Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Do Nothing

Eager to go to bed after a very full day of activity, I pick up my cellphone and select from the menu, "Clock Options." I scroll down to an item, which reads, "When Charging:" I move the trackball to select one of three options from a sub-menu. I see the words, "Do Nothing." Amazed, I wonder, "how does it know?"

A week earlier, I am visiting with a friend who lives in Hyannis, MA. We go to the beach at high tide. Cold as it is, bright sunshine enlivens my whole body. Instinctively, I step up onto a rock, which is situated where low waves of water splash to meet the tiny sliver of exposed shoreline.

Smiling in shared delight, he joins me. Water splashes over my ankle-high hiking boots. The water seeps in. I say, "they're leaking. I haven't sealed them yet for winter." He asks, "do you have the stuff?" I nod my head, grinning, "yes." We keep walking.

A few days later, I'm strolling with my sister at dusk through colorfully sparkling Fourth street in Berkeley, CA. We are strolling at a slow pace, taking in the beautiful scene. She begins to photograph using my phone. We laugh. We explore.

A week later, I get on the #186 bus at the GW Bridge terminal and head to Edgewood Cliffs for an appointment at the Brain Resource Center.

I'm participating in a study on clinical depression. They include me as a "healthy subject." Three weeks earlier, surfing Craigslist for various "odd jobs" to supplement my per-diem chaplain's income, I see a listing for the study. A month goes by and then a woman calls me, saying they're finishing up the study and looking for someone meeting criteria for a healthy subject.

Finding myself on the bus, now in New Jersey, I'm watchful for where to get off. The driver alerts me. Stepping out, the streets are empty of people. The bite of cold air sets me in motion. Looking for signs to locate the place, I turn around. A young woman asks me, "Are you looking for the Brain Resource Center?" Surprised, I reply, "yes I am!" Together, we make our way.

She tells me she's freezing and hadn't thought it would take so long to get here. I ask how long she's been travelling. She says, "An hour and a half. This is a long way from Brooklyn." She then begins to tell me of how days earlier, her cellphone is stolen by a few teenagers in her neighborhood. She says, "when I reported it, the police told me this is happens a lot in the neighborhood. Now I'm thinking of moving." I say, "where do you live?" She says, "Bed Sty."

Months earlier, at July's Potluck Tea Party, I meet a young man from her neighborhood, short for the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He tells me of how his grandfather, whom he refers to as, "my G" played a key role in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in this neighborhood. He tells me of many poor people still living in that area.

Back in Engelwood Cliffs, we are unsure what to do next. She suggests we call the Center. Naturally, my cellphone is the only choice. I enter the number and press the appropriate icon to place the call. A woman with an Eastern European accent answers. We explain our predicament. She says, "the entrance is around back." "Oh," I reply. The two of us standing there look at each other in amazement and then set out. We walk to the back entrance and enter.

When the study begins, I am asked to go to a computer, put on a headset and await instructions. Various tests commence, which involve hand/eye coordination, cognitive awareness, and responses to varying types of emotional stimuli. While stimulating, I am not particularly surprised.

Then, I am asked to enter another room. A research staff person tells me I'll be wearing a hat of sorts with all kind of wires interfused throughout the fabric. They will be studying my brain electronically. To do this, she says, "I'll need to put conductive gel on the ends of these and massage it into your head to make contact." I feel the cold touch of the gel. As she "massages," I feel pinching pain. I ask. She says, "It's normal." This process takes quite a while. Must be my head. She points to a video screen with a whole lot of yellow boxes. She says, "when these change color, we'll be able to begin." The process continues and I breathe into my lower belly, keeping my focus off obsession with pain.

I cannot do anything but sit there. Unless I decide to leave. Something in me says to remain, something here to explore, more compelling than a few dollars to pay bills. I'm intrigued. What's it like to do nothing like this?

Instructions are spoken to me over a headset. I am asked to view faces on the computer screen in front of me, each with one of four emotional expressions: angry, sad, neutral, or happy. For what seem like many minutes, I see one face after another, in what appears to be rapid succession. Then, just as I wonder how I'll be able to keep up given it bringing up emotional responses in me; the exercise stops. New instructions are spoken. I'm told I will be asked to identify which faces I have seen before.

As face after face appears, each with a markedly different expression, I stop focussing on these expressions or the emotional responses in me. Instead, I attune to the rhythm of them changing.

Face, face, face.

I hear myself thinking, "who is facing me?"

In that instant, my breath deepens and the room seems to enlarge. My body lightens. While aware of discomfort in my scalp, it too feels like a pulsing flow. There are no words for this.

When the images stop, words appear on the screen indicating the end of the exercise.

I feel a quiet sense of joy.

Then nothing.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Appetite to Connect

Walking along a sidewalk on the outskirts of Boston, my eye is drawn to a shop window displaying two rows of pumpkins. I'm in town to visit family.

Atop each pumpkin is a distinct set of eyeglasses. While admiring the playfulness of the scene, something about it captivates my attention. Before long, the somewhat overcast sky brings a drizzle, which quickly turns into a downpour. No time to lose. I keep moving.

Two weeks later, sitting with friends on a sidewalk in San Francisco, we greet passersby while holding bright green signs, which read, "No on L: Sidewalks are for people." After the event, I assemble a musical slideshow.

A week earlier, in Manhattan's Strawberry Fields, I sit at night on the grass singing along with many people gathered to remember John Lennon. The occasion: his would-be 70th birthday. A large array of candles, photos, and peace messages adorn the paved path leading up to the Imagine Circle.

Trying to capture the scene with my camera proves to be unproductive given the light level. While attempting this, I hear a familiar voice standing beside me comment on the challenge of photographing at night. Looking up, I see Marjorie Markus. She's smiling, slightly mischievously, camera in hand.

Surprised, I smile, realizing we're right where Sensing Wonder's Potluck Tea Party happens. I'm filled with gratitude for her continuing generosity and good cheer in offering her nearby apartment as the place to brew the tea as well as for her many wonderful photos of these parties. We laugh as we hug, then wander up to the Imagine Circle as more people gather. We sit on a nearby bench as forty or more voices join in a recognizable refrain, "All you need is love."

A week later, I'm sitting on the sidewalk in a soft drizzle beneath a canopy of trees along the edge of San Francisco's Tenderloin district. A series of seeming coincidences have led to my being here, among them visiting my sister who lives across the Bay.

This Sunday morning street action emerges from a weekend gathering called, "Working for Liberation: Spiritually and Socially Engaged Communities." It is jointly organized by Faithful Fools, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and The Clearview Project. The "Fools" host the gathering. Their mission is to:

learn and educate through engaging in relationships with people who are impoverished and without housing, as well as those with homes and economic wealth. Together we address the policies, attitudes and lack of knowledge that perpetuate injustice and poverty not just locally in San Francisco, but nationally and globally. Walking and working together people of privilege and people who are impoverished help one another bridge gaps and shift perceptions that inhibit personal and social change. We work to build community by breaking through boundaries that separate us, such as economic power, religious beliefs, class, race, gender, ethnicity, and together we discover what connects us.

