Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot city, hot bikes

It was truly broiling today as I walked to the subway this afternoon in New York amid the near-record temps, but I still stopped to take a pic of this strange thing (one thing I love about cycling is seeing all the creativity people put into modifying bikes to different tasks). I think it's a tandem that's been converted into an electric (front hub) cargo bike. ..... At least I think the homemade part of the setup below is meant for carrying large amounts of cargo, although it's hard to be sure.

From New York Cargo Bikes

Speaking of homemade setups, here is a pic (circa 1947) of Minna's Mom on a homemade child seat her father made for the back of this bicycle.

And here's another shot of today's cargo find.

From New York Cargo Bikes

Shabbat Shalom


P.S. If anybody ever tells you that a rainbow never grows in Brooklyn, I have this pic from the other day (that I snapped on the way back to my Brooklyn sublet from the subway) to prove different.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Finding a way back to gratitude (the chaplain's role in the face of mental illness)

"I needed to focus on what I still had, and to be grateful for that."

Those were some of the inspiring words I heard today from a survivor of profound mental illness at a session on mental illness my students (and other summer chaplaincy students) went to in Westchester. The speaker had been a highly successful young woman with a strong faith in God and a strong connection to her faith tradition when she was struck in her senior year in high school by the onset of a major depression that lasted for years and led to multiple suicide attempts. Not suprisingly, she became angry at God.

She credits her recovery largely to an excellent, partnering relationship with a therapist and to medications that addressed her despression and psychosis. But, for this person of faith, finding the way to a place of recovery also meant healing her relationship with God, and finding a way to once again see God as a partner, rather than battling with God. "I put my life in God's hands and asked Him to help me," she said.

This was not just a matter of finding trust in God, or reenvisioning who God is -- it was also a matter of profoundly reenvisioning her understanding of herself and her capabilities. That is, like so many people who suffer an illness or injury, she had to learn to accept a new understanding of what's possible for her -- one that no longer included being a high-performing student at a top university. And, most importantly, she reframed her world view to find gratitude for what she now had.

Gratitude is a profoundly spiritual category. By raising up the importance of gratitude in her life, this women gave me a picture of what role a spiritual caregiver could play in her recovery. The spiritual caregiver is not the one to cure or help control an illness. But, working alongside medical personnel, the spiritual caregiver can assist a person in an accompanying spiritual reframing -- one that can lead them to a much more satisfying and complete life when their mental illness is controlled.

I intentionally say 'controlled' and not 'cured.' As another speaker today said, mental illness is similar to diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure or asthma -- it can't be cured, only controlled. Under stress, the sufferer may experience a loss of that control -- higher blood pressure or a renewed episode of depression.

Stress, the speaker said, is one of the two main categories of the true causes of mental illness; the other is genetics. It's never that a person is 'evil' or 'weak' (although almost all people with mental illness will sometimes blame themselves that way).

She also had an elegant definition of what qualifies a series of symptoms as mental illness and not just a tough time -- if there is either 1) extreme emotional pain, or 2) disability (like being unable to work). Many people have only one of these, like the high functioning person at work who returns home to be emotionally unavailable to his or her family amid alcohol use or some other addictive behavior.

I was so glad to have the chance to learn with these two experts today, both of whom suffer from mental illness themselves, and to see a stronger vision of where the place for the spiritual caregiver might be amid this suffering. I wish them both further strength!


By the way, the first speaker I spoke of never said she was grateful for her illness itself. In fact, she seemed uninterested in even trying to understand why it happened to her. For her, her illness is something that is just a part of her life. Her gratitude is something that is rooted in the here and now -- in focusing on what she has, and on the kind of relationship she wants to have with God.

Jewish pastoral care -- guided by sources, not theology

Being a Jew in the field of chaplaincy education is always a bit of an adventure -- the very term 'chaplain' can bring up Christian connotations in people's minds, as does the term 'pastoral care.' So, as a Jewish person, I am always trying to navigate between what I feel I can comfortably borrow from my Christian colleagues -- whose hard work and devotion to caring for the suffering have brought us the gift of an established way of thinking about how to train spiritual caregivers -- and what I must reject as being inconsistent with my Judaism. And, more importantly, what gifts do I have to bring out of my tradition to the broader field of pastoral care?

