Saturday, November 28, 2009

Free Fall

Sitting in Dr. Zachary Bregman's office for the first time, I am intrigued by the focused intensity of his gaze, which seems to be saying, "I care deeply. Let's not waste time."

This message is punctuated by the unusual items in the reception room. Minutes earlier, wondering what time it is, I look up at the circular-shaped clock. There are no numbers visible, only the two stick "hands" to mark the minute and hour. One word appears repeatedly around the clock face: "Now. Now. Now."

This is a man who realizes time is precious. 

As we meet, he asks about my profession and employer. I tell him I recently became unemployed. He asks where I worked. When I tell him, his eyes light up. He tells me of his long-standing relationship with the organization, Housing Works, the nation's largest minority-run social service and advocacy agency for people living with HIV. He says with great enthusiasm, "I want to show you something," begins to search online, then turns and asks, "have you got time for this?"  I smile and say, "sure."

He tells me he was doctor to one of the organization's founders, Keith Cylar, who "passed away" five years earlier. He is trying to locate the tribute he wrote for the man, which had been on the website. As the conversation shifts, he begins to share his perspective on spirituality. He then turns his chair towards the computer, brings up a web browser, and begins to type. Then he turns back towards me and says he wants to send me a book and, "you have to promise you'll read it." I ask, "how long is it?" When he tells me and sees my expression, he adjusts his request to what he sees as key sections. I agree to check it out. The title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The author: Julian Jaynes. At home later, I go to Wikipedia and read:

"In psychologybicameralism is a hypothesis which argues that the human brain once assumed a state known as a bicameral mind in which cognitive functions are divided between one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys. The term was coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes [who] theorized that a shift from bicameralism marked the beginning of introspection and consciousness as we know it today. . . A rash of unexpected situations and stresses required ancient minds to become more flexible and creative. Self-awareness, or consciousness, was the solution to this problem. This necessity of communicating commonly observed phenomena among individuals who shared no common language or cultural upbringing encouraged those communities to become self-aware to survive in a new environment. Thus consciousness, like bicamerality, emerged as a neurological adaptation to social complexity in a changing world. Jaynes further argues that prayer arose during this breakdown period in an attempt to summon instructions from the "gods" whose voices could no longer be heard. Jaynes's hypothesis remains controversial."

Back in the doctor's office, we re-focus on the reason for my visit. First, I am a new patient referred to him by a friend, and here for a check-up. More immediately, I am here because I am recuperating from a fall in late October. 

On that difficult Saturday night, through a light drizzle of rain, I head at a brisk pace towards the subway. Driven by a surge of urgency while walking, I check my cell phone for email. I am anxious to hear from a friend regarding plans for the next day's Potluck Tea Party. Suddenly, I feel my legs slip out from under me as I trip over some low lying object, which rips through my pants clear to the knee. I fall forward. I feel a sharp force on my front teeth as they make contact with the pavement. Stunned, I stay on the ground as my tongue surveys the interior scene. I can feel the broken tooth, just left of center. 

In that moment, all words disappear. The voices are silenced. No one to admonish, "pay attention!" No one to lament or cry out in anger about the injustice of it. The only relevant word for what is happening is completely devoid of personality. That word resounds though I don't hear it as a word. I experience it as my whole body shaking.


Lying beside the tree, I also feel my body tensing with recognition of its fragility.

Just then, I hear two male voices, quickly followed by their arms reaching towards me to assist. "Are you ok?"  I slowly scan my body and decide to sit up. I look around. I'm sitting beside a large tree. Surrounding it is a foot-high mesh fence, painted black. One man sees me gazing at the fence and pointing to it, says, "that was an accident waiting to happen. Who can see that?"

I look up, keenly aware of the large tree, which minutes earlier, I did not see it at all.

The man locates my cell phone and hands it to me. It is undamaged, thanks to its protective shell. I call my friend Marjorie, who amazingly, helps me locate an "emergency dentist," Dr. Isaac Dakitashvili. A few hours later, he provides immediate care and helps me plan next steps for dental treatment.

The next day, my chest feels as if someone is standing on it. Fortunately, at a walk-in clinic, I learn that I have only sustained minor cuts and bruises along with what that doctor refers to as inflammation from the impact. This is causing the pain. Days later, I still feel woozy and achy. Everything I do is slowed down.

I stay close to home and inquire about possible jobs. On a friend's recommendation, I make an appointment to see Dr. Bregman the following week.  A few days later, I go to Harlem for the NY State Department of Labor orientation for the newly unemployed. I fill out forms along with everybody else. We sit in a room for some time, waiting. No one seems to know what's happening next. Many folks click away on their cell phones. 

Now in Dr. Bregman's office, he confirms that other than dental damage (the treatment of which is a story in itself), I am recuperating quickly.  He says, "Look, you had a minor accident. You just lost your job. You had a lot going on. You were distracted.  You can't afford to be distracted."

The words shake me. My mind shifts to the day when I had just heard the news of my termination. I ask Cesar, my psychotherapist colleague, to walk outdoors with me. We move at a brisk pace. Strong waves of reactivity keep surfacing. I suddenly stop and face him saying, "I need to focus. I feel anger and hurt. I hear the stories, but right now, I need to focus on what's important. I want to connect. I don't want to label anyone as a villian or as a victim. I want to say goodbye in a meaningful way." He says to me, "that's right. You can't afford to be distracted." We smile and head back.

Around mid-November, I contact Diana, Director of Creative Arts Therapy at the Center, and offer to visit on Thanksgiving. She texts me in response to my asking if they have hired a chaplain, "no, we just have your ideas." I arrive at 11:45am. The place is decorated manificently. At the entrance, pasted to a transparent glass wall is a painted cut-out of a broad-branched tree. Small white lights glow around it, inviting in everyone who walks by.