Today's action is in harmony with this principle. Our group of sixteen is sitting to urge voters not to ratify Proposition L, which would ban sitting on the sidewalks of San Francisco. I notice a large sign on the side of a bus-stop, which displays a photo of a Civil Rights era sit-in at a 1960's lunch counter. The caption reads, "sitting is not a crime - Vote No on L."

As we sit, motorists passing by cheer us on as do many people walking by. Kay (Rev. Kay Jorgensen), co-founder of the "Fools," greets those walking by with, "Good morning!" This connects and sometimes invites conversation. Mostly, we are just sitting. Frequently, we look up and greet those passing by with a smile. The wet autumn chill calls attention to conditions of living on the street.

The previous day, I get a taste of this as we disperse after breakfast carrying nothing but bare essentials. As we check-in with one another before leaving, I share the poignancy for me of this week's Torah portion, Lekh lekha, in which Abraham is guided by that "still small voice" to go forth from his birthplace to the "land that I will show you."

Kay offers a hug before we go. She understands. I feel a few tears on my cheek.

I think of the circumstances leading me here. I think of friends in New York City, members of spiritual communities to which I belong. This very day, members of the Buddhist Council of New York are hosting an annual event, MeditateNYC, which brings together many communities offering meditation. Members of Village Zendo offer to coordinate and support the Zendo's participation in this event, a role I often play, so I can be here now. This also is the case with members of the NY Metro chapter of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Tomorrow, members of the Zendo will be visiting Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison, to facilitate a weekly meditation group.

Meanwhile, Mitzvah Day, an annual event, approaches next Sunday at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. The action-packed day includes many community-outreach projects such as cleaning the park, visiting the elderly, and preparing food for those living on the street. The congregation operates an overnight shelter on-site through the generosity of congregants who spend at least one night each year.

Also in mind are friends from the Zen Community of Oregon, where twelve years earlier I begin Zen practice. They are finishing up construction of a peace pagoda, which flows from previous peace-themed projects such as Jizos for Peace. This week, many of them sit in silent retreat.

Each of these communities is remarkably distinct in its expression of kindness. Even so, a steady stream of continuity courses through. All are what I would call spiritually and socially engaged.

At the same time in San Francisco, sixteen of us set out with a plan to remain for the most part within the Tenderloin and to re-group mid-afternoon. Our outing is a condensed form of a so-called "street retreat" or "plunge" into the world of street people. With no money, cell phone, or other belongings, kindness literally nourishes.

The first order of business is to locate a shelter for lunch. The time is 10:30am. We're told that one needs to arrive early to get in line. Two shelters are nearby and one is at a distance. I decide to walk crosstown to the further one.

Themes from the previous night's conversation are slowly churning as I walk. That previous night, we ponder in small groups, "what is social change?" For me, this ties in with another question, "What do I mean by liberation?" The most compelling and challenging theme is encapsulated in a phrase, "nonviolent disruption."

Having never heard this term before, I google it later and locate Mark Engler, on salon.com, who notes:

A standard narrative of nonviolence as a modern political instrument -- especially in the United States -- might start around the time of Henry David Thoreau, who, sitting in jail for war tax resistance, first argued that civil disobedience could undermine the legitimacy of the state and provoke a crisis in governance. The story . . . would soon rush forward to figures like Gandhi, who pioneered the strategy of how to apply nonviolent disruption on a mass scale, and to Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi's most famous American importer.

During the small group in which I'm participating, Alan Senauke, Zen teacher, folk musician, and founder of The Clearview Project, refers to Martin Luther King Jr.'s character and approach in remarking, "he had a remarkable capacity to tolerate the intolerable and keep moving. He had an appetite to connect."

This phrase echoes throughout my body as I walk the next day along Polk Street, past the Tenderloin, along sparsely populated streets, which eventually course beneath the winding freeway leading to the Bay bridge. The rhythm of my footsteps sustains me during the thirty minutes it takes to get here.

My teacher's words, "include everything," inspire me to keep going.

Reflecting on a street retreat she co-leads in lower Manhattan last year, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara speaks on the practice of "include everything" in the context of experiencing mealtime at various shelters operated by different religious institutions. She notes,

"During those four days, some things happened that directly faced me with my koan to "include everything," and I thought it might be useful to share them with you. The experiences concerned the places where we went to receive food"

After sharing impressions of what she appreciates and what she finds uncomfortable, she remarks,

"What is religion anyway? Most of us in this room have opinions about religion. I began to think of the root of the word religion. Its origins are disputed. . . great compassion, this is what motivates the volunteers of the spiritual groups, those who are out there serving food. . . Isn't that what we do, when we offer the gift of our attention and love, when we include everything?"

Moving under the freeway, I spot a street sign, "Potrero." I continue up a couple more blocks and wonder whether to ask someone. Then I see a nondescript sign across the street. It says, "Martin's."

Martin de Porres House of Hospitality or as their website states,

"Martin's as it is affectionately known, is a free restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch during the week and brunch on Sundays. Our mission is to serve in the spirit of compassion, understanding and love. We are a community of people with diverse spiritual practices although our roots are in, and we continue to be inspired by, the Catholic Worker Movement. Begun by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, the Catholic Worker phil-osophy and ideals are carried out by upwards of 200 houses worldwide in various works of mercy in the spirit of "gentle personalism."

They have been feeding people since 1971.

I arrive exhausted, shivering, hungry, and with a pounding dull ache in my head. I sleep little the night before and now feel emotions churning as much as thoughts. The place looks welcoming. Painted on the outer wall facing the street are colorful murals with words such as "peace" and "love" while not in any sort of cliched phrasing. They look like they were painted by kids.

I enter into an open-air courtyard, am cheerfully greeted by several volunteers and handed a ticket. Number 40. I'm oriented to how it works and how to make myself at home until lunch is served, about an hour later. I have been cautioned by the Fools to arrive at a shelter at least an hour before the meal as this is when folks get in line. At Martin's, there is no line. We gather in various places within the courtyard and an adjacent covered sort of picnic area.

I rest and drink in the scene. The vibe is welcoming and spacious. There seems to be room for everybody, not just physically but emotionally too. I sit on a bench and then noting some folks lying down on these, do the same. Sunshine pierces through and warms me. After a while, I get up and get a slice of fresh-baked bread from a big plastic bin. It's there to hold folks over until lunch is served. I breathe in the gorgeous aroma and take a bite - sourdough, wonderfully chewy. I smile with relief and gratitude.

I reflect on my own journey in the last year. During October of last year, my position as Staff Chaplain at Housing Works, the country's largest minority-led social service and advocacy agency for people living with HIV, is terminated due to a complex interplay of politics and funding. The majority of clients there have a history of living on the street and many are often actively in need of housing. I think about them now.