I had opportunity to think about this yesterday when I made a presentation on Midrash and Jewish pastoral care to some chaplaincy students at a hospital in Baltimore. I opened with one of my favorite quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel: "A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought."

Heschel is often described as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century. But can a man who -- as this quote indicates -- so clearly rejected with centrality of the cognitive (of thought) really even properly be called a theologian? I remember what one of my rabbinical school teachers told us about how to properly read Heschel. Don't look for organized thoughts, he said. Heschel organized his writing around sources (Holy texts from the Bible, Talmud and elsewhere) and so to understand him, you have to read his works the same way -- by revolving around the sources.

I think you might be able to say the same thing of the whole of Judaism. Our tradition -- our way -- is not so much organized rationally around structured thoughts, as it is around sources, the holy texts that guide and instruct us. At the beginning of our summer chaplaincy program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the head of JTS' Center for Pastoral Education, Mychal Springer, gave a lecture about the nature of Jewish pastoral care (a talk that will become a book chapter soon). I noticed as she spoke that she was organizing her statements in the kind of Jewish way I described above -- she was going from holy text to holy text and talking about how that text instructs us, how it helps us to know who we are as spiritual caregivers when we stand before a suffering person.

In the field of Clinical Pastoral Education, we often ask the people training to be its educator/supervisors, "what does your theory tell you to do in this situation." I have always bristled at this question. "What theory?" I have thought. "I have no theory, I only have sources."

One thing that may be coming out of this wonderful summer of teaching pastoral care in a Jewish institution that once nurtured me so much as student is a greater confidence of embracing my "theorylessness" and my "sourcefullness." It's a genuine part of what makes me a Jewish supervisor, and not just a supervisor who happens to be Jewish.


By the way, this way of thinking about about sources as _instructing_ us is related to some thinking I have been doing about how to define spirituality in an inclusive way that accounts for a Jewish approach. Here is an _insruction-centered_ definition of spirituality I came up with for a paper last semester (thanks to Even Senreich for helping inspire this definition):

Spirituality refers to a person’s sense that there is something larger and universal that exists beyond his or her person, and is, most importantly, a source of ultimate instruction about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what is meaningful and what is not. This source might be other humans (as in a member of a nation deriving ultimate instruction about when it is right to kill from a sense of his or her membership in that nation), or it might be something beyond the human (eg, God). The person might be part of that source, or completely separate from it. The magnitude of a person’s spirituality – both in general and in a particular moment – is measured by the extent he or she feels instructed by his or her source when faced with the most difficult and existential questions in life.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Finding our voice at the edge of the unknown: a workshop at JTS

It's so easy to get lost. When you're caring for somebody who's really ill or really suffering, their pain -- including feelings of hopelessness they may have -- can overwhelm not only them but also us. Skilled chaplains learn to walk alongside people in their pain and uncertainty -- to get down in the pit with them -- but skilled chaplains also need to be able to step out of that pit, to reconnect with God and their holy sources of support, purpose, and meaning. Through this kind of act of reconnection from places of despair, the chaplain can also help the suffering person to find their own way out of the pit and to reconnect with the sources of holiness and meaning in their own lives.

This week, Minna and I worked with pastoral care students at the Jewish Theological Seminary to help them grow in just this type of work. We brought together elements of workshops we had done separately before. Minna's great skill is with voice -- both using her own voice as a singer and helping others to find their own voices in her role as a voice teacher and spiritual guide. My focus has been on what I call personal Midrash or spiritual reflection -- a way of finding meaning from our own experiences with the help of our holy texts and other resources. The moment where I really felt our work coming together into one was when Minna used a holy resource -- an ancient Midrash on the Song at the Sea -- to ask people to reflect on their own moments of victory and of uncertainty in their life experience.

Minna asked us to stand and sing the opening lines of the song together -- the song the Israelites sang in joyous gratitude after God saved them from Pharaoh's soldiers by splitting the sea. As the sound of each other's voices washed over us, Minna asked us to imagine something with the help of an ancient Midrash, one that suggests the Israelites actually sang the song while still crossing the sea. "Imagine your own preemptive victory song," she asked. "Your own song anticipating a victory in your life."

