Loss, Love and Loyalty

broken-heart

Several decades ago a close friend of mine lost her only son in a senseless, tragic accident. He was in his late teens, on his motorcycle, on his way to work at a part-time Christmas season job. All of which added to the unspeakable sadness: a promising life cut short amidst the merriment of a season of joy.

Her friends gathered around to do what we could. We brought food, made lists of callers, tried to keep track of daily needs. My friend’s daughter, a best friend of my own daughter, suddenly found herself the middle child of three girls, all bereft of the one brother they had so loved.

In the large, shifting, changing, sorrowing group of those who came to the house  were a number of young men also in their late teens who had been friends of the one now gone from their midst. They said to the bereaved parents, “We’ll always be here for you. We’ll always remember Mark, and represent him in your lives.” The kind of thing people often say at such times.

These were teenagers. Ordinary kids starting out in life – who had been in their own share of ordinary teenage mischief. In the ensuing years they had their own share of ups and downs. But as it turned out, they were true to their word. They were there for Mark’s parents at Christmas and New Year’s, graduations he would have shared, special times he would have been a part of.

Time passed, Mark’s friends matured as his parents (and this writer) aged.

Recently, Mark’s father died. I happened to be back in town at the time – though like many of those young people I had gone on to life elsewhere – and was happy to be able to be with my old friend and her daughters at his memorial service. It was a bittersweet time: he had lived a full and honorable life; old friends had come to celebrate that life and talk of the good times we had shared. My daughter, still best friends with Mark’s sister although they live on opposite coasts, was there with me.

As I looked around the gathering after the service I slowly began to recognize middle-aged men I had known all those years ago. Several had married women I recognized — also from all those years ago. They were now telling stories of their own children who are starting college or launching their own new lives. They were Mark’s representatives. The stand-ins for their long-ago friend whose memory they would not let die, whose presence they would certify to the mother who lost him so long ago.clouds-stock-image

How to make sense of it all, young life cut short, long life come full circle? How, indeed, to make sense of life and death and loss and continuity?

Mark’s friends, I think, help answer those questions. Out of loss and tragedy come love and loyalty. Out of singular death comes communal life. Out of anguished sadness comes humanity. We all come and go, but we’re all in it together. For a few years or a few decades – but together.

 

Caregiving and the fight-flight-freeze response

Judy Long

Judy Long

Fight, flight or freeze. Those are the three traditional options we humans have when confronted with dangerous or overwhelming situations. Judy Long suggests a fourth: challenge. For caregivers whose stress levels often keep them on a high-fight-or-flight alert, this new option can come as good news.

Long spoke recently on Caregiver Resilience and Well-Being: Sustainable Caregiving at a meeting in San Francisco. “The ‘challenge’ response,” she told members of the San Francisco Bay Area Network for End of Life Care, “can actually have biological benefits. When you can look at (your stress) as excitement you can actually perform better.”

Judy Long, who is currently Palliative Care Chaplain in the Department of Neuropathy at the University of California San Francisco, has an extensive list of credentials in things like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindful Self-Compassion – the academics underlying today’s insights into the caregiving business. And for those in the trenches of caregiving, small suggestions can offer big help.

“Sustainable caregiving,” Long says, involves “all of the things we do for ourselves when we’re involved with caregiving. I know how exhausting it can be. But we can all be doing things that have great meaning, that are nurturing and nourishing for ourselves.”

Long tells of completing her chaplaincy training, which included a year of training at the University of California San Francisco. One year later, she says, she was asked to take on a six-month chaplaincy at UCSF – assigned to the neonatal intensive care unit, commonly referred to as NICU. “I wondered how to keep myself centered in all that terrible suffering.” The patients in NICU are mostly premature or very sick hands-with-heartsinfants, lying in “isolettes.” While extraordinary progress has been made, and continues to be made, with successful treatments, having a newborn in NICU is stressful for parents, and many infants die. It falls to the chaplain, much of the time, to tell a parent his or her baby will not survive, or will have permanent damage. “I found out I was okay with that,” Long says, partly for having had some time in between training and actual chaplaincy work in a difficult setting.

“I’m a pragmatist,” Long says; “I always ask what works.” She was determined not to fall into the trap of many caregivers: “overwhelm, shutting myself off from caring by building an armor. Caregiving also points back to ourselves.”

Long credits one of her teachers and mentors, Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM, with offering guidelines she uses to guard against the common pitfalls of isolation – “there are a lot of opportunities to be isolated while trying to do good” – and the sense of helplessness. “I call them my three points: purpose, connection and control.”