I think about how fortunate I have been in the last six months to be employed as a per-diem chaplain at two New York City hospitals. I think about waves of anxiety, which arise in me this month as this situation drastically shifts, and I apply for a second year's unemployment claim. I wonder how I will survive in the months ahead. I begin to shake as tears come in release and appreciation for the many friends and family without whose generosity, especially during the past year, I might have been facing desperate circumstances. While I don't know what is to come, I am finally able to rest.

Within minutes, someone announces that it's lunchtime. Eventually, my number is called. I get a tray and am served a bowl of spicy lentil soup, salad, and more fresh bread. It all looks amazing. I sit down at a table replete with a vase of pink carnations and bowls of freshly chopped jalapenos. An old woman with chipped pink nail polish and running mascara sits across from me. Wanting to connect, I say to her, "hey, your nail polish color matches the flowers." She smiles, looking up to the flowers, then back to her food, and says, "yup." We eat a few bites. Then she says, "how do you do your nails?"

I look down at my unpainted nails and say, "well, when I used to paint them, I'd use different colors." She looks at me and smiles. I get the sense that my response is not really connecting to what she means. I try again, "I guess I'd paint them like this," and gesture movement from the cuticle to the tip in overlapping swipes. She says, "Yeah, that's how I do it too. It lasts longer that way, doesn't chip as quick." I laugh and nod my head. Our eyes meet in a shared knowing smile.

Two men who look to be in their 60's join us. One of them asks me, "you been here long?" I reply, "not long." I remember more Fools' wisdom. Before we set out, Faithful Fools co-founder Carmen (Sr. Carmen Barsody) tells us that we might find ourselves in a situation where we'll be deciding whether to tell folks we're on retreat or whether to be, as she says, "ambiguous." I notice my inclination towards what my 11th grade English teacher Mr. Camerata called, "fruitful ambiguity." It seems authentic to the moment.

My new friend encourages me, "don't worry. It'll get better. We all make mistakes." He tells me in a tone tinged with hurt, rage, and disappointment, of being laid off by a large aerospace manufacturer after years of employment. He then goes on to tell me of his experience as a soldier in Vietnam. He says, "I told my men, if you just see women and children, hold your fire. We don't shoot women and children. But if you're carrying a MIG and you point it at me, well then I will aim right at you." Noting the incongruity of his statement (the MIG being a fighter aircraft not a firearm in ground-based combat), I still resonate with the quivering of his voice.

My mind flashes to the testimony of soldiers I have heard at the "Truth Commission on Conscience in War" earlier this year in New York City. I remember one of them speaking of the heartwrenching dilemma of children blocking a tank's forward motion. What to do?

What is truth in such a moment? What really matters? All I want to do is connect and relate. The longer I sit at the table, I realize how deeply nourished I feel. The exchange itself is kindness. Sitting here is genuine and refreshingly direct. The people eating this meal, serving this meal, the greeters, the cooks. They all offer kindness in a very matter of fact way.

This is a functional, caring community. As I get up from the table, they all wish me well. I thank them and feeling better at last, set out for the long walk back.

When I finally arrive near our meet-up place, a half hour remains until our meet-up time. I wander down the street and catch a glimpse of greenery. It's an alley between two buildings, SRO's (Single Residence Occupancies). The sign says, Tenderloin National Forest. I am captivated by its green charm and displays of artwork along the building walls and pathways.

A website for the space notes,

"Initiated by Sarah Lewison and her San Francisco State Art CityLab class on the Urban Laboratory, [it] continues to be created and implemented by the visions of a great many people in the neighborhood. . . The Forest is intended to be an inspiration and model for others to attempt gardening in the inner city."

Meandering through the forest, I bump into Tyson Casey, another participant in the retreat and Education and Outreach Coordinator for Buddhist Peace Fellowship. In silence, we smile in recognition and shared appreciation. Each facing a different direction, we part ways and keep moving.

A week later in New York City, I'm riding the subway during morning Rush hour. A man gets on and says loud enough for everyone to hear, "Good morning. My name is Craig Schley and I'm running for representative in the 15th district. I need your support." As two able assistants offer info flyers to passengers, he states his credentials and vision, among them being founder of an organization called, Voices of the Everyday People (VOTE People).

He then offers to shake hands with anyone who wants to. In greeting a man standing by a door near me, I hear them laugh. Craig turns to face the whole car and remarks, "Man says, 'you must not have a lot of money to ride the subway.' Well, I don't have a lot of money. And you know what Muhammed Ali said, 'You got to have skill but you need more will than skill!' "

At that, a whole lot of passengers laugh, some saying, "that's right!" He waves goodbye at the next stop, thanking everyone for their time, and gets off.

I look around. Nearly everyone is sitting now. I wonder who has money and who does not? Who is planning to vote and who is not? Tired of thinking, I listen to the rumble beneath my feet.

The train is moving.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Looking Up

Two lights, sparking blue, shine up into the sky. The sight along Battery Park City Esplanade is breathtaking and at the same time, an eerie reminder of time passing.

The complexity of the legacy that has become a codeword points to what matters most. The code is simple: 9/11.

Gazing up, I see clouds drifting through. Along the riverbank, soft blue lights dot the wooden fencing where boats dock and people sit to enjoy the cool night air.

The nip of autumn is palpable.

I'm heading home after participating in an annual, "9/11 Memorial Floating Lantern Ceremony" on Pier 40 by Houston Street. Members of the New York Kayak Club launch hundreds of paper lanterns with messages inscribed and/or painted by those who have gathered. Each lantern's flicker contributes to a beautiful image. People walk in small groups, ten or so, holding their lanterns and the light wooden plank to which they are attached. Carefully, each group slowly walks down an inclined wooden platform to the water's edge.

The river is choppy and so they stumble as they walk. Standing slightly below them on a small floating platform, I greet them and say, "If we can hold onto one another like we're holding on to these lanterns, none of us is likely to fall." Several people smile. A woman holds her hand out to me for support.

Nearly two weeks later, autumnal equinox arrives, marking the official change of season with remarkably unseasonable warm (80 degrees) weather. As evening falls, I am captivated by the cheerfully fast-paced activity in Manhattan's Chinatown. This night is the Chinese Moon Festival as well as the first night of the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Known as the "festival of booths" (or makeshift shelters), Sukkot commemorates a journey through desert wilderness in which fragility informs every action. It also marks a later time when during the fall harvest, people are living in the fields in booths with open thatched "roofs".

Passing by streams of people on the active streets, I am keenly aware of so many living all too close to this experience. The need to celebrate in the midst of complexity and uncertainty seems fitting.

Both holidays place emphasis on the importance of family and community.

The Chinese tradition is for family and friends to gather, gaze up at the full moon, and then enjoy "mooncakes" and tea.

