The Plague And My Pet Peeves

Case # 1: I get emails that wish me comfort peace and good health during these trying times that begin with “Dear Friend”, which is not my name. Look out, when we get lazy even about providing comfort to others, we are in trouble. These emails going to untold numbers of people are almost worse than no email from those individuals at all. To me, an email to comfort everybody is an email that comforts nobody.

Solution: choose a few people a day, address them by name, personalize the message, and separately push “send” for each. Yes, my dears, I know how painstakingly slow that is. Alas, being a source of comfort takes time and attention to detail.

Case #2. (See, I’ve been saving these up.) Someone who unquestionably has a heart of 24-karat gold attempts to give me solace by saying “I know how stressed and frightened you are but just think how much harder it is for (fill in the blank with one of the following:) a. home health aides b. immigrants (never mind the undocumented) c. delivery persons d. grocery clerks e. you name them.”

Yes, of course, I do count myself lucky that I am better off and safer than all those necessarily taking more risk, and very privileged that I can work from home. But where does pointing that out leave my own negative feelings? It’s like saying I am not entitled to them. Worse than not recognizing my distress, a possible spin off is I should feel guilty about my distress and/or being safer. How dare I feel scared about grocery shopping when doctors and nurses are within breathing and even touching distance of COVID-19 patients?

Solution: acknowledge the feelings of people better off than the category you are thinking of, and assume that maybe we privileged persons are doing our part to help out and not just indulge in feelings. For example, 60 Minutes this evening featured some factory workers who are donating work hours so two people could share the same job rather than either having no job at all. Or less dramatically, folks with extra money can support a local restaurant through ordering more take-out than usual from them, and the like.

Prime real estate is about location, location, location.

Prime spiritual state is about compassion, compassion, compassion.


For more offbeat compassion, see me on Twitter:

In Place Of Comfort Food

When New Horizons was churning through three billion miles of space to reach Pluto, a nine-year trek ending five years ago comforted me the whole time. Even the memory of it does. You no doubt are wondering, “Comforting?. Aren’t things like soft chocolate chip cookies with their smell trailing behind them as they come from the oven more like it? Or gentle embraces or timeless lullabies? You find comfort from frigid lifeless Pluto?”

Perhaps one person’s comfort is another’s reminder of loneliness and distancing. Let me hasten to explain lest you find this essay anything but comforting. Each time during those nine years that I paused to think about New Horizon’s progress, I pictured the spacecraft progressing smoothly and steadily toward its known and certain goal. Earthlings could patiently wait as it slowly but surely followed its predictable trajectory. Perhaps the certainty of its route ( a nonstop to Pluto) soothed me as well as the clarity of its mission and the promise of safe adventure. (I mean come on, how likely would an unidentified object nearing Pluto prompt the release of deadly aliens?)

As we connect with broader swaths of the Universe, I feel like I am being included within more of it, and that all humankind is too. I like taking my humble place within a bigger picture as I journey from self-importance to humility. Even Pluto itself has taken a like journey since 2006, taking in stride its demotion from an honest-to-God planet to a “dwarf planet”.

What is comforting you these days that might be surprising to others?



The Violinist, the Conductor, and My Question

I was not going to miss my chance this time at the pre-concert discussion, especially since I could think of an enlightening question and not ask any old thing such as “How many hours a day do you practice?” just to be a show-off. This was a New Jersey Symphony Orchestra discussion between the audience and the soloist Simone Porter and conductor Christoph König who would be presenting Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64. I asked, “When you perform, do you strive to keep the piece the same or do you play or conduct it differently each time?” (Notice how I got to have both personages respond.)

Maestro König answered, “When I go back to the same piece, I get more to its essence each time. I acquire deeper levels of understanding and so it stops being the same thing.”

Ms. Porter replied, “No, I do not play it the same at all, and I would not aim for that anyway because that would make me nervous. I change it to keep a piece fresh. And there are many factors that influence how I play it, like the venue, who else is playing it, how the audience is responding, and so on. I make so many decisions about what area to emphasize and what not to, and this can change even in the 24 hours between concerts.”

