Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Seeing Shelter

Sitting quietly tonight, this nearly overwhelming tightness in my chest keeps me awake and intensely uncomfortable. It's hard to stay with this. I want to run as the pressure builds. 

Images appear. The client at an HIV treatment center who overdosed and died. I see him. Can't stop him. I see myself as a child, helpless and terrified. Can't stop her either. Can't stop what is happening to her.

The scene shifts. I see a weathered photograph in a fragile metal frame standing on my grandmother's bureau. I am age eight or nine. In that photo, a little girl a few years younger than my child self is staring out. She is naked to the waist, standing barefoot, wearing shorts in a forest somewhere in Poland. Wavy brownish hair down to her chin, her expression neutral yet piercing in its innocence. Her eyes say everything that matters.

My grandmother does not say much, just a long, disgusted sigh followed by, "she was killed by the nazis." She quickly turns away and heads for her favorite room, the kitchen. I hear the sounds of cookware in motion. But those eyes keep me locked in place.

Now I see my girl self with this forest girl out of time. No longer frozen, two become one. I'm crying, my tears falling in that forest. Grown up me wants to hold this forest girl close, now able to face the horror and see what pierces it. Autumn rain is falling on the branches through layers of canopy down to her hair and naked chest.

The tightness releases in my chest as tears continue to fall. My breath opens. We are safe. I know what I must do - keep facing this fear, this pain, facing while standing in that forest beside her.

I am determined to turn towards those I have hurt. Determined to stop though have failed many times. Now I see the trees all around, feel the bodies sitting upright beside me. We are awake. We will not fail.

I adjust my posture, leaning forward.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"A" True Story

This morning stepping into our apartment building elevator, I spot a little red-haired boy and his strawberry blonde sister beside their mom. He's wearing an SF Giants cap and his sister a Yankees cap.

I say to him, "You're a Giants fan?" and his mom says, "actually, he has a collection from lots of teams." Just then, the boy shining a bright smile looks at me and says confidently, "actually, I'm an A's fan."

Without hesitation, his sister chimes in, "me too!" Mom is chuckling silently. "OK!" I say, "Go A's!" and the kids now go, "A's!" The door opens and the three of them step off. 

The boy quickly turns back to me and we stand there smiling as the door slowly closes.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Heart of You, Heart of Me

I'm walking towards the South Ferry subway station down in Battery Park when I hear guitar strumming. I stop, turn back and see a guy wearing a sky-blue sweatshirt and softly faded blue jeans. He smiles as our eyes meet. The melody is soothing while invigorating. I stop and listen. My eyes are drawn also to an older fellow with a scraggly grey-white beard sitting at the other end of the park bench. He's wearing a baseball cap that says in bold yellow, "Vietnam Veteran." 

When the song ends, I introduce myself and sit down between them. "I'm Jesse," says the guitar player. Jesse tells me he's been walking and hitching around the country for a year now carrying only a guitar and some clothes. Originally from Ohio, he arrived in NYC a few days ago.

Writing and singing songs as he goes. Says they are "prayer movin' through me." When he plays, people stop, people smile, can feel the good vibe. The other fellow on the bench says, "Hey, I'm Jimmy. Man, I like your songs, makes me feel good." Then he tells us he's a Vietnam Vet. Tells us about working down here on 9/11/01. He says, "There were ladies high heels everywhere. 
They were from the ladies who kicked 'em off, running barefoot." He sighs and pauses, then looks away in the direction of tall buildings for a moment. 

Just then, Jesse starts strumming his guitar softly. Jimmy turns back towards us and tells a few more stories of a more hopeful note, about his wife and son, about moving on from hard times including the Vietnam War and Iraq and Afghanistan where he says his son has served. He says, "nobody knows how it hurts unless they've been there." Jesse and I nod our heads, "yeah." 

When Jimmy leaves, Jesse and I talk about travelling, about getting lost in a good way, about walking in the mountains. He asked if I'd ever been to Nederland, CO. "Ha!" I said, "Been closeby, Boulder last month." And so we talk some more. I say I write songs also.