I arrive for tea with my friend Cindy, a longtime transplant from Hong Kong and mother of four. She offers me lotus seed-filled mooncake, boiled peanuts, and steamed taro root. They pair well with my tea. She tells me the taro represents the many generations of family and points to two different kinds: one sliced from a very large root and the other being quite small. These tiny taros looks like a rougher version of a potato with a dark, scruffy outer skin.

She says, "many sizes, many people."

Then adds, "when you eat food, knowing the story is important."

Later that night, I read from The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook by Roberta Kalechofsky and Rosa Rasiel:

"The sukkah is not intended as a permanent structure. Its beauty comes from the decorations inside, the company, the songs, and the food. . . we should try to eat some meals there and make them full of all the best of our local harvest. Stuffed foods, as symbols of abundance, are traditional."

Several days later, I am watching a film, The Mistress of Spices.

In one scene, a grandfather and recent immigrant from India, arrives at a magical spice shop, in distress. The young proprietress, dressed in a pale-colored Sari (traditional dress), listens attentively. He tells her the story of his family's conflict. New and old traditions clash as his grandaughter announces her choice in marriage.

The spice mistress crushes almonds and something called "keser" with repeated rolling of a heavy stone. She instructs the grandfather to boil the powder with milk, cautioning, "the whole family must drink it, to sweeten your words and remember the love buried underneath the anger."

Days later, I'm riding the A train and sitting next to a little girl wearing black-framed glasses and a wild, green-pink print dress. She is moving about in her seat and to my surprise, is diligently sucking her thumb. A nearby passenger begins to shift uncomfortably in her seat, then scolds, "Stop fidgeting. Sit still."

Instinctively drawn in, I say to the girl, "hey, I like your dress!" She flashes me a big broad grin and says, "Yeah, they're flowers" while pointing to several different kinds on the dress.

Then she asks, "want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors?"

The nearby woman seems relieved. The train is packed with passengers. 8am. I say, "Sure! but you might have to remind me how to play it."

She says loudly above the train's roar, "you have to sing, 'rock paper scissors, shoo." I laugh and pointing to my feet, a bit baffled, ask, "shoe?" She shrugs her shoulders, laughs, and says even louder, "shoo, shoo." I look around helplessly to fellow passengers standing above us. I catch a glimpse of a few folks giggling softly. Finally, someone takes pity on me.

"Shoot," she says, enunciating the "t". "Rock, paper, scissors - shoot!" She gestures with her hand the signal for putting out your choice.

"Oh. . .," I reply, nodding my head in thanks.

I turn back to my young friend and we begin. We both "shoot" rocks.

We then shoot each other curious looks. What to do? I turn my closed fist towards hers and say, "hey, know this?" and show her how to "bump" fists. She laughs. I say, "we're doing it like the presidents and. . ." (I pause to find the words) "mrs. president."

Somehow, "first lady" is not in mind.

At this point, a woman seated nearby calls to the girl by name. I say hello. She tells me the girl is her daughter. I wonder who is the woman previously scolding the girl. Before I'm able to turn to this woman, the girl's mom asks, "Are you a teacher? You're very good with her."

I smile. "Sometimes."

My little friend is eager to continue the game. She shoots rock and I scissors. She "breaks" my scissors with her fist. I ask, "where do all the broken scissors go?" She says, as if it were the most obvious fact, "on the floor. they go on the floor."

"Oh, I see," I remark, looking down. "Well, we'd better be careful where we step when we get up." She looks down and around, then back to her hand.

Rock (me)
Paper (her)

She wraps her hand around mine. Paper "takes" rock.


Scissors (kid)
Paper (yours truly)

I ask as she cuts my paper in two, "where does all the paper go?" She looks at me and points down, "there, on the floor."

"Wow, could get messy down there."

By this point, looking around, I notice several passengers chuckling quietly and imagine that a good number of these are parents.

As the train pulls into Columbus Circle, I give the girl's mom a smiley-hearted "Sensing Wonder" card. "Hey, you might enjoy the continuing story of our Potluck Tea Party where everybody's welcome."

Her mom thanks me and says they will. The girl waves goodbye.

As I head for the door, a whole lot of fellow passengers meet me in a smile.

That night, I scribble down a short poem:

The moon shines clear in a dark sky.

Friends gather with cakes and tea.

Smiles spread in ten directions,

following all who look up
and in that instant,

delight in what they see. . .

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Joy Rising

Saturday night in lower Manhattan, the Hudson river offers a marvelous, unexpected display: fireworks on the Jersey side.

I've just arrived. Not alone in amazement, a woman also standing beside the guardrail turns towards me and remarks, "what a surprise! I love fireworks. They're one of my favorite things."

She pulls out a camera to record the scene. I already have mine out. I notice a difference in how we approach what's happening. Her eye is focussed exclusively on the view through the camera. I am holding it a distance, and thanks to its video monitor, am aware of seeing through its lens and at the same time, not losing sight of what my whole body is experiencing.

It is a dance dynamic by nature and interactive by intention. I play with the settings on the camera, allowing "mistakes" in so-called "clarity" to reveal the next movement, next setting, next time to click the release button. This happens over and over again. Click, click. click. I don't know what I'm looking for.

Then it happens. The camera, slightly slow on the uptake and saturated with what it's seeing, discovers something new. I stop. I'm seeing a creature of light flying beneath a waxing moon. The buildings soften in that light. Distinction recedes in to the background. In that instant, something amazing happens. What the camera is seeing becomes what all "my" senses experience: expanding, body pulsating, heartbeat strong and at the same time breath softening. This quality of sensing with more than what eyes see shifts as swiftly as the colorful shapes and shadows.

The night whirling builds in intensity while the cool air and slow moving river steady the flow.
My body shakes as sound builds to crescendo. The reverberating crackle of the crisply breezy night is oddly calming. For a moment, we who gather here stand immobile in awestruck silence. Auspicious this moment, not a special occasion by cultural standards. Not a holiday. Was it even advertised? Many locals are out of town. The riverway is sparsely populated.

Attuning, I sense a shift. Without thinking, I let out an exuberant cheer. Others begin to clap. Soon, we're celebrating the moment at full volume. We look around at one another. There is a shared recognition. Soon enough, sound dissipates as we disperse and allow this flow to continue through us.

What is it about the unexpected? Why is sharing such a moment significant? My body senses the significance though words inevitably fall short. The Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu describes the experiencing as "ichi-go ichi-e" ("one time, one meeting.")

Earlier that day, I am resting in the Cuxa garden of The Cloisters, a museum of medieval design in upper Manhattan. Pink-hued marble encloses the space and provides a softly cool place to sit and gaze out at the lovely plants and flying creatures enjoying them. The scent of lavendar soothes as does the sight of an occasional bumblebee. The scene is heavenly. People from all over the world pass through. I hear snippets of conversations.

My ears prick up in hearing a little girl begin to cry. Her father comforts as her mother asks, "which color?" pointing to a bandaid. "Pink," the girl says, stopping her crying instantly. He remarks to his wife in a near whisper, "I told her to be careful with that blue pin but she played with it and cut herself." I realize he's referring to the round clip-on pin we are all wearing as a sign of admission to this place. Cameras are in steady supply. People are snapping photos from every angle. I hear the buzz of multiple languages spoken at the same time. Clouds drift through blue sky overhead.

