Tag Archives: fourgatestohealth

Conviction

“Can I come in?” Gator asks me softly, after having knocked almost imperceptibly on our apartment door.

“Of course,” I answer, opening the door further to let him enter. “I’ll call Matthew.” Turning my face to call around the corner, I shout out, “Hey, Matthew, Gator is here.”

I hear the door to my son’s room open. Then, Matthew rounds the corner, entering the small living room to our modest, two-bedroom graduate-school apartment.

At this university, the housing units for graduate students, where we live, were built post-WWII to accommodate the students attending university on the GI Bill. Refurbished and updated at least twice since they were first erected, these apartments were meant to be temporary, yet they remain tiny spaces of retreat for graduate students, visiting faculty and their families.

Gator crosses the living area in five or six easy strides, coming to sit with Matthew at the table-level breakfast bar, which separates our galley kitchen from the sunny living area facing the lake. It was here, not long ago, that Gator underscored his preference for being referred to as “Gator” and not by his given name—a mark of burgeoning individuation and entry into a healthy adolescence.

Moving into the kitchen and past Gator and Matthew, I open the door on our refrigerator to find some peanut butter and apples to have with crackers.

Gator sits down wearily and begins to explain that he had to travel down the hill to visit us after walking out on a one-sided argument with his mother.

“She kept trying to get me to repeat this: ‘I will become a straight-A student. I want to be a straight-A student.’ At first, she was just saying it, and then she was right in my face with her voice raised. I told her calmly that I was not going to lie…

“I have never been a straight-A student. What makes her think that she is going to turn me into something that I am not—something I have never been? And, I won’t lie,” Gator shakes his head in quiet frustration as he finishes explaining his sudden appearance in our home.

Trying to sound nonchalant, I ask Gator, “Does your mom know you’re here?”

Gator continues the thread of his story, “Maybe she is all uptight about scholarships for college or something. But, I won’t lie like that. Don’t you think lying is worse than facing the truth?”

Gator’s question hangs in the air. Matthew is an exceptional listener, leaving Gator a lot of space to work through his conversational experience.

Then, Gator turns to answer my earlier question, “No. she doesn’t know where I am. She just knows that I went for a walk.”

My heart goes out to Gator. I feel gratitude for his presence and the feeling that he considers our home safe space. He is a “good kid”—a thoughtful kid.

“Hey, Gator, would you be alright with my calling your mom, to let her know that you are here?” I ask.

“Yeah, go ahead. She might be getting concerned, with the fight and all,” Gator responds.

As I dial, I think about the issue of conviction, as a trait, and how our own rigidity—in the areas of belief, desire and relationship—can lead us to breaking rather than carry us forward and over the bridge to the safety of compassion and release.

Why are we so hard on the people we love most?

Databases

Setting my things down on the empty couch at a local coffeehouse to begin working, I overhear a conversation going on between the shop’s proprietor and another customer. The customer is sitting adjacent to me at a table with two duffle bags tucked neatly under his table and a spare pair of shoes tied to the ends of each of his bags.

Spirituality
Spirituality

A “homeless” man, whom Taoists would term a “noble” traveler, this customer is looking for a safe place to sleep before moving through and out of town tomorrow.

“I was going to stay at Happy Homes shelter tonight, before moving on tomorrow,” he explains. “But, after I gave them my name, they looked me up in some medical database and found out that I had been diagnosed as being bipolar years ago. They told me that I had to see a doctor before I could get in.

He continues, “I haven’t had problems with my bipolar disorder in years, so I stopped taking the medication. Isn’t that stupid?”

Hearing what this man is saying, I ponder the logistics of what the shelter has proposed. Here is a man with an insufficient amount of cash to be able to afford a motel for the night. He is moving through. Yet, the shelter wants him to be able to afford a doctor’s visit. Then, there is the issue of how long it actually takes to get in to see a physician in this area—somewhere between three to six months.

In addition to these logistical issues regarding seeing a physician, I consider the fact that the man is not being allowed to acknowledge his own healing or the apparent improvement in his mental health. The other, larger issue is that of an organization having access, not only to one’s criminal record, but to one’s personal medical records.

Because of the hour, there are three of us in the coffeehouse. To assist in the process of finding a safe place to sleep, I pull out my phone to help search for the addresses of nearby shelters. Due to my walking patterns, I know where most of the neighborhood shelters are located, but I do not have addresses memorized.

In a few minutes, we have the address of another walkable shelter for this gentleman to try. Bending over his things to organize the few belongings he carries, he prepares to walk the eight or ten blocks to the proposed place of safety for the night.

