20 Aug
August 20, 2014

Now I Become Myself


Now I become myself.  It’s taken

time, many years and places;

I have been dissolved and shaken,

Worn other people’s faces,

Run madly, as if Time were there,

Terribly old, crying a warning,

“Hurry, you will be dead before -”

(What?  Before you reach the morning?

Or the end of the poem is clear?

Or love safe in the walled city?)

Now to stand still, to be here,

Feel my own weight and density!

The black shadow on the paper

Is my hand; the shadow of a word

As thought shapes the shaper

Falls heavy on the page, is heard.

All fuses now, falls into place

From wish to action, word to silence,

My work, my love, my time, my face

Gathered into one intense

Gesture of growing like a plant….

– May Sarton in Collected Poems 1930-1993


There was never any question about going to school and then work.  Growing up in my family, you went to school.  After that, you were on your own.  To literally survive, you went to work.  I was fortunate to find my true vocation by my early twenties.  As author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner wrote, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”  My vocation shifted over time, but remained in the same field: minister, hospital chaplain, clinical pastoral education supervisor, director of spiritual care in hospitals, spiritual care researcher and writer.  “I become myself,” as May Sarton artfully puts it, and finally, I’ve stopped running madly, while simultaneously juggling eight plates in the air.  I’m retired from that director position.  A little voice in my head shouts, “Free at last!” (I loved it, but I was overcooked, so to speak.)  Having unstructured time begets creativity.  Words are flowing like the Japanese fountain in our pink ginger garden just outside my writing desk room with its floor-to-ceiling windows.


Letting Go

18 Aug
August 18, 2014

My husband and I decided to empty out a huge storage unit, which we had kept for ten years.  Of course, we didn’t think we would keep it for ten years.  No one intends to spend thousands of dollars on a storage unit.  We intended to clear it out years ago.  We just didn’t have an attic or a basement; we lived in a studio apartment for ten years.  Now, we were emptying out a storage unit that was full from floor to ceiling.  Just to sort through it, we had to rent another storage unit to have room to put sorted items: things to ship to our new home, things to trash, and things to donate.  We needed room to do this sorting.  There were lots of memories attached to the items which we uncovered.

I found a peach and lace dress, which I wore as a wedding dress from a previous marriage, a marriage that had passed away a long time ago.  “What’s that?” asked my husband.  “Just an old dress,” I replied, as I put it carefully into a plastic bag for Good Will donations.  May some woman wear it with my blessings, I calmly thought. My deceased mother’s beautiful antique chair, which she had inherited from previous generations, could be shipped to Hawaii and find a place now in our new home.  It reminded me of the grief-filled trip I took as I drove her stick-shift green Saturn from Portland to San Francisco pulling a small U-Haul trailer full of her things, including the chair, back to my place after she died.  It brought tears to my eyes again.  Useless contents of desk drawers and files from a job eighteen years ago, I dumped into the trash.

The spiritual teacher Richard Rohr wrote about the Lord’s Prayer, “To pray and actually mean ‘thy Kingdom come,’ we must also be able to say ‘my kingdoms go.'” All the old kingdoms, domains of our lives, chapters – all of these are things of which we let go.  Having recently retired from thirty-three years of having a steady paycheck and a position in a hierarchy, retirement is also letting go. My realms go in favor of a Greater Realm. Thy Realm come. May we live in this Realm with joy and freedom.


As Healers

13 Aug
August 13, 2014

“As healers we have to receive the story of our fellow human beings with a compassionate heart, a heart that does not judge or condemn but recognizes how the stranger’s story connects with our own….Our most important question as healers is not, “What to say or to do?” but, “How to develop enough inner space where the story can received?”

– Henri J.M. Nouwen in  Reaching Out

IMG_4928For me, it has taken life experience, spiritual growth, professional training and years of practice to develop the inner space to receive another person with compassion.  Even now, I talk things over with a professional when a situation reminds me of something upsetting and I am tempted to react, rather than be curious about the other person.  At the age of twenty-three, I said that I was “a good listener,” and yet, I didn’t really know much about conveying empathy.  Nouwen wrote that we “develop” enough inner space to receive the person’s story. We cannot be preoccupied with our own story or distracted by something else.  It takes time to develop the ability to create inner space to welcome the other person into relationship.  Healing happens in relationship.  It is interpersonal.

