Three squirrels are zooming around a tree as I enter Ft. Tryon park in northern Manhattan. Their tireless pace captivates me and a whole lot of folks passing through. The temperature outside is markedly warmer than it's been. Everybody's coming out it seems.
Two weeks earlier, and footsteps from here, my cellphone is stolen by two teenage boys, could be age 14 or maybe 16. Coming out of the subway, I ride up an elevator to street level. The teenagers and a middle-aged woman are also riding. I see the boys glancing at my Blackberry but am consumed, typing an email message to a guy who lives 3000 miles away. He and I meet one year earlier and are now in some kind of ambiguous intimate relationship. I am planning to visit him in a few days.
I type with a heightened sense of urgency due to confusion and impatience in wanting a response. I think I'm checking in but actually the impulse is more like checking out, not taking in what's really going on. I'm exhausted with my head painfully pounding. Another day of too much activity, too much outflow, and not enough of what nourishes.
Over a year earlier, I sustain physical injuries from such active inattentiveness, which connects with similar fixations. Some part of me is irritated and compulsively thinking that someone else is not responding as I want them to. I don't feel heard. That night, I trip and take a nasty tumble, breaking a tooth on impact with the pavement. Tonight, under different circumstances, my unconscious body registers a resonance but can't stop.
As the elevator doors open, the boys walk ahead of me as does the woman. Alone, having completed the email text, I step out into the night air, holding the phone in one hand. I am about to go up the two flights of stairs, which lead to the sidewalk. Suddenly, the youngsters come back and towards me. One says, "hey, I dropped something back there, think I lost something. Did you see anything?" I reply, "no, you might want to check back there."
They do not move. That's when I sense danger. I turn back towards the elevators, cellphone still in hand. One of them quickly grabs the phone. Then, both of them bolt up the stairs and turn, heading towards the park. I yell, "hey, stop, give me back my phone. stop, thief, someone stop them!" and race up the stairs. Up on the sidewalk, seeing them far away now, I realize the futility of my effort and also the potential for escalation of the situation. Someone at the top of the stairs, holding a cane, asks what happened. I tell him briefly. He says, "oh, that's too bad." I'm enraged, not knowing what to say so nod my head, turn and move quickly down the street. All I want to do is get home.
Minutes later, I enter my building, and a neighbor, Carlos, who happens also to be a clinical chaplain, greets me, heading out to walk his dogs. He offers empathy and tells me there has been a surge in this sort of crime in our neighborhood recently. I tell him what is most of concern to me is confidential info on the phone, contacts and such. He assures me that the young men likely will toss away the SIM card and wipe the phone of other info.
Then I tell him that I'm upset about the conditions contributing to this, and my outreach efforts. He tells me about working with incarcerated youth at Rykers prison, gang initiations, and various issues affecting "our kids" in the inner city. Then, as I'm about to move on, he says, "I'm sorry I wasn't there to help you." I see his eyes filled with compassion and care. I feel tears in my eyes. He's struck a chord. I'm hurting. We hug for a few breaths and then I go upstairs.
By now, fifteen minutes go by.
I take a quick shower and swallow two Advil capsules. "Quick acting pain relief." That's what I need. Only then do I call the local precinct and report the crime. Then my cell provider. Shortly thereafter, two officers arrive at my door. One of them is annoyed that I didn't call sooner and that I didn't call 911. "We might have caught them," he says. I offer empathy but recognize that am still in shock and don't have a simple response.
The next day, I get a call from a detective. He asks me a slew of questions including a request to describe the young men. Among these details, I say they are "hispanic." Even as I say it, I question if this is accurate, and what I mean by the word. He wants me to come down to the precinct and look at photos. I go the following night after work.
The scene is very urban, and the many TV shows I've seen of such places accurately render the scene. He says more as a statement than a question, "you know how to use a computer." I say, "yes." He gets up from his chair facing the screen and has me sit there. He says, "you'll see six photos at a time. There are about 600 in this batch, all that fit your description." He continues, "you're gonna see a lot of buttons. I just want you to click on 'next'." I nod in acknowledgement. I put my hand on the mouse and am about to begin, when he adds, "listen, people look at these and go, 'he had this feature or that, his eyes, his nose, maybe looks like this...' Don't do that. Just take in the whole face and see if you recognize it."
I look him in the eye. He looks tired. I don't know what to say. I turn back to the screen. The air is musty and cloying. Stacks of papers and folders are piled all around. I focus. As face after face appears, I scan them and press, "next." I don't see anyone who looks like the young man who grabbed the phone. What I do see are facial expressions, a wide range of bewildered, numb, scared, sad, and angry. I also see a wide range of facial features, all apparently designated as "hispanic american."
