I see as we walk around. Tree bottoms too.  Now that is honesty. What do you think?