It is late in the afternoon. I hope he makes the shelter’s narrow in-take hours and passes their “entrance examination.”

I would that a prayer of mine could solve this man’s issues. Instead, as he reaches to push the door of the coffeehouse open onto a very blustery late October afternoon, I shout out a lame cliché, “Hey, good luck tonight.” He nods in my direction, in acknowledgement of my statement.

And, I think, “It is I who should be acknowledging you, dear Sir.”

Remembering Who We Are

Leaving the house in search of some downtime, I take a chance on spending part of the late afternoon at a charitable thrift store.

Pulling into the parking lot of one of this area’s largest stores, I find only two spaces remaining. Balloons and special signs tell me today is a serious sale day. People are everywhere, arriving, leaving and milling about.

Over the years I have lived here, I have come to recognize a few of this community’s most serious secondhand shoppers-not by name but by appearance. And, when I begin to bump into any one of them frequently, it is a signal that I need a few months off from my own charitable-thrift-store “ministry.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This afternoon’s trip is about getting out of the house to regroup, ground and center, rather than being about hunting for something in particular. Walking into the warehouse-sized store, oldies blare through the PA. My mood, which is upbeat, elevates even more. And, though the store is very busy, the racks are full enough for the methodical shifting of garments in front of my chasséing body. I will be able to regain center amid the chaos of people.

Moving through one section of the store, I notice a mother-daughter pair, whom I have not seen in a long while. The daughter is a mature woman, and her mother looks more frail than she did the last time I saw them bargain hunting. More frail or not, the mother maintains her general sparkle—a sparkliness of countenance which I love seeing.

Two sections later and with a one-half-hour between us, all three of us end up in the same area. To bypass the lines at the dressing rooms, I use a full-length mirror to try a dress on over my clothing.

Setting her frail body down on a steam trunk which is for sale, the mother glances my way. “It looks like a fit!” she announces. (Supportive, team shopping is not uncommon in this area.)

Struggling to release the hem of the garment from the grip of my blue jeans, I answer, “Well, almost. I need to drop the hem to make sure.”

We talk a little more—idle chit chat of the girl variety. I am reminded that this type of banter is a luxury, a gift representing a certain amount of leisure time. We are fortunate. Having finally dropped the hem, I zip the dress up. It fits in a lumpy manner over my clothing, but it is good enough to take home and retry. Unzipping the garment, I slip it over my head and fold it, placing it on the small stack of items I have.

Readying myself to leave, I stop briefly in front of the elderly mother, with whom I have been conversing.

“Where have you been?” I ask frankly. “I have not seen you or your daughter out for a long while.”

“Oh, I have had such adventures this year,” she replies. “First I had a mild heart attack, then, a mild stroke. After that, I was mending.”

Worn into her daughter’s face are the lines of an exceptional care-giver. Every new line has been translated.

“Oh, my. You have had quite a year,” I respond simply.

Then, reaching for my hand, she takes it into the smooth cradle of both of her soft-skinned arthritic hands, saying, “You look like a praying woman. Please pray for me. Pray for my health.”

She has granted me a blessing. The blessing of being seen.

As she releases my hand, I assure her that I will add her to my prayers.

Setting Boundaries

There was a bank robbery. Or, more accurately, there was an attempted bank robbery. The bank was a counter outlet with two tellers within a large grocery store.

Approaching the bank counter with a note, a man demands all of the money in the teller’s drawer. Amy, the teller, looks the man in the eye, demanding back, “Do you have a withdrawal slip?”

Knocked off course and flustered by the unexpected question, the man stammers, “No.”

“Well, at this bank in order to withdraw money, you need to have and complete a withdrawal slip. No slip. No money,” Amy concludes firmly.

Dazed and confused, the would-be robber turns to leave the store. The police arrive shortly.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Later, a short report of the incident appears in the local paper, cautioning readers never to behave as Amy did and, instead, hand over any funds that are available.

But, if you knew Amy—one of my favorite bank tellers ever—you, too, would understand why that man left empty handed.

Diva

“I am so sick of you Americans and your Puritanical thinking; I can hardly wait to go home,” Bernard responds to me in a flat, literary-salon tone through his French accent. Walking slowly up the aisle of the movie theatre together toward the exit, we take our time as the lights come up in the house, allowing our eyes to adjust.