One week earlier, my friend and fellow chaplain passes from this life. Harriet Huber, a beacon of kindness and compassion, has been living with cancer for over a decade. Several years earlier, I meet Harriet in the Chaplaincy Services office at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Her eyes sparkle as she shares the joy of volunteering one day a week to visit with patients and their loved ones. I share with her an idea, a vision of caring, creativity, and community. I say, "Sensing Wonder." Her eyes get big and she brings her face closer. With a full voice she says, "I love it!" We laugh. We talk about many things. Each and every moment with her sustains me through difficult moments, which follow. She offers cheerful confidence to continue to connect and envision what cannot always be seen.

Going home that night, I light a candle given to me earlier this year by the widow of a client whose memorial service I officiated. Feeling his presence and Harriet's, the space expands and my body seems light, like at any moment I could take flight. Standing there, tears come. Waves of sadness and gratitude interfuse. I breathe deeply and slowly sit down. Gazing into that light, I see her smile, bright-eyed and direct. I see that confident smile joining with that of others I've known who, preceeding in passing through this precious life, lift up what matters most. Amazed and comforted, I realize that I too am smiling.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing on the Ball

Heading from the subway to work on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I see a woman carrying a big beach ball. She smiles as I snap her photo and stops to share that she has "big plans" for the ball. She is hosting a party and wants to invite guests to write on the ball. I walk with her to the corner. Then, she turns and disappears into a supermarket. The heat affords no time for lingering. I tuck away my camera and keep going.

Later, on my way home, I stop in Chelsea and browse at a small video store. Even though I could download films online, there's something about going into the store, and the conversations of fellow browsers and the folks who work there, that is joyfully intimate. Turning a corner, Breakfast at Tiffany's, the 1961 classic based on a Truman Capote novella, catches my eye. Watching it the next day, one scene tugs with renewed poignancy. Holly Golightly, the lead character adoringly animated by Audrey Hepburn, remarks as if sharing a revelation, "nothing bad can happen to you at Tiffany's." I feel her hopeful pulse in my body.

The next day, reading the NY Times, I learn of the passing of Elise Boulding, sociologist and Norwegian-born Quaker, age 89, whose writings (as Bruce Weber reports):

"[about] conflict resolution in both personal and global relations. . . helped establish the academic field known as peace studies."

Unaware of her until now, I am drawn to her story:

". . . nominated for the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. . . She often said her path in life was determined by World War II. When she was a girl, she recalled her mother had been homesick for Norway and young Elise conceived of that country as a haven, a place to hold in reserve as a retreat, where she would always be safe. That vision was shattered in 1940 by the Nazi invasion of Norway."

Of this turning point in her life, Elise writes,

"And that was when I realized that there was no safe place on earth"

She continues,

"and I knew that I had found my life's mission."

Sitting with the paper in hand, I am fascinated by the interplay of hope and purpose in these women's lives, one fictional and one "real," and how they are shaped not so much by concepts of safety as experiences of peace activated by kindness.

Continuing to read the paper, a photo of a girl's face and specifically, her two big eyes, jump off the page. Having turned to the Fashion and Style section, I read about the latest trend among teenage girls: larger than life contact lenses known as "circle lenses." Available in a wide assortment of colors and patterns, these lenses cover not only the iris. They also extend into some of the white of the eye. Originating in Korea, and infamously worn by Lady Gaga in her "Bad Romance" video, the lenses are rapidly becoming popular in the U.S.

As reporter Catherine Saint Louis states,

"The lenses give wearers a childlike, doe-eyes appearance. The look is characteristic of Japanese anime and is also popular in Korea."

She writes that this anime (pronounced "a-nee-may") look is now popular with American high school and college students. Many young women integrate the lenses in their makeup ritual even as eye doctors continue to view them as unsafe.

Putting the article down, I wonder what drives someone to wear these lenses when they are considered unsafe. Do they offer a different kind of safety? How might playing with look, playing with identity and perceptions of beauty and "real"-ity meet an underlying need for authenticity and creative autonomy?

What troubles me is the bigger picture. When do I forget safety because of a driving impulse for self-expression? How does this impact those around me?

Thich Nhat Hahn in a book entitled, "no death, no fear - Comforting Wisdom for Life", offers a powerful image,

"You are just like a firework going off in every moment. The firework diffuses its beauty around itself. With your thoughts, words, and actions, you can diffuse your beauty. That beauty and goodness goes into your friends, your children and grandchildren, and into the world. It is not lost and you go into the future in that way."

He adds,

"You are present in the consciousness of everyone you have touched. This is real, not imagined."

A week earlier, as the sun begins to set, I head out into a stream of tourists and locals along Canal Street in Manhattan's Chinatown. My destination is the Hudson Riverway, a park beside the river.

Inclined to step back from the main traffic, I walk west along a different street. I'm surprised to hear a melody, which sounds like it's from a nearby piano. Indeed, crossing the street and entering Tribeca Park, I see two upright pianos. Both are colorfully decorated and painted on the side of one are the words, "Sing for Hope." I move closer and notice a man getting up from one of the piano benches. I approach and sit down. Along the front of the piano are more words, "Play me, I'm Yours."

This international public art project, conceived by artist Luke Jerram, brings 60 pianos outdoors all over New York City, from June 21 - July 5. Players and listeners alike are invited to post their impressions with words, photos, and videos uploaded to a central website.

I listen to what a woman is playing on the other piano. While I can't see her fingers moving on the keys, I hear and feel the notes. Attuned impulse guides my fingers. We're harmonizing. A few people listen attentively. Ten minutes later (the requested limit), she gets up and silently moves on. The time together seems complete. I get up and resume my river-bound trek.

I cross the West Side Highway at a point where the park turns into two lanes on which people travel by foot or bicycle. As I'm walking, I notice a man jogging by. His gait looks different so I turn my head. He is wearing a prosthetic leg from the knee down. His face looks filled with quiet determination. Is it a "real" leg? Is he expressing creative autonomy? Kindness? Hope? How is he impacting those around him? I can only speak for myself. I am inspired and greatly encouraged. I move at a brisker, livelier pace.

A week later, on July 5, I receive an email from friends in Berkeley, California who are engaged in Mindful Peacebuilding, about their July 4 "Mindful Holiday" gathering. They are preparing for what many say could be a riot.

This connects with the pending verdict in a controversial case in Oakland. Johannes Mehserle, formerly a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer is accused of shooting and killing Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who is said to have been lying face down on an Oakland train platform. Mehserle testifies on June 25, 2010 that he mistakenly pulled out his pistol instead of a stun gun when he shot and killed Grant.

Friends meet to strategize a non-violent response to escalating tensions. During the holiday gathering, they explore the use of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) to offer empathy to whomever might be on the scene and in need when the court decision is announced.