Long’s audience at the recent meeting included many who have chosen, as Long herself has, a career path in the caregiving field. It also included three older women, among whom is this writer, who are fulltime caregivers for their husbands: one with peripheral neuropathy, one with both cancer and progressive memory loss and one with Parkinson’s disease. For the family caregiver, purpose and connection are clear. But control? An elusive element at best.

Which brings us back to the fight-flight-freeze business. Challenge may still be an option.

 

Music as – – – the better alternative

The author with the Lewis' - father & daughter

The author with the Lewis’ – father & daughter

If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?

A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.

It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:

Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”

On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”

On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”

On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”

Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”

Good love won.

 

Surviving Times of Chaos

Plane & streak

Face it, recent days were not a good time to be flying Delta Airlines. Bless its corporate heart, Delta was not really at fault when lightning struck the mothership computer – or whatever the heck happened that grounded flights all over the globe August 8th. But those of us hoping to get from Point A to Point B in the ensuing days had an adventuresome time of it.

It was an adventure of spontaneity and low expectations. That is, if you can live in the moment, and not expect too much of it, the next moment might see you advancing toward the goal. Sort of like trying to go from Mediterranean Avenue to Boardwalk with a couple of wild rolls of the dice, but without a Get Out of Jail Free card.

In my case, the goal was San Francisco, and I was rolling the dice in Atlanta. Initially, all seemed well. Repeated assurances that my 10:44 AM flight would be leaving on time plus receipt of my Confirmation Number and boarding pass led me to pack my bag and go to sleep with a happy heart. At 2:59 AM though – I learned a little later; I was not watching my phone for text messages at 2:59 AM – the digital gremlins who ruled the world for a while there decided to cancel my nonstop flight and re-book me on a 7:30 PM flight to Detroit with an eventual connection that would get me home to San Francisco around, oh, 3 AM with any luck. Not really great news.Airport crowd 8.10.16

Unlike the probable majority of discombobulated Delta passengers, I had an ace in the hole: an American Airlines pilot son. In the midst of the Delta chaos, this was better than two hotels on Boardwalk. Although he was somewhere between Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico on another plane himself, he was able to get me onto a flight to Dallas and subsequently thence to San Francisco in time for dinner.

The stories swirling around all those terminals, in all those airports throughout all that time could fill a bunch of books.

There was the woman in a tan polka-dot dress who spoke an unrecognizable language – something not quite Spanish – and no English. In the time she and I shared a waiting area at Gate A-17 at least three different passengers responded to her bewilderment in mysterious tongues, in attempts to help or understand. Yours truly tried pointing to our respective boarding passes (for cancelled flights) but was of zero help. An agent, one hopes and believes, eventually materialized and got her onto a plane flying in the right direction.

There was a mother with two small children and a baby in an over-the-shoulder baby-carrier who said, into her phone, “I couldn’t have left it at the hotel! It has to be in the car!” Oh please, I thought, let it be in the car where presumably her husband can find it and all will be well.

And there were more than a few snippets of conversation, as I was passing by: “yesterday… I know, but I couldn’t get there…” or “we need to postpone it to tomorrow, or Friday…”  Postponement was the order of the day.

What was missing, in the stories of frustration and anxiety I overheard, was this: anger. Anger was probably very much present in the first chaotic day or two. But as the global chaos settled down I was reminded of another time of airport chaos.

Home sweet home from the plane's window

Home sweet home from the plane’s window

It was a flight from San Francisco to Portland on September 14, 2001, on either the first or second day that commercial flights were back in the air after 9/11. Lines waiting to go through security stretched the length of the terminal, and moved at a snail’s pace. But the mood was all kindness and tolerance. We shared stories about friends lost or stranded, or about our own fortunes. We held places in line for people who needed a bathroom break, we brought each other lattes.

Delta’s momentary blip is in no way comparable to the tragedy of 9/11, and this writer saw only a tiny blip of the aftermath. But it is somehow reassuring to believe that the human spirit can survive small inconvenience as well as major chaos – with a little patience, grace and kindness. Considering the major chaos of these days, especially between now and election day, we’re going to need a lot of all three.

 

 

 

 

 

Power to the (Grassroots) People

Scary times, these. Advocates for reproductive justice, already battling restrictive laws in state after state, now have reason to fear an erratic potential president whose Supreme Court choices could disastrously affect generations of women.