For Bernard, it is the end of a long academic semester of foreign exchange. And, I imagine, he is quite tired and ready to go home.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Standing near the exit, I am eager to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine. I know the sun is warming the broad leaves and blooms on vast spreads of tulips planted across campus. Along with tulips, remnants of plowed snow still lay melting in small, scattered patches across the landscape—even as we approach the beginning of May.

Having just viewed the French film, “Diva,”  from the director Jean-Jacques Beineix, my Belgian friend had asked me what I thought of the film, a thriller. Quite candidly, I revealed that I had found portions of the film challenging—especially the script’s treatment of women.  And, in some instances, the film had been disturbing because it was difficult to discern which characters adhered to a code of ethics concerned about something or someone more than their individual interests.

Unlike many typical or “traditional” American cinematic works—especially Westerns—this film, its script and characters were not presented in a moralistic black-and-white format. Due in part to the film’s genre, there were no “overly” simplistic ethical lines.

These observations had served as the catalyst for Bernard’s heartfelt retort. Homesick and longing to return to a place and a people who knew him and the unspoken, internal norms from which he operated, he had responded to me directly from his heart.

Dogs

Everyone wants to write a story in which he is the hero. I wish I could tell this story from that perspective, but I cannot.

A block and a half away from where I am walking with my dogs, I see a sinewy, tan chihuahua-mix with extralong legs, darting into and out from the edge of the road. The dog is perhaps fifteen pounds and wrestling small, bite-size pieces from a discarded pizza. The pizza is stuck to its delivery box, making every bite a hard-won prize. The dog is lean. And, its demeanor tells me that it has never really been treated properly, that it has never been loved.

As I stand there observing the dog at work, two ladies pass before us. They are also out for a walk—a talking walk. Interrupting their conversation and hanging onto hope, I call out, “Is that your dog?”

“No,” one of them shouts back. “We thought it was yours,” a woman finishes while nodding toward my two dogs, one on each lead in each of my hands.

I think to myself, “Another loose or stray dog. Why?”

When we first moved into this region, we were amazed by the number of stray cats in the neighborhood, as well as the sheer number of animals people kept. We also learned that the region boasts an unusually high rate of reported domestic abuse and/or violence. Not a good combination.

As I stand still, a Divine nudge comes through. “Go get that dog.”

Observing the skittish creature running to safety on the curb then back into the street for a bite of pizza, I see the gaping mouth of the city’s storm sewer system. Rain storms here can come so fast and heavy that, if the skies were to open up right now, the pizza, its box and the dog might all be swept away into the mouth of the drainage system’s toothless grin. Watching this poor dog, the world does not feel like such a safe place.

I answer my leading, “Not with two dogs already at home. Look at that dog. Somehow it has been abused or hurt. How could I possibly bring another emotionally compromised animal into our household?”

I look down at our first rescue dog, Lily, wagging her tail and looking back at me. She came to us as having been both neglected and abused. When she first arrived at our house, Lily could not even cross our yard without experiencing exercise-induced fatigue because she had been kept in a cage for so long. And, most of her front teeth were ground down to the gum because, as the vet put it, “She had probably been a cage-chewer.”

Lily’s own road to recovery had taken time and effort. We treated her with consistent respect, reinforcing basic household rules. We take turns. Everyone has a chance—to fetch, get a treat, be fed. Making salmon a regular part of her diet at the beginning of her tenure with us helped her cognitive functions improve as we trained her. The ash-colored places under her single layered coat eventually turned a healthy pink. And, we came to trust one another, though Lily sometimes still resented having to share her new-found home with our preexisting and more senior dog.

Then, considering the force of the Divine nudge, I attempt to envision the logistics of even approaching the Chihuahua-mix. Both of my dogs would have to share one lead. If I were to approach the pizza-eating stray from this direction, it might send the dog into the traffic on the busy cross street. Standing under the hot sun, mulling over the details of a potential “rescue,” I feel the perspiration begin to drip down the front of my body.

Upon moving into this community, I recall one of my husband’s first observations of several years ago. After returning home from a walk, he said, “You know, if we were at home (in the Upper Midwest) and people were addressing their children like they address their animals around here, I would be calling child protective services.”

Then, while turning my back on my guidance and a situation that desperately needs addressing, I mutter, “No. I cannot.”

In exasperation, I utter a pathetic prayer, “Dear God, please grant that this little creature finds a situation of safety and a good home. Amen.” I send the prayer up.

I mollify my conscience by promising the Divine that I will drive through this neighborhood again, during my afternoon errands. I do. The dog is gone. In my heart, I hope the dog is safe.

