Folk Philosopher

Ricky, who designed and painted parts for rare cars and motorcycles, proclaimed: “I’m gonna drop dead in two months.” That is how he opened the conversation when I met him for the first time as my patient. Talk about cutting to the chase! Quickly adjusting gears from an opening greeting to this steep fall in topic, I asked if he was afraid of death. He replied, “I am not afraid of things I can’t change. I’m only afraid of things I could change but I don’t.” Ricky was not able to elaborate. He moved off to the relatively lighter topic of the motorcycle he built for himself and decorated by himself but would now have to sell (for obvious reasons).  Maybe he meant by his remark that he was afraid of living with guilt and regrets. Or maybe he meant he kept doing things that made him unhappy.

I can only speculate, but what grabbed my attention was that Ricky feared dealing with choices more than dealing with fate. Usually it is the reverse for most of us, is it not?  Perhaps for him, uncertainty and lack of confidence to better himself was scarier than the certainty of his fate. Can’t control it? Then no responsibility for what happens. There is just sweet surrender.

Maybe a small part of us in some remote corner of the psyche can admit to identifying with Ricky. We can be passive about certain things. Perhaps what we really fear is having less and less control over doing a given thing differently because we have built thicker and thicker emotional walls to surmount. This then blurs the distinction between fate and choice. I trust that our self-sabotage is far scarier for us than any Halloween image we may encounter tonight.


Not Your Typical New Orleans Photo

One of the elements that draws me to my kind of work (hospice) or to a story or in this case a photo, is its mixture of loss and resilience. Friend and photographer Jay Martin was in New Orleans during the Sugar Bowl and took this shot of a  person selling beads.   I invite my site visitors to let the photo speak for itself to you of obstacles versus moving along, of drabness versus color, of frivolity versus labor, of being in the center versus going unnoticed. Do you wonder along with me how he navigated with his arms extended, and whether  stretching them out like that was onerous?

Here is what Mr. Martin had to say: “I took the picture of the man selling beads from his wheelchair during Sugar Bowl festivities in the French Quarter, early afternoon, Friday, 29 Dec. ’17. A small parade of floats, marching bands, and anyone who wanted to be in the parade wound its way through the quarter. I could hear the bands playing as I spotted the man, shouting to prospective buyers– ‘Beads! Beads!’–on Bourbon.”


Jay Martin is a technical and science writer who lives with his wife and cat in San Francisco. He has interacted with photography for over 30 years, taking pictures of people and animals. He thinks he can understand the world a little better than he did the day before by daily observation through the lens.



A Creature Called “The Author Questionnaire”

I am departing from my usual format this week, because I was interrupted last week by a life-altering event: my book was accepted for publication! (I will announce the publisher as soon as the ink of the signatures of both parties on the contract is completely dry.) The working title is Encountering the Edge: A Hospice Chaplain’s Memoir. On the heels of receiving the contract, the publisher mailed me an “author questionnaire” and gave me a two-week deadline to fill it out. It has the customary questions about my education, affiliations, current and past jobs and whatnot. But a portion of it in effect says, “Go outside and play.” This is the part I reproduce here for your amusement, giving you all a well-deserved break from facing death.
Hobbies: Singing at the slightest provocation, strolling through botanic gardens, speaking Spanish, Tweeting wisecracks to comedians on Twitter and reading compassionate science fiction (no swords or murderous robots).

Dream Dinner Guests: Sting, Stephen Hawking, Ruth Ozeki (author of My Year of Meats), and any actor or writer connected with Star Trek.

Which of my characters I’d like to dine with and why: One of the central characters in my compassionate science fiction story, ­Upward Spiral, is a sculptor named Clara. She says things like, “Your hair style is refreshingly unconventional.” She in part represents a more mature and wiser version of me in the future, so it would be great to get her advice ahead of time and save myself a lot of heartache.

Book I’m reading now: Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I’m not bragging; I’m reading it in translation.)

Favorite job: Interim rabbi for Temple Beth Am in Manhattan, where I could write provocative sermons and spend most of my time visiting the sick and dying, all without worrying about the Board of Trustees renewing my contract.

Favorite summer job: Security Guard for an all-girl’s dormitory at the University of Texas at Austin. My employer said it was the first time he decided to hire a woman for this job because I had “experience of the world” from having lived in El Salvador, Colombia and Japan.

Writing mantra/inspiring quote/best advice to beginning writers:

(1) Write the first several drafts for yourself. Then write all the subsequent drafts for the audience.

(2) After you think of a “bright” idea or a way to express something, don’t stop there. Ask yourself, “How can I take this one step further than anybody else with the same idea and make it more precise, more unusual, more beautifully put, more convincing or more moving?”


A question for my blog readers: How might YOU answer one of the questions in the author questionnaire?

What is offbeat compassion?

When I told friends, family and Twitter followers I would be starting a blog, they wondered if my anecdotes about people in Act 3 Scene 3 of their lives would be comforting or inspiring. They wondered  (and either hoped or feared) whether I, a hospice chaplain, had a religious agenda.  Hospice after all is a heavy-duty subject. Chaplains after all are, well, chaplains. Despite this, I have foregone any such goal. There are plenty of other books and blogs that already perform that service. Rather, my purpose in all of my writing is to bring readers  close-at-hand to places they are ambivalent about approaching, yet respect their need for space. Rather than perform the distasteful task of selling you a message, I feel my task is to let you see for yourself what hospice patients think about, value, believe, and avoid.

My attitude towards the hospice patients and their families is similar. I am not there to promote anything, though my presence may be of comfort. As a quiet nonjudgmental presence, they have full leeway as to what they want out of my visits, whether it be a listening ear, song, prayer, touch, casual chatter, or even simply just sitting silently with them. So one of my definitions of “offbeat compassion” is making room for persons who call upon us for help and letting them freely sort out for themselves how we can be there for them.

In the coming months, I will blog about anecdotes about the dying and with grievers, or  tell you about my experiences with such groups as a threshold choir (they sing to the dying), my responses to others writing about similar topics to mine, give book reviews, and provide excerpts from my hospice memoir. As this evolves, I look forward to amplifying comments you make and answering questions you may have. I plan to ask you challenging questions too. Who knows, I may give a pop quiz.

Since this is my maiden post, above all I want to thank all of you for venturing with me into this sometimes soothing, sometimes strange, sometimes curious, and sometimes funny ride.