On Plans…Or lack Thereof

“So when are you going to graduate?”

“What’s your five year plan?”

These are just a few examples of the types of questions I receive on a regular basis that I find hard to answer. It’s not that I don’t have aspirations or goals. It’s really that life planning completely changes once you’ve had to face death. I realized lately that my world view is somewhat different than most in America. I realized that I don’t make long term plans or think about the future in the same way that most of my peers do.

My attitude is one of acceptance about living so fully in the moment. It’s a true mindfulness practice. Right now, I plan to finish this class. I’ll graduate when I’m ready and I’ve finished all my classes. I’m ok with taking a longer time and being able to balance everything I do in my busy life. Tackling a full time internship while going to school and incorporating community service, fundraising and world travel is quite the feat. Maybe one day I’ll even get to my goal of becoming a hospice counselor. It feels so far away, even though I know all the steps to getting to that point.

Someone once said man makes plans and god laughs. I can see this. I don’t know how productive it is to have your life to fully planned out. What if it doesn’t materialize the way you expected or wanted? What if you get cancer like I did at a young age? There are too many variables for me to truly make plans anymore, but I honestly find it freeing. I hold myself to no other standard than the one I set for myself. I’m not comparing myself to my peers. I accept where I am in the moment and find my happiness there. I realized my dreams are all fully attainable with a little elbow grease and a lot of hard work.

Yours are too.

Get out there. Stop making excuses and saying tomorrow you’ll start that diet or leave that career you hate. Life is truly too short to waste time doing anything you are fulfilled by. Anything is also possible for someone who is determined to find a way. I hear a lot of excuses from people as to why they don’t take risks or try to achieve their dreams. Mostly, what I hear is “I’m too afraid”. Fear is natural, but I pity those who will realize these truths too late. Those that will utter “what if…” on their death beds. I never want to be that person.

I won’t be that person.

Karibu Afrika

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“Karibu” is the first thing I hear as I step off my flight in Tanzania. It means ‘welcome’ in Swahili and everywhere I see smiling faces saying it.  It’s afternoon when I finally touch down at. Kilimanjaro airport. I’ve been flying for a straight 27 hours through 4 different countries and 11 time zones. I’m exhausted, but the moment I feel that hot African sun I feel energized and excited to be in such a different place. I’ve traveled from San Francisco to Tanzania and will spend the next week with complete strangers, the only thing we have in common is that we are all cancer survivors. This entire trip is paid for by First Descents – a non-profit that offers recreational therapy for young adults that have survived cancer.

Our first day we drove from Kilimanjaro airport to the city of Arusha. I noticed many things that tickled my fancy and signaled that I indeed was not in Kansas anymore. Firstly, I got to sit in the American “drivers seat”, the left side, as they drive on the left side of the road. The seatbelt laws are pretty lax in Tanzania and I enjoyed the sense of danger that came with speeding down two lane highways past coffee plantations and ladies balancing large parcels on their heads. Everywhere I looked outside there was lush vegetation and motorbikes with people speeding past sans helmets. I kept thinking this alone would scare the hell out of my mother.

For the first two days we spent it at Ilboru Safari Lodge in Arusha. It was here that I first got to meet all my fellow adventurers and rest a little before the safari. I was happy to see they had a pool – a welcome respite from the oppressive heat. I was blown away by how friendly everyone was. People waved to us as we passed by and “Jambo” (hello) was heard from complete strangers. Tanzania felt very, very welcoming. I wondered if my country felt as welcoming to strangers from abroad and I highly doubt it. Hospitality is in the DNA of Tanzania.



Our second day was spent at the Women’s Maasai Market in Arusha. I was excited to visit here because I read about it on the internet. On the ride there I purchased a swahili dictionary from a man who came up to my window. Street sellers are the law of the land in Tanzania – anytime you come to a rest stop you will inevitably be approached by friendly people trying to survive by selling their wares. I knew the market was based upon bargaining, something I’ve never done in my life. But, I did some research as to what was expected and practiced my bargaining skills. I don’t think I did too bad. But the Maasai are FIERCE salespeople! They play on your emotions by calling you “sister” and saying things like “please help me survive” which makes it difficult to say no. Being confronted directly with poverty is hard as a westerner coming with so much privilege. I spent about $100 in the Market but my dollar went very far. I was able to get lots of Maasai jewelry and souvenirs for people back home. Because it’s considered rude to take photos of locals (some  think we’re making money off their images, some think the photograph steals part of their soul) I took very few photos at the Market so the following pictures were taken from the internet.