Two or three days later, as I am walking solo to work at a downtown coffeeshop, I find myself not two blocks away from the corner where I first sighted the Chihuahua-mix eating a discarded pizza. It is an average residential street in an average, local neighborhood.

Hearing a painfully loud yelp from a distressed animal, I turn to look across the street from where I am walking. With a broad back to me, I see a massive, not overly-tall human beast—of perhaps two-hundred-eighty-five-pounds and a non-descript gender—holding the same Chihuahua-mix dog by its back legs, upside-down in one fat fist. The human beast is systematically pinching the distressed animal with its free hand. The dog is yelping in pain at every assault.

Crossing the street, as I fold the umbrella I use against the sun, rage rises in me. I see the human beast retreat into the side door of a house. I follow, stepping firmly onto the front porch of the same house. The blinds are drawn. Taking the handle of my umbrella, I wrap firmly on the front, screen-door.

“Open up. Open this door,” I demand loudly. One of the blinds in a front window moves ever so slightly. “Open up,” I repeat. I knock again, repeating my demand.

There is no answer. There will be no answer.

Backing off of the porch, I make a note of the house address. Abandoning my plans for the coffeehouse, I walk straight home and sit down to type up a report about what I have just witnessed.

In clear, precise prose, I describe the manner in which this small, perhaps, fifteen-pound animal was being abused. Leaving the house, I travel immediately to the city’s animal shelter, north of town. The facility’s door is locked. All of the officers are out, responding to calls about stray animals. Taping the report to the facility’s locked door, I wonder how long it will be until this dog can be delivered from this abusive situation. How long will it be until we can all live in safety?

Patience & Compassion

We love our veterinarian–I and my dogs. He is an all around good guy who knows his stuff and who shares his professional knowledge liberally. Dr. Veterinarian also ensures that his staff is well informed on current trends, which makes life much easier for pet owners with routine questions.

The other day, one of my dogs and I were visiting his office with a minor concern. Near the end of our appointment, I mention to the vet how happy I am with the dog food we are using, pointing out my canine companion’s dark and extra richly glossy fur coat.

The vet concurs, then turns to me, asking, “What are you feeding him?”

Spirituality
Spirituality

My mind goes blank. I can see the dog-food bag in my mind’s eye–actually the entire line of offerings from this same company, but I cannot “read” the brand name on a single, envisioned package.

Still struggling to pull a name out of the air, I respond meekly, “Well, I can tell you what the entire line’s graphic design looks like, its color schemes and where to find it on the shelf at the local pet-food store.”

Shifting my focus from the bank of visual images in my mind to gaze back at the veterinarian’s face, I am suddenly five-years-old again, facing my father in a rare moment of impatience with me. The veterinarian’s facial expression is one of contorted, impatient disgust, telling me he does not have time for my bumbling lack of recall, especially this late in the afternoon near the end of the week.

Crestfallen internally, I decide to keep my mouth shut about my mild aphasia. Leaving the examination room, I pay my bill and exit with what little dignity I have left.

Walking out of the clinic’s front door, the sun greets me with the same comforting warmth it always does, as I ponder how many times I must have sent my own students, clients and acquaintances back to their childhoods through my professional or personal impatience and lack of compassion. Notes to Self: Be more patient. Be more compassionate.

Spiritual Communion

Gazing down at my banana-yellow downhill skis, I see that—about a foot from their upturned tips—they are hopelessly crossed over one another. Hanging from leather straps around my wrists, my ski poles twist in confusion around me, adding to my cold entanglement.

The bottom of the ski hill is a busy place. I stand frozen, pigeon-toed and strapped into the dead weight of my heavy skis. These are old-school downhill skis, and there are no quick-release binders. There is no quick fix to my situation.

Working to lift my right leg off the ground to maneuver my right ski off of the top of my left ski, I feel the almost impossible heft of the wooden ski pulling on every muscle, ligament and tendon in my pint-size hip, leg and foot.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Hoping to rectify the situation more quickly, I glance up toward my father, who has gone out of his way in his attempt to share his love of downhill skiing with me, having borrowed a pair of skis for my use during some informal instruction.

In place of the humorous, often patient twinkle that I am used to seeing in his eyes, I see a look of undisguised disgust at my predicament. The look cuts into my five-year-old heart. I am an inept disappointment. Somehow, I have messed up. I do not recall how we moved forward from that point. But, we must have. I do not remember ever trying downhill skiing again.

Years later, at fifteen, while rummaging through the family cedar chest, where we kept the specialty woolen wear “too good” to use, I stumble upon an exquisitely handknit wool sweater—a ski sweater.

