Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lost Identity

By John Ryan

During my three-day journey home from Iraq in 2006, I never prepared for the familiar-yet-oddly-estranged America that awaited me. I envisioned embraces with family, beer-filled reunions with friends, and a much needed close-to-a-war-torn romance.

My travel ended instead with a “Welcome Home” ceremony in a gymnasium at Fort Hood in Texas. There I proudly stood in front of the Master of Ceremony, under finger-painted banners. I felt the whir of adoration from the tearful audience. Once dismissed, I collided with my mother on the gym floor where she wrapped me in her arms, and together, to the auspicious lyrics of Kool and the Gang, we exited the buzzing gym. Ce-le-bra-tion. Boy was I glad to be back.

In the parking lot outside the gymnasium, I received the first of what would be hundreds of questions regarding my experiences in Iraq. My father, who had stood silently behind my mother in the gym, came forward and asked, “So, how does it feel to be back home?” followed by a cautious “And how was it over there, anyway?” My paltry answer sufficed at the time, although I can’t recall its details. It didn’t seem to matter much. What seemed to matter to him was that I was standing unscathed at his side. Of course, not everyone else would be so appeased, but his brief, although unscrupulous, questions alerted me of that. It was a startling revelation. Gone were the simpler days of, “Sir, Lieutenant Ryan reports as ordered!”

I was not my usual outgoing self during the first few months after my return. Frankly, I was a social introvert, who when pried, lashed out with a clipped army tongue. A beloved aunt asked me for my thoughts on the war, and I startled her with the sharpness of a radio transmission, “I don’t know. Don’t want to talk about it. Eliminator 21 out!” Even the most casual conversations besieged me. When a Maytag man, who came to fix my dishwasher, asked about my service in Iraq, I darted to the bathroom, fearful of his political acumen. I was anxious, irritable and, although I didn’t want to admit it, lonely.

Before I could answer anyone’s questions, I needed sometime to untangle my thoughts and emotions. Following a few Google searches, my self-diagnosis was a mild case of social anxiety with a twist of lost identity, caught somewhere in the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief. It dealt me spats of denial, anger, and bargaining, which evoked insecurities that were once disguised by my rank and perceived importance in Iraq. I was suspicious of everyone I met, pinned down by anticipated rhetorical attacks and the ubiquitous subject of a 20/20 interview.

A year after I arrived home, and once I accepted the eternal smudges on my self-esteem, my symptoms receded, revealing the affable demeanor of the high school senior of my past. Kübler-Ross’s final stage of acceptance had finally emerged. I found myself entertaining questions like, “Is it really that bad over there?” with short-but-somehow insightful paragraphs that left my lips with a smirk of contentment. Soon thereafter, I was nudging into conversations at dinner parties to explain how traumatic brain injury occurred in Iraq, and as I did, I felt my own synaptic realignment hasten its pace.

Armed with a new and optimistic outlook, I pontificated why we had invaded, where we went wrong, and how it all could be corrected; and in each case, I shared an anecdote that supported my assertions. I spoke with the uncanny cadence of a down-south drawl and stood with a straight back. It was the first time in a long time that my life outside a uniform and in my own skin was a happy one.

The torrent of my expression swept me into unexamined happiness. My stories streamed like montages from CNN and Fox News; they were cogent upon witness yet they remained single snapshots in time, certainly not indicative of the whole Iraqi tale. My narratives had succumbed to entertainment, and this acknowledgement returned a feeble inner voice. My tongue again knotted and my spine again sagged -- a year and a half of healing for naught.

Through all of this, I discovered that life often leads back to familiar quandaries; problems that re-emerge dissembled, baffling us again. Maybe in the coming months, I will speak openly about Iraq again. Maybe I’ll stop attempting to elucidate thoughts that I know will take years to dismantle. Or perhaps, in the luckiest case, a bolt of clairvoyance will change my life for the better. Until then, all I can do is embrace my family, enjoy a few drinks with friends, and court a new love. Indeed, I don’t feel my best and probably never will, but I’m no longer in Iraq. It is good to be home.

Former Army Captain John Ryan was honorably discharged in 2008 after five years of service. He served in Iraq in 2004 and 2006 and was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2003.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Letter From Beijing

By Susan Chen

Ni men hao~

Greetings from Beijing! As I write this update on my life abroad, away from the comforts of Stanford University, I cannot help but comment on the white "snow" floating outside my window: pollen from the nearby poplar and willow trees. Welcome to Spring in Beijing!

I arrived here on March 30th, greeted warmly by faces familiar and new in a dorm that could easily be mistaken as a hotel. Over the next few days, I gradually adjusted to the unique Beijing way of life: weaving through speeding cars in a cars-before-passengers traffic system, always carrying napkins with me as these seem to be luxury items hardly available anywhere, applying never-too-much lotion to counter the dry and dusty weather. Speaking of dusty, Beijing's reputation as an ultra-polluted city is far from fiction.

Still, Beijing University (Bei Da) and the city itself have a lot to offer. Over the last couple of weeks, I have taken a variety of classes from outstanding Bei Da professors. The native students are extremely bright, hard-working, and modest in behavior and thought. Their educational careers are strict as it is very difficult to change majors and exams are frequent; some even take place on weekends. Student dorms are crowded and unpleasant. Outside the harsh academic environment, Bei Da is dotted by gorgeous magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms, and filled with historical and modern architecture alike. Small rivers and bridges weave through the city, which is animated by thesounds of students and frequent notable visitors.

Supposedly, the Prime Minister of Sweden presented a talk yesterday. Outside the campus, I have had the wonderful opportunity to explore the city in all its magnificence: I took Stanford-sponsored trips to the Summer Palace and Forbidden City, enjoyed a Peking Opera, and spoiled myself with a wealth of delicious cuisine and frequent trips to shopping districts. The 7-to-1 currency exchange rate can render one easily tempted to take out the wallet again and again, and again.

Certainly, Beijing (and most of China) is modernizing. The "New Beijing" is a hallmark of skyscrapers and materialism. The architecture is indeed aesthetically interesting but living in this city has made me more concerned with its psychological effects on people, in how modernizing efforts shape individual behavior and society. Whether urban development should be embraced is not a question with a simple answer. There is massive construction going up on every corner of Beijing (some were in preparation for the Olympics) but most for urbanization within the greater context. It is difficult to stare at brick ruins and hear the sounds of motors running without questioning what was there and what will be there. The displacement of innocent civilians and the overtime labor of construction workers are heavy prices to pay for the sake of a lofty goal to "modernize."

Beijing is changing the course of its history, for better or for worse. China is no longer the weak nation of the past but falls short of "greatness" as is commonly conceptualized. I am fortunate to be a part of this important historical era, knowing that what I see and hear today may not be here five or ten years from now. Conversely, I am very pleased to experience the source of China's pride in its rich history and culture. I eagerly anticipate my planned trips to the Great Wall, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Hong Kong. A lot has changed since I left China more than a decade ago, and I am excited to reacquaint myself with my homeland, and get to know its priceless Chinese culture better!

Zai Jian!

Susan Chen is a junior at Stanford University, double majoring in International Relations and Asian American Studies. She immigrated to the U.S. from China at the age of seven and is very interested in US-China relations. This piece, written in April, 2008, is part of her "China Blog."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Santa Brought Me

By Florin Ion Firimiţã

Christmas came early to me this year, on the evening Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States. Suddenly, I experienced a miracle: after many years of doubt, I started believing again in Santa Claus.

My friend Paul, a New-Zealander turned Parisian, with whom I occasionally spend lazy summer mornings in a café in Southern France, emailed me right away: “Wow! Your adopted country has always intrigued me,” he said. “You guys have the best and the worst of everything.”

Coming from Romania, whose presidents kept reelecting themselves until they end up disheveled and unapologetic in front of makeshift firing squads, or they are replaced by other dictators-in-waiting, I am not a big fan of fake revolutions, and I am suspicious of any mélange of fantasy, politics and euphoria.

Back in the 80’s, in Romanian classrooms, we pledged allegiance to the Almighty Leader while listening to Bruce Springsteen on the banned short-waves of Radio Free Europe, furtively looking across the ocean: we had the worst, and the best came only from America. We were also suspicious of miracles. The official Santa Claus (or the more politically correct “Father Christmas”) was definitely a Communist (favorite color: red) on the payroll of the secret police. (I have always been suspicious of his gift for knowing both when we were sleeping and when we were awake, and also his ability of sliding up and down our chimneys without being detected.)