As I enter, many clients and staff approach. We exchange hugs and well wishes. Susan, the Executive Director, greets me warmly. She asks if I'd be willing to offer a meal blessing before we begin the feast. I say I'd be happy to. She introduces me as a "special guest." I notice a quality of energetic ease in my body. I begin, then stop, not sure what to say next. Then I hear myself say, "We pause for a moment to appreciate all the effort that brought us this food, to appreciate this precious life, to appreciate our efforts, that we show up, that we participate in this healing community." Many people are holding hands. There is a palpable stillness in the room. 

Hours later, leaving the building, my body feels free. Making sure that my cell phone is carefully tucked away, I walk towards the river. An image flashes into my mind. 

Days earlier, in Queens, I am tutoring a young woman in physics. The subject is gravity. Staring at equations in the textbook, she tells me how confusing the problems are. She asks me to explain free fall. I paint her a picture in words. "Imagine what it might be like to stand at the open doorway of a plane flying thousands of feet above the ground." She looks towards me with newfound excitement. I continue, "Now, with your parachute strapped on tightly, you move one step forward and let go." I add with a mischievous smile, "or maybe you jump out." She laughs. "Before the chute opens," I say, "what do you suppose happens?" Her eyes light up. She says with full attention, "free fall." I get that she gets it, feels it in her body. The details soon fall into place. She checks the back of the book. She got the right answer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Moving On

I am drawing smiley hearts on the back of small wallet-sized cards. On the flip side of these cards, typed over a background pattern of blue sky and white clouds read the words, "Healing Ourselves, Healing Community."

I am giving these cards to clients and colleagues as a parting gift. Today is my last day serving as clinical chaplain at a large, adult day "harm reduction" treatment center in New York City for people living with HIV. Many clients are "triply diagnosed," with mental illness, substance "use" (addiction), and/or trauma history. They are largely people of color, including a growing contingent of women, with long histories of homelessness or at-risk housing. 

Multiple factors contribute to the approaching termination. Understanding how and why this is happening no longer seems important.

I am focussed on saying farewell. This is not easy. I am filled with emotion. For nearly four years, we have travelled together through some of the most moving and difficult moments of our lives. We built a healthcare program, which engages clients and staff in what could be called broadly-framed spirituality, as the foundation for healing. We offered opportunities for everyone to keep returning to essential questions:

What keeps me going? What's important right now?

These questions then become the frame through which to focus. 

I pause with a cup of tea, and draw hearts on the remaining cards. Most clients have left.

A week earlier, on a Friday, shortly before hearing the news regarding termination, I venture outdoors with fifteen clients and James, a new social worker, for a group entitled, "Be the Change." It connects with the theme of a program offered on September 11. In bright sunshine, we walk to the recently opened Highline Park. The park used to be a long stretch of abandoned railroad tracks. Now it brings people together to relax and connect while offering a poignant reminder of possibility.

We have a grand time doing just that.

 As we walk, clients share their experiences of transformation. One client tells me of his aspiration to serve others now that he is in recovery.

Arriving back at the Center, I soon learn of the termination and that my next work day, scheduled to be a Tuesday, would be my last. I advocate for an extension to that Friday, which given this half-time position, means three days to terminate with over one hundred clients as well as many colleagues. Susan, our executive director, says she'll see what she can do.

Over the weekend, not knowing if my next day at work will be my last, I ponder how to transition. After mindfully riding stormy waves of emotional reactivity, I realize that caring for myself is of utmost importance. I ride the breath and slowly focus.

I remember how each week, in a group entitled, "Moving On," I ask each client to contemplate, "How am I moving on?"

I begin to draft a letter to staff expressing what our time together means to me. I stop. I cannot write. My mind goes visual. I start making Healing Community cards. I think of an image accompanied by words, which has become a logo expressing the vision of our program. This logo evolved over time during countless "spiritual groups" with titles including, "Moving On," "Spirituality and Addictions," "Ancient Wisdom and Well-Being," "TranSpirit," and "Keeping Your Cool." I would draw a circle in the middle of a blackboard. Around the edge of the circle I'd write three words: safety, trust, respect

As folks told their stories, I would list in the middle of the circle core human values, which they named in responding to breath-centered contemplations:

Breathing in, What keeps me going? 
Breathing out, What's important right now?

I call this method Attuned Breath Centering.

If someone names an addictive substance or behavior, I ask, "what's important about that?" Soon enough, somebody would say, "it helps me relax," and this might lead to deeper exploration. Someone might mention "money" or "get a job." As we go deeper, they might say, "Then I'd know my life serves a purpose" or "Then, I'd feel connected," "I'd be happy."

We learned in those groups to speak the language of Non-Violent Communication, which expresses intimacy as the experience of meeting everybody's needs.

Sitting at home, it is my turn to consider all those words and put the ones that matter on this card. Sitting in front of the laptop with a "business card" template file open, I am staring at many circles with nothing typed in their centers. In the silence of breathing in and breathing out, the words come. I type,

Healing Ourselves, Healing Community

After printing these cards, I want to add a personal touch, something handwritten or hand drawn. I turn a card over and draw a smiley heart in the center of the circle. I turn it over again, seeing the blue sky and clouds. I hold it up to the light. There, shining through is the smile. 

I sit for over an hour drawing smiles on card after card. I feel a calm joy settling in.

Next, I print a poem written in the last year entitled, Prayer for the Journey. The next day, I make copies of the poem and buy heart-shaped paper clips in various colors. Back home, I begin to prepare packages of the poem and card connected with the heart clip. 

When I return to to the Center on Tuesday, Susan tells me my request has been granted and my last day will be Friday. The poignant announcement and sharings during morning staff meeting are punctuated by Susan expressing her appreciation and me expressing mine, then letting colleagues know my plans to offer a parting gift to clients, which I also plan to give to each of them. I hand one to Susan and say, "I'll need to make more for staff. For now, I would like to entrust this one to Susan and thank her for leadership during very difficult times." She is moved and we all meet in a tender space, which holds very different emotional responses to the news. It feels most intimate.