With those answers, I can boast that I asked a worthwhile question, right? The conductor’s answer is the antidote to boredom and taking things for granted. We could apply this wisdom to anything we repeat, such as rereading a novel, giving the same lecture to students at the beginning of every semester, observing a religious holiday, listening to an elderly person relating the same story for the umpteenth time, going to the same museum with the kids or a friend, and listening yet again to that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto you know all so well.

Porter is telling us that she wants the freedom to grow with the piece, and not have the artificial restraint of making it the same. By changing it some, she is repeating it yet keeping it fresh. I did not make a connection between the views of the conductor and the violinist until writing about them this moment. I just realized that their answers represent two approaches to performing music, and maybe to engaging in other repetitious acts in our lives. The conductor is talking about a change within himself that makes the piece different for him, while the violinist is changing the piece itself by emphasizing certain aspects of it and de-emphasizing others.

The next time I go to a concert and hear the “same” piece, I look forward to applying both approaches to it, and growing in enjoyment and perhaps wisdom thereby.


Special note to my followers and “repeat” readers: I often write stories and essays about loss, but I feel after all these years I would rather, like Porter, emphasize other matters and de-emphasize those associated with death and grieving. You will also see a change in the subtitle of this blog, just look up at the top. Thus I aim to retain the offbeat compassion element but give myself more freedom as to where it may show up. Let me know what you think.


Staying in Character

Lucy, the main character in Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, really does reveal all, including her thoughts about how our personality provides a script for how we finish up our lives:

“You do have some control over how you slide out. People manage it in their own peculiar style, you know?…It’s in you all along. It ain’t no net that falls from up on high. It’s there—like a gift for music, this appetite, long hid, waiting. Comforting to see how it’s tucked inside our marrow from babyhood forwards…so when old Death rears up—you can control and shape it some, it being you…Cradle to crypt, we get to stay who we are. Only fair, really…we die in character.”

In those few sentences, she spells out a message about our final exit that gives us control, comfort and meaning all in one. She seems to be saying that we have “designer” endings, and that how we view ourselves and our life story plays into that design. I am not sure what that means, and I might not find out until the time comes, but when I try to imagine it, I think of blending in with a deep but somehow burgeoning quiet. Maybe for someone else it might involve a feeling of unity, or a return to the inchoate state we were in before birth, or a merging back to God. Even Lucy’s description of “sliding out” suggests for that character something gentle and smooth rather than harsh and abrupt. Perhaps you have some other image for yourself. If so, “tell all” in the Comments section!

Lucy’s outlook is meaningful because instead of viewing death as an alien Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum rampaging Thing that bears down on us and um, “stops us dead” and cuts us off from all that went before, Lucy perceives it as the fitting finishing touch to our life story. We are who we are in life, in the moment we pass, and possibly in the hereafter. (At one point in my hospice career memoir Encountering The Edge I describe my view of the afterlife in terms of a “designer” one, in that there might be many more options out there for us than simply the two best known ones of heaven and hell.)

To say we “die in character” says to me there is a cosmic justice. We are not completely surrendering all that we each have taken a lifetime to create and preserve.

My Condolences

Some time ago I wrote this condolence poem. I offer it here for the comfort it may provide for you or for someone yo know who is grieving:

These days,

May the Angel of Solace be beside you

Every time you wake,

And the loving touch of friends and family

Sustain you before each nightfall.

May the bittersweet release of

Fear, hurt, sadness and gratitude

Reassemble the scattered shards of your soul.


Lessons My Older Self Taught Me

Today I took my time machine back about fifteen years and 60 days ago so I could make my younger me a better chaplain right away. Why let her waste her time, and not benefit her clients at the same high (ahem!) level that I am employing right now? And I tacked on the extra days so we could luxuriate in some better weather; if one has a time machine, one should use it to best advantage. A transcript of our conversation follows:

Karen the Elder: “Karen, I’m here to do us a favor: I’m going to make your life easier, which means making my life easier. I figured by the benefit of my experience accumulated all these years, I’d clue you in.”

Karen the Younger: “That’s mighty nice of you. I’m all for diminishing the amount and degree of tough times ahead, as I’ve already had my share before now. And it’s good to see I will still look relatively pretty in my sixties. I’m burning with curiosity to hear what you’ve learned. You know me, curiosity is what drives me on in this job. And are you still highly curious?”