Drawing on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, Joanna Macy, and Marshall Rosenberg, participants renew their commitment to train in various forms of peace practice. Their focus is far from conceptual. They often write to share and process peacebuilding experiences as they envision their purpose and ways to activate it.

The next day, I visit a woman being treated for stage-4 cancer. She's been asking to see a chaplain and as I sit down beside her, says with agitation, "I want answers." She wants to know if she's being punished. She says repeatedly, "I don't understand why this is happening, not just to me but at all. If only I could figure it out."

After listening attentively and empathetically sharing what I'm hearing her say, I ask, "what keeps you going?" This stops her thinking process. For a moment, she's speechless. I invite her to focus on her in-breath and silently consider, "what keeps me going?" After a few breaths, she says with vigor, "I'm alive." The statement emerges less as an answer to a question so much as an experience of call and response. This is direct. This is contemplative practice. The method is called Attuned Breath Centering.

Tears are in her eyes. I say, "to activate your deep question, your need to understand, what would it be like right now to breathe out while silently saying, 'Understanding'." To keep it simple, I say, "Breathing in, I'm alive. Breathing out, Understanding."

Her eyes widen as she looks me in the eye, nodding her head to indicate her willingness. As she attunes, I check in with her about her experience. She decides to drop, "I'm." Now we breathe together:

"Breathing in, Alive. Breathing out, Understanding."

We sit together in this active silence for several minutes. I sense a spaciously vibrant quality of presence connecting and flowing through us. Our eyes meet. I am here. So is she. At the same time, this open awareness does not distinguish one body from another. We smile.

In this moment, the word "safety" has no meaning. As for peace, that word is extra, unnecessary. Experience speaks for itself.

As I leave her room, the words of Omar Khayyam, the Persian philosopher and poet, spring to mind as if he is standing beside me speaking them:

"The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Future gaga

I'm hoofing it through Central Park, heading east from Columbus Circle. I pass by the colorful Carousel, its cheery music drawing me closer. Captivated by the swirl of horses, I suddenly notice a couple of kids laughing as they whirl by. The boy is grabbing on to a pole as it bobs up and down while the girl holds on to her horse's reigns. They look like they're having a grand time.

This cross-park jaunt is part of my mid-week routine, going from early morning math tutoring at Heschel High School to chaplaincy work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In both settings, optimism permeates and tends to translate into movement. Stepping onto one of the hospital floors a few days earlier, I smile towards a patient and his wife as he makes "the loop" of one time around the floor. He returns the smile, encouraged while wheeling a pole from which hangs a clear plastic bag of "meds," as he refers to it, connected to the I.V. in his hand.

Most folks here move with great determination into an uncertain future.

Earlier this morning, working with a student in the high school library, I remind him to "use the three column method," an approach I developed though there might be many versions of the basic principle. He pulls out a sheet of paper and writes "Known" then with some space writes "Unknown." He then draws an arrow from the first to the second. I say to him, "remember what goes under the arrow?" Sliding his finger across the page, he says, "what it takes to get from here to there." We grin in mutual acknowledgement. He turns back to the page and starts to write.

Days earlier, Saturday night, to be precise, I'm riding on the #1 train, heading north from its first stop at South Ferry. As the train moves uptown, it becomes increasingly filled with activity. Around 14th Street, a bunch of college students get on, mostly women, dressed in fanciful costumes. A young man about the same age, wearing a Fedora-style hat, looks eager to make contact. He introduces himself to one of the women and asks about the group's plans. I sense his nervously excited vibe even as he tries to play it cool. He asks, "hey, where are you all going?" The woman, delighted for this attention, says, "we're going to a party where the theme is the future." She pauses, gauging his response. He is silent yet his face indicates curiosity as if to say, "tell me more." She continues, "We took future to mean gaga rave" and points to her audacious outfit, a mix of silver and black satin. She lifts her eyes to meets his. He gazes towards her with a mix of longing and curiosity.

They stand there a bit awkwardly, tension building, each holding the pole loosely as the train keeps moving.

I think to myself, "when to make a move?. . ."

Soon enough, the train pulls to a stop and the group quickly heads for the door. The young fellow still smiling towards the young lady , shifts his stance. She glances in his direction. He hesitates. She keeps going. She passes through the door. He watches, frozen. The doors close.

In the minutes that follow, standing by the pole, he looks a bit lost. He slowly sits down, across from me, clutching his knapsack, and looks down.

The subway train continues uptown. I settle into my seat as the thunderous roar of the wheels meeting the tracks reminds me to put in my earplugs. By the time I get home, all I want to do is go to sleep.

A week earlier, on May 2, friends converge east of Times Square as they complete their 700-mile, two-month duration "Walk for a Nuclear-Free Future" and join a larger peace walk to call attention to the United Nations' five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The longer walk is sponsored by Grafton Peace Pagoda community in upstate NY. I remember walking with them the previous September through Harlem (see "Walk the Line" blog posting). This time around, their walk begins in the territories of the Six Nations near Buffalo, NY, where nuclear waste and nuclear weapons have been important concerns. The poster for the walk states, "think outside the bomb."

This same May evening in Times Square, a car containing a bomb is discovered, causing the evacuation of streets surrounding the area and thousands of tourists. The NYPD Bomb Squad is called in and is able to break into the smoke-filled Pathfinder and defuse the bomb without any injuries. They respond swiftly and without hesitation. It is their job.

I'm reminded of a scene from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, in which the devil comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc. The novel challenges notions of good and evil and lifts up the power of redemption amidst a suffocatingly bureaucratic social order.

One of the final scenes, presented with apocalyptic allusions, has the devil, named Woland, a "foreigner," as he's described in the first chapter, announcing:

"Then like the blast of a trumpet the terrible voice of Woland rang out over the hills :

'It is time!'

As an echo came a piercing laugh and a whistle from Behemoth. The horses leaped into the air and the riders rose with them as they galloped upwards. Margarita could feel her fierce horse biting and tugging at the bit. Woland's cloak billowed out over the heads of the cavalcade and as evening drew on, his cloak began to cover the whole vault of the sky. When the black veil blew aside for a moment, Margarita turned round in flight and saw that not only the many-coloured towers but the whole city had long vanished from sight, swallowed by the earth, leaving only mist and smoke where it had been."

Earlier in the novel, the devil states his position,

"But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?

My thoughts swirl with no easy answers. Then, I remember something Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said,

"Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."

Days later, I'm riding the train to work. A Subway preacher gets on. With fierceness in his voice, he puts out his message, asking in a loud tone so everyone can hear:

"Do you know who you are?"

"Do you know where you're going?"

Most folks are looking down, doing their best to cope with such questions while still waking up. He continues,

"I say to all the women: You are the gateway of life. Set up a good standard for all of us to follow. And you men, remember: A woman made you so treat her with sensitivity."

He pauses, then adds:

"Open up your heart.