After the meeting, I stop by Susan's office to check in. Referring to the upcoming community meeting scheduled for 11am, she says, "I'm not looking forward to this. The clients will be upset." I reply, "I'll stand with you." Our eyes meet. She says, "thank you. I really appreciate that."

I walk slowly down the corridor towards our dining area where the meeting is to take place. 

I see the pillar in the center. During our fourth annual A Day of Unity, held in July, we covered the pillar with paper cutouts in the shape of hands. On each hand is a message connecting with that day's theme. On the table in front of this pillar stands the poster we placed there on September 11, entitled, "Keep the Ball Rolling: Be the Change."

I think of another pillar, which stands at the opposite end of the facility. It is composed of tiny ceramic tiles in a gorgeous mosaic, which express themes of hope and peace. Towards the center of that pillar is the image of the famous red ribbon marking the journey of living and dying with HIV. This project, which took one year to complete, was the inspiration of Diana, the Director of Creative Arts Therapies.

I realize what we all have accomplished together. We have come full circle. My chest feels warm and expansive. My hands tremble slightly.

I place the farewell gifts in a medium-sized wicker basket. Just before the community gathers for announcements including that of my imminent departure, I walk over to the "Be the Change" table in the center of the room. I place the basket there.

The meeting, called, "Living Well" group, begins. After Susan briefly shares the news, I address everyone. I explain the circumstances as best I understand them, which contributed to this termination. I mention succinctly the complex interplay of changing government and agency guidelines compounded by economic challenges for the agency. I say, "I am aware that this decision was made with sadness and careful consideration."

As I speak, I am mindful of my intention not to separate from anyone and not to cast anyone as victim or villian. I focus on healing. I focus on connecting.

I mention Dr. King's vision of the Beloved Community, which inspired our program of Healing Community and continues as each of us moves on and expresses this vision. In closing, I ask a client sitting in the back of the room to sing with me what is practically an anthem in many parts of Latin America, "Gracias a la Vida." Thanks to Life. As I speak, Mercedes de la Sosa, the Argentinian folksinger, who made the song famous and was dubbed, "the voice of the silent majority," is herself dying. 

Completely willing, this gentle man, a long-term client in this program, sings loudly and with a dignified passion. The room comes alive. We close with an affirmation of living and growing together. 

Soon after, clients come over to share hugs and say whatever they need to say. One client pats me on the back and says energetically, "that was the best goodbye I ever heard!"

As clients form a line for lunch, I go from one to the next, the basket in hand, offering this gift and showing them the heart saying, "you can only see it if you hold it up to the light." Their eyes open with a playful glint. We smile. I move on, greeting the next person.

Later that day, I write an email to colleagues. I thank them for the journey we have shared, saying:

"Journeys are endless and gardens need water to grow. Organizations need funds. People need to be sustained in mind/body/spirit. Thank you for continuing to engage creatively, for gathering this precious water and offering it freely. May our garden of Healing Community continue to grow, even as leaves turn. May we always remember that at its center is the tree of life, whose graceful branches and deep roots reach everywhere."

Throughout the next few days, I approach clients, making sure they're aware of the change. Sometimes they approach me. I tell them of changes I have witnessed in them, while affirming their wholehearted determination to keep going simply by showing up in the program. I listen as they voice a range of emotions connecting with stories of regret and disappointment, of no chance to say goodbye, and for many, of connection and gratitude. Most challenging of all, I listen attentively as they tell me how they appreciate what I have offered. 

On Friday, I venture outdoors one last time with clients, twenty or so, and James, the new social worker, with whom I set out a week earlier. 

Again we walk to the new Highline Park. At the top of the stairs, we look out. I look up and see blue sky and white clouds. Minutes earlier it was overcast and some predicted rain. I pull out a Healing Community card. I say, "Now we are all card-carrying members of Healing Community." I offer cards to anyone who doesn't yet have one. We hold them up to the light.

For a moment I feel choked up. There are tears in my eyes. 

I look out again. I see those smiles. Some are disguised as sadness and longing. Even so, as one client after another comes over to embrace, as our tears intermingle, I hear "thank you," "you changed my life," "God bless you." I recognize the smile that is always present. I feel it. This is love, true love.

By 3pm, I am beginning to feel overwhelmed. I pause for a cup of tea. Sitting at my desk, I turn over a card and draw a smiley heart, then another. I place these cards in a basket. 

Colleagues surprise me with a brief sendoff with cookies and flowers. Then, I offer the final TranSpirit group for participants in a transgender outreach program.

An hour later, walking out of my office for the last time, I hear the sounds of folks arriving. It's time for a weekly meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, hosted here "after hours."

I place the basket on a counter beside the entrance. I walk one last time to our Healing Community board, which is situated near the entrance and lists this month's theme, "Transitioning." A man walking by says, "hey, how's it going?" With tears in my eyes, I meet his gaze and almost with surprise, find myself smiling. Seeing him seeing me, I feel completely transparent. He smiles, nodding his head as if to say, "I understand." I nod, responding freely in that silence, and move on.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Walk the Line

September 11. I'm riding the subway into work, an adult day treatment center for folks living with HIV. We have coordinated an interdisciplinary program entitled, "Healing Ourselves, Healing Community." 

These words invite an experience of connecting with two significant questions: "what keeps me going?" and "what's important right now?" 

I often return to these questions and ask them with clients and colleagues alike. They are useful questions when considering another: How does one structure a healing program that has the potential to reach everyone and include everything? 

Preparing for this day, some folks tell me they would prefer to forget. Some need to grieve. Many want to look ahead while finding meaning and purpose.

I serve in this setting as a clinical chaplain. Today, I'm working closely with Diana, the Director of Creative Arts Therapies. We consider our resources. With very limited funds, we focus on the resources of creativity, connection, and community. As a cook might look in the cupboard for ingredients, we play with what and who is available.

We set up a poster with the words, "Keep the ball rolling: Be the Change." It shows a soccer ball with an image of world continents superimposed. "Be the Change," Gandhi's call to action, seems fitting in a location just north of what became Ground Zero eight years earlier.