The sweater is wrapped carefully in pristine tissue paper. Pulling the sweater out, I notice its unusually soft suppleness. The sweater’s body is knit in a realtively loose manner in a natural off-white yarn. The neck and shoulders feature a beautiful, understated Nordic pattern in a muted light-brown yarn.

Turning the sweater over in my hands, I wonder, “Where did this come from?” It looks to be my size.

After a very careful line of questioning, I learn that my father purchased this sweater as a gift for my mother, while they were still dating, in the hopes that they might go skiing together. My mother is deathly allergic to wool and, as a hot-cocoa-fireplace-with-a-good-book type, I imagine she proved as inept on the slopes at the age of twenty, as I did at five.

Parents. Partners. Children. Family. As “family” we are bound together by choice, blood and love. Sometimes family members share overlapping interests, talents or skills, and sometimes we do not. Even amidst the most tightly knit, active and lovingly respectful members of a family, a single soul can experience a tremendous sense of loneliness—especially when that individual soul is unable to share with those closest the activities or interests which make that unique Spirit come alive.

I try to imagine the dispiriting loneliness my father must have felt as a young suitor, wanting to share an activity he loved, one that made him feel more alive, with the primary someone he cared about most. Suddenly, the scene from my own five-year-old’s attempt at downhill skiing comes into a state of profoundly heightened focus. My father’s look of disgust was the emotional mask he was wearing over his own Spirit’s profound grief.

Spirituality & Verbs

“Sometimes I feel like we just use one another.” It is the late-night, exasperated comment from an overly tired friend after a long week.

Pausing before I respond, I begin slowly, “Some people do ‘use’ others. But, there is another way to function in the world. There is a different paradigm which can be employed. Some people, while taking exceptional care of themselves, actually ‘assist’ others. And, in turn, they generally receive the assistance they require. Some members of society ‘rely’ upon others, as they walk their very individual paths.

Spirituality
Spirituality

“Try thinking in terms of an interlocking system of loops—circles of giving and receiving. A system of free-flowing and, sometimes, compensated giving and receiving is very different from a system in which people only ‘use’ one another. There is no measured quid pro quo in the system of free-flowing, assisted exchange—only a voluntary, ‘How may I help?’ which may be declined or honored.”

My friend chimes in, “It sounds too good to be true.”

“In this alternate system, people cannot simply ‘use’ others or ‘take’ what they want and dispose of relationships they no longer find useful. In the system of assisting, a great deal of trust and listening are required; and, greed would need to be removed from the equation. Ideally, people would best be served if they were able to contribute according to their unique gifts, talents or skills and receive according to the things they lack.

“Anyway, it is late to be having this conversation. Try working with a new verb in the context of your relationships this next week and see what happens.”

Braids

“Hey, I like your braids,” the Navajo man—sitting adjacent and behind me—comments as I await my food order.

Watching the front counter, I sit sideways on the firm seat of a canary-yellow Formica booth, immediately behind this man and his dining partner.

The man and his dining companion started their meal by splitting a burrito, purchased by another customer. When my initial order came up, I handed my plate of food to them as well, so that they would have enough food to eat between the two of them.

Spirituality
Spirituality

My sense is that the proprietor was neither overly pleased with the first burrito handoff, nor did he seem exceptionally happy with me for relinquishing my initial order to these two diners. Both of them appear to be quite tipsy. Yet, they are also both very hungry.

Soon, my own (second) order is up. Walking to the counter to retrieve my plate, I stop at the salsa bar to select a few extra condiments, then, return to my seat to eat quietly.

Everything on my plate is a hot, melting, mounded delicious blend of flavors. Letting the warmth from the food move into that empty space in the middle of my hungry being, I forget about our restaurant host’s potential consternation, hoping he can be happy with the opportunity to have sold two additional meals. I understand his perspective, as well as that of the hungry people behind me.

“Braids,” I muse silently, considering the twin issues of identity and heritage. In my mind, I think—braids, Heidi, blondes, Switzerland and the Alps or, alternately, braids, Inga, redheads, Scandinavia and fjords. But, why not consider braids, Morning Star, raven-colored hair, Pawnee and The Great Plains? Sometimes our minds and individual I’s settle into self-referential ruts. I had been stuck.

Shifting into a state of gratitude for this man’s indirect thank you ,which may be what the comment regarding my braids was about, and without uttering a word, I nod to this man in my mind’s eye, answering him spiritually, “You are most welcome.” We are part of the brotherhood of braids.