COTF.1

People with hope, though, just keep working, one person/one voice at a time. Among grassroots efforts to preserve national sanity in general, and protect women in particular, a movement underway this summer is worth noting.

CallThemOutFL grew out of the creative minds of two young Florida expats, Arianne Keegan and Abigail DeAtley, high school friends from Delray Beach now living in New York. Thanks to statewide redistricting, every seat in the Florida state legislature, both Senate and House of Representatives, is up for election in 2016. This seemed, to Keegan and DeAtley, too good a chance to pass up. Their hope is to shift the balance of what has been an anti-choice legislative body they do not believe has the best interest (or support) of Florida women.COTF.3

“When we found out that Florida HB 1411 had passed, and was slated to go into effect on July 1,” Keegan says, “we wanted to educate folks, and also to spread the word.” HB 1411 adds further monetary restrictions to anti-abortion laws in the state which are among the most stringent in the nation. “We decided to launch a campaign urging individuals to contact their representatives and call them out on how they voted. We see this as an opportunity to let people know about the TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws and how damaging they are, especially to underserved women.” (HB 1411 was challenged in court, and remains blocked as that process continues.)

The two held their first CTOF event last July 2 in Brooklyn. Some 20 supporters gathered at Molasses Books in Bushwick to discuss the issue, and the oppressive laws. They then wrote more than 100 messages to elected officials on postcards designed for the cause by graphic artist friends of the co-founders. Keegan and DeAtley have also enlisted fellow Florida ex-pats around the country – in Washington DC, New Orleans, Miami and elsewhere – and in a few overseas locations – to host similar events throughout the summer. Toolkits available for such happenings include postcards, factsheets, learning activities and a sample presentation designed to explain the issue and engage audience members in fighting against reproductive oppression. The kits also include specific information on Florida’s HB 1411.ctof5

On the CTOFwebsite is a wealth of information about the issue, in Florida and elsewhere. Will the innovative effort have any definitive impact? The votes aren’t in yet. But in this election year anything can happen.

 

 

 

Sewing Seeds of Peace & Justice

Rally 7.10.16-crowd

I have always drawn the line at public demonstrations. Writing letters to editors or legislators, signing petitions, calling representatives, even publishing blogs & the occasional tweet – those   reasonable, genteel efforts in behalf of justice – have satisfied my self-righteousness self-image just fine. Marching, picketing, that sort of in-your-face activity I have happily left to other more courageous friends.

Rally 7.10.16-G.L.

But now? Mass shootings, killings of seemingly innocent African Americans by police, sniper killings of police “in retaliation”? A dangerously polarized country facing a presidential choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history – one a widely mistrusted history-making woman and the other a scary narcissist egomaniac (IMHO)? No peace, little justice.

What can you do?

Rally 7.10.16-Do Justice

When a couple of guys who have become unlikely close friends decide to put together a rally on the steps of City Hall, you show up. One leads a mostly white, fairly traditional Presbyterian church in an upscale neighborhood, the other leads an African American Pentecostal congregation in a depressed area across town. Within a few days, at the end of a week that saw the shooting of an African American man in Minnesota and the killing of five policemen in Dallas, the two friends arranged an event to argue for sanity:

FAITH COMMUNITIES UNITED FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE. Nothing big, nothing political, nothing advertised as changing the world. A chance, though, for people from across the spectrums of race, politics and religion to show up and share their hope for a better world. For this writer, and strangers of assorted skin colors and garb (yarmulkes, hoodies, religious robes, flip flops) it was a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder, sign to sign, and catch one’s breath after recent weeks of tragedy and horror.

Rally 7.10.16-David Chiu

One of the ministers in attendance, who happens also to be a professionally trained singer, warmed up the crowd (which grew incrementally as the hour progressed) with a group sing-along to an old spiritual: I feel like going on. Though trials mount on every hand, I feel like going on.

An Asian American legislator told the crowd he had brought along his 4-month-old son. He and his wife have just bought a home in the depressed area. “so that my son can grow up,” he said, “with Black and Latino friends. I hope they will all be judged by their character.”

An interfaith leader quoted Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrase, “Returning violence for violence multiples violence.” He argued for turning this trend around – and drew applause when he said, “We need to support gun laws.”

A tall, young African American man holding an orange sign that read “LOVE & PEACE” spoke of his own father being shot by a policeman when the son was 16.

Rally 7.10.16-2 signs

 

A public official told of an incident several days earlier in which an armed man had been talked down from a threatening situation, “and no one was injured or killed.”

A rabbi quoted a Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue . . .”