The following photos were taken by my fellow camper, Avocado (Olga Podzorov photo credit):



Bubbie and Meredadi getting a good deal at the Maasai Market.

I admittedly went a little crazy at the Maasai Market. Something in my little bohemian heart went off seeing all those pretty beads. And of course being the stereotypical liberal that I am, felt the need to ask permission to wear some of these beautiful pieces lest I be considered a cultural appropriator. Whenever I would ask if it was offensive for me to wear things like  wedding crowns or necklaces I got laughed at and one person said “beauty is meant to be shared. When you wear these Maasai pieces people will learn about the Maasai and Tanzania”. They were right. Whenever I’ve worn my Maasai jewelry back here in the states everyone asks me where I got my beautiful jewelry and it gives me a chance to tell people about the wonderful adventures in Tanzania and the people who made these pieces.

Our third day was a travel day into the Maasai Steppe, a place only Mark Thornton Safari has the rights to go. We saw breathtaking country side, lots of punda milia (zebra) and the Maasai going about their daily lives. For lunch we stopped in the bush and made sandwiches and got accustomed to navigating the thorny beauty that is the bush. When we arrived at camp, we were greeted with congenial Maasai warriors who had set up our camp for us. Because I wanted to try to be a good guest in their home and to be able to communicate more with these people I spoke as much Swahili as I could learn and saw that it was very much appreciated. At dusk, we took a lovely walk through the bush and saw giraffe in the distance and even more zebra.

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On the fourth day we woke up around 6AM for some morning yoga and set off into the bush for more walking safari. This was the day I sliced my hand open challenging a Maasai warrior to a spear chucking contest. Our guide, Tomas, earlier had told me they lubricate their spears with animal fat so they effortlessly glide into their target. I can personally attest that spear was SHARP. It effortlessly sliced all the way through the dermis and I could actually see the bone underneath. Note to self for next time: don’t forget dermabond. Since there were no medics in the bush I borrowed some hemostatic dressing from Mark and doused it in some iodine. Nobody would let me boil a needle to sew my own wound shut.:-/ But now I have a pretty sweet scar and an unbelievable story. Plus, there will always be a little bit of me in Africa now since my blood was spilt on her soil.



For those familiar with FD, you’ll know there are awards given each night for different categories. I got the award for “most nerdy” since half the time I had my nose stuck in my Swahili book and was excelling at speaking to all the natives. I got to rock some pretty sweet Erkel glasses, complete with tape in the middle. The other awards were “most American” and “best in Safari” with an American flag bow tie and lumberjack suspenders respectively.



This night there was also a sacrificial goat offering to celebrate our arrival, but I won’t show you pictures of that or really discuss that much. I think it was equally upsetting and fascinating to a lot of us who did watch us. I’m grateful to have witnessed it though because I think as Americans we are VERY disconnected to our food sources and the rest of the world lives with the understanding that to eat meat means you must take life. It’s just the way it is.

We did also go visit a traditional Maasai boma (mud hut). That was super interesting to see how other people live in this world. In the boma’s, there is no electricity or plumbing. In the Maasai society men may have multiple wives and each wife builds her own boma that she will raise her children in. It has a simple area for starting a fire for cooking and then a seperate area for sleeping. It is completely dark on the inside save for a small 5″ wide small circle of a window. As soon as we arrived, our strange presence upset the children. I think we were the first white people they had ever seen. One of the girls in our group (Shredder) has long blonde hair and they were fascinated by running their fingers down the tawny strands. Both the adults and the children were very shy. I didn’t want to seem like an asshole European by snapping away instead of trying to build rapport and connect with them, so I also did not take very many photos here.