He smiles and hands me the guitar. I play a song and tell him wrote it when in a Cancer Center "playroom" with a boy in pain sitting in a wheelchair who wouldn't speak. I say, "I looked out the window up many stories and saw all these windows. And the song came through me, called it, 'Look Out the Window.' And as I played it, that boy came to life." Jesse smiles and nods his head like he gets it. When the song's over, I hand him back the guitar. He says, "you have a real sweet voice." That inspires me to sing harmony as he plays a song. 

After a few rounds of this, as we're singing, the wind picks up. Rain drops started to fall. I ask, "what's the name of that one?" He said, "dunno." I say, "I like the refrain: 'Heart of you, Heart of Me'." He smiles.

I hand him a wondercard and invited him to stay in touch saying, "wanna hear where you land next." He laughs and said, "OK!"

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I'm visiting with an elderly Jewish woman wearing a sparkly blue Yankees cap with purple peace signs painted on it. She's sitting up in her hospital bed, about to be discharged after a very extended stay resulting from multiple complications. Our conversations over these weeks keep a simple Hebrew word going, "Chazak!" ("Strength!)"

Today, offering her my hand as I have each visit, I say quietly while firmly, "From strength to strength." She grips my hand, as she has each time. She has shared how hard it is to keep going and what gets her through. She has told me often how absurd life can be, "all the meshugas."

Now, squeezing my hand with hers, she laughs and says, "Strange to Strange. Yes." Now we're both laughing, a laugh that fills the room and my whole body.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Visiting a middle-aged woman in emotional distress following her surgery, I hear her tell me she feels “desperately alone.” She says that after years in alcohol recovery, this sense of aloneness “triggered my relapse.” As we go deeper, her eyes squeeze shut then tears spill out. She chokes out,“God. I want to...feel God. But I can't."

We say the Serenity Prayer together. She shares more about God of her understanding and her desire to reconnect. She acknowledges that her primary need right now is "serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

She bursts into tears. I guide her in breathing in “God” (silently saying it to herself) and breathing out “Serenity.” This is a method called Attuned Breath Centering, which I developed. Her breath eases. I leave and say will visit her the next day.

The next morning, I visit and we say the Serenity Prayer together. Then, unexpectedly, she bursts into tears saying her sense of aloneness is excruciating, and the Attuned Breath Centering difficult to continue. Something sparks in me, remembering how the palliative team approaches pain management. I ask her, “This part of you that thinks she is desperately alone, rate how alone on a scale of 0-10?” She says, “8.” Then I ask her, “Now imagining this part of you that feels God’s presence, how strongly does she feel this on a scale of 0-10?” She replies, “7.” For a moment, I am uncertain what to do. Then, an image comes to me. I ask her to imagine a wire fence with lots of open space between the wires. On one side stands the alone part of her. On one side stands the part who feels God’s presence.

I say, “Now the one who feels presence offers her hand through the fence, palm facing up. She offers it to the one who thinks she is alone. Tell me what you notice. Please refer to each part of you as “she.” Then you can witness all of you.” She nods her head, “ok.” I encourage, “Tell me, what’s happening?” She breathes a few times and replies, “I” then corrects herself, “She accepts the hand. They are holding hands.” I invite her to breathe into this sensation of holding hands.

Then I say, "Now imagine that as these two are holding each other's hand, the one who feels God's presence, holding clippers in her other hand begins to cut through the fence. Take your time and tell me what is happening." She pauses then says, "they are still holding hands." "OK," I say, "now the hole is growing in this fence and now there is just open space between them, joining them. Let's breathe into this sensation of open space."

After a few minutes, I ask her to rate her aloneness. She smiles with wonderment, her body visibly relazed and her breath slow and deep. She says, “Zero.” Next I ask her, “would you like to name the part of you that feels God's presence?” She pauses for a few breaths and then smiling once more looks up and says softly, “Grace.”