Nouwen poses another question, “What to say or to do?”  Yet, he says that is not the most important.  I would say that it is very nearly as important.   Being in relationship is great; now, you must do something in relationship.  It takes both to actually relate to a person as a healer. Gushing, “I just want to be a loving presence,” isn’t going to accomplish much, as you gaze kindly into the person’s eyes, mirroring back everything he/she says.  It takes an intelligent plan, a strategy, a care model to use as you work with the person in need of healing.  How do you assess their need?  How do you intervene (i.e. encourage, ask, comment, challenge, etc.)?  What outcome do you hope for or expect?  This is more than active listening.  The healer is guided by more than intuition or eclectic theories.  The true healer has a care model by which he/she is guided in the healing encounter.

I use the Spiritual Assessment and Intervention Model (AIM).  Which model do you use?





Living in the Now

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

You Reading This, Be Ready


Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

sour from outside fills the air?


Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?


When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening

all that you want from this day. This interval you spent

reading or hearing this, keep it for life –


What can anyone give you greater than now,

starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

– William Stafford


I think it is a choice to live in and be present to the moment. For instance, I choose to pay attention to the view of Union Square on a sunny day from the sixth floor with seemingly tiny people moving about below, rather than being in the endodontist’s chair contemplating the painful shots and procedure to come.  I choose in the moment how to handle my feelings of sadness and grief as I hear of another’s death from mental illness and addiction. It is not always easy to be present, yet it is the best choice. I am quite sure of that.

11/13-15 Center for the Advancement of Palliative Care

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

capcI will be speaking at the Center for the Advancement of Palliative Care Annual Meeting on Spiritual Care Research with Palliative Care patients.

The conference is called: “Pathways to Quality Palliative Care.”

November 13 – 15, 2014
Rosen Centre Hotel
9840 International Drive
Orlando, Florida 32819
(407) 996-9700


Register Here

Brokenness and Scars

10 Aug
August 10, 2014

A couple of weeks ago in the SF Marathon, I tripped over a manhole cover and fell flat on my face, my hand, my shoulder and several other places. It was bloody and alarming to others, but seemed more surprising to me. I am not accustomed to falling down and I hadn’t dropped out of a running race in 37 years of racing. So, I just kept telling the kind people, who were trying to help me, “It looks worse than it is,” as the blood ran down my face. It required a trip to the ER, shots in my upper lip, four stitches by a Plastic Surgery Resident, a half dozen X-Rays, a CT scan, and lots of waiting. The MD’s sent me home with Vicodin, salve for my lip, and instructions to come back in five days to have the stitches removed. When I returned, they did more X-Rays and ascertained that I had fractured my wrist. They wanted to put a hard cast on me. Hearing that I was going to be living in Hawaii for the next 3 months, they advised me to stay out of the water because of the cast and the sun because of the scar (becoming more apparent permanently). Naturally, I was overjoyed to hear this. Not!

So, I have been reflecting upon my human limitations and my brokenness. I do believe we are all made in the image and likeness of God. These days, it takes some real stretch of the imagination to believe that about absolutely everyone, given the violent political situations in our world, some of which masquerade as religious strife. However, that is another story. It is quite easy to see my own limitations and brokenness, and that of others. My impulse is to deny it or to get around it somehow. I did not accept the hard cast, preferring a soft one that I could remove for convenience sake. And now, there’s a lovely, tempting triathlon coming up at the end of the month: only a 500-meter swim, an 11-mile bike, and 5K run. I know I could do the run. Could I wear the cast for the bike? Could I do the sidestroke for the swim? Maybe I am not that broken. Do I really have to stand at the sidelines and watch my husband do it?

Kayla McClurg writes this about brokenness in the Christian scriptures:
“’…and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.’ After the miracle of compassionate multiplication, after everyone has had their fill, twelve baskets of broken pieces remain. (For the twelve tribes of Israel, perhaps, a complete set of disciples, the whole hungry batch of us all?) What bounty there is, even in the brokenness. Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves, and then, like Oprah handing out cars, I hear him calling to us still—”You get some brokenness! And you get some brokenness!” Enough brokenness for us all.

In many circles we are encouraged to strive after wholeness and perfection. Reach higher, stretch further, make it happen. Sadly, even in our churches and among friends we often try to hide our wounds, mask our scars, not reveal too much of our broken selves. Jesus has a different idea. He tells the crowd to sit down, where they will be able to see not only him but each other. Face to face, we cannot quite as easily ignore our neighbor’s hunger, and we cannot as easily hide our own. Seeing our meager baskets, our lack of capacity to feed ourselves, we have to admit we are needy, hungry, beggars all.