Erin O’Donnell photography


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Mark Thornton calming the children with videos on his iPhone

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Curious girls posing for us Mzungu

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The next day we set out for Maramboi Tented Lodge, which was easily a 5 star resort. It was here we saw our first giraffe up close and swam in an idyllic infinity pool watching the African sun set over Lake Manyara as wild cats and warthogs played in the grass. Truth be told I wish we could have stayed here longer. It was incredibly romantic – mosquito netting over the canopy beds, hardwood floors underfoot and hurricane lamps lighting your way. There were even Maasai warriors to escort us everywhere lest we be accosted by a lion. It was also here that the African girls started calling me mama Africa due to my embracing of Tanzania culture: I was decked out in Maasai jewelry, speaking Swahili and wearing African print clothes. See exhibit A:


My jewelry game is on point.

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So is Lingatu’s. Our Maasai warrior guide.

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That pool tho! Look at that view.

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Olga Podzorov photography


Olga Podzorov photography


Olga Podzorov photography

The next day we would set out to drive through Lake Manyara. The way there was just as entertaining as the actual park itself due to the enthusiastic children who would go nuts as they saw us Westerners cruise past. One little boy ran along with our truck, yelled and did a jump into the air! It made us all laugh and we felt excited by his enthusiasm. We got to see elephants crossing the “street” – including one just feet from our car. I came to Africa hoping I’d see an elephant and I sure got it. Lake Manyara is also home to some hot springs too (Mari = water, Moto = hot). Flamingo dotted the horizon as babboons groomed their babies and occasionally would screech as they fought. It was here we had our lunch.

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The next day we spent safari in Ngorongoro Crater. To say it was stunning was an understatement. It was like heaven on earth. Will Smith once said that god just visits everywhere else but he lives in Africa. I could absolutely see that in the Ngorongoro Crater. See for yourself…


Olga Podzorov Photography


Olga Podzorov photography


Olga Podzorov photography


Olga Podzorov photography


Olga Podzorov photogaphy

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All in all, Africa was magical, beautiful, tough as nails and rough. I liken Africa to a beautiful woman who could also kick your ass. The people are friendly and everyone is your brother and sister. Life was different yes, but everyone there was more socially connected. That’s definitely a lesson I will strive to bring here to Oakland.

If you’d like to help other young adult cancer survivors go on a trip like this, please consider giving a gift of any amount to them here : First Decscent’s Fundraising.

Living with Mental Illness

I know there are tons of first person accounts online of living with different types of mental illnesses. I believe I’ve even spoken about my own struggles somewhat on this blog too. But since it’s something that has come up again in my life I’d like to discuss it more explicitly.

Living with mental illness is really hard.

So, my official diagnosis is major recurrent depression with suicidal ideation. I think about killing myself on a near daily basis. Anytime something goes wrong – anything – I’m fantasizing about blowing my brains out. It’s an obsessive thought. It doesn’t really bother me because I’ve been “obsessed” with death since childhood. The first time I tried to commit suicide was 12 years old by slicing my wrist open with scissors. The wound was not even close to being fatal, but it was the start of a very negative self soothing strategy. I still remember every detail around that event: sitting on the beige carpet by the foot of my bed hating the abuse I was undergoing on a daily basis and feeling so alone. The adults who were supposed to protect me didn’t and after the wound was discovered I was told to not tell people what I had done. That would also start a pattern of hiding my emotions because I was afraid nobody could understand or they would be frightened by the intensity of my emotions.

This is how stigma starts.

Now, I am a psychology student so I put the responsibility of being healthy on myself. That if I am to help others, I have to walk the walk. That is how I keep myself in check. I like to think I am a pretty good role model – I am able to hold down a job, pay bills, keep a pet alive, and counsel others. I am not scared or freaked out by the people I counsel sharing dark emotional content with me because I’m used to it from myself. The advice I give to my peers  usually is compassionate but focused on accountability to the plan they’ve created with their clinicians and/or helping them come up with coping strategies that are not harmful and help to reteach people what appropriate self-soothing should look and feel like.

But just because I can and do counsel as a peer doesn’t mean I am “cured”. Not by a long shot. I still have inappropriate emotional reactions sometimes. I don’t reach out when I should sometimes. And most of the time like many others, I suffer alone and in silence. The worst of my craziness is usually hidden because I’m embarrassed and afraid. I’ve had well meaning loved ones try to help but because they also don’t know how to effectively communicate fail. So with that in mind I’d like to share some great ways to assist others in speaking to those who are mentally ill…

  1. Listen more than you speak – This is HUGE. Most of us when we are engaged in social contact are mainly just waiting to speak instead of focused on the content we are hearing. Focus on the content. Chances are, the troubling feelings this person is sharing with you is the first time they are saying them to another person and they are fearful of judgement or of scaring you away. Just listen, express empathy as needed and tell people you love them.
  2. “Shoulding” – Don’t tell someone with a mental illness what they “should” do. Are you a licensed therapist? Have you ever had these same thoughts? Most likely no. So don’t tell someone that if they just thought more positive thoughts they would be ok. Because that is not factually accurate and more obviously, it is hurtful to the person you are saying it to. That is blaming the victim for the disease. Would you tell someone with lung cancer if they just didn’t smoke all those years they wouldn’t now have cancer? Of course not. Mental illness is no different.
  3. Using “positive” and “negative” polarity – This is so ingrained in our culture and usually I hear this expressed in my peers that I counsel. Telling someone (or telling yourself) that these thoughts or actions are either “negative” or “positive” puts judgement on the thoughts/actions. I like to tell people that what they are experiencing is neither positive or negative since that is a concept that humans have constructed, it’s not real. They are simply experiencing what they are experiencing and I encourage people to look at it from a more neutral perspective to see what they can learn from their own personal experiences and how they can  grow from it and how it makes them feel. Self acceptance where ever you are at right now is important. You won’t be there forever. That can sound hopeful or it can sound foreboding , see? But that is the point of “positive” or “negative” social constructs…they are subject to interpretation and interpretation is incredibly subjective.
  4. Offer compassionate support – So often the mentally ill feel like if they reach out for help their hand will be slapped and they’ll regret the ask. Be as compassionate as you can. How do you offer compassion? It is as easy as saying things like “I don’t understand what you’re experiencing but I’m willing to learn” or inviting someone out socially that you think is having a hard time. Telling people you love them for no reason is also pretty big. How often do we tell people we love them? It usually is reserved for important events, cards, or mindless repetition (i.e. the married couple that just murmurs “love you” as they are walking out the door). Telling someone you love them costs you nothing and in return it might just save someones life.
  5. Encourage trust and ownership – Most mentally ill people have issues with their clinicians. I literally am the only person with a diagnosed mental illness that prefers and trusts clinicians more than I trust lay persons in my life. But clinicians really are the key to getting better. I think it’s important to gently stress to someone that is struggling that partnering with a clinician they feel comfortable with and can trust is really important. If they don’t like and/or trust their clinician empower them to find one they do. Let them know they have control in this fashion. They are not children and clinicians are not parental figures. They are adults that have an illness and like any other illness, benefit from working with a specialist. Encourage your loved one to take ownership and pride in their struggle because it is incredibly hard. They can utilize their struggles to help others by becoming a peer counselor or in other ways that feel right to them. Our experiences deepen our complexity but they in no way define who we are.

All in all, we need to focus more on understanding and education I feel. The holidays can be really difficult for some people, including those without mental health issues. So let’s all just try being a little more understanding and loving right now. If you know someone will be alone, try asking them over for dinner. Give out hugs amply. You’re not just the giver, you’re also the receiver and more love given means more love received.



Sitting With the Darkness

Today, I learned a lesson in human kindness from my friend and veterans I serve at work.

I had an after work drink date with a veteran I know and his wife. They had asked me out for a drink so we could catch up and hang out. When we finally got together, my friends wife had found another veteran they knew who was having a rough time. This veteran was a combat veteran currently struggling with homelessness and the death of his dog. He had some irregular behaviors which made me a little cautious and a little afraid at first truth be told. But my friend was a POW in Vietnam and I knew he understood where this veteran was coming from. So, I pretty much just tried to stick around his wife while he talked to this man while we hung out in the Haight.

Somewhere in a shop this veteran started telling me what was going on with him and it was at  that point I stopped fearing him. When he started telling me about his childhood I asked him to come outside with me to give him some privacy while he shared. I validated his feelings by telling him I was proud of him for allowing himself to feel his feelings and held him while he cried. My friend kept checking on me to make sure I was ok and I assured him I was.