May you be blessed."

As the train pulls into the station and begins to jerk to a stop, he approaches the door, then turns around and adds:

"I hope somebody heard something."

He gets off. The train keeps going, I reflect on what's been said but my heart feels filled beyond capacity. When I finally get out into the air and soft sunshine, I am relieved just to walk. Walking soothes me.

Days later, I bump into a friend from high school, David. We're both on our way to work, reconnecting as we head down to the Subway. He tells me about his family, happy to share that their twin girls are now age four. Then he says that he and a friend have started a new "green" business, Urban Prairie NY.

Their website states,

"We represent those products that support living plants in our environment. These products are intended to improve and beautify the urban environment and ultimately better the health of our cities and the quality of life for its inhabitants."

As David and I chat on the train, his passionate commitment to this vision and good cheer inspire me. We exchange ideas and contact info. Before you know it, the train arrives at Columbus Circle. He gets off. The train keeps going. The conductor announces, "Times Square." The doors open. Now it's my turn.

I head for the open door.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Crystallization of Conscience

I approach the colossal complex known as The Riverside Church, which covers two city blocks and is situated in one of the highest points in New York City. Sound spills out from its bell-tower located some twenty stories up.

My body resonates with its pronouncement of the hour mark. I enter through heavy revolving doors into a long hall of stone, which helps to shape the soundscape and reflects history made here. Everything feels big and at the same time small. Intimate nooks and crannies suffuse the many rooms and corridors. This intimacy permeates the space, made famous and to some, infamous, as a springboard for spiritually-attuned, social activism.

Walking down the main corridor, one room stops me. Its name, "the nave." In this room in April, 1967, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech, "Beyond Vietnam," in which he calls for an end to the Vietnam War, saying,

"The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war . . . There comes a time when silence is betrayal . . . Millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. There are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It's a dark day in our nation when high level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. Something is happening and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told. "

Standing here, a great stillness of silence washes over me. I am here by invitation, asked to serve as a commissioner along with dozens of others. The gathering is called a Public Hearing of the "Truth Commission on Conscience in War." Considering the invitation weeks earlier, I hesitate, not sure if this type of gathering rings true for me. I speak with Ian, one of the organizers by phone. Our conversation relieves my concerns as he describes an event, whose format invites dialogue.

We are meeting on the second day of Spring. Following directions, I round the corner and together with several people board an elevator. We ascend to the ninth floor for an orientation (meet, munch, and mingle) for commissioners. Before the mid-afternoon meal is served, we hear about plans for the evening's four-hour program. We briefly introduce ourselves. I scan the printed program. The primary speakers are veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will be "testifiers" this evening, reflecting on their experiences with war and conscience.

The program also lists other speakers, who will reflect on several themes including that of "Just War." While attuning to the underlying intention of this phrase, the words confuse me. I ponder them as pointers to truth and so, question the meaning of each word in the context of its relationship with the other. I scan my body. My chest begins to tighten. 

Our host for the orientation invites us to eat. After getting some food, I sit at a table next to a woman who asks if anyone at the table has heard of the term, "Just Peace." No, a commissioner from Texas and I reply. She tells us that "Just Peace" refers to situations when use of force serves like a police force rather than a military force.

Now I'm really confused. My chest hurts but as I breathe into it, the muscles relax.

I'm thinking of a book by Vietnamese Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn, entitled, "Keeping the Peace - Mindfulness and Public Service, and of what he says in an interview titled, This is What War Looks Like,

"When we hold retreats for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the candle. They are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible."

Thay (or "teacher" as he's known to many) also spoke at Riverside Church, on September 25, 2001, urging non-violence and reconciliation. In 1966, he encouraged Dr. King to speak out concerning the war in Vietnam. Dr. King, in 1967, nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Someone once asked Thay in an outburst of rage,

"What are you doing here? Why don't you just go back to Vietnam?"

He shares that,

"I had to breathe in and out many times before I could respond to such a question. . . After feeling calmer, I said, "if the roots of a tree are sick, it will not do any good to water the leaves. You need to water the roots. It's the same with Vietnam. The roots of the suffering in Vietnam are here in the West. That is why we are here."

I leave the room and catch the elevator down. I sit in the balcony above the nave and reflect in silence. Then I head outdoors. It's 3:30. The program begins at 4. I head towards Riverside Park, several blocks away. I hear sparrows chirping. I sit down on a park bench. I let go of all the thoughts and listen. My shoulders release and my breath deepens. The air feels fresh. I check my watch. Time. I walk back to the church and head back up to the ninth floor. We head down as a group and slowly assemble to enter the nave.

As we enter, many people are already seated. My eyes meet theirs in mutual acknowledgement of the importance of showing up today.

The program begins. A former soldier tells us that when he applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, he was asked, "when was the moment of your crystalization of conscience?" He says that this was a pivotal moment for him as he realized that "crystalization" did not fit his experience of conscience continually evolving, being a fluid process. Listening, I imagine this visually. What happens to a fluid crystal? It grows. I remember this from high school.

At the time, I'm working in a lab at City College assisting a physics professor in charge of a crystal research experiment. He shows me how to grow crystals. Dipping the crystal over and over again in a solvent, it changes. The process requires great patience and attention to detail.

"All crystallization methods change the physical state of a material by transforming the system from some non-equilibrium state toward an equilibrium state."

Back in the church nave, the next testifier, also a veteran, speaks of not being able to reconcile Jesus' charge to "Love one's enemy," and "Turn the other Cheek" with his assignment to interrogate prisoners of war in Iraq. He speaks of being with a prisoner, who challenges his beliefs, caught between a rock and a hard place.

The next veteran speaks of the inconsistency between military recruitment films and his experience in Afghanistan. He speaks of the unspeakable, relating a heartwrenching scene in which children move in front of his tank. The soldiers have been told not to let anyone block their path. Anyone could be carrying a weapon. And yet. . . here he is. Here they are.

As I listen, I am there, there in that moment of not knowing what to do, when instinct and conscience become meaningless words and the only reality is now now now. I feel my chest tighten. He goes on. He says that his story really begins after he completes his military term of four years. In 2005, he starts to encounter memory. He goes to college and begins to learn other perspectives on Afghanistan and Iraq, on war.

Needing inspiration, I recall something Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said,

"A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

The next young man tells his story. He writes after coming home, on and on, a novel, then an analysis. Anything, he says, "to keep me in the action" of Iraq. His body is home but he is not embodied, he tells us. Finally, thanks to feedback from several friends, he realizes that his stories do not connect for those reading them because he is not embodied when he writes them. That's when he shifts and begins to feel the pain and confusion. His writing shifts. He speaks in public, unscripted, filled with emotional turmoil. His authentic voice emerges at last. That's how he truly comes home. As he speaks now, I see his fellow testifiers shaking their heads in silent acknowledgement.

The evening goes on but my head and heart are full. I need to digest what I've heard.