Helping us to form little circles of community is the way Jesus breaks himself open, and breaks us open, too, and gives us to each other. Only then do we begin to realize how hungry we are. Facing each other in our brokenness, we can no longer pretend we are whole. We are twisted and pulled, chewed on and wounded, and yet we are enough. We are not perfectly shaped pieces of a puzzle, searching for the right fit with other perfectly shaped pieces; we are broken and misshapen leftovers. Who could ever want us? Yet, we are in good hands. We can be here for each other, unafraid to see into the abyss, sharing what we have, food enough for our next becoming.”


04 Aug
August 4, 2014

When I was an impressionable youngster, my Mom observed to me that I had “a short neck” and should not wear turtleneck shirts or sweaters. So, for many years, I followed her instructions, implicitly believing what my Mom had told me.
In my late twenties, I made a visit home while I was unconsciously wearing a black turtleneck sweater. My Mom told me how nice I looked in my sweater. “But, Mom, you always told me that I had a short neck and should never wear turtlenecks.” The recollection had sprung immediately to my mind and lips.
She replied, “I said that?”
“Yes,” I stated emphatically.
“Oh.” That was it. No apology. Our family was not keen on apologies unless it was a deathbed scene. Then apologies were okay as long as they were brief. Forgiveness came or it did not. I forgave my Mom about “the short neck” comment very easily. I, too, have made a thousand thoughtless comments, which hurt other people’s feelings. Besides, my Mom loved me. I mean, she really, really loved me.

When I was born, she said I had black hair covering my forehead and she thought she and Dad would have to get that fixed. It fell off in a few days. I arrived in the world as a warm, squiggly little bundle, completely dependent upon her with my jealous one-year-old brother Wayne determined to kill me. She became incredibly watchful. He used every means in his powers to do away with his chief rival for our parents’ attention. Mom had to be vigilant for the can of tomato soup poised to smash down upon my head and rescue me when buried in snow or nearly drown. Our folks thoughtfully strategized that a Joe Palooka punching bag might capture his attention, but that was no match for a lively moving target like me. It wasn’t until age ten and eleven that we could really play harmoniously together, when Mom bought us wooden tennis rackets with Green Stamps. (Just forget it, if you don’t remember them. Pretend they are Bitcoin.) We hit tennis balls to each other for hours in every kind of weather for years. Frozen puddles on the courts would not deter us. We would attempt to hit those spots on the other’s side, to skid the ball out of reach. Both of us became competitive players, even combining our skills to play mixed doubles against common foes. In short, we learned to get along only on the tennis courts.

My Mom was an early feminist, which meant that girls were to be treated as well as boys. My Dad wanted motorcycles for Wayne and himself. So, Mom said that he needed to get me one too and take me along as well. By the age of eleven, I was a tough little one, surviving my brother’s assaults. So, we competed on the trails with me on a Kawasaki 100, my Baby Cow, and Wayne on a bigger Kawasaki. My Mom drove an early edition Poppy Red (orange) Mustang with a white interior, while the neighbors all drove black and dark blue behemoths. My Mom had unique style. Jeans, never dresses, were for her.

My Mom was a teacher before she brought Wayne and me into the world with Dad’s contribution, of course. She instilled a love of reading in us by reading to us, taking us to the library, and plying us with comic books. It was common to come home from school to see her lying on the sofa, reading murder mysteries, her favorite genre. She was in that posture on the day when I made a decision that affected the rest of my life.



04 Aug
August 4, 2014

No one says it better than Christian Wiman, a poet who happens to be terminally ill: “If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time ravaged self.”

We need the specific, the concrete, the real.

It’s like the story of the little girl afraid of the dark at night in bed. Her Mom tries to comfort her by telling her, “God is with you.” She protests, “Yes, but I need someone with skin on!” Don’t we all need the incarnate? We all need someone with flesh, someone embodied.

How can God come to us today? “Human beings are God’s language,” writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” That’s one way God is still speaking to us, appearing to us, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see and flesh to touch.

I Think I’m Special, But How Is My Cancer?

04 Aug
August 4, 2014


“My Mom said, ‘The policeman may not catch you. I may not see you, but God will always see you.’ You cannot outsmart God,” Ionna said in a strong Ukranian accent. “Because if I tried to do some crap or anything, I felt like somebody was kicking my ass.” She laughed and smiled at me.