We place a basket filled with short pieces of white ribbon. beside it is an invitation to "add your spark" along with guidelines:
"Make a healing wish, then place your ribbon, adding your spark, on the board."

Within an hour, the board is shining with white ribbons. 

Later that evening, I join hundreds of folks in a floating lantern ceremony on the Hudson River.
It is offered by the NY Buddhist Church in partnership with Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the Interfaith Center of NY, and the Buddhist Council of NY.  As clouds drift over the moon, lanterns with heartfelt messages are set afloat on the river by the NY Kayak Club.

I sing softly into a microphone as Rev. Nakagaki rings a big bell. The melody and words float out into the night:

"A star at dawn. A bubble in a stream. A flash of lightening in a summer cloud.
A flickering lamp. . . so is this fleeting world."

This verse from the the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist teaching, is one of many offered, along with comforting words and music from diverse spiritual and cultural traditions. Sikh friends prepare a vegetarian dinner for everyone. Waiting in line, I meet strangers and become friends. I place my bowl over the largest soup pot I've ever seen. Looking up, a new friend meets me in a smile. We sit together and eat.

The next day, I join with friends from the Grafton Peace Pagoda in walking through Harlem. Since 2002, they walk nearly 200 miles in ten days, beginning on September 11 in New York City with a peace vigil. Theirs is a peacewalk open to anyone who wants to join, be it for an hour, a day, or the entire journey. I join for an afternoon.

As we walk, people smile. Sometimes, we bow our heads in acknowledgement. Occasionally, we playfully gesture with little kids along the way. We're a strange sight in the neighborhood. Some view us with suspicion. The process invites focus and commitment to intention. What is "peace" in this moment? How am I walking?

A song pops into my head, Johnny Cash singing, "I walk the line." He wrote that song facing addiction and its impact on those he loved. During the process, he slowly learned to love himself and turn his life around. He became deeply committed to walking his talk, visiting Folsom Prison and relating to their experience as his own. He sang his heart out.

Johnny wore black. He discovered light intermingled with darkness and met people there. Continuing to walk, I feel that sense of complete transparency, that willingness to be vulnerable to whatever and whoever shows up. 

On these Harlem streets, sounds call attention. The boom bass connects with a stream of syncopated words, latest hip hop. These sounds rise and fall as we walk into other rhythms, those of salsa and merengue.

Time change. Neighborhoods shift. What's important right now?

No time for weighty considerations. A kid maybe five years old waves to me. I wave back. The light turns green. He stays beside his mom. We move on. As we get closer to the George Washington bridge, we stop on a street corner, saying goodbye. No need for words. We all feel the pulse. The smiles come naturally. Some bow gently.

The light changes. I turn and pause for a moment. My feet remember another way to go. I cross the street and head towards the river.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ancient Wisdom

Wandering through DIA museum in Beacon, NY, I'm aware of the rain continuing to fall outside. It offers a layer of sound, which complements the wide open space. Long corridors, red brick walls, and incredibly high ceilings remind of its origins as a Nabisco box-printing facility before it was re-purposed to hold unusually large pieces of art. Skylights and big windows contribute to the sense of spaciousness. Walking through, it's easy to follow an impulse without knowing what's around the corner.

Today I'm drawn toward an immense, curved metal structure shaped and colored like the rusting hull of a small ship. It's a sculpture by Richard Serra entitled, Elevational Wedge. Moving beside it as I circle the full shape, the sensation of flowing feels like dancing with a partner who knows how to lead and follow at the same time. Coming full circle, my body feels a slingshot effect.

Inner space opens into outer space as I'm pulled, like a spaceship as gravity swings it into a different trajectory. Finding myself going downstairs, this dance flows into a universe of Serra's expansive vision of space being time. Next thing I notice is the cooling comfort of the gigantic sculptures, which transport me to the Canyonlands of southern Utah, a region I explored with a dear friend years ago.

A week earlier, I'm co-facilitating a group entitled, Ancient Wisdom and Well Being at an Adult Day Treatment Center for clients living with HIV. Many of these folks report history of homelessness, violence, addiction, and mental illness. I serve as a clinical chaplain. My colleague Cesar, a psychotherapist, is co-facilitating. His specialization is Mindful Recovery.

Framing this session in terms of body wisdom, I guide clients in experiential exercises to pay attention to body posture while sitting and standing. Inviting reflections afterwards on this process, Cesar remarks, "I'm realizing my long standing relationship with gravity." For clients grappling with fears of abandonment, these words comfort as they educate.

One man who identifies as "spiritual" responds, "When I'm running, I feel His presence. The rhythm, breathing in through my nose, out through my mouth." A woman who at the outset of the group asks, "What should I do to know ancient wisdom?" now declares confidently, "Where my feet lead, my head will follow." We all agree to practice with paying attention to posture during the week ahead.

Back in metal canyonville, sounds feel like echoes. The room, while lighted, also exhibits a dark hue. I enter one massive sculpture, moving through it as if in a maze in near darkness. I hear laughter and the soft patter of approaching footsteps. Then, two kids, brother and sister, maybe 7 or 8 years old, round the bend and stream by, seemingly out of nowhere. They run past me, giggling. Soon, more youngsters appear as I glide through new sculptures.

Each kid explores the curves, some running hands along the walls, some with hands held out as if flying. They instinctively get whatever it is that feels captivatingly natural here. Their parents, watchful mostly, seem less enthralled and more attuned to observing the scene. I feel a tinge of sadness. Then, I see a boy and girl, also quite young, listening attentively as their dad tells them stories. He invites them to touch, to feel their way. The kids ask questions. They reflect the glint in their father's eyes as his enthusiasm ignites their own.

Richard Serra writes,
"What interests me is the opportunity for all of us to become something different from what we are by constructing spaces that contribute something to the experience of who we are."