Karen the Elder: “Are you kidding? I even wrote a gentle science fiction book called Curiosity Seekers. I was gonna say, ‘check it out’ but it won’t be written until 2017.”

Karen the Younger: “What a tease! Now I’ll have to wait all those years.”

Karen the Elder: “And not only that. You will be getting a book published four years before that about hospice called Encountering the–”

Karen the Younger: “No way!”

Karen The Elder: “Well, that’s another story so to speak. I can’t stay long, because being in another time is a strain on the body. So I must go to my suggestions for how to be a better chaplain with the bonus of less stress at the same time:

First off don’t worry so much about drawing information out of a patient, as if you had a fishing line and had to reel in a heavy fish with all your might. You know about spirituality. You know about the mystics talking about receiving. And of course you know about mostly listening and being silent. So put those all together: You quietly sit with the patient, let the conversation meander in a natural way after you make a couple of open-ended remarks, and see what the patient releases for you to receive. As one of my mentors long ago said, “Each patient you see is the face of pastoral care.” So everything you are receiving is a gift arising of their comfort with you and their needs to share it and how special that is that you are there to receive it.

And so I think of receiving what the patient says as a spiritual act. In some cases the patient will sense it too and not only feel that you are honoring what they choose to say, but feel a summoning of God’s presence. I know there are requirements for the medical record, but I think whatever information arises out of the client’s need to impart it will ultimately result in what is truly spiritual care. It will be more to the point for what a chaplain should say in the clinical note as opposed to a social worker.

Karen, of course you already know about chaplains listening and being silent as much as possible. But the trick is not to feel anxious about it when both the client and you are silent, as if there was some contest as to who will break the silence first. Rather, be lost in thought as the patient may be, sojourn with their quiet and just listen for something that might burst through the surface for either of you. If not, close the visit by saying it was nice to spend a few quiet moments together.

Another thing: I used to think when a patient or family member expresses strong emotions I should be calm and soothing. That only goes so far. It’s better to broaden the tent of whatever emotion they are expressing to extend over you. If they are angry, join in being angry at whatever they are angry at; if joyful, then join in the celebration. Guilt though is another matter. You do not of course want to heighten this form of what I call ‘anger at the self.’ Acknowledge it as something they feel, but suggest in the future this may ease as they get a different perspective with the passage of time.”

Karen the Younger: “And what about—”

Karen the Elder: “I wish I could spend more time, but I am getting fatigued and must return to my present. But let me just add one more thing; Don’t be so intent on what you want to give a client. Find out what they want to give to you. They might want to reveal their pain, their sorrow, their regrets, their love, their beliefs, their hopes. Don’t forget what I said: maybe it will make the book Encountering The Edge a better book. Bye now! Oh, and you’ll be starting a blog called OffbeatCompassion… Bye!”

Karen the Younger: (teardrops fall)

The Temperature Of Water

My curiosity can get me into trouble, so I was very careful not to ask about a pattern I have noticed regarding some of my African American patients. I was afraid that if I asked one of their family members about it, they might think I was being prejudiced. Same thing about asking about it online. I might give the wrong impression to readers. But finally I found the right context and right person to ask. And now that I have gotten your curiosity up, I will reveal the pattern: it struck me how important it is for many of my African American patients to get water that is iced or at least very very cold and fresh. They also emphasize that the remaining water in their cup will absolutely not do. White patients in general have not made much of a point about this.

A patient’s wife who I will call Catherine explained it to me thus: “When our ancestors were slaves, working in the fields, they had to drink lukewarm water that they had taken with them. It was hot out in the fields, so their water was not refreshing and tasted stale.” Catherine thought some more about this and talked about later times: “And this memory passed down through the generations. In the old days, Whites had iceboxes and refrigerators, but Blacks did not, and besides the money being too much for us to have those things, Whites thought luxuries did not matter to us. So we went on having lukewarm unappetizing water for some time more. I think that’s why you hear this from your patients about drinking nice cool water.”

If you are an African American, I would like to know what you think of Catherine’s theory. And besides taking requests for fresh ice cold water very seriously, I would like to know if there are other matters I should be sensitive to when I serve as a chaplain to African Americans. Of course generalizations for any race or ethnic group are hard to come by, but if there is some particular example in your own experience we can all continue learning together.


You can also discuss this with me through Twitter: