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Nonelective surgery

“I’ve got the apolitical blues. And that’s the meanest blues of all.” – Little Feat

kensguitars11-2016On Thursday my son Chris will be on a red-eye flight from Oregon in order to be with his dad during surgery the next day.

I am having my prostate removed because I have cancer. Thankfully, two malignant lesions appear to be contained within the gland and my surgeon and oncologist are very optimistic.

So are Denise and myself. We feel lifted by many friends and our family showering us with prayers and good thoughts. Naturally, it’s been an unsettling few months after a biopsy and MRI uncovered this.

I debated whether or not to blog about my situation, so here is why I decided to write.

This is not a woe-is-me scenario. Each of us knows others who have undergone devastating illnesses, or have ourselves experienced tragedies and setbacks far worse. My prospects are fine.

My wife, my soul partner, is with me always–as are my children, Amanda, Chris, and Mike. If anything, I worry most about the load on Denise, her natural fears, even an avoidance of really taking care of herself during my recovery.

We’ve both prepared pretty well for this. We are fully informed about the surgery and its ramifications. We’ve taken time to reflect, meditate, and try relaxation methods gearing up for the procedure. I’m playing a bit more guitar and look forward to really digging in, trying to be centered and expressive. Several great books are lined up, and our two dogs will be happy to have me more sedentary—for a short while, hopefully.

Whatever your position, take a stand with an open heart.

Yet I have to admit, besides a slight-to-surging angst about my surgery, the vicious mood heading into the election is unsettling. It’s toxic.

As much as I’ve tried to prepare putting myself in a good place, the juxtaposition with the Nov. 8 climax is jarring. Negativity feels inescapable. It can set one back.

I’m not entering a political rant here. Bonds of friendship far exceed any differences in our opinions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned regarding relationships I care about, it’s to listen and appreciate a different stance. I welcome those conversations.

Instead of this type of dialogue, in defiance of the norms of factual persuasion and compromise that make a democracy work, on a national level we have the opposite.

And on a local level, or among contacts through Facebook and other social media, I’ve never seen such distortion and disregard for facts. Everywhere you turn, someone is spewing innuendo and spin, if not outright vitriol against the other side. The fear-mongering and hatred coming from some quarters, couched in coded words for decades and now out in the open, is staggering.

“I don’t care if it’s John Wayne. I just don’t want to talk with him now.”

Both candidates are mightily flawed; most of us wish we had other sensible options. But we should all respect one another’s rights to differ—hopefully based on real representations and policy choices, not on ignorance and distortion.

I’ll step off the generalized soap box now. The main thing I want to offer is this:

Whatever your position is, take a stand with an open heart.

Be open to other arguments and contexts you don’t know; stay open to others’ experiences, to the frustrations about to boil over; be open to how words inflame actions against the powerless and those often preyed upon. Take a close look before you judge. Try to stay open, rather than closing to the other side.

When I was teaching high school, I had this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. affixed to a classroom wall. I believe it applies in this context.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Where does your heart stand? Open—or closed?

If we choose the path of vengeance and righteousness, led either by elitists or demagogues, won’t more of us just drop out? I’ve got my guitar and a bubble of seclusion waiting.

The telephone was ringing. They told me it was Chairman Mao.

I don’t’ care if it’s the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil toasting after work. I just don’t want to talk to him now.

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This 9/11, remember cohesion

Jay Winuk, co-founder of 9/11 Day, with a missing person's flier of his brother, Glenn Winuk, a firefighter who died in 2001. Courtesy of Jay Winuk

Jay Winuk, co-founder of 9/11 Day, with a missing person’s flier of his brother, Glenn Winuk, a firefighter who died in 2001. Courtesy of Jay Winuk

Jay Winuk has a message for all of us this weekend.


Recognize it. Pause from the negative. Restore it.

Winuk, who lives in Mahopac, N.Y., will again remember his brother, Glenn J. Winuk, a volunteer firefighter who died while doing triage in the South Tower at the World Trade Center.

He does this in part by inspiring people across the country to rekindle the compassion and generosity that was our bedrock response to the terrorist attacks. His brother, an attorney, headed the wrong way from his office to help before the tower collapsed.

Jay Winuk is the co-founder of 9/11 Day, a national nonprofit that facilitates service projects to honor the fallen and commemorate the spirit of this response. He was instrumental in establishing the federally recognized September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance.

An expected 30 million Americans will honor those lost by doing charitable service and good deeds this weekend on the 15th anniversary. Small, unheralded acts such as helping a neighbor, to large projects like preparing packages for active duty military personnel.

“Not from a political point of view but from a societal point of view.” — Jay Winuk

Putting aside our differences in tribute. Just as many did in what feels like a lifetime ago.

For Winuk, this year’s observance carries an extra punch.

He feels urgency for people to come together again. To step back from toxic politics and the helpless feeling of watching a world spin out of control. To “focus on our common humanity, rather than on those things that tend to separate or compartmentalize us,” he wrote in an Op-Ed piece for The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y.

Also recognizing the absence of unity. And doing something about it—even for one day.

He is not alone in this.

Marian Fontana, the widow of a New York City firefighter, wrote in The Boston Globe, “I am heartbroken about how far we have fallen from the unity we had after 9/11. I am deeply concerned about our country, its future, my son’s future, all of us.”

Sure, some may say this sounds illusory, like holding hands to sing “Kumbaya.” A soft response, when so many have deep fears stirred by all the dysfunction.

Winuk argues otherwise, with conviction. This is in fact the season, the exact moment, when unity and understanding are needed more than ever.

Putting aside our differences in tribute.

This year, 9/11 Day began partnering with more than 40 faith, education, youth, 9/11, and service-related organizations. Called “Together Tomorrow,” the coalition is encouraging Americans to renew their cohesion—through faith-based reflection, service, and the unscripted acts many do privately.

Winuk’s group is non-political, “agnostic,” he says, bipartisan from the start. Yet its members, and likely many participants in 9/11 observances, are motivated by seeking commonality to address deep problems. “We want to be part of that conversation,” Jay told me this week, “not from a political point of view but from a societal point of view.”

To accomplish this, we may need a gut check on what it means to understand if not reconcile with people who have different views. In a different context this week, conservative radio host Glenn Beck advocated why “Empathy for Black Lives Matter” in The New York Times.

Beck suggested that if we fail to reach out to people we don’t yet understand, “What we have seen this year will be just the beginning of the hate we are about to unleash.”

Recognizing the absence of unity. And doing something about it—even for one day.

On Sunday, Jay Winuk along with his wife and daughter, a high school freshman, will join several thousand people in assembly lines packing meals for those at risk for hunger. Perhaps, even for a few hours, volunteers will be miles and years away from the wrath and poisons threatening to consume us. The logistics preparing a half-million meals at Pier 36 on the East River—and then distributing the food–are almost mind-boggling.

But not so much the unity of their purpose.

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Stretching to the new

“Vulnerability is the key to resilience.” – Mitch Carmody

GrievingBoy2I hope many of you are finding a way to recharge this season, despite the searing heat wave.

My wife and I are both former teachers who used the summer months to stretch—and by that I mean both relaxing, and stretching forward. We read great books and extended our skills. By August I’d begun planning new lessons, trying not to count the days left.

Our work today likewise involves gearing up to take new risks, and try new outreach. She runs our nonprofit bereavement center, which we opened for families like ourselves who struggle in their grief and feel cast off from an unknowing world.

This fall, Hope Floats Healing and Wellness Center, located in Kingston, Ma. south of Boston, will expand supports for grieving children for the first time. In partnership with a local hospice, we’ll host groups of children—little ones, pre-teens, and adolescents—who together do activities that help them process and express what they feel.

Through creative projects like making memory boxes or just playing with others walking a similar road, we anticipate that these children and teens will nurture each other. We’re joining a broader community that offers peer-based supports, led by trained facilitators. People who understand that while kids need boundaries and structures like an opening circle, they also crave making their own choices. People who also know that when kids act out or vent, their behaviors are most often a normal attempt to cope.

As Donna Schuurman, executive director emeritus at The Dougy Center in Portland, Oreg., recently summed up, “Death is a life-altering event, but grief is not a pathological condition.”

For many, doing this work involves an extraordinary vulnerability, which I actually consider a gift.

When my wife Denise set out to start Hope Floats, she took a great risk. She gave up a fulfilling career. She started support groups on the fly, managing every aspect of a fledgling operation.

Mostly, she opened her heart to other families. Having lost our son in a car crash in 2002, she knew too well how a parent’s shock can turn to isolation—and perhaps worse.

Taking in slants of reverent joy.

Pretty soon, she was surrounded by other open-hearted, caring people. Each doing what they could to ease others’ pain.

We are far from alone in doing this. Close to seven hundred child-based centers provide supports for grieving children and teens across the country. Many of these were started from scratch by moms or other relatives, and by supportive providers and social workers.

One key to sustaining this work is having the courage to remain open to face both the darkest stuff, and embrace those occasional uplifting signs of growth.

There’s a similar vein for many adults and children who eventually move forward towards acceptance and even serenity. “They are not running from their grief, they’re running with their grief,” says Mitch Carmody, a grieving dad in Minnesota who is also a speaker and artist.

“The courage to be vulnerable, to take it all in,” Carmody told an audience at The Compassionate Friends national conference earlier this month. “Not half in, but this is my life now, I must take it all in.”

We’ll need more used furniture and art supplies … and we’ll need to take another chance.

Mary Ann Emswiler, a mental health counselor and co-founder of The Cove Center for Grieving Children in Connecticut, expressed this another way recently.

Emswiler, who helped organize early providers of peer-based children’s bereavement, continues to be impressed by the humanity in the field. “The willingness and ability to hold, to cradle really, both crushing grief and abundant joy,” she told the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s annual symposium in June.

“One of the great gifts of doing grief work, I think, is that it grows kindness in us as we recognize our common brokenness.”GrievingChildrenNeedSupport

Affirming the hundreds of other risk-takers, she urged NAGC attendees to keep stretching, while taking in those slants of what she called “reverent joy.”

“What’s the point saving the world if we can’t, at the same time savor it?” Emswiler asked.

Certainly, there will be much to sort through as we repaint some upstairs rooms at Hope Floats preparing for the kids this fall.

We’ll need more used furniture and art supplies. New creative ideas to help them strengthen bonds with loved ones, and regain some control over events. which may have severed them from friends and community. We’ll learn more about how teens and younger kids deal with separation distress, the circumstances of a loved one’s loss, and their identity angst. The so-called adaptive versus maladaptive responses. We’ll use new assessment tools and metrics.

Mostly, we’ll simply take another chance. Open to the moment when a little girl wants to talk about her dad.

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