A week later, I'm back in Manhattan, curving the island's southern tip, once more hugging the riverside. The place feels different. My sense of space is shifting. Again, feet lead the head. I emerge from the Esplanade, looking for the subway station, which has been an interim structure just north of South Ferry. This evening, the temporary entrance is locked up. A man and woman walking by offer assistance. "They finally opened the new station," he tells me, "We're walking there now."

The three of us walk together for several minutes, our feet's rhythm adjusting to one another's movements. We part ways at the entrance. I head downstairs and through the turnstile. A mural on the wall draws me closer. It's part of a new installation by Doug and Mike Starn entitled, See it Split, See it Change.

Images of silhouetted trees call attention. The bare branches strip the moment down to its essence. Deep silence ripples out like water behind the wake of a slowly moving ship.

This silence remains as a rumbling sound builds and fills the space. Hearing the train approaching, I head down to meet it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

We are the children

Standing in a small grocery store, I hear a man say, "now he has peace." I ask him if someone died. He says, "Michael Jackson." "No," I hear myself say out loud. A moment of disbelief quickly shifts to piercing sadness.

I step outside. The news is spreading. I hear it first as a driving beat from passing cars. The melodies are as familiar as apple pie. And the words:

ABC. Don't Stop Till You Get Enough. Thriller.

I feel a wave of recognition moving through these city streets, acknowledging what cannot yet be embraced.

Needing a new name for this man who became such an enigmatic figure over the years, he is dubbed the King of Pop. Paul McCartney affectionately calls him a boy-man. Father of three who lived on a ranch called Neverland.

Minutes earlier, while visiting friends at Ten Ren tea in chinatown, I meet a young white man. He tells me that when he lived in Japan, "you're celebrated. It's great but no matter how fluent you are, how much you know, you'll never be normal. You'll always be a foreigner."

I drink in his words while sipping King's Tea. The earthy tone of this blend of green Oolong and ginseng soothes as it energizes. He says, "We have a lot of problems but what I love about this country is that we don't take things at face value. We investigate. We question." His posture straightens and his tone brightens. "We are such innovators. We produce so much."

Walking later that evening, digesting the news, an image comes to mind. It's from the second Star Trek movie, Wrath of Khan. Spock is dying of radiation exposure in a sealed chamber as he saves the lives of everyone on the ship. Kirk places his hand against the glass separating them. Spock reaches out to meet him in the famous split hand gesture.

"Live long and prosper," no longer being appropriate, Spock chokes out, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Kirk adds in painful recognition and devotion to his friend, "or the one."

Just then, I walk by a club blasting,

Want to be startin' somethin'. Got to be startin' somethin'. . .
You're stuck in the middle and the pain is thunder.

Choked up, I hear myself thinking, "this is real. It's not a movie. This is really happening." I start crying and don't know why. I walk to where my feet instinctively need to go, towards the river.

Arriving there, the sky sounds a low bass note as storm clouds linger. It starts to drizzle. In the distance, a large boat passes by with that same melody, same beat streaming out. The path turns and opens into a large grassy field. I lie down. After a few minutes, I notice kids tossing a ball around, undaunted by a few raindrops. I get up, re-energized, and make my way home.

Days later, speaking with a friend, we're talking about how living with intention differs from having an agenda. He asks me, "what's your intention?" I say, "connecting." I ask him, "what's yours?" "Saying yes," he replies.

John Lennon said that he was drawn to Yoko Ono after seeing one piece in her interactive art show. You had to climb a ladder, pick up a magnifying class tied to it, and use it to read a tiny word written on the ceiling. The word was, "yes."

This past Sunday, a number of us gathered for a Potluck Tea Party in New York City's Central Park. We offered iced Jasmine tea beside a path leading to a landmark called the Imagine Circle. It is situated at the center of Strawberry Fields, a park within a park, which was dedicated after John Lennon's death. A mosaic of tiles forms the circle. In the middle is one word: Imagine.

Standing, holding a tray of iced tea, I watch as one person after another smiles. We are meeting in yes.

Fifty feet away in the Imagine Circle, a few guys with guitars start to play Beatles tunes interspersed with Lennon's later songs. They are playing yes.

As people notice the tea party, some smile and keep going. Some stop just long enough to overcome hesitancy as they "grab and go." Others stay to share what brings them to NYC, to the park, to the circle. Some ask for directions to wherever they're headed next.

Everybody has something to contribute:

Wow, this is free? That's really nice of you.

This is a great idea. God bless you for doing it.

Hey, this is really good tea. What is it?

Could I have one for my friend?

As we pack up for the day and begin to walk out along the path, a friend whispers, "did you hear that?" I say, "no, what?" He laughs and remarks, "just as we passed by, I heard somebody say,

There goes the tea party!

Riding home that evening, I sit across from three boys playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. I ask if they're Ok with me taking their picture and sharing it online.

They smile. I instantly understand the meaning of their gesture. I snap their photo and thank them. They go back to the game. I close my eyes as the train moves on.

I see a huge stage in an immense open field. King Michael raises his white-gloved hand high as scruffy John leans in to the mike beside him. All the years of struggle and confusion, of harm endured and harm done, come together as they sing out a familiar refrain:

We are the world.
We are the children.
We are the ones who make a brighter day so let's start giving.

As new voices from across the field keep the song going, another one is taken up:

Imagine all the people living lives in peace.

The two refrains become one as the wave of sound builds and spreads out. The sky brightens. The king and the dreamer embrace.

Our tea party continues. We'll gather one Sunday afternoon each month to celebrate community with a cup of tea.

As the flyer says, this event is free.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

Walking along Battery Park Esplanade in lower Manhattan on a recent Saturday night, I turn to head back to "civilization" of city streets and elusive (in these parts) subway stops. Perhaps that's why I am drawn to such places as the Hudson River. I feel a clean and safe vibe, which helps me open and experience space as incomprehensibly vast. The transition "back" fascinates me. Signs of urban planning elicit their share of criticism. What I experience as "safe and clean," others might call "exclusive" and "antiseptic." This tension of views encourages me to explore. I head east towards the West Side Highway, a stretch of road one crosses as if traversing a mighty river. I have learned to proceed with caution. 