Just then, I notice an older woman approaching the microphone. Her tone is soft-spoken yet firm with conviction. Her voice quivers, like solid ground shifting. Her son, she says, was a national guardsman. He died in Iraq. He enlists before 2001, assuring his mother that his unit will likely never be deployed. "No national guardsman has died since WWII," he tells her while also voicing his committment to serve his country beside his fellow guardsmen should the need arise. Then Sept. 11, 2001 happens. The towers collapse. His unit is deployed in March. In April, he becomes the first national guardsman to die since WWII.

Her story is a complex tapestry of contradiction. Born to pacifist parents, their son enlists. What was his truth, I ask myself? As his mother goes on, I feel the son's presence, his torn-ness, and his family's agony and anguish.

It's in the small details that I join their story. My chest is aching.

The evening goes on. Other speakers follow the testifiers. Music intersperses, a man bellows out, "Stand by me."

After the closing words of the event host, we begin to move from the room, many approaching the testifiers. I sit for a few breaths and then, move towards the mother who spoke earlier. I thank her, our eyes meeting. I say, "what I appreciate about what you said and how you said it is that you told what happened without taking away, without simplifying the complexity." She chokes out in a near-muted voice, "it is so complex." Tears are in her eyes. I say, "that's how I could feel your son, his torn-ness, his confusion, the love you shared and which continues. It makes it real. Not easy but real." Feeling the heat of tears running down my face, I continue, "That's why I'm crying." We stand there and hold hands, tears meeting tears. We embrace.

I turn and slowly walk back down the long aisle. I hear the dissonance of many voices reverberating in the room. At the same time, listening attentively, I feel a quality of vast space permeating the vibration in my body, resonating as silence.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Becoming free

Finally, some paying work. I exit the subway train at Columbus Circle and enter Central Park. This is my way of getting in "nature time" en route. The last vestiges of Winter continue with snow on the ground even as birds return and chirp in the crisp morning air.

I quickly move on, making my way east and hop on a downtown 6 train. I'm headed to a midtown hospital, where I'll be providing "coverage" as a "per-diem" clinical chaplain. Today, I'm going to a required training about caring for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing. Our instructor tells us that there is a difference between "deaf" and Deaf," in that the latter word defines a culture of identity in which sign language speaks to the present tense and a particular way of storytelling becomes the foundation for all interactions. 

As I listen, I'm wondering, "how much of this is generalizing?" Even so, I'm fascinated enough to stay open. She tells us that if you ask, "so, when did you first notice the pain in your shoulder?" a Deaf person might sign, "Well, three days ago, Joe calls me up." Then the person becomes Joe and signs, "Hey, want to meet at the gym and lift some weights?" and so on. Only after the story is told this way, does the moment of "pain in your shoulder" get communicated.

Then she adds, "You have to be patient. Also, know that an interpreter's job is to as precisely as possible become the person telling the story." She tells us that a translator is someone who works with written words, bridging one written language to another. An interpreter works with spoken language or sign language. This means also expressing the nuances and expressiveness of body language. If a patient is angry, the interpreter's job is to voice that anger, in the first person. A patient might be saying, I'm furious that I've been pushing this call button for an hour and no one's responded!

Just then, a nurse in our training class asks the instructor, "you mean if a patient's screaming, you'd scream?" Our teacher responds, "no, though you can communicate the urgency and tone at a lower volume."

As I listen, I begin to wonder about how this might differ from acting. What I'm really asking is, "what does it mean to become another?" and below this, "what do I mean by becoming?"

My mind shifts to a moment a few years ago. I'm visiting a man dying in a hospital room. His friends and mother are sitting nearby. One friend suddenly gets up and walks quickly out of the room, her face filled with agitation. I slowly follow her out and offer support. She tells me, "I can't stand this anymore." I say, "looks like you want to scream." Her eyes widen and she says, "I really do."  I invite her to join me in a nearby empty room and ask, "how about a silent scream?" 

She looks at me, intrigued. I continue, "Picture where you want to be right now, about to scream." She immediately replies, "Oh I know exactly where that'd be." I ask, "where's that?" She says, "right in the middle of the road!" I'm aware of the nearby city streets being filled with cars, busses, and trucks whizzing by. I say, "OK, now watch me." I close my eyes, clench every muscle in my face and then release, my whole body focussed in this one action of open mouth shaking itself outwards. My face is flushed by the effort." I stop and turn to her, "now you." She closes her eyes and screams, soundlessly, her whole body shaking. After a minute or so, she stops and opens her eyes. She smiles. I meet her in that smile. Then she turns and opens the door.

Riding home lately, I encounter a lot of screaming. Sometimes it's a homeless man reeking of urine and booze, pleading for "anything you can spare." Sometimes it's the woman whose refrain is forever etched in the minds of fellow travellers, "It ain't no joke. I'm broke." She shouts this out to the monotonous beat of her makeshift drum, a round plastic container.

Every few minutes, the conductor's voice reverberates at a deafening volume, announcing, "if you see something, say something,"  followed soon by, "Passengers, please be advised. Backpacks and other large containers are subject to random search by the police."

Riding to work, it's somewhat different. Fellow passengers find ways to cope. Orthodox Jewish men and women read from Psalms (Tehillim) in Hebrew. A woman holds a rosary while across from her another reads from a small Bible. Kids turn up their mp3 players, some playing games on small screens of cellphones. A man pulls out his macbook and types away.

Then there are the ones reading books and newspapers. Hard to tell fiction from non-fiction. 
A few carry on conversations. A few eat their breakfasts, sip or slurp from plastic and paper cups. Occasionally, someone's carrying a mug or a sandwich from home. I notice the little kids. They're the ones who don't know the rules. They're the ones twirling around poles or turning around in their seats to watch the underworld whizzing by.

At night, it shifts. At night, the rules are known and ignored. Rules become meaningless. Survival is the basic instinct. Freedom is the undercurrent. Creativity becomes its driving pulse. 

I'm tired. I notice those who are too. Tonight, two men get on. They're carrying big drums. They begin to play. At first, I'm irritated, my shoulders tense up. As the beat builds and sounds fill the space, my shoulders release. One of the drummers says, "we're here to bring joy." The other adds, "it's time to smile." 

They finish with a strong crescendo. They stand up and move around, holding out an upturned hat. I check my wallet. I just gave away my last dollar bill. All I've got is a bit of change. I look up. I hear one man thank a woman saying, "God bless you." He sees me. He smiles. I smile. I give him some change.

Tired as I am, I say the only thing that seems to matter, "Thank you." He nods his head, acknowledging this simple heartfelt gesture. He gathers his drums and joins his friend as they quickly find their way out. 

The doors close. The train moves on. 

I glance around the car. For an instant, our eyes meet. We see one another. The train picks up speed. The train arrives at the next station. The doors open. Some people get out. Some people get on.

I close my eyes and listen. The rumble shakes me loose. I still feel tired. Only now feeling tired feels free.