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, in Romania we kept waiting for him to show up on a white horse and give us a lift. The dream didn’t last long. After a while, we feared that he could be just a B-actor with no interest in coming out of his movies and saving Eastern Europe from the dark basements of the Cold War. For us, the President of the United States existed mainly as a television myth, as unreachable and unreal as Santa Claus, or our own local dictator. The faith of our corner of the world had actually been decided way before the 80s’ when Stalin and the rest of the world powers sliced up our side of Europe like a tired, reluctant pizza. For decades, Romania has always been the poor Eastern-European girl hoping to marry the cultured, sophisticated New Yorker, but ending up with the bloody-handed KGB boy next door.

Why were we so disappointed that the Americans had failed to show up at our doorsteps? After years of waiting, it seemed that we had lost the battle. Except for its voyeuristic, slightly condescending attitude, the so-called “civilized” world stopped paying attention to our nightmares. Eastern Europe with its gypsies, gymnasts, and dictators couldn’t have been more than an exotic spice at the table of the rich Westerners.

The real Santa, rumors went, had defected to America.

I moved to the United States in 1990 and enthusiastically became a citizen in 1995. Still, American politics left me pretty much cold. I lived, like most of us, in my own bubble as an artist and a writer. Democracy was a given, politics was not my turf.

Over the past eight years, however, I have gradually started to feel both guilty and angry. My growing sense is that we’ve become increasingly trapped under the soft parentheses of our iPods; we are distracted by fresh scandals here and there, we are preoccupied by our endless quest for individual happiness (more, bigger, better), numbed by our designer cell phones, blinded by Britney Spears’ shaved head, and stuck on the soothing mediocrity of “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol.”

We had forgotten that democracy is an active, participatory venture.

All the while our soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bodies decomposed for days under the New Orleans sun, we kept buying Hummers and stuck Chinese-made yellow ribbon magnets on them, calling ourselves patriots.

In my adopted country, where capitalism cleverly has been able to transform I want it into I need it, where we use nature as a backdrop to sell SUVs, antidepressants and investment plans, where competitive eating has become a sport, and losing weight has become a form of entertainment (I bet no one tunes in to those shows in Rwanda), I have a feeling that we have not learned much from the tragic lessons of September 11.

Last Christmas, when recession was only a laughable rumor spread by liberals, I found myself in a store on Madison Avenue. There I saw a $38,000 Roger Dubuis wrist watch and a pair of shiny Gucci crocodile pumps for $4,200. With all due respect to capitalism, I felt a latent Commie breeding inside me, quietly raging against all the Carrie Bradshaw wannabees taking the “Sex and the City” bus tour around Manhattan.

Measuring our life goals by the ever-increasing size of our flat-screen TVs, mesmerized by the promises of bigger and better toys designed to make us forget, our fingers glued to the buttons of our shiny electronic devices, wearing the masks of “compassionate conservatism” and greed disguised as patriotism, we have been watching our ideals turn into addictions. Santa might have once defected to the United States, only to have ended up on “Celebrity Rehab.”

What happened to my Promised Land? What happened to Democracy? What happened to the Politician as the Servant of the Nation? Where were our moral, spiritual and political leaders? Why have both wealth and poverty become nests of civic impotence? And when was the last time we had a truly presidential President? In a country that emphasizes so much competitiveness, creativity and achievement, why were we stuck with a leader whose ideas and actions, instead of uniting a nation, ended up inspiring endless comic skits on SNL?

On the evening Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, I was at a friend’s home, glued to the TV until one o’clock in the morning. I wasn't really willing to believe he was winning. I remember feeling that maybe I should start pursuing that European passport I have been entitled to since Romania became a part of the European Union. I will never forget that night, because I stopped waiting for miracles, and became my own Santa Claus, by enjoying the fruit of my vote.

Obama's victory restored everything I believed in when I came to this country. It’s true, our new President faces enormous challenges. With more than 10 million Americans out of work, and an economy in free fall, maybe this is not the right time for that $300 showoff bottle of Dom Perignon champagne, but we could restart on a smaller scale. I have always been suspicious of any mélange of fantasy, politics and euphoria, but this December, please allow me to believe that the best is yet to come.

I emailed back my friend Paul, reminding him that, in a sense, he was right: we create our own best and worst in this country. One of the givens of living in a democracy is that we have to live with the mistakes we make, but fortunately, while presidents come and go, the country remains.

Obama’s election brought back my old belief in democracy not as a collective numbing, but rather as a form of elitism for all. Time is as an equal sieve for rock stars and writers, Presidents, artists and athletes, but I believe we all he have a role in a democracy. I also know for sure that, if in charge, either Joe Six-Pack or Jerry Springer would definitely have lost the Cuban Missile Crisis. Could you blame me that I feel more comfortable with a confidence-exuding, articulate, brilliant African-American holding Columbia University and Harvard Law School degrees to represent me at home and in the international arena? And while an unlicensed plumber is perfectly entitled to get an agent (!) and a book deal for irrelevant opinions someone else helped him express, I feel quite free (and relieved) to stick to the classics. Welcome back, Santa! Because of you, democracy has been proven one more time, a very effective way of taking out the trash.

Florin Ion Firimiţã is a Romanian-American visual artist, teacher and author who splits his time between Southern France and the United States.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving thanks, even when it seems impossible...

grey-maple.bmpAll of us know challenging days, when life seems to turn us inside out and upside down. Maybe you or a family member falls seriously ill. Or you lose your job, or the place you live. Perhaps a long-time relationship sours, or you lose a loved one. Or maybe you are forced to make a change you aren't ready to make, or to go somewhere you don't want to go.

So how can we possibly give thanks at moments like those?

It's not easy. At all. But those moments of challenge offer opportunities for real spiritual growth, if only we can turn a switch inside and heed the call to relinquish our will.

Carolyn Myss speaks often of these opportunities. The worst moments she calls "the dark night of the soul." Often, at those moments, life seems to lose all meaning and purpose.

But it is those very moments, Myss says, that can serve as a wake-up call, drawing us into a spiritual life devoted to mindfulness, and to a reverence for life in all its wonder. It's a call to cherish the present moment. As Myss says, it's easy to be grateful at a banquet. What is challenging is to live in gratitude when that banquet table is empty, when we feel lost, or alone, or desperately without resources, physical, emotional or spiritual, to go on.

At those moments, the answer lies inside. The answer is not to give up, but to give in. To yield to a higher power. To say, "OK, have it your way. Show me what to do. Show me how to live." It involves slowing down, to find more clarity, more quiet space, more time just to be. More time to breathe. More time to sit peacefully by a fire, sipping a cup of tea. More time to take walks, to notice the birds, and the texture and feel of grey tree bark, and the exact shade of the blue sky.

Thich Nhat Hanh says sometimes we smile because we are happy. And sometimes we are happy because we smile.

On this, Thanksgiving Day, may we all find time to smile. May we all have gratitude, to the extent that is possible, and some measure of peace. Even if we face challenges that seem way beyond our power, challenges that we aren't sure we can face, may we realize that those challenges humble us into a far deeper reverence for life, and for the power of the spirit.

Here is a toast, to all of you readers, on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Savor every moment. Every breath. Every bite of food. The turkey, the stuffing, the sweet potatoes and yams. The pumpkin pie, the cream.

And every person whose company you share. Cherish it all.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

One wrong step and....

By Claudia Ricci

A couple weeks back, my 82-year old mom was just about to get into a taxicab on Lexington Ave., right outside Grand Central Station in New York, when she stepped into a pothole. She collapsed in a heap, fracturing one ankle and seriously spraining the other. In minutes my sister had whisked her over to the ER at NYU hospital, where Mom spent an excruciatingly long seven hours having her ankle positioned (think pulling and tugging the bone). The young orthopedic resident set the bone, placed the cast, and then Xrayed the leg. Nope, it wasn't straight enough. The doctor repeated this painful procedure five times, yes, FIVE times, before she was satisfied that she'd gotten my mom's leg "right."

The next day, my sister and my Dad and my mother took a six or seven hour ride in a very bumpy cabulance, in a snowstorm, to reach their home in Massachusetts. My mother's leg, cradled in my sister's lap, bounced the whole way.

It is difficult to put into words how much pain and trauma and suffering this accident has caused my poor mother, and how much angst and stress and up-in-the-middle-of-the night worry it has caused the rest of the family.

But let me just say that today I am lying here in bed. I think all the stress of the last two and a half weeks has finally caught up to me. Oh, I suppose I could say it was that bad bowl of cream of spinach soup I ate yesterday afternoon that caused my stomach to turn volcanic last night. But honestly, I think the volcano that erupted really has a far wider core.

I know I've never worried more about my mom than I did on Monday night. Monday was the day she was discharged from the hospital where she had surgery a week ago to pin her ankle, which had four breaks. The doctor, in discharging her, insisted that she needed to go to a nursing home, so we selected the one we had been told by a trusted friend, had the best reputation.