I approach the highway, following a flurry of headlights and tail-lights. With few people in sight and unsure of how to cross over, I see a tall figure approaching. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I ask, "Do you know where's the closest subway stop?" "Come with me," he replies in a confident tone as his tall frame resumes moving at lightning-fast pace. I match his stride, struggling to keep up with my much shorter legs, thankful to be wearing hiking boots. As light spills out briefly from a tower of apartments, I notice the red/blue striped shirt draped over his shoulders. Crisp, neat, and with an understated elegance; he glides along, his cropped brown hair bobbing just so below his ears. 

He asks if I'm new to the area. I reply, "no, though I am new to this part of town." What I mean is that in one sense I am very familiar with the terrain AND there's always something new to discover. These subtleties are swept away as we move. I ask him, "Have you been here a while?" figuring the question is sufficiently open-ended. I hear an accent, European though not quite familiar. He says, "I'm from Bulgaria," and has been here less than a year. "I live down here and work down here. I like it."

As we get to the highway, the "Walk" light flashing red, he says with emphasis, "Let's make that, quickly." I feel comforted and keep stride, thinking here's someone who knows where he's going, or at least where he's heading. "Bowling Green," he interjects as we get to the other side. My mind scans for a reference. Context informs. This must be the name of the subway stop. His cell phone lights flash. In the swirl of night traffic, I don't hear the phone ring as we continue to move and he speaks, "yes, you're in the Honda. I'm 100 yards from you." He listens, then updates his report, "Yes, yes, now 80 yards." He hangs up and continues, "Bowling Green - it's where they tore down the statue of George III." He notes my quizzical look as I sift through memory banks for a clue. 

He clarifies, "In Bulgaria, we learned American history. During the American Revolution, Bowling Green and the Boston Tea Party. . ." "Tea," I think to myself encouragingly, now you're speaking my language. My mind flashes to that harbor, imagining the rebellious taste of that bitter brew. His pace leaves little space for musings. "There used to be a wall." Again I'm confused. "Wall Street. It's named for that wall. They used it to keep the animals in, also for protection but they didn't really have to worry about that." Noting our location, blocks south of Ground Zero, I pause even  as our pace quickens. "What animals?" I wonder, picturing something akin to Noah's ark arriving at these shores. Dutch accents. Two by two. How did they navigate the cobblestones? Or did that come later? 

My newfound friend stops as we arrive at a street corner noticeably quieter and darker than where we've been. He points east, "There. Go straight 100 yards. Don't go left. Don't go right. Remember." I promise I will, nodding yes. "Bowling Green," he says one final time.  "Thanks," I reply hurriedly. "OK," he says then turns and is gone as quickly as he arrived, leaving what feels like a wake moving through me. There, in a moment where wilderness and civilization meet and time resonates with itself as history, I stand still in awe. Then much slower now, I make my way to the station and get on a train heading north.

The next evening, I return to that river, following an instinctual impulse to catch the final rays of a spectacular sunset on the walkway slightly uptown of Battery Park.  Soon after, I notice a man finishing up construction work and ask if he knows where's the closest subway stop. He points to a man standing beside the highway who's waiting for the light to change. "Go with him. He's going there." When I get to the light and share my request, this man smiles and introduces himself, "My name is Joseph," in an accent, which I place as West African.

He says he's from Ghana has been here nearly five years. When I respond, "that's a long time," he replies, "not so long" and remarks, "When I get here, I see on the train, everybody looks up. I look up too. Nothing there. In Ghana, people look at each other, look when they see something they like, what's beautiful. Here nobody looks." "People read, listen to music," I add, "or look down." Joseph affirms, "yes, or look down." He turns to face me as we walk at a brisk pace. I remark, "it's cold here," guessing this is a factor in his pace. "Yes," he responds, "it's the wind from the river." He asks if I'm a tourist. I tell him, "I'm a traveler." He laughs.

I ask, "How long does it take you to get home?" "An hour," he tells me, clarifying that he lives in the Bronx. He asks what country I'm from. when I tell him which states I've lived in the U.S., he says, "Oh, you're American." He asks me about Oregon, a state I lived in for seven years. "Is it mostly white people?" "Yes, it is," I admit. "And in Ghana?" Right on cue, he says, "It's mostly black." We smile again with wry recognition and fill in details. I ask him about the terrain and seasons. "It's tropical. We have Harmattan December, January, and a little of February." I comment, "not long like winter here." "No," he agrees. I feel his sigh. 

When we get to the subway at Chambers Street, the train is right there. He flashes a smile once more and gets on the #3 train. I return that smile, "Goodbye, Joseph." "OK!" he exclaims as the doors close. I stand still. The train pulls away. Within minutes, the #1 train arrives. I get on. Riding home, a flurry of images and sensations tumble through one another. Somewhere in the midst of that collage, I feel myself settling into the rhythm. I wonder, "Whatever happened to that wall?" 

A week later, I get on a train and head to the burbs for an outdoor "camping" birthday party. It's for an 8-year old friend. As evening comes and we light a campfire, a girl her age shows me some bugs she's collected in a small glass jar. There are holes in the screw-on top. She asks, "will they live in there overnight?" I hesitate, unsure. 

Sitting by the fire as she shows me the creatures she's gathered, I think again of that wall. I smile and answer her as best I can, "I think so. I don't know for sure. What do you think?" I invite her to explore. 

She sits beside me studying their movements and starts telling me what she sees. I realize she's seeing it from her side of the glass. I'm thinking about how it might be on the other side. I start playing with her, imagining what it's like for them. She laughs. 

The next morning, I find the jar. It's empty.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Seeing Continuation

The signs are everywhere. Something to celebrate. The air feels fresh. The ground is moist from frequent showers.