Sometime during dinner both my friend and this other combat veteran started sharing with me some of the atrocities of war they endured. My friend preemptively said he was afraid to tell me because he didn’t want me to see him differently or to withdraw my friendship. I assured him I wouldn’t. This was a practice in sitting with another human beings darkness and being ok with it. And as these two men told me about rounding up women and children and burning them alive and having your squad commander yell at you “Did you rape and pillage that entire village?” with tears in their eyes all I saw were two human beings in pain that were having a hard time living with what they did. I was not scared in the slightest by their darkness and respected the trust it took to tell me that.

I also saw how other people see him too. This veteran is very intense and as we ordered some drinks in a bar the barkeep asked him “You ok man? You look like you want to jump over that bar and do something”. I thought for sure a fight was going to ensue. But the veteran let it go and stayed cool. Inside I was cringing as it happened because the barkeeper didn’t understand. During a moment my new friend was away, I whispered to the barkeeper that our friend was a combat vet and to please just talk to us if he was afraid and we would be happy to take care of him. I was genuinely afraid his abnormal social behavior would get him into trouble and I wanted to try to protect him as best I could.

By the end of it the combat veteran was in turn giving me a gift I needed. We went into a dress shop and he was trying to convince me to try on some of the pretty dresses and I said no. He looked at me and said “Do you know how beautiful you are?” and I said honestly “no”. It was a teachable moment for me in letting someone else see my pain and trusting them with that. It broke my heart when we left this homeless veteran who subsists on $1,000 a month in the bay area was asking me my favorite color and dress size.

As a psychology student it is my hope to be able to give people what they need when they need it. All day I am around clinicians following medical models of care that often do not feel therapeutic to patients based on their own feedback and my own personal experience. Truth be told, I didn’t know what to give either one of these men but I had a feeling I didn’t need a degree to give it. Just listening without judgement and being there was enough they both concurred. That they didn’t want the pills their VA psychiatrists wanted to give them – they wanted weekly talk therapy. They told me if they could sit down with me each week and talk like they did with me that is what would help them. I felt glad that I was able to give these veterans not only my friendship, but what I feel was sound therapy.

Sometimes, we can learn so much but letting our guard down and seeing the humanity in others. Even when it’s hard or scary to do so.

Survivorship – Year 4

Each year, around the same time my cancerversary rolls around I like to touch base and see where I’m at compared to other years. As I am sure I have stated in past posts, in 2011 I did not think I would still be alive. As I sit here this cold, rainy San Francisco morning, I am reminded of all the people I have lost to cancer and my incredible luck at managing to somehow beat the odds.

Honestly, I’ve been struggling.

There were many times this year when I wished the cancer had given me a peaceful, medicated death surrounded by friends and family. This world feels like it’s on the brink of catastrophe currently to me. We have daily shootings, terrorist attacks around the globe, global climate change that says we are in the sixth mass extinction the world has seen. We have politicians spewing hate speech and Americans openly supporting this fascist, fanatical, hateful speech. On a personal level I’ve been struggling with feeling loved and falling back into old, destructive coping mechanisms as my depression has been worsening. Life feels hard in part also because I’ve had to stop therapy this year due to scheduling conflicts. I’ve been waiting since March for an appointment with my therapist and now I’ve come to realize it’s just not going to happen. I know I need to find a new therapist, but I don’t want to start the process of finding a new therapist and building that bond. I feel very much stuck between a rock and a hard place –  I don’t trust regular people with my feelings and the people I do trust can’t see me. So I’ve mainly just been quietly going insane at home.

All of that sounds really bleak, I know. But running concurrently to that I’ve also been hosting Peace Shabbats at my house: I’ve invited strangers from my community into my home as a show of trust and made some wonderful new friends. I have been getting more active politically, going to meetings and talking about what I can do with other likeminded people. School is still going well. My contract at work has been extended another year. I’m looking forward to a trip to Tanzania with First Descents next year.

So, like most things in life it’s a mixed bag. My depression is now lifting so I’m feeling much more sane. Today, I’ll even go out with some friends after work for a drink. Socializing can be tricky for me because I am weird about time. I don’t like staying out too late on work nights because I get up so early (FYI – 8PM is pushing it on a school night for me). As an introvert I also need ample time to just be quiet and recharge and my life is VERY busy.

Overall, I feel completely transformed from how I used to feel as a cancer patient. I blend in just like everyone else now. Recently, a guy tried expelling me from the handcapped seats on BART. I looked up at him and told him that I had peripheral neuropathy from chemotherapy. Everyone around me looked