I hold out my hand. She meets me halfway. Our hands rest together on the bar at the edge of her hospital bed. We breathe silently, the room brightens and I feel a tingling sensation in my body. As I release my hand, she says with tears in her eyes, "thank you. I never knew..." I smile and nod my head to acknowledge her words. I echo hers, saying softly, "Grace."

Monday, June 25, 2012

You Must Fight

Visiting a man in his early 80’s who is recovering from hip surgery, I ask, “what keeps you going?” He looks me dead in the eye and says with fierce convicton, “You must fight.” I pause as he does. He adds, “even if it hurts.” He continues, “I had surgery yesterday and I am walking today. They don’t want you to be in bed. If you stay in bed you will sink into the bed and never get up.” He pauses again. I meet his gaze.

Then his tone shifts and he says, “I was married 56 years. My wife died three years ago.” His voice cracks. I say, “it hurts?” He nods his head silently. After a long pause, he says, “Preparation."

I give him a quizzical look. He continues, “Did you know that in that one word are contained over one hundred words?” I reply, “no I didn’t.” He says, “You know how I know?” "How?” I reply. He says, “I took out a dictionary. There is no b,c,d. I started with a. Then e, i..." I resist the urge to question the veracity of what he is suggesting and pay attention to the one word he named. I say, “So many words in that one. Just look for the ones that are there.”

His calmly determined gaze is impossible to ignore. He says, “You tell people. Tell them.” I reply, “I will.” He relaxes his gaze and thanks me. I acknowledge this, turn, and head for the open door.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Be Well

Visiting with an elderly, Jewish, female patient; I say to her, "zay gezunt." The words mean "be well," or "may you be well."

She asks, "When I said that to my father, he said, 'zay mir gezunt.' What does that mean?" I reply, "May we be well."

Her eyes fill with tears as she nods her head in recognition. We are both smiling.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cake Like

Sitting on a tall stool beside the "bar" at Ten Ren Tea, I spot a tall man to my left being served a large, amber-colored bubble-tea. Beside it I see two single-serving mini-cakes, each wrapped beautifully as is typical of the goodies made by this Taiwan-based chain.

I take a sip of an earthy tea named Puer from a tiny papercup, then ask him what he is drinking. He says, "King's Tea." I recognize this blend of green Oolong and ginseng, known to be energizing while soothingly uplifting. I smile saying, "never saw anyone drink that cold." He replies, "actually, it's warm." I reply, "not hot, not cold. Like the weather today." He laughs and says, "yup, I guess so."

Then I say, "have you tried either of those cakes before?" He says, "no, have you?" I reply, "I've tried the smaller cake but not the larger one." Without a moment's hesitation, he picks up the larger "green tea cake," which is shaped like a heart, and places it beside me on the smooth white counter. Taken by surprise, with eyes wide, I say, "Wow, thank you! I didn't mean to..." He interjects, "hey, two cakes is too much for me, too decadent."

I nod my head slowly in a vulnerable "I guess so" sort of gesture, then offer my hand saying, "hey, I'm Judy." He shakes my hand and says, "Kenneth." We each enjoy a few sips of tea. Then he stands. He turns to go then turns back and asks, "hey, what's the other cake like?" I linger for a breath, remembering the taste of its candied kumquat center. Then I reply, "I like it. It's got bite." He smiles with a touch of mischievous recognition, slowly waves goodbye, then turns and heads for the door.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Move It

Passing through the the Peds (pediatrics) hallway at Hospital for Special Surgery, I hear a little boy say to his dad over and over, "move it move it..." Dad's typing into his smartphone. He says nothing.

Recognizing the boy's refrain, I turn to face him and with a big grin say, "move it, move it" as I shift my hips, dancing like the wacky lemur from kid-flick "Madagascar."

The boy smiles and joins in. Now both of us are dancing and going, "move it move it..."

Dad suddenly looks up and boy, he sure is smiling!

Monday, May 28, 2012


With fewer patients in-house today, some of the nurses are chatting, comparing manicure tips. This sparks a warm tingling in my body. I feel my grandmother's hands holding mine.