My mind flashes to a moment two months earlier, at the Brain Resource Center. Then, participating in a depression study as a "healthy subject," I am asked to view many facial expressions in quick succession on a computer screen. Like that moment, right now I shift to an awareness of flow and presence with all the emotions I'm seeing. How are these affecting me? What is my response?
The detective asks if I want to widen the search and view more photos. I agree to view one more batch. After another 600 photos come and go, he says that it's different for everybody. Some people can ID and some can't. "It all depends," he finishes. I leave the station with many questions. I'm tired and sad.
I go home and read an email message, "I am glad you weren't hurt physically. Phones can be replaced. Judys can't."
The next day I fly to Oakland, CA. After a day's silent retreat at Berkeley Zen Center, I'm heading to visit with this guy I really like even as our relationship continues to be troubling in its ambiguity. En-route on the BART train, and running late, I text him with my new phone and he responds, "No problem take your time." I smile with relief. How did he know?...
After I get there, he shares how relieved he is that "nothing worse" happened to me. I tell him it's important to me to write about it, to write stories of things that often go unseen. Then I say would like to write for various media except television. His look in that instant stops me. I sense arrogance in my tone. Where is that coming from? What do I really know about television? I've hardly seen any TV shows recently.
As the discussion becomes more heated, he says, "you are consumed by the world." These words stop me as a zen koan (dialogue) fragment comes to mind. I feel a resonance and hear my teacher speaking them, "what do you call the world?"
I'm seeing images flash by including those many faces on the screen. How do I respond?
He then tells me about issues with the police in San Francisco. He tells me about his friend in Brooklyn who was mugged violently. I feel myself shaking. I'm overwhelmed. My body flinches as it is catapulted through time.
Many years earlier, in Seattle, I'm choking, trapped in a fog of tear gas as protesters to the World Trade Organization meeting gather outside. I see broken windows of storefronts, notably Starbucks. Mostly I see non-violent protests. I am here to witness and dialogue with anyone I can. I know very little of the details of the situation, having driven with friends from Oregon, where I'm living. I see police in riot gear, all lined up, moving forward. I see protesters chained to a building. I see a lot of anger and a lot of fear. We run and run until at last, find a way out.
Now, two days after being in San Francisco, I am back in New York on a bus crossing over the George Washington bridge to New Jersey. I'm heading to the Brain Resource Center for my followup appointment. When I get there, a woman again asks me to put on a funky cap with lots of wires sticking out of it. As she puts conducting gel on my head and checks the connections, hearing some kind of European sounding accent, I ask where she's from. She shares that she's from Kosovo and moved to Brooklyn 20 years earlier. I ask about her family, having met her daughter on the last visit. Her face lights up as she tells me of her daughter's fascination with storytelling and her youngest boy's fascination with science. She tells me he said to her recently, "someday, mom, I'm going to work with you."
Then she tells me that this wiring is for an EEG (electroencephalogram), which will record my brain waves during the test. She reminds me not to move except my fingers, which will respond. We begin. Facing a computer screen, faces appear quickly on the screen, bearing many emotional expressions. It's the same test (or so it seems) as done months earlier. Again, I'm asked to identify emotions and also to choose which faces I've seen before. As face after face appears, I begin to feel overwhelmed. I activate awareness of my breath and the bottoms of my feet. I don't move. I breathe more deeply. Slowly, I feel a shift in my body as it seems to expand to encompass the room and beyond. I feel flow. The sensation is both calming and energizing.
On the ride back, I remember the story of a colleague at the hospital where I work. Brother TA as he's called, visits Catholic patients, having returned from serving for 33 years in Pakistan. He's telling me about why he finally left that country. He says, "we trained to make ourselves useless, have to let go, like being a parent, hard to cut the apron strings. We'd look around, seeing improvement in conditions. [when we arrived] they were like serfs, homeless, living in lean-tos against houses where they worked. We'd ask ourselves 25 years later, 'how did this happen?' We were busy just doing the work."
Then he adds, "[finally] They wanted us to be like grandparents sitting back... I'm an activist. That's not me. I can always do something. Wash dishes, make a dessert for the meal." Then he looks me in the eye and laughs, "But also, it's not what you do. It's who you are." I see the lines on his face. I see the glow in his gaze. I feel a powerful embrace and release.
Back on the bus, I look out the window. The sun is shining brilliantly. I sit back to enjoy the ride. Within minutes, my phone rings. Even as I answer the call, I want to get off. Something drives me to respond but I keep it short. Then, I hang up the phone and turn the ringer to "silent."
I take my time walking home.