Wandering a week ago in lower Manhattan, I notice an open gate leading into a community garden: the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden to be precise. 

A light breeze sets the trees in motion. White and pink blossoms sway, drawing me closer. I enter. One winding path leads to another. Passing by gorgeous vignettes of Spring in full bloom,  I wonder, "Where did Winter go?"

I.I. Rabi, a Nobel prize winning physicist, was once asked something along the lines of, "How did you get to be who you are today?" Rabi grew up in a Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in NYC. His father was a grocer. He shared this story. "When I was growing up, my mother would never ask me, "Izzy, what did you learn today?" Instead, she'd say, "Did you ask good questions?"

Back in the garden, my questions dissolve as a brilliant collage of color stops me. Daffodils and tulips rise up amidst an array of flowers I cannot name. Just then, a man passing through also stops. Together, we stand, silently transfixed. 

In Ray Bradbury's  The Martian Chronicles, he describes an "impossible meeting." Two strangers meet in the "middle of nowhere" and trying to shake hands, one man's hand slips like a shadow through the other's. The reader cannot tell, though each character has a solid opinion, of who is in the past and who is in the future. 

It's a lot like this in my work as a clinical chaplain. The only measure of healing is in relationship. Conditions and responses are interwoven. As a healthcare provider and before that as an astronomer, I ask questions, which help to identify and record measurable outcomes. At the same time, healing is experiential. Try to grasp or explain it and the healing opportunity slips away.

Visiting a client last week who is living with HIV and preparing for discharge from the hospital, I attune to the surroundings. He is recovering from surgery on his arm. The shunt placed there years back for thrice weekly (3x/week) dialysis treatments is no longer usable. His arm, bandaged in white gauze, puffs out like an eerily illuminated cloud. Seeing me and surprised, he smiles broadly. 

He shows me the Get Well balloon his grown niece brought with an image of two band-aids overlapping one another at a slight angle. He tells me with fire in his eyes, "It's a sign! It's the cross." 

I look up at the balloon slowly losing air.

He says that he sees what is hidden even as his eyesight slowly diminishes. He shares stories from earlier in his life.  He says that in "my country" (in South America), he welcomed strangers into his home and  that this made him very happy. He pauses. His eyes widen. He asserts, "I'm not afraid to die." Unspoken between us is a silent truth. We smile. I extend my hand. He offers his. We talk more. I direct him to his primary doctor and his case manager, respectively, to further explore specific concerns regarding treatment. I make notes after leaving, which help me to coordinate next steps with the team of care providers.

That evening, I light a candle to mark the anniversary of my grandmother's passing, a woman my sisters and I called Bubby. She spoke six languages. What spoke to me most was how she'd lean out the window of her sixth floor apartment and wave to us as we came or went.

In my apartment the next morning, I wake up to find the candle flame nearly extinguished. Later in the day, I head to Inwood Park in Northern Manhattan, famous for its stand of "old growth" native trees. Walking among them, I see a fallen log. I kneel down and scoop a handful of the reddened wood, which is slowly decomposing. It crumbles in my hand as I lift it to my nose and breathe in the lush earthy scent.

I feel a drop of water. Soon, what begins as a light sprinkle shifts to a stronger flow.

Following the winding path, I find my way back to city streets.  Just as I arrive home, the skies now completely darkened, lightning flashes across the sky and a thunderous roar startles me. I hurry inside.

Alone in the dark, I sit beside the window until tiredness overcomes curiosity. I curl up on the couch and close my eyes, then open them as a few tears spill out. 

It's the first time I've cried in weeks. 

Feels good.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Silent Illumination

As I prepare to sort through the piles of paper and other sundry items collecting in the alleys and byways of my apartment, I wonder how they piled up. How did they get here? Not a big stretch to grasp the bigger question, How did I get here?

A line from a Chinese Zen text, Guidepost for Silent Illumination, comes to mind:

From the beginning to end the changing appearances
and ten thousand differences share one pattern.

Like a lot of folks, I get caught sometimes in anxiety and confusion, usually coming from a sense of overwhelm by details and lack of clarity about what to do next. I notice it as constriction, specifically my chest tightening and my field of vision narrowing. It could be hours or days until I realize having lost touch with the bigger picture.

Then something shifts.

Like earlier this week, walking down the street thinking about how to begin a talk I was scheduled to give that day, I passed by fifteen or so teenagers heading into an adjoining community garden, rakes and shovels in hand. I heard a neighbor say loudly, "we can start here." I smiled, then heard these youngsters laughing, poking fun at each other's clumsiness with the tools. I laughed at my clumsiness. Here they were, city kids clearing out broken branches and other accumulated debris to make way for new plantings. Here I was, doing the same.

The day before, during a group I facilitate as a clinical chaplain for folks living with HIV, called, Moving On, a client shared his experience in prison. Newly diagnosed with HIV, he wondered how he got there. He said, "That was me crying out like Jesus, Why have You forsaken me?" Right after this, another participant stated fervently, "I don't believe in God. I'm responsible for what happens to me. And those pyramids weren't built by slave labor. They were built in gratitude to Pharaoh, who was a god to the Egyptian people."

What is the pattern in such a moment?

For me, coming back to the breath and intention helps.

Like five days earlier when a patient for whom I was caring at a nearby hospital died. Standing at the funeral home days later, greeting her loved ones, I wondered how to provide a healing and widely accessible container. She identified as Buddhist. Her family and friends were a mix of secularly and religiously identified people. Some Catholic, some Muslim, a few Buddhist, and many "unaffiliated" (as I often hear this category of people labelled). Some described themselves as "lapsed" or "non-practicing." One elderly woman held a rosary.

I attuned, then spoke about how during her final days and hours, the woman they called daughter, sister, niece, aunt, or friend affirmed what mattered to her most. She had said, "to feel cared for." I spoke about how she had shifted during those days to recognizing that caring for and cared for are inter-connected. Breathing in, caring. Breathing out, caring. This became her focus. She died peacefully surrounded by family and friends.