Years earlier, I am sitting as a little girl beside my maternal grandmother or Bubby, as we call her. Minutes earlier, this woman who speaks six languages puts out two folding metal "tv dinner tray" tables, one for her and one for me. We sit facing a big TV to watch her favorite soap, "As the World Turns."

On each tray are supplies including: a small bowl of green Palmolive (yes, really), a small moist washcloth, nailfile and other tools, and pinkish-creme-colored nailpolish. We sit in silence and do our nails as drama unfolds before us.

The images and sounds on the screen do not distract me. I am focussed on the ordered sequence of activity and captivated by the wonderful colors, textures, and movements. After polishing each nail, I bend my knuckles down then quickly flick the long fingers up and towards the sky. My fingers are dancing.

When I'm done, I stand and walk over to where she is sitting. Bubby holds my hands to see my handiwork. I feel my whole body tingling and a warmth spreading throughout my chest and hands.

Here, for this instant, all drama slips away and the world is preciously beautiful.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Silent Scream

My pager goes off. I call in and get a referral for a pre-surgery visit with a middle-aged woman. She is reported to be screaming in pain at the slightest touch. I'm told that she is severely underweight and her prognosis is serious and complex.

Entering the pre-surgical "holding area," I hear voices of moderate volume all around, which blur into a churning hum. Moving past one bed, I see a curtain, which opens just enough to glimpse a nurse standing several feet in front and to my left. Bedside with the referred patient, the nurse asks about her medical history.

Directly in front of me is an older woman. After introducing myself, she tells me, "I'm her mom" and appears relieved for my presence. Her face, which showed tension as I approached, now eases a bit. Seeing my badge, she says with enthusiasm and surprise, "a new friend of mine has the same name as you." We laugh. I ask her how she met her friend. She tells me they are in an "opera appreciation" class.

She adds, "the popular operas are easy but the other ones, you have to get into the story and the undertone to really appreciate them. It's not easy but it's worth it."

Just then, the nurse walks past me.  I approach the patient's bed and introduce myself. She looks exhausted. Her eyes seem to have sunken into their sockets. She tells me that a few friends have sent her well wishes, yet her tone of voice suggests disappointment and hurt. I respond in a neutral tone, "a few..." and pause. She turns away for an instant then back to face me, and says with palpable, hushed rage, "yes."

We pause, eyes locking. Then she says, "look, I'm in pain. That's it." My eyes widen in recognition. I affirm, "yeah." She slowly nods her head up and down. She says, "I can't talk now." I say, "ok" and stand up. As I turn, her mother is looking towards me with a hollow expression that conveys helplessness, sorrow, and confusion. I meet the mother's gaze and move closer, approaching the edge of the curtain. I turn to face them both and say, "I was just thinking, the thing I love about opera is the passion, how when you listen, it feels like you get to scream."

Both women look at me with dismay, which quickly shifts to curious interest. The mother begins to smile as I continue, "Once I visited a woman in the hospital who was in intense pain. She says to me, 'I just want to scream but how can I, here?" I suggest, "how about a silent scream?" She asks with enthusiasm, 'how?' I say, 'Close your eyes.' She does. 'Now picture where you need to be when you scream.' Without hesitation, she says to me, "I know exactly where. In the middle of the street, tons of traffic. But when I go there, everything stops.' I affirm, "Ok, now slowly open your eyes." She does and looks directly at me."

I pause. Mother and daughter are looking right at me with the same fierce determination as the woman standing in the midst of traffic. I continue, "As she opens her eyes, this is what I do." Without a sound, I close my eyes and tighten every muscle in my face. Then, I open my mouth as wide as possible and my whole face shakes with intense release.

Slowly, I open my eyes. Both women's eyes are open wide and locked on to me. Their mouths are hanging open. I notice the subtle nuances in each woman's quietly fierce gaze. In the bed, I see the patient's head moving up and down with an understated while powerfully enunciated vibrancy. My whole body hears her.