One of the leaders of a Muslim organization that promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding spoke of the message of peace which is central to Islam.

Signs were waved – they carried words and phrases like: Walk Humbly. All Lives Matter. Light Overcomes Darkness. – and – Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Rally 7.10.16-Keith

 

When the crowd disbursed, stepping out of the shadow of the City Hall steps and back into the summer sunshine, there was a demonstrable sense of light overcoming darkness. The word is that rallies and demonstrations for peace were taking place across the country on the same day. Out of them all, perhaps, will emerge a few seeds of justice and compassion to push back against the anger and hostility that has claimed every news cycle of recent months.

Because, as another widely quoted saying also heard from the rally lectern goes, You have to give them something to hope for.

Willie Parker vs Reproductive Oppression

Dr. Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker

“The Racialization of Abortion,” Willie Parker titled his talk; “A Dirty Jedi Mind Trick.” He then spent about 45 lively, provocative minutes elaborating on the theme.

The occasion was a recent Grand Rounds presentation at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where he addressed a standing-room-only crowd of (mostly) young interns for an event that more commonly draws a smattering of attendees. But when Willie Parker comes to town, it’s a good idea to bring in extra chairs. Parker is an African American physician, a provider of abortion and reproductive health services to women who would otherwise be denied them, current board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, a ferocious defender of women’s rights and fearless citizen. He is also this writer’s personal hero.

Parker explained in his opening remarks that his “is heart work and head work. Dr. Martin Luther King said the heart can’t be right if the head is wrong. (King) also said we have guided missiles and misguided people.” On the podium, delivering a rapid-fire lecture in behalf of reproductive justice, Parker is akin to a guided missile consisting of equal parts passion, outrage and statistics. The youngest of six children whose mother sent them to church three times a week, he speaks with the cadence and conviction born of those roots.

“There are over six million pregnancies per year in the U.S.,” he says. “Half of them are unintended. Of the unintended pregnancies, half end in births; half in abortions. One in three women under 45 will have an abortion. While unintended pregnancies have fallen among the upper classes, they have increased 29% among the poor. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately likely to have unintended pregnancies…”

And it is at this point that Parker’s inner preacher takes over. “People,” he says, “we’re gonna get ugly for Jesus.” It is his challenge to those who attack him, most often fundamentalist Christians, for protecting the reproductive rights of his mostly young, Black clients. Often they also accuse him of participating in “Black genocide.” It is this myth — that abortion is a government plot to eradicate the Black race – that leads to the Dirty Jedi Mind Trick theme.

“It is epidemiological mischief,” he explains. “They take data, put a spin on it that is not intended, and then start a ‘call-and-response’: You have white people saying abortion is racist, getting Black people to say Amen. They can put a cultural war in your framework. It’s important that we recognize the significance of this message, and debunk it.”

In addition to the epidemiological mischief there are outright lies. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain, an African American Tea Party Republican, said in one speech that 75% of abortion clinics were in Black neighborhoods, to encourage African American women not to have children. Parker says the correct figure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is 9%.

“At its core,” Parker says of these efforts, “it is patriarchal and insulting. They assume a woman is not capable of making her own decisions about her own body.”

What’s needed now, to combat all this, Parker says, “is a new framework, to define this community problem as Reproductive Oppressionon. Reproductive oppression is the control and exploitation of women and girls and individuals through our bodies.” Parker cites the long history of reproductive oppression that includes “forced breeding during slavery, sterilizations, and human experimentation on Puerto Rican women for the contraceptive pill.

“Current examples of reproductive oppression,” he says, “include limiting access to reproductive healthcare, family caps in welfare, and federal and state laws restricting access to abortion.”

But there is hope. Parker cites Atlanta-based SisterSong and its formidable co-founder Loretta Ross as embodying the principals of reproductive justice. Parker lists these as:

1 – Every woman has the right to decide when to have children.

2 – Every woman has the right to decide if she will not have a child.

3 – Women and families (deserve) the resources to parent the children they already have.

4 – Every human being has the right to primary sexual pleasure.

Anti-abortion forces would certainly argue against at least the first two. Parker’s message to the young interns was that it’s not just argument, but twisted myths and dirty tricks that are being used to deny those rights. He maintains it’s the responsibility of the medical community, among others, to stand up for women who are suffering from being denied, to fight against reproductive oppression.

In all likelihood, Willie Parker will keep right on leading that battle.

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(Read Dr. Parker’s statement on the recent Supreme Court ruling against restrictive Texas abortion laws: http://prh.org/)