During the funeral, I offered a song with a simple melody that expressed a form of loving-kindness meditation, which she practiced:

May all beings be free from suffering.
May all being be free from fear.
May all beings be happy.

I was surprised and thankful as most everyone began to sing along. As we sang, I felt something shift in the room. I felt her presence. People cried, then smiled. It was a moment of deep caring.

Days later, Friday evening with sunset approaching, I joined friends at a teashop in Chinatown. We celebrated a young friend's birthday and another friend's visit, a former employee who now lives in the midwest. The birthday girl blew out the candle and made a wish. We took photos and guessed ingredients in the cake. Everybody laughed.

Today at the supermarket, I saw boxes of chocolate-covered matza and chocolate easter eggs. It's in these details that I see our shared journey. Expressed in different forms, posing different questions, all of them point to what matters most.

Sitting now beside the window, questions fall away. Coming back to the breath, I listen to the hum of cars passing, kids playing, and a few birds chirping. I feel my body relaxing and expanding. The afternoon light begins to sparkle.

Who can say what this is?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Girls' Day

Yesterday was my birthday. It also was a day of celebration in Japan called Hina-Matsuri or Girls' Day. 

I knew where I wanted to be to celebrate both occasions - a beautiful teahouse called, "Cha An" in Manhattan's East Village. Cha An is tucked away along a street affectionately known as "Japan row."

I had not been there in many months. Thanks to my sister Evelyn's generosity, I had funds for the occasion. Evelyn lives in California. She sent me a card saying, "do what makes you happy" enclosed with a check.

Talking on the phone that day, she told me a story that poignantly brought that point home.

Once, as Evelyn was talking with a friend and struggling to authentically express herself, this friend put out crayons and paper. Evelyn began to draw.  She discovered (as she said to me) that, "I needed to be served those crayons." She needed this because she couldn't serve herself, offer herself the time and space to follow a free-flowing impulse.

She encouraged me to play. Heeding her wisdom, I followed that impulse and walked. Bright sunshine and a cold wind kept me moving along the Hudson River Park on through Soho and Chinatown. Then, I hopped on a subway train as daylight faded. Within minutes, I landed in the East Village at Cha An.

When I arrived after the afternoon of joyful wandering, the women working there greeted me as a long gone sister, happy and relieved to see me. I felt an impulse to share with them that it was my birthday. These dear friends showered me with affection.  We exchanged bows and in some cases, gentle hugs.

The joy in this space is palpable on any day. Even so, on Girls' Day, there was a touch of playfulness and warmth that felt fresh. On each table lay a gorgeous and understatedly elegant flyer describing the day. The origins and traditions fascinate me. One of the customs is to place straw dolls out on a flowing body of water such as a river or ocean to free oneself of hindrances and particularly with focus on protecting children. Families receive gifts of these dolls in honor of their young daughters.

On each table in the teahouse, there were two origami "dolls" reflecting another theme of the day - partnership. I watched my friends serve, these women gliding through the cozy room clothed in earth-toned uniforms, which reminded me of those dolls and of partnership. I felt an earth-meets-water pulse accompanied by a graceful, quiet dignity flowing through me. I thought about family and about community. I contemplated sisterhood and how marvelous it feels to instinctively care for and be cared for. A gift that keeps on giving.

Sipping Genmai cha, a mix of green tea and toasted rice, the texture of time and space softened. My breath deepened and the room brightened even as the light outside continued to dim.

Simplicity and attention to intention opened a door. I wondered how to keep opening, keep flowing. How to recognize home as this body, this boundless body?

Just then, the crayon moment arrived. I reached for a napkin and wrote these words:

          I open my eyes and smile.

              Love is this moment,

            dancing with sisters on Girls' Day.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time for tea

I woke up this morning greeted by the smell of brownies lingering from last night's baking. We're having a tea gathering tonight. I'm pondering the tea selection. Lavender flowers might suit the occasion. There's something about warm treats and tea that soothes on these windy, wintery nights.  

While "tea" has come to include all kinds of beverages, the vibe of "tea time" or in Japanese tea ceremony "tea mind" continues. Traditions change and new ones emerge. Take Bubble tea for instance. I discovered this a few years ago at a lovely, no-nonsense teahouse in New York's chinatown called Ten Ren. At first I was skeptical of this Taiwanese concoction. Then the little girl in me got a taste and there's been no going back. Those goofy tapioca bubbles or "pearls" transport like Alice through the looking glass. 

You can try this too. As your eye focuses through a wide neon-hued straw, imagine diving for pearls. One slurp and you're there. Here. How many doorways open when we let them?

In so many cultures, the experience of preparing and drinking tea is a time to enjoy time itself. Whether it's with a tea bag or loose leaf, hands know what to do. Their skill and presence is a marvel if we give ourselves time to notice, to appreciate. Ears attune and the heart opens. Amazing how something so ordinary inspires and connects. 

I hear the birds singing. Spring is in the air. Or is it just this cup of tea?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The sap is rising and the sun is shining in New York City.

 I decided to launch this blog today because this day for me is all about wonder. It is Tu B'shvat, a Jewish holiday, which celebrates the New Year for Trees. With agricultural roots and mystical branches, it brings together intention and action. It's a great day for new beginnings. Some plant trees, some plant seeds of intention. 

There is a beautiful phrase (Exodus 3:14), which encapsulates the intention to flow anew and tap into what is unseen while deeply felt: "Eheye asher eheye: I am what I am becoming."

Who am I? A question that challenges me to reflect. 

Being this koan, embracing who as what and when as where, reveals what is so often unseen, especially when I get stuck in the mud of labels.  

Why this blog?

Because healing in relationship to me is an experience of being mud and roots and branches. Moment by moment, this process helps me to tap into what truly matters - you. Me and you.

And right now, me needs to eat. I hear a raw chocolate smoothie calling. . . and then a stroll through the park. . . and then, I really don't know.