Well, OK, I guess that reputation must have been earned one way or another. But when I got to the nursing home Monday afternoon, I had all I could do not to turn around and run out the door. The smell was overpowering. The lines of wheelchairs and reclining chairs, occupied by semi-comatose white-haired old folks, staring idly into walls and ceilings, gave me a feeling of dread I can hardly describe. I steeled myself and headed quickly for Mom's room, where I found her in tears.

The air in her room was so hot she could hardly breathe (and she's asthmatic.) Her bed was covered by a three-inch air mattress into which Mom had sunk like a hotdog in a roll. The lighting overhead was so dim you could't possibly read. There was no telephone in the room, and no TV or radio, and the woman in the next bed, a three-and-a-half year resident of the nursing home, was hardly able to communicate.

Mom told me she had repeatedly pushed the buzzer for the nurse, but nobody responded. So I got her up to go to the bathroom, using the walker. It was so frigging hot in the bathroom that I felt dizzy. Mom broke down crying, and I had all I could do not to join her. Here was my mother, a perfectly healthy woman just two weeks before, imprisoned in a nursing home where she couldn't even catch her breath.

Shortly afterward, I asked the nurse to check my mom's blood oxygen level. It was below 90 percent, which isn't good at all. I told the nurse my mom had been on oxygen in the hospital, and that the air there in the nursing home was making it hard for her to breathe.

The nurse replied, saying that my mom had no order for oxygen, which shocked me. (As it turned out my mom DID have an order, but the nurse either didn't know that or didn't CHOOSE to know that.)

What shocked me even more was what the nurse said next. "I know the air quality in here is awful, it's really stagnant." The male aide joined in to say how bad the air was.

Shudders passed through me. The nurse then left the room and came back with a fan. They set up that damn fan on my mother's nighttable and proceeded to blow the dusty stagnant hot air at the back of my mom's head. Wonderful therapy for an asthmatic!

Leaving my mother in that nursing home that night was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. But what could I do? She had a huge cast on her leg, and she could not even negotiate her way into my car, let alone the long walk up the leaf-covered sidewalk to the door of my old farmhouse.

So I had no choice. I worried about her all night, and as it turned out, I had reason to worry. An aide came in to give Mom a bedpan in the middle of the night and because of that ridiculous air mattress, the bedpan spilled. My mom woke up to find herself and her bedsheets soaked in pee. She bawled for who knows how long, until some kind young aide discovered her in the morning and cleaned her up.

Yesterday, I got on the phone and started making calls. I found a rehab center, checked on it with some contacts in the area, and discovered it had an excellent reputation. Miraculously, they had a bed. Within a few hours, my dad and I had transferred Mom out of the nursing home, and into what appears to be a top-notch rehab center.

I spent six or seven hours there yesterday and I am delighted to say the air is good, and the nurses and aides very attentive. The other patients in my mom's wing are all, like her, short-term residents anxious to get back home and into their lives (before her accident, mom was attending an exercise class three times a week.) They have phones and a TV. But even more importantly, they have a fabulous occupational and physical therapist and they do four hours of each therapy every day!The physician who checked in on mom last night was so compassionate, so insightful, so sharp, that I just sat there smiling, and thinking, ah here at last we have an all around bright light.

So there is good reason for hope.

About four o'clock yesterday, I took a break from my mom's bedside and went out to get some food with my cousin, who was kind enough to help give me moral support as I made my mom's transfer.

"You can relax now," Pat said over our bowls of soup. "Your mom is in a good place. She even smiled and joked this afternoon."

Yes, my cousin was right. Things seemed so much better. And yet, my stomach was still very literally in knots. My heart was still in such turmoil.

"It's hard to let go of worrying," I said. "I just so much want to fix everything for her."

And of course, I can't. It's going to take time.

So like I said, it might have been that bowl of cream of spinach soup that brought me to my knees in the middle of the night. But I'm thinking that there is a better, but scarier, explanation. The last couple of weeks have brought me to my knees in worry. They have brought me to the totally terrifying reality that life can go screwy at a moment's notice. Just take one wrong step. Just make the unfortunate mistake of placing your foot down three or four inches in the wrong direction on a city street, and you may face weeks, months, or even more of agony and distress.

And there is an even scarier reality too: all of us face the real possibility of landing our parents, or ourselves, in a nursing home that is horrific. I've told my sisters and my husband that if that happens to me, I want a way out, as in, a bottle of pills. Will I feel differently at some point in the future? I'm not sure, but right now, I don't know how to wrap my head around the things I saw this week.

Mom's ankle will heal. We will weather this storm. But there is such terror in seeing a beloved parent drop precipitously into an invalid condition, and have to face such pain and indignity, indignity visited routinely on elderly people in nursing homes.

I sit here and my stomach feels shredded. It rumbles and aches and I take a moment to breathe and I think, life is just so incredibly fragile. And the thought of that, honestly, is so overwhelming today that I will just stop writing now, and take a nap.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

One Blessing: A Golden Maple

Count your blessings, we say. We say that all the time. But do we? How many times have we heard the phrase, count your blessings, and how many times have we actually sat down, and counted them? Or even, noticed them. So here, here’s how, the other day, I did, I noticed.

Outside my window at this moment the sun is creating a glossy masterpiece out of a maple tree. The gentle sunlight makes even the furrowed grey bark glow. There is a long twisted stripe of fuzzy moss, snaking up the bark. A rake leans against the trunk. But what makes this tree so sublimely beautiful right now is the bounty of autumn leaves, thick and golden and hanging in dancing clusters. They seem to cry out, “Oh please look, look just look at us, look at the beauty of this natural wonder, we are leaves, we are a wondrous tree in autumn finery!” It is almost as if the spirit of the tree is saying, SEE ME SEE ME I am a blessing today. And when I stop and look, I realize. Yes. I am blessed first and foremost to be alive, and to have the power of good eyesight (no eyeglasses even!!) And I am truly blessed to have this lustrous healthy maple growing in my yard. The grey bark, its soft color, its texture in the light, even that snake of fuzzy moss, all of it is a miracle, because all of it is infused by the very energy of Creation, which infuses everything we see. We see it particularly in nature. And for that blessing, I say thank you.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Dog's Best Friend"

By John Grey

Is that what you're trying to tell me.
You're a man in the body of a dog.
You really are my best friend only it goes both ways.
The open door does nothing for you.

Enough of this being led around by a chain.
If we can't walk side by side along the park trails
then as far as you're concerned
you'll curl up on the couch, watch Oprah.

What do you want me to say?
Your memory is shorter than the years dogs live.
What about the time you spied
that pretty Norwich chasing tennis balls.

You almost pulled my arm off at the shoulder.
And there's that stuff you do with telephone poles
And the way you bark at strangers.
And didn't you try to bite the mailman once?

So what does that look mean?
You're the same as me, just less inhibited?
How many gorgeous women have
I longed to run up to and sniff?

Or strutted about like I owned the place
wishing there was a way to mark my territory?
How many times have I bit my tongue
regarding people whose looks I don't care for?

And who says wrapping your molars
around dead meat is more civilized
than a bloody gob full of the live variety?
Ok, I agree, you're my superior but the

city doesn't know that and there's these leash laws.
Do you want to be picked up as a stray?
Yeah, you're right, that's how I get picked up
and you don't hear me complain.

John Grey, a Rhode-Island based poet, is a frequent contributor to MyStoryLives.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Painting Rain

By Meredith LaFrance

The rain was coming down in a torrent, angry and without any sign of retreat. Amanda peered out of the foggy window. The dirt path that began at her front door and wound its way down to the dock was barely visible through the sheets of water. She shivered. Her steaming mug of coffee warmed her stiff fingers. She sipped it slowly, trying not to burn her tongue. The creamy sweetness slid down her throat and she savored each sip.

The rain did not bother her so much when she was here on the inside looking out. The rhythm of the raindrops drumming on the roof and pattering on the window was something to live for. It was not a luxury that she had been able to enjoy back in the city. There, the rain was barely audible next to tires screeching on the pavement right outside her 4th floor window.

Thunder sounded in the distance. The lights flickered. She set down her mug and pulled her afghan over her shoulders. Easing up out of the rocking chair, she walked through the kitchen, into the study. The rain pummeled softly on the roof, blocking out all other sounds. She sat down in front of her easel. The blank canvas stared back, a white emptiness waiting to be transformed. She picked up a brush and dipped it into the murky glass of water sitting on the corner of her desk. Trays of paint were scattered across the floor—shades of red and blue and clumps of black and brown spilled over the sides and onto the carpet of newspapers she had thrown down to protect the wood floor.