“The God who kicks ass,” I laughed. This was our first meeting and I was enjoying Ionna’s spirit and self-expression.

She told me more about growing up as the youngest child of five in the Ukraine, where her mother took them to the Russian Orthodox Church, kept her children in line, but prayed nonjudgementally for people everywhere. Ionna thought the fear of the God who kicks ass helped her to be a decent person and to have a moral compass during her twenty years in the corporate world.  When she became tired of that and had the means to quit, she followed her heart into the Peace Corps in Bosnia to help others. It was not long before she was shocked to learn that she had a stage IV gynecological cancer. It seemed like only days to her until she grew as bloated as a Telletubby, she said. Operated upon in Bangkok, the Peace Corps flew her back to the United States.

She’d had the choice between chemo with a 10% chance to live and no chemo with about 2 months to live in a lot of pain. “I’m like, Oh Bummer,” she told me. What a choice. Hearing it made my heart drop. (Yes, of course, she was seeing me because she was dying.) She wanted to live. “I want to be happy while I’m here. I want to enjoy every sunrise.” Yet, the choice to have chemotherapy had led her down a difficult path with a lot of pain. She had not asked any of her friends to take care of her and was therefore reticent to take enough medicine to truly cover the pain for fear of being “out of it” alone. “What are your biggest fears?” I asked. She said she had enough spirituality to not be afraid of dying, but not enough to deal with the pain of dying and being dependent.  We talked about these things, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

She wrestled with the 10% odds of survival versus death. Ionna was a vivacious forty-year-old and dressed colorfully with a
realistic-looking, fashionable wig. She had a heart-shaped face, a cheerful disposition and a trim figure. It was hard to believe that she was so sick, just looking at her. I only saw her on her energetic days, just before her chemotherapy treatments. She was totally exhausted and debilitated by the infusions. Her attitude was hopeful and realistic at the same time. “I think I’m special, but how is my cancer?”

These meetings became a space where Ionna could “Live the questions now.” As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Perhaps you will then gradually…live along some distant day into the answer.” I planned to embody a guide to her to clarify the questions, the choices, and lift up any leanings this way or that, hoping she might find her way, before her choices narrowed very much. One decision Ionna faced was where to die: in a hospice in the city where we were or in her Ukranian family home with her mother and sister. She didn’t want her family to see her suffer or remember her “that way.” Plus, her mother didn’t want her to be cremated and that was her clear wish. She also feared poor medical care (i.e. pain). The hospice seemed to offer only dependence upon strangers, which was more acceptable, and better medical care. While she referred to other people telling her what to do, I called out what she wanted and emphasized her preferences.

“I feel like I’ve been carried through it all, you know, like the whole thing. I don’t think I’ve done much,” Ionna claimed.
“Well, if you’ve been carried, who’s been carrying you?” I was curious.
“You know, like God or angels or whoever had the time. I’m not sure.”
I remarked that it was a comforting image to feel like you’d been carried. Then, I asked, “Have you been talking to God at all?” And she replied that when she was in bed, she prayed, “Okay, God. Make me better or let me die.” She asked me if that was bad.
“I don’t think any heartfelt prayer is bad. Whatever you want to say to God I think is perfectly acceptable,” I spoke from all my experience and the depth of my heart and belief.

Then she unfolded a piece of paper with a lengthy paragraph filling the page. It was a prayer she had written! She claimed she had not really written it since it came from the Bible and other stuff. However, it was composed of thoughts which she found meaningful about rising from the ashes, awakening and hearing the liberty bell ringing, being afraid and remembering God’s presence with her, and living God’s plans to prosper and have hope and a future. She said this prayer helped her now when she began an infusion of chemotherapy. She sat in the chair. She felt cold. She began to cry. She would read this prayer. It would give her peace. She would stop crying. I told her it was beautiful.

In our last meeting, she said, “Remember, I told you that I would bring you something?” She unwrapped an object from tissue paper. It was a beautiful Ukranian pysanky, a traditional Easter Egg made by drawing an intricate pattern with layered waxes and colored dyes. She told me that it was made by her ninety-nine-year-old aunt, who had had a steady hand until the end. The pattern had grains of wheat and crosses, red for blood and yellow and white for the resurrection. She could not remember all the symbolism or meanings. She wanted me to have it. All I could say was, “It is so beautiful! Thank you,” over and over. Tears came to my eyes. She was giving away some of her possessions, knowing that she was going to die, although she wanted to live. And she wanted me to have this. My tears told me that we’d made a heartfelt connection.

