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 psychology, bicameralism 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.