Chaotic. This was the best way to describe her surroundings. She knew, though, that this was the way that a true artist painted—with absolutely no organization. For so many years she had been more than a little obsessive compulsive. Back in her New York City studio, all of her paints had had their own place and she had neatly stacked her sheet of canvas. Her desk had been impeccably clean and even the slightest spill had warranted a rag and some soapy water within a matter of seconds.

Now, as she swirled her brush in a mixture of blue and green paint, wiping her paint-spattered forehead with her stained sleeve, she couldn’t care less about what a mess the room was. Her hand was steady and her strokes precise. That was all that mattered. Regardless of her mood, with a brush in her hand, time seemed to stand still and everything just made sense.

Complication became simplicity, anxiety became relaxedness, and pain disappeared. What she could not express verbally, she conveyed through art. What she did not understand, she was always able to make sense of with a canvas before her and a brush in her hand.

She stared blankly out the window of her studio, searching for inspiration. Nothing stirred her more than the relentless, blinding rain, thunder booming right outside her door, and flashes of lightning so bright that they overpowered her lamplight tenfold.

As she continued to gaze out of the foggy pane, enraptured by the sparkling drops, a movement in the distance caught her attention. Through the sheets of rain, she could just barely make out a figure—a man—drenched from head to toe. It was an amazing image to capture. Her hand was poised above her canvas. At last, she had her inspiration. However, little did she know that she was about to do more than just create another painting, on this one rainy day.

Meredith LaFrance is a sophomore at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "Painting Rain" is a prologue to her novella-in-progress.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A book about Obama you don't want to miss!

OK, so maybe you are fed up to here with election coverage. Maybe you fell asleep during the debates the other night. Maybe, if you are like me, you cringe at the idea that we have five more weeks to wait before we can walk into the polling place on Tuesday, November 4th, and cast our ballots.

But now comes a book -- short and very well written -- that can rev you up. I found it courtesy of my husband, political activist Richard Kirsch, who happened on it at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Called Obama's Challenge, the book has given me a view "forward." That is, it's helping me to see how, if Obama is elected, we really might have a U.S. President who can transform history.

Kuttner, a journalist and political observer with three decades experience, refers back to three transformational Presidents: Lincoln, FDR and LBJ. He explains how each man arrived in the White House at a momentous time in history, and how each seized the opportunity to make a real difference in governing. By demonstrating true leadership, and by taking courageous stands, each President redefined what was possible politically -- Lincoln in terms of slavery and abolition, FDR in terms of labor, and LBJ in terms of the civil rights movement.

So now comes Obama. Kuttner, founder of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, suggests that the current economic crisis is arguably "the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression." Bad news, for sure. But that also makes this another moment in history when the time is ripe for unequivically bold and decisive action. The crisis at hand demands bold policies that are above and beyond politics, "bolder measures than either the Congress or Obama himself currently thinks necessary or possible."

What Obama needs to do, Kuttner writes, is demonstrate the same style leadership that the other transformative Presidents displayed, "taking huge political risks on behalf of principles that the people came to deeply respect." Principles like justice and tolerance. To do this, Kuttner says, it isn't enough just to act like one more politician, calculating policies only after studying polls, reviewing the DC circuit gab, and testing pundit opinions.

No, a transformative President has vision (which Obama has shown) and wisdom (which Kuttner says Obama displayed in his first book, Dreams From My Father.) Once elected, Obama has to exert both, taking hold of the Presidency with decisiveness and direction, something we haven't seen from a President in a long while (well, actually, Kuttner says we saw it under Reagan, but Reagan used his transformative powers to achieve right-wing ideological gains.) By contrast, the Democratic Presidents of recent times -- Clinton, most notably -- failed to be transformative because they took the safe, centrist road.

One reason Obama wrested the nomination (against all odds) away from front-runner Hillary Clinton was that she was inextricably linked to the kind of "risk-averse mushy" centrist political positioning that voters are just fed up with. The mush of the center isn't going to take us where we need to go as a nation in these very troubled times.

Will Obama do better? Will he actually serve our nation at this critical juncture? Earlier in this election season, there were indications that like so many politicians before him, Obama was shifting into centrist quagmire. He was taking stances -- on government phone tapping, for one -- that deeply troubled progressives.

But Kuttner is willing to give Obama a break. He's willing to say that maybe Obamaa had to shift center slightly to ensure his nomination.

Once the Democratic nominee becomes the man in the White House, the question is clear: will Obama, as President, rise to the challenge, will he "rehabilitate the constructive role of government, both in the minds of the people and in what government delivers."

These are scary times, for sure. But this is an exciting moment in history. And a time when progressive change may be possible in the way government steers the economy, in the way we as a nation deliver health care, in the way we forge energy policy and reform education. Will Obama stick to his audacious visions and take us where we need to go, or close?

Like Obama's own books, this book is inspiring. It lays out the way one man could really make a difference in the history of our nation, and in the lives of millions of Americans. I salute Mr. Kuttner for a job, well done!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How exactly did it happen?

By Claudia Ricci
img_0880.jpgRegular readers of this blog may recall my post of just a few weeks ago, when I explored the idea of introducing yoga into a college classroom. Early in August, I wrote about a conference I attended at Smith College. A couple dozen university professors had gathered to create new curricula that incorporate mindfulness practices, including meditation and yoga. At the end of that post (August 7th) I said I was exploring the idea of developing a class myself.

Who would have thought that exactly four weeks later, on September 4th, the class would become a reality?

What happened is still a bit of a mystery to me, and to the young woman with whom I am teaching.

The day I went to the Smith conference, I met educators from all across the U.S. and some from around the world, as far away as Thailand.

Curiously, there was one graduate student at the conference. That doctoral student -- Rebecca Ossorio -- happened to sit behind me at the morning lecture. That graduate student, amazingly, was from the very same University where I teach (SUNY Albany.) What are the odds of that coincidence, I asked myself at the time.

Rebecca and I had a nice conversation. We ended up at the same table for lunch. We sat with a professor of history from Vassar College (where Rebecca completed her undergraduate degree ten years ago.) Rebecca and this history professor explained to me how they were planning to team up in the Spring of '09 to teach a class together, one that incorporated yoga. Rebecca, who is a certified Kripalu instructor, would teach the yoga.

Well, so, after lunch, we exchanged phone numbers, and Rebecca and I promised each other that when we got back to SUNY Albany in September (where she is a doctoral student in education) we would get together to talk. She asked me if I'd be open to collaborating on a class together, and I said, "sure," thinking we'd probably get around to THAT class in 2011.

Three weeks later, as we started back to school, I got a call from Rebecca, and a few days later, she came to my office at SUNY. And what happened then is quite mystifying. I mean, if I had TRIED to do it, I'm sure it wouldn't have worked!

Rebecca sat in my office for about 45 minutes, during which time she told me that what she really wanted to do was work with young Latina women (she is herself part Cuban.) I told her that many of my students at SUNY (in the Educational Opportunities Program) are Latina.

And almost by magic, they started appearing at the door of my office. First came Natalie, a wonderfully talented student. Great writer, very bright, and highly stressed. Last year at this time, she was having so much difficulty concentrating on her studies that I gave her some extra "breathing exercises" (i.e. meditation) to do outside of class (she did them and LOVED them and wrote about them with great enthusiasm.)

So there in my office, quite unexpectedly, was Natalie, and Rebecca. The three of us started to talk about the kind of class Rebecca and I envisioned. One that included yoga and readings about mindfulness. And lots of journal writing. And a mid-term paper and final in which the student would explore her reactions to the practices.

Natalie, without blinking an eye, said, "that's the class I want to take THIS semester."

Rebecca and I looked at each other. "Well I suppose we could teach it as an indepedent study," I mused. Rebecca's eyes lit up. Natalie smiled.

Before long, a second student appeared. Betsaida, another A student whose only problem in college is her perfectionism. And her tendency to drive herself way past her limits. We told Betsaida what we were thinking about. And even though Betsaida was already signed up for six classes, she said, "this is the class I need!!! (Of course, it's not clear how she is going to handle a seventh class, and we are still trying to figure that one out.)

Meanwhile, though, I was dumbfounded. We had two students before we even had a class.

A third student, Yineska, arrived. She had gotten an A in my English 121Z a year ago. And she came to college at age 16 because she was so accelerated. She too has the over achieving, perfectionist gene.

To make a long story short, there were, oractically overnight, five or six Latina women wanting to sign up for the class. When I poked my head into the office of my supervisor, Maritza Martinez, to describe the class, I expected to have to sell the idea.

UH, no.

Maritza smiled. "How many students can you take?" she asked. Maritza knows all too well well the kinds of stress our EOP students face. EOP, or Educational Opportunities Program, caters to students who are economically disadvantaged. Often first-generation immigrants, or the daughters of those immigrants, these students come from financially-strapped families in inner city neighborhoods. They struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table. These students have great difficulty balancing academic pressures and their troubles at home.

Within a day or two, Rebecca and I had written a course description, selected our first readings, and set to work finding a space for the class (that's been our biggest challenge!) The first day of class we had no classroom, but the Unvierse delibered us a warm and brilliant morning, and so we gathered behind the Bio building in a beautiful garden space. On the cement steps leading down to the garden, someone had tattooed a beautiful face, a peaceful countenance that to my mind, kind of announced our class!img_0874.jpgimg_0874.jpg

Here we are in class on September 4th. It was a remarkable class. Rebecca is an amazing yoga teacher, and a wonderfully dynamic and thoughtful educator. We are delighted to be teaching this class together, to a group of very special college students, all of whom are highly enthusiastic about practicing yoga and meditation.

Like I said, it's a bit of a mystery -- no, make that a miracle !!!! -- that Rebecca and I are actually teaching this class barely a month after meeting each other. But then, when the Universe is ready for something, it is my experience that all the doors open. The seas part. And poof, the seeming improbable just

comes to be!!!!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A (half) day in court

By Camincha


Department 3. Superior Court. Redwood City, CA

The jury is deliberating a
a criminal trial.


Summer. It goes to your head.
Heat. It intoxicates you.
Women. Resemble flowers:
geraniums, roses, a daffodil over there.

9:15 a.m.

The police woman, she could
she might
out of Bazaar, Elle, Vogue.
Gucci shoes. Italian hand-knitted stockings.
Someone compliments her.
Merrily, she flaps her arms, showing off,
a scarecrow hit by heavy winds.

Genuine smile: Good morning.
You are the interpreter. No?

9:30 a.m.
The bailiff in Department 4,
a serious actor with a stellar role in the stage version
of NUTS, winks:
Beautiful day, isn’t it?

10:00 a.m.
The black defendant, young kid with baby face,
innocent-looking eyes.
Why is he carrying a leather briefcase?
Why is he
designer’s shoes and shirt? Why does he look like
aA washed-down version of the elegant
police woman?
He is accompanied by a relative.

10:30 a.m.
Police woman from Bazaar, Elle, Vogue:
Well, if this fiasco ever goes....
Broadening her smile, at least the victim is safe,
upstairs. My men are babysitting him.

11:00 a.m.
Hallway is empty. Silent. Inside,
a kid’s destiny is


Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer based in Oakland.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Waking Up in New York City"

By Chloe Caldwell

The ominous 6/6/6 fell on a Tuesday, the day my older brother Trev decided to throw a party in its honor.

I arrived after everyone else. I’d been applying for jobs around Williamsburg. Everyone in my apartment but me was a Strand employee. The Strand being the bookstore of course.

Eugene was identifiable from my Mom’s tattoo description. I saw him smoking cigarettes with some guys on the fire escape. He looked approachable in his red plaid shirt and large silver belt buckle that read “ART,” so I climbed out the window to join him.

“Eugene, right? I’m Chloe, Trevor’s sister,” I said. He was straight away warm and kept making noises of affirmation while I spoke about how I’d just moved in from upstate and was looking for a job.

“Mm hm, Mm hm,” he repeated and repeated while I spoke. I thought it was a bit strange that his eyes were twitching and his head continued to nod and bob. This guy is super friendly, I thought to myself.

Trevor and my mom had both neglected to let me know that Eugene had a harsh case of Tourette’s syndrome. Months later I learned that he’d been doing a shit ton of cocaine that night, amplifying his ticks all the more. I was twenty. Just assumed he’d been agreeing with everything I said.

From the fire escape, I peered into the bathroom window and caught a colorful eyeful of Jack sitting on the toilet. He was wearing a psychedelic silk shirt that accented his rich scarlet hair. Freshly dyed. A girl was standing over him and I could tell from their motions they were arguing. When they came out, Jack crawled onto the fire escape in a hyper way.

“Heeeyyyyy Chloeee! When did you get here? Hey, how do you get your hair so curly like that?” he asked, tousling my hair and getting comfortable beside me.

Eugene and Jack broke down to me how The Strand operates. “They put the intellectuals like us in the decrepit basement. It’s like we’re overly smart and below good-looking, so they hide us down there,” Eugene said.

“Yeah, and everyone wants to fuck the Art Floor Girls,” Jack offered bluntly. “Anyone left gets put on the main floor—the generics,” he shrugged. I didn’t bring up that he’d pinned me for an Art Floor Girl, but it was on my mind.

Jack and I sat shoulder to shoulder on the fire escape in the black June night for a while. We passed his Tropicana bottle back and forth, taking turns swigging the vodka and cranberry juice. It was so acidic, each swallow sitting fiery in my stomach.

“I love your dangerous dark eyes.”

“My eyes are light green,” I corrected him.


“They’re dark to me. You’re dark to me,” he countered.

I was flattered.

The three-in-the-morning party peak hit, and then when five a.m neared, the festivities began to die. People started to head for the door, mumbling about work the next day or catching the train. I was fixing myself another drink when I heard Jack say, “Whose shoes are these?” I looked over my shoulder and he was near the shoe rack, fondling one of my black flats.

“Probably Chloe’s?” Trev shrugged.

“Figures. Fucking poser,” Jack snapped.

I froze with my arm halfway in the freezer. Earlier in the night he’d been pleasant. I was uncertain if this was friendly banter, or if he just thought I was a huge fraud. He intimidated the hell out of me.

Eugene, Jack, Trev and I sat on the wooden floor in the unlit living room, still and drinking steadily. Jack sang his notorious song about working at The Strand. He crooned quirky lyrics while strumming dramatic and minor chords on Trevor’s guitar.

Everyone knew all of the words and sang along:

Art Floor Girls, do you wanna discuss art?
We can laugh and sound smart, and fall in love.
Art floor girls, do you wanna discuss Goya?
Or does my greasy hair annoy ya?
Art Floor Girls.
I work in the basement—well what can you do…
But Art Floor Girls, Goddamn I can make it for YOUUUU!

My brother and Eugene had already left for The Strand when I woke up hung over in the morning. Jack had the day off and was asleep on the futon. I was still jobless.

I felt anxious, a bit afraid to be alone with Jack. I toyed around the bright white kitchen, pouring quarter full beer bottles down the drain and wiping the table down with a sponge. I picked up a Marlboro red pack off the table. Shook it. No cigs.

Trashed it.

I got bored after a while and went onto the fire escape to marinate in summer, which seemed to have arrived overnight. The crown of my head ached from last night’s liquor, and the unforgiving sunrays didn’t help, but it was just my fifth morning waking up in New York City—I was still so high on my new environment that everything felt good.

Jack rose a bit later and climbed out next to me while saying, “Morning, Little Sister.” His hard eyes were softer today. He handed me a cigarette and I noticed his nails bitten to the quick. It’s rare for me to see someone else’s nails chewed down as much as mine. His were close.

“Your hands look like mine,” I told him.

“I’m aware,” he said, reaching to light the Marlboro dangling from my mouth. He watched me inhale and exhale for a moment. “You try to make smoking look too broken in. Poser,” he nudged me and cracked a smile. I felt more comfortable with him now, sharing the nail biting neurosis.

The heat eventually pushed us back inside. Jack had misplaced his drugs at the party. He dug around for them for twenty minutes while I watched from the kitchen table.

“That’s like one hundred dollars worth of dope down the drain,” he stated, irritated.

“What do you keep it in?” I finally thought to ask him. I didn’t know his covert drug compartments yet, like I’d known those of my past drug cronies.

“An old Marlboro red cigarette pack.”

“Oh. Oops.”

I walked over to the trashcan and rummaged through to retrieve the Marlboro pack that I didn’t know had been holding a tiny bag of heroin. He smiled, his eyes mischievous. “You’re a con artist,” he smirked at me. I started arguing that I hadn’t done it on purpose and he interrupted: “Just like me,” he said, smug. “Just like me.”

Chloe Caldwell is a writer living in New York City. Her day job is at the Tina Tang Studio as a Customer Service Ambassador. “Waking up in New York City” is part of a longer piece of writing.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

One more medical mystery....

By Claudia Ricci
This is a story about a medical puzzle. It involves a very successful research physician and his father, a dentist who was also a hypnotist. It also involves the research physician’s wife, who is suffering from ovarian cancer.