I really liked Ionna’s honesty and quirky expressions. She said she was glad we had talked about death, because no one else wanted to talk about it. “Therapy is not my cupcake!” she declared. I think she meant “it was not my piece of cake”  or “cup of tea” because the therapist wanted her to be optimistic. Her cancer support group didn’t want to talk about dying in their first meeting, which I actually did not find all that surprising. Even the other members of the Palliative Care Team, she judged as not open to discussing death. She also felt reconnected to her sense of spirituality. Her image of God seemed to change from the One who kicks ass to the One who journeys with her and brings her peace. I don’t know what she ultimately decided about where she would go in her time left, but I do hope she found relief from pain, freedom about being dependent, and her heart’s desire in the life to come. I thought she was special.

Rita was my age

04 Aug
August 4, 2014

Rita was my age and she was dying from late stage lung cancer. She was tall, maybe six feet tall and big-boned. She said she’d lost a lot of weight, but now seemed at a good weight, not too thin. She had short gray hair, which had grown back after the last round of chemo. Shortness of breath and fatigue were her biggest symptoms. She was my patient; I was her chaplain. “I’m a lapsed Catholic,” she said somewhat apologetically. And she recited several things about the Catholic Church with which she took exception. I nodded. I asked her if she had ever tried any other Christian denominations? At first, she didn’t understand what I meant. Then, “oh, you mean like Baptists and Presbyterians and all that? No. I just always felt Catholic, even if I don’t go anymore. I went so much as a kid.”

During the time we spent together, Rita told me about several broken relationships she had with her alcoholic sister and her drug-addicted niece. They were huge enmeshed, conflicted situations and I referred her to AlAnon. She had been there before and seemed ready to go back. I felt relieved because I knew she needed the ongoing help of a sponsor.

“What concerns you most, Rita? When you awake in the middle of the night all alone, what comes up?” I asked. “I am afraid of dying. I don’t know if there’s anything after this life. Either there is a heaven, like the Catholics think, or there is another place.” She rolled her eyes, “a place I don’t want to go, you know what I mean, Michele. Or maybe there’s nothing at all. I have a hard time believing that. What do you think?”

“Well, I get that you’re afraid. No one really knows for sure, right? And at the same time, I think it would be good to decide what you believe. In my experience, people who have it worked out for themselves have an easier time facing their death.”

“Yeah, well, how do I decide?”

“Tell me about a time when you felt most deeply loved.” Rita told me about her deceased father. Growing up, she identified with him, rather than her mother. He took her everywhere in her hometown NYC with him: the meat packing district, walking around the burroughs, and to the Mass every Sunday. He was a devout Catholic. They were very close. She idolized him. Yet, as she became an adult she began to see his flaws and to judge him. She saw how generous he was with others but judged him as only trying to get people to like him. She began to think he was manipulative, tremendously weak and insecure. And she began to resent him.

Previously, she had told me a story where she had brought homemade cookies to the chemotherapy nurses, who were treating her in the outpatient cancer clinic. And she had judged herself for trying to get them to like her. I recalled this to her, challenging her. “You acted with generosity. It didn’t matter about your motives at all. It was your gift out of love that mattered. I wondered at the time you told me why you were judging yourself so harshly for that,” I told her quite emphatically.”do you think the nurses cared about your motives. No, they only cared about your act of generosity -the cookies!” “Really?” she said quite hopefully. I continued, “And your Dad was a generous man, generous with you and generous with others. Do you really think his motives mattered?” She began to cry and she pulled a wrinkled photo of him out of her wallet to show me. “The love he showed you was God’s love for you,” I commented softly. She told me more stories about him.

She began again to speak of her father taking her to church. “I notice that you use masculine language for God. It makes sense to me because you were so close to your Dad. Some say we get our earliest image of God from our parents.” She thought about that. And came back to our next session having prayed on her own and visited Catholic Charities for some help in getting financial assistance and a lead on a part time job she could do at home. She called it a God-send. She was feeling much more optimistic about living fully the time she had left. And she did decide to take “a leap of faith” to believe mostly in an afterlife, about 90%. I thought that sounded just fine.

I learned from Rita that it does not have to take a long time to let go of a resentment and find new life, even at the end of life.