As I switched in my own mind to imaging myself singing of victory while still in a moment of fear and uncertainty, I was stunned to realize I had moved -- while singing the very same words! -- from an expression of thanks to an expression of sincere prayer; to an expression of humbly asking God for the victory, for the redemption from moments of fear. Around me, I heard the words of the song coming from my own mouth and others:
Ozi v'zimrat Yah, va'y'hi li lishu'ah.
עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה
Yah is my strength and my song and has become my rescue.

As one of the rabbinical student participants expressed, being amid people singing the same words created a community experience -- I was being pulled along by the others in my prayer amid my fear. They were helping me find my own way out of the dangerous sea.

Later, I wondered what an experience like this could mean to a person truly standing at the edge of the unknown amid illness, suffering and profound uncertainty: to feel pulled along by others, or even just one chaplain, an act of healing that would be assisted by Holy resources like the song, but that would also be rooted in the most physical of experiences, the experience of using our own physical voice. This is truly what I would call spiritual reflection, or even personal Midrash -- the use of our spiritual imaginations in dialogue with our Holy resources.

After our singing and reflection, Minna invited us to actually write our own preemptive victory songs, to create something that we could carry (and that could also carry us) as we face uncertainty or the unknown in our own lives or in the lives of those to whom we minister. In the songs we heard, one student beautifully combined parts of a holy resource we talked about during our presentation -- Psalm 30, which we say in the morning liturgy just before Pesukei d'Zimra/Verses of Song -- with her own pleas and questions, including questions about the role of women and women's voices in Judaism. Another student adapted the tune of the Beatles' "Long and winding road" giving it words that reflected her own current life concerns and questions, and concluding with the original song's plea for help to find the way.

I was also impressed with the way one student's song reflected a kind of deep tension that many of us feel with our holy resources -- they are both sources of profound meaning for us, but can also be difficult and troubling. She took a hymn whose melody she loves but whose words she finds troubling and adapted it with new words. And the part of me that sometimes feels I'm stumbling through life was moved by one student's story of riding a bicycle race with a bent wheel. In his song, I saw a resource for continuing on in the face of difficult circumstances and disappointment.

The workshop had opened with one of Minna's own songs -- a beautiful song called Edge of the unknown that she wrote while she was engaged in her own pastoral training (the video is from a performance she did in Reading a few months back):

I had also shared with the student's some thoughts I have about the theology of the book of Psalms, a book that (in Psalm 30) cries out with the words (verse 10):

'What profit is there in my silence, in my going down to the pit
מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי, בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת:
Can dust praise You? Can it tell of your truth?
הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר; הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ.

It was a great experience!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fat commuter on a bicycle . . . another demographic

Sometimes, I did feel discouraged watching all those young legs passing me as I climbed the Williamsburg Bridge this morning on my summer bike commute from an apartment I started subletting in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to the Upper West Side where I am running a pastoral care training program (CPE) this summer. But mostly I felt exhilaration. What a joy to be high above the East River in the sparking sunshine and the cool of the morning. To pass through the still quiet streets of trendy Soho and then the long ride up the Hudson with the George Washington Bridge in the distance.

It was the second time this week that I made the trip of about 11 miles. I think about two one-way trips a week are about all my work schedule and my large, middle-aged body will really allow. But I'm grateful to the Holy Blessed One that I am able to enjoy this activity. Just as I am grateful to the Holy Blessed One for my students this summer and this special opportunity to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and to return to some of my old haunts in
Brooklyn -- I went walking towards the more trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg last night.

It's both incredible to see the transformation and also to see how much is still the same since my college days when I had a summer job delivering photofinishing, including to Katz Drugs that is still there on Graham Avenue just a few blocks from my new sublet. So many multi-generational Latino families were out on the street with their children. On the one hand, the area where I'm living is quite ugly (a lot of industry) and has a lot of giant public housing projects. On the other hand, sometimes walking through those projects and seeing the families and the
beautiful playgrounds with sprinklers running for the kids to run through in the heat, it looks like a pretty wonderful place for a kid to be able to grow up. In fact, Minna's father was raised in a project just a couple of miles away; I'll have to ask him sometime more about what that experience was like for him.

The New York Times had an interesting article and then some reader letters this week about the struggle to get another demographic -- women -- to embrace bicycle riding. The City has been doing great things to try and make it easier for more people. Incredible!