I am writing this story because I am truly mystified by the doctor, who I will call David. I met him and his wife a few weeks ago at a dinner party. We got talking about medical issues. He did his training at Harvard, and my husband, who was at the table too, mentioned that I had been treated at Dana Farber, a Harvard-affiliated hospital, for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

David asked me how long I had been healthy, and I told him five or six years and he gave me a big smile and a thumb’s up. As we proceeded to dine on barbecued chicken and string beans and orzo salad, David told one amazing story about his father the dentist.

Somewhere along the line, his father (I will call him Isaac) had learned about the power of hypnosis. Being an open-minded kind of guy, Isaac decided to try using hypnosis – instead of anesthesia – on his dental patients.

David himself experienced the astonishing power of hypnosis. Just before he went off to college, David needed his wisdom teeth removed. His father did the oral surgery, using only hypnosis. A day later, David had to leave for school. Isaac arranged for David to be seen in another city by a different dentist.

When the second dentist peered into David’s mouth, he was puzzled. “When did you say you had your wisdom teeth removed?” he asked David.

“Yesterday,” David answered.

“But that’s impossible,” the dentist said. The four holes in David’s mouth were virtually healed. A day later, David traveled on to another city, and a third dentist inspected his mouth. Same reaction: David’s recovery from oral surgery was absolutely astonishing.

David said he suffered no pain at all, until the third day, when suddenly he felt some twitches of discomfort. He called his father. Isaac told David that he wasn’t surprised that David felt pain after the third day.

“When I hypnotized you, I told you that you would have no pain on days one, two, and three,” Isaac told his son.

I was entranced by David’s story. But there’s more.

At age 75, Isaac needed open heart surgery for a bypass. At that point, his son was a physician. Isaac explained to David how to hypnotize him before he went into surgery. David did the hypnosis. Isaac had the heart surgery – they opened his chest at the breastbone with a long incision. They closed him up with a long row of metal staples.

Isaac sailed through the surgery. A day later, he reported no pain. Two days later, he told his son, and his doctor, that he felt he was healed enough to have the staples removed. Naturally, the doctor was at first reluctant, but when he went to remove the staples, they came out with ease. Indeed, a miracle had occurred.

This 75 year-old man with a mammoth breast incision had virtually healed in two days.
By now our dinner was over. I was completely mesmerized by David’s stories. And his explanation for why hypnosis had led to such rapid healing.

“I believe that the hypnosis gave the subconscious mind an instruction to release some kind of healing substance,” he said. I nodded in agreement, and suggested that it might be interesting to test it further.
But this is where the real mystery ensues.

At this point in the conversation, David’s wife, whom I will call Carla, leaned toward me and whispered that she has ovarian cancer. And that recently it had recurred for the third time.

I am always at a loss for what to say when someone confides information like this in me (it happens because of my health history.) I don’t really like to ask a person about their treatment, or their prognosis, but I did inquire very gently about how she was faring. Carla was vague but suggested that she was getting additional treatment. I nodded.

She turned the conversation back to me. Was I getting follow-up treatment for Hodgkins? No, I said, I had completed my treatment five years ago. But I told her I was trying to live as “meticulously” as I could. She wanted to know what that meant.

I told her that I focus on a good diet, low in sugar and fat, and big on greens and garlic, everything organic. I told her that I take barley powder at least twice daily (with my doctor’s encouragement) and a second fiber blend powder to “detoxify.” I told her that I meditate and do yoga daily, to try to stay positive, and to keep stress levels low.

I didn’t mention the chanting I do. Or the visualization. Or the Reiki I’ve had. Or the jin shin jitsu. Or the classes I take weekly in gnosticism.
I did say, however, that I spend a good deal of time in prayer of one kind or another.

Carla was intrigued. She wanted the internet address for the company from which I buy the barley powder. And she was astonished to learn that sugar was a no-no. She turned to her husband.

“David, did you know that I shouldn’t be eating sugar?” she demanded. He looked confused. “Why didn’t my oncologist tell me that?” she snapped.

I pointed out to her that none of the three oncologists I saw when I was treated for cancer ever said a word to me about avoiding sugar; nor did they ever attempt to offer any nutritional advice. They had no interest whatsoever in what I ate, only in what chemicals they were pumping into my veins.

At that point, with Carla’s prompting, I tried to explain to David why I do what I do to try to stay healthy. I told him that the more I read and learn about medicine, the more firmly I believe that the human body is, at heart, a complex energy system. And that the mind plays a critical role in controlling how the body fares.

This is where the most astonishing part comes in. After spending most of the evening explaining to me in great detail his father’s miraculous use of hypnosis both to stave off pain, AND to heal in miraculous ways, David told me that he didn’t buy into alternative medicine, not one bit. He dismissed it all in one sentence, saying that he was a scientist (he works as a pathologist) and that he is highly suspicious of people who adhere to unscientific notions with a kind of blind faith, or idolatry.

I don’t remember his exact words, but basically he said: “There is no scientific evidence for most of what the alternative practitioners play around with.”

Well, OK, I said, but at least you must agree with the idea that we should try to reduce stress.

Nope, he said. Why should we?

Why? I said. “Because high stress levels leave us more vulnerable to illness.”

“How do we know that for sure?” he asked. “We need stress in order to stimulate our fight or flight response.”

At that point, I just looked at him and thought, this man may be a brilliant Harvard-trained scientist and doctor but he is also….arrogant, and a little nuts. There was no point in trying to convince him that alternative therapies, and herbals, and other non-traditional remedies are worth a consideration.

Dessert was being served. I decided to get up from the table before cake arrived.

I wished his wife well. She seemed vaguely irritated at her husband, as if she had relied completely on his knowing what was best for her, and now, she was hearing that maybe there were other ideas that might also make sense.

I left that party thoroughly puzzled. And I still am. Here is a highly-intelligent doctor with so much first-hand experience showing him that the mind is capable of things way beyond what we currently understand. How, I keep asking, could he be so completely closed to trying to understand that power in the mind and the body?

What a sad thing. Because he is a powerful man. He sits on the admissions committee of a major medical school. He controls a very large research department at a big university. If he wanted to, he could do amazing stuff. He could advocate, among his colleagues, for a double-blind research study on hypnosis.

He could also try something else. Why not try hypnotizing his wife? Her condition is very serious. He could try planting a subconscious message in her mind, one that suggested to her body that it find a way of fighting off this newest round of ovarian cancer. It might not cure her, but considering the severity of her illness, it would be worth a go, no?

There are more and more doctors all the time who express their willingness to embrace alternative remedies. But we’ve still got such a long way to go. After an encounter like this one, I wonder if conventional practitioners and the medical research establishment will ever seriously embrace the many fascinating alternatives that give so many people so much health.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Meditate in the classroom?

Can you imagine a college classroom where the teacher incorporates regular meditation, yoga or so-called mindfulness training into the instruction?

That’s not just an academic question.

This past week, a group of more than three dozen university professors -- hailing from California to Connecticut, and from schools in foreign countries including Canada, Thailand and Brazil -- gathered at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to develop just such curricula for their schools. Dozens of the nation's universities already have mounted such classes, in a variety of disciplines ranging from econcomics to English, religious studies to information sciences, art and architecture, and yes, even business!

As students of the IPOD age increasingly arrive at college wired up for multi-tasking, the effort to go "mindful" seems like an anachronism. Why would students want to "unplug" from computers, cell phones, ipods, televisions and video games to sit and contemplate in silence?

Educators say that mindfulness -- think of it as the opposite of mindlessness -- is exactly what students need in this increasingly hectic and stressful modern information age. By embracing some form of secular, contemplative practice, students are in fact learning how to slow down, how to focus, how to look inward to become more self-reflective about what they read and discuss in the classroom. By enhancing their self-reflection, and their ability to be coherent about their thoughts, even if uncertain, the students are, in effect, developing exactly the kind of critical thinking skills that colleges and universities, big and small, value so highly.

So maybe that's why so many university educators are getting on board with this idea. There are literally dozens of colleges offering classes, including some of the nation's most elite institutions: Brown, Princeton, Amherst, Vassar, Syracuse, Georgetown and the University of Virginia among them.

This week's conference at Smith, the fourth of its kind, is sponsored by a not-for-profit called The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, based in Amherst. The group’s mission is to foster so-called contemplative practices in many walks of life, including the world of business and law, as well as the world of higher education.

You can check out the Center's web site, at

The Center’s objective:

to use these remarkable practices to transform the world. “We believe that by developing the contemplative mind as well as the rational mind - that is, developing one's ability to simply "be," with awareness, openness and clarity - one may become more centered, peaceful, and confident. The personal transformations that often occur with regular contemplative practice, such as increased patience, compassion, and concentration, can play a part in the positive transformation of organizations, businesses, and other institutions. We are dedicated to the idea that contemplative awareness, when incorporated into contemporary life, can help produce a more just, compassionate, and reflective society.”

And now, get a load of some of the titles of classes already being offered:

“Contemplation and Devotion: Art and Space,” offered by an art history professor at Holy Cross college;

"Contemplative Practices and Literary Creation," by a religious studies prof at Brown;

"Seminar in Spirituality and Business Leadership,” by a professor of organizational analysis and management at Santa Clara in California;

“Contemplative Urban School Counseling,” offered by an education professor at CUNY in Brooklyn,

and one of my very favorites,

“Happiness and Economics,” by a professor at the University of Southern Maine.

The academic program director for the Center is Arthur Zajonc, who is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Physics at Amherst College. Dr. Zajonc, who has been at Amherst for the past 30 years, has a mighty impressive CV. And he is, meanwhile, devoted heart and soul to advancing meditation and mindfulness in the world of higher education.

As a teacher of English and writing at the University at Albany, SUNY, I have from time to time used meditation, or what I call “breathing exercises,” in the classroom. (I think the word meditation can put students off.)

The results have been rather remarkable. The writing that has poured forth from students who take time out just to breathe, and just to be with their thoughts, has been some of the most astonishing, and refreshing, work I’ve ever seen from students. And the exercises have surprised the students, who discover a rather remarkably simple way to relax.

OK, so I dropped in at the conference this week. And now I've got a working title for a new class I want to teach. I'm calling it: "Breathing Life into Literature." I'm not exactly sure what I’m going to do in this new class. But I am meditating on it, and if you’re curious, I’ll be happy to let you know what happens.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

To You I Give My Poem

By Camincha

Brown sweet face
silken dark eyes
turned vacant pools.
With time
left their marks.
To you I give my poem.

Who, what, could
have erased
the darkness
in your eyes?
To you I give my poem.

How I wish you could
have known love, happiness.
I hope you do now.
To you I give my poem.

Camincha is a pen name for a San Francisco-based writer.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Let's Hear It for Health Care, NOW!!!!


Here's a heartbreaking health care story for you, and one more good reason why Americans need a solid, affordable national health care plan.

The story comes out of Bartow, Florida, near Tampa. It was reported by Tampa Bay's Channel 10 (TV) news.

A young woman named Caitlin Jackson, age 19, was recently diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called Chiari Malformation. The condition gives Caitlin horrible headaches and unpredicatable (and dangerous) fainting spells. Down the line, the disease could destroy her motor skills and her memory and maybe even end her life prematurely.

"I constantly have to have somebody around me. I can't even stay at home for five minutes," Caitlin told TampaBay 10 News' Melanie Brooks.

Caitlin's condition required immediate brain surgery, and she was scheduled for it.

In fact, she was just a few hours away from getting it. Then what happened is what so often happens in the world of modern American Health Un-Insurance. The insurer --Aetna-- began its "Do Not Want to Cover anything that costs money" dance. At first, Aetna dragged its feet approving the operation. When the OK finally came, it was 15 minutes too late. Caitlin had lost the operating room to another patient and had to be rescheduled.

Worse things were in store, however. Aetna changed its mind! The company informed the Jackson family that they would not cover her brain surgery at all, that somehow her benefits -- along with her luck-- had run out.

So what was the family to do? They faced a stunning $113,000 hospital bill if they were going to pay on their own. Get this: the hospital, Tampa Bay General, wanted a whopping $55,000 down, and the rest after the operation. Yeah, sure folks, let me get my checkbook.

Finally, after Tampa Bay’s 10 News brought the issue to the fore, Aetna reversed itself once again and Caitlin had the surgery she needed. Apparently, it was a successful operation.

Unfortunately, the media isn’t always around to embarrass health insurers into doing what they should be doing.

That’s why a revamping of the nation’s health insurance system is so urgent. Earlier this month, a new campaign supported by a number of progressive and labor organizations got underway to press for a national health care plan.


The group, Health Care for America Now, was launched on July 8th, with activists in more than 50 sites around the U.S. joining leaders in Washington, D.C. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that one of those leaders in D.C. is Richard Kirsch, my husband, and the National Campaign Manager for the progressive coalition.

Health Care for America Now is made up of more than 100 organizations and received its initial funding from 13 groups that are part of its steering committee as well as an impressive $10 million grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies. Members of the steering committee include, the American Federation of State Community and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, among others. (A full list can be found on the group’s website,

HCAN is not taking a specific stand — not yet anyway — on the health care proposals offered by presidential nominees McCain and Obama, but it is pretty obvious that the impetus to guarantee affordable health coverage for all Americans lies far heavier in the Democratic fold. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, is perhaps the most visible supporter of the new organization.

Elizabeth Edwards is a strong health care reform advocate. The fact is there are millions of health insurance horror stories out there. And they aren't going away.

So let's all say a prayer today for those people like Caitlin Jackson who are fighting with insurers to get the treatment they so desperately need. And let's say a second prayer, or better yet, let's start writing letters and lifting our collective voices, so that all Americans get the health care they so rightly deserve!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Change is always possible

By Cynthia Ringer

Change is always possible.
She says that to her husband one night
at dinner.
He looks up from a puddle of
thick yellow polenta on his plate.
He blinks.
Sure it is, he mumbles.

She brings her goblet of wine
to her lips
in her two hands.
Steadying her eyes on his,
She sips.
The air around them turns warmer.
Almost like the table is burning.
Almost like the sun has gotten closer.
Or more focused.

I mean it this time.
She nods a little as if to make her words
Stand out. Sharp. Like the sauce that covers the polenta.
A red splash. Spicy.
The sauce he doesn’t eat
because it gives him such heartburn.
He scoops the corn mush up onto his spoon,
And for a while he busies himself
bringing the spoon back and forth to his mouth.

I wonder sometimes, he says,
mashing the polenta over his tongue,
enjoying the warm comfort of it.
When we stopped being nice to each other.
He swallows. And why. Sometimes I just wanna know.

She shrugs. Her lids slither slightly lower.
I might wonder that too, she says in a hush.
But then I just know.
We just stopped. A long time ago.
And so what?

She hasn’t touched her plate
the polenta he fixed
the polenta she hates
just sits there now
as round as yellow
as that noon day sun
on that day
in August so long ago
when she stood
beside the laundry basket
gazing at the diapers
and the socks and sheets and
the T shirts with the mud spots
still in them.
She washed
that laundry
she hung it out to dry.
Just like every other morning.
But then, that day, she stood
it flapping in the back yard
in a steady hot breeze.

She knew
that day
a hard fact:
life isn’t easy.
It’s a study in unhappiness
where change is always possible
but as unlikely as it is

She inhales now. She gets up and
crosses the room
her bare feet slapping the wood floor.
She searches a kitchen drawer for her cigarettes.
She comes back to the table.
Bends one knee. And sits on her foot.

She lights one of the cigarettes
She had promised she wasn’t
going to smoke anymore.
On her plate
on the polenta
she hates.
Is that splash of sauce
he ladled out of a jar,
he thought she might enjoy.

The sight of it now
makes her shudder.
It brings to mind
Plain and simply,
blood. An animal, no, a man,
lying on the side of the road,
a carcass struck by a careless car
roaring by.
She sees him now, sees the pain
Twist in his face. Sees his eyes.

The cigarette dangling
from her lip,
she stands,
hurries her plate
to the sink where she forks
the mess on the plate right into the sink.
She runs the cold water. A fleck of bright ash
Falls into the water, goes out.

I’ll do those up, he calls out to her.
No matter, she says.
I have time. She reaches for the apron.
And ties it behind her waist.
And sets the cigarette in the charred shell
she uses as an ashtray.
She sets her hands to the sink.
And he carries his plate to her.
And he burps.
And she thinks,
Change is always possible.
I think.

Cynthia Ringer is a pseudonym for a writer living in upstate New York.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Oakland in My Memories

By Camincha

This is the way things happen when you are nineteen, with all your tomorrows ahead of you and all you have to do is just be. This is the way Oakland happened to Mirna. She was on her way to college –– her father’s wish. She left Peru for the US in the Yaravi, a ship with great passenger accommodations and a cargo of precious minerals to be delivered to the Northern neighbor.

Mirna’s travel companions included Rudy, who was returning to Oakland, California where he had lived the last five years. There were also Billy and Willy, who, like Mirna, were going to the US for the first time. Mirna’s destination in Oakland was the home of her father’s old friends, the Leiva's. They had kindly offered to put her up.

Mirna, Rudy, Billy and Willy arrived in the US at Portland aboard the Yaravi. And there they all boarded a Greyhound bus. They sat in the back seat to better view the unfolding scenery of green mountains, tree groves, luscious valleys, meadows, rivers, small towns. Symmetric, charming, romantic. Ahead, the ribbon of asphalt unfolded taking them from Oregon to California.