I stand still. After a few silent breaths, the mother says softly, "thank you." I nod to acknowledge this, then turn to go.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Do Good

An elderly woman sits up in her hospital bed, places her grilled cheese sandwich on the tray, then shakes my hand. She meanders in time from one story to another. I release an impulse to make sense of what she's saying and instead attune to the feel of her words.

She says, "most people would have done nothing but I couldn't." I ask, "What did you do?" She says, "That boy,... he looked confused. There I was, lying on the ground with a broken leg. Three boys were going through my purse but he just sat there. He looked confused like he didn't know how he got there.

I said to him quietly, both of us looking down at the ground, "I don't know exacty what you're doing here, and you might get away with it. Then again, you might not. You might get caught and if you do, it could ruin your life." That's when he looked up. He said, "I'm scared." "I know," I replied."

She pauses then continues, "I don't know what he did after that. The next thing I remember is being in the ambulance."

I affirm, "you did something."

She smiles and says, "Years ago a soldier I knew came home. He wanted to be a cop but his wife didn't want him to. She was afraid he'd be shot. So he didn't try. Then one day, he went outside in the dead of Winter. He was gone a long time. He caught pneumonia and died." She pauses, looks directly at me and says in a hushed tone, "sometimes we are afraid and don't do the right thing because we don't know how to feel the hurt." Her voice cracks, and I see tears in her eyes.

"I try to do what's good," she continues, "When I do what's good it feels good." I meet her gaze. We pause in a very full silence. I offer my hand. She squeezes it. I say, "that feels good." She looks up, then blinks as more tears come.

I stay with her, breathing deeply to steady myself. I say, "you did good." She nods her head, moving it slowly up then down and with quiet fervor says, "you keep doing what you do." Now I join her, tears in my eyes, my head nodding yes as we shift together into a shared smile.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Puccini Stop

Briskly walking, I hear a male voice shout, "Puccini! Puccini!!" As if it’s a Siri command on my Iphone, an aria from Tosca plays in my head. "Vissi d'arte", Tosca sings passionately, "I lived for art, I lived for love ..."

The music builds. My heart beats faster. Some part of me is pushing, “gotta get to work…” Just then, I hear, "Puccini! STOP!!"

The interior music sharply ceases. I stop. The silence opens as my breath settles. I hear birds chirping nearby. A man reaches down to pick up his panting dog. We stand still for a moment. Then, I quickly move on.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Morning 4 Steps

My nephew Eli puts up this list on the frig as 3 cats race to the kitchen for feeding time. He and I are the only humans up in the house. We move in silence.

Curious, I get closer. I read it and say quietly, "I like how step 4 is optional." Turning to face Eli, I can't help but smile. He's grinning in the way only a Cheshire Cat can...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We're Not Here to Eat Steak

"We're Not Here to Eat Steak," says an elderly woman I'm visiting bedside.

Minutes earlier, she asks how I became a chaplain. I pause then say, "As years go by, it feels more and more like I was led to it." "What did you do before?," she asks. I tell her and connect the dots of how one journey flowed into another linked by questions beginning with "why?" and later, "how?" She nods her head knowingly, then pauses in silence. I ask her, "and you?" She looks up and directly meets my gaze. Not quite smiling, still her eyes shine with piercing clarity.

"I was a child in a concentration camp, lost my parents, saw children suffering." Now I meet her gaze, gentle and direct. She continues with a sigh, "I wasn't one of those who asks, 'why?' Some questions you don't ask because there are no answers. Instead, I asked, "what can I do?" Our eyes lock in shared recognition. "I have worked with children all my life. Children suffering. Every day I was happy to work, seeing them." She pauses again. I say, "Sounds like you've been happy to do something for those children."

She smiles and with a tone resounding of conviction says, "I'll tell you something. It fell into my lap. There are no coincidences. We're not here to eat steak." She adds, "I rarely criticize. When I see a group of people complaining, I say I cannot stay here. I cannot go down there. I need to look up and ask, 'what can I do?' I respond, "Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do." She replies, "thank you for visiting me."