When they got to Oakland, it was June. It was warm and sunny all the time, a welcome surprise after cold and grey Portland. Across the bay, San Francisco was not only cold and grey but foggy.

After Mirna got situated at the Leiva's homeand, her former shipmate, Rudy, came to pick her up and show her around Oakland. Sunny Oakland was sprawled out and casual. Very few men wore suits. Women wore short sleeves or sleeveless dresses and sandals.

Mirna babysat for the Leiva's occasionally; they also invited her to waitress at their Mexican restaurant, EI Sombrero. "With your nice smile," Juanita Leiva said, "you'll earn good tips. It'll help you save for college in September." Mirna began waitressing. She had never had Mexican food.

Oakland will always be tied up with every tortilla, enchilada, and Dos Equis she served or ate in that restaurant.

Oakland will also always be tied up with the painting of a wide-brimmed, straw sombrero that a man brought to the restaurant to sell one afternoon.
Manny Leiva looked it over with his half-business, half-fun smile. Mirna
praised the painting, "A sombrero." SOMBRERO! The name of the restaurant! So Manny bought it and hung it high on the back wall. That sombrero was
the first thing you saw as you entered the place. It greeted everyone
who entered.

Oakland has always been the many small stores, restaurants bus lines crisscrossing the city along 14th St.

Oakland has always been evenings of balmy weather that welcomed her on weekends when she got back from San Francisco.

Oakland has always been an enormous drugstore with a tempting perfume counter at the comer of a city block.

Oakland has always been sunshine, some days so hot that Mirna and the little girls she knew, Rose, Ophelia and Gladys, would take their brown bag lunches to Fairy Land, the Marina, or the air conditioned, magical Møntgømery Wards.

Oakland has always been Lake Temescal:

its lovely rose garden, willows, water lilies, swimming, sunbathing, picnicking, fishing, hiking and a plaque posted at the main entrance that says:

"Prior to 1868, Lake Temescal was but a creek. Along its
shores lived the Costanoan Indians, who bathed and swam in the cool water.
Franciscan missionaries named the creek 'Temescal,' a name derived
from two Aztec words: Tema (to bathe) and cali (a house). In 1868
hydraulic engineer Anthony Chabot constructed a dam to create a reservoir for
the then tiny Town of Oakland. It first opened as a recreational area
in 1936."

Oakland, in short, will always be, for Mirna, a time and space of mind, a very special place of being, nineteen, and full of all possibitiy.

Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One tiny step...

img_0585.jpgIt's a very little thing, I will admit. But I did it. I faced the fear. And I will take space here to cheer for myself. And to publicly thank my amazing doctor.

OK, so a couple of weeks ago, I had my first blood test in three years.

What's the big deal, you ask? The big deal is that I have been, until now, absolutely terrified to have anyone come near me with a needle. Two rounds of chemotherapy, six and five summers ago, did a number on my veins, i.e., it is real tricky to get blood out of me. But the chemo did a worse number on my brain. I came out of treatment, thankful to be alive, but traumatized to the core: terrified of doctors and medicine and bloodwork and IVs and CT scans and MRI's and Pet scans.

In 2005, I said goodbye to my oncologist. Every time I would go in for a follow-up visit, I would tell him that I was doing daily yoga and meditation. I would tell him that I was eating meticulously (all kinds of organics, tons of greens, etc.) and that I was relying on herbals (including green barley powder) to boost my immune system. Most of all, I would say that I was focusing on keeping an optimistic point of view.

He would kind of chuckle, as if all this alternative, mind-body stuff didn't mean much.

Then he would examine my lymph nodes (I had been treated for lymphoma). He would touch my neck, looking for lumps. He would feel under my armpits. He would check my abdomen. And then he would put his stethoscope to my lungs. Finally, he would step away and look at me and say (these are his exact words), "You are disgustingly healthy."

Oh, and then he'd send me on my way to get the dreaded blood test.

I was traumatized by having cancer, but honestly, I was even more traumatized by most of the doctors who treated me. I could tell you horror story after horror story. I could tell you about the cocky doctor at Sloan Kettering who, as I was about to start chemo in July of 2002, prescribed Bactrim, an antibiotic, to prevent infection.

"But I'm allergic to Bactrim," I told him. "I throw up when I take it."

"Prove it," he said. And yes, THOSE were his exact words.

Instead of challenging him, as I should have, I took the Bactrim. And the chemo.

A day later, after throwing up non-stop for hours and hours and hours, I landed in the emergency room, sick as a dog.

The cocky doctor called the next day to say he was sorry he hadn't listened to me.

Well, so, that was just the beginning. In a previous post, I wrote about this same doctor INSISTING that I needed a stem cell transplant in 2003. Fortunately, by that time, I had learned something. I had learned to listen to my body. AND to my intuition. I resisted the stem cell, and insisted on a second opinion (he said there was no need for one, since he was the "national expert" on my disease.) Finally, I sought the opinion of another, older (kinder) and more experienced doctor at Dana Farber who also happened to be a specialist in my disease.

This second doctor agreed with me, that I did NOT need the stem cell. This same kind-hearted man also clued me in as to why the doctor at Sloan was so keen on doing a stem cell transplant on me: it was, in part, because I would have fit in so very nicely with a research project he had going at Sloan, one that looked at how stem cell transplants "helped" patients who had "failed" treatments for lymphoma.

The doctor at Dana Farber told me (his words) this: "you know, Claudia, when you are a hammer, you look at the rest of world as if it is filled with nails. I'm afraid the doctor at Sloan is a hammer. And you were his nail."

Nice, huh?

Well, so, you can see maybe why I got so skittish about doctors.

But in 2005, I found a new doctor, one I trust completely. He is smart, skilled, caring, sensitive and insightful. The kind of practitioner everyone should have.

Ron Stram, originally trained to practise emergency room medicine, decided a few years back that many of the people who landed in the ER wouldn't be there if they'd had better preventative medicine. He also started to take a good hard look at so-called "alternative" therapies. That led him to do a residency in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, under the direction of Dr. Andrew Weill.

When he finished, he set up the Center for Integrative Health and Healing, in Delmar, New York.

The first time I visited Ron, three years ago this month, I spent most of my time in his office crying. I explained all the horror that had been inflicted on me by the doctor at Sloan, and by another oncologist locally.

Ron, accompanied by the naturopathic physician in the office, sat there. He nodded, and he listened, and he listened, and he listened some more. He examined me, very calmly, and he told me that I appeared to be very healthy. He asked me how he could help me to move forward, to heal. He asked how he could support my efforts to stay healthy. He put absolutely no pressure on me. At the time, I was about to leave for a long trip. I was headed to Spain, to Andalucia, to explore a region that is close to my heart (and my love for flamenco guitar!) I told him I wanted to go on that trip, and I did not want to think about cancer, or blood tests, or treatments. I wanted to spend time with my family, and enjoy life to the fullest. I told him I would come back and see him again, and when I did, we would talk about a plan for "treatment."

Well, so, I did go back to see Ron, several times, but every time the subject of blood tests came up, I froze. I just couldn't face it. I just couldn't handle the idea of anything the least bit invasive or scary.

Ron gave me space. He let me take the lead. He told me he was there for me in any way I needed him to be. He told me to trust what I was doing to stay healthy (he also made many suggestions too.)

I should say that in the last four years, I have had maybe one or two colds. Period. I've been totally energetic, and healthy.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning and thought to myself, you really ought to get your cholesterol level checked. And your thyroid levels, too. And so, without much fanfare, I made an appointment at a hospital lab. I fasted, and early the next morning, I went to the lab and had the blood test. It took two technicians to get my blood. And I had a bit of panic waiting for the results.

But it all worked out fine.

Yesterday, I made an appointment to see Ron. To begin to talk about what else I might do or need to ensure I stay healthy.

To Ronald Stram, I say, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for standing by me. Thank you for being such an extraordinarily caring and talented practitioner. Thank you for starting the Center for Integrative Health and Healing. Thank you for giving me the space I needed. And for encouraging me to trust myself in the journey to stay healthy. You are one very special doctor. And I am one very, very lucky patient.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Where There is Prayer...

There is great power in prayer.

And as photographer Gregory Shafiro's exhibit, "The Power of Prayer," demonstrates, there is great power in images of people praying, and in the ancient places where people pray.

Shafiro, who traveled to Israel to shoot the exhibit, writes, "Jerusalem, the city of peace, stands as a spiritual lighthouse to the entire world. Despite a history of turmoil, one can still see the city's light continue to shine through its architecture and residents."

Visit Shafiro's website, and a gallery of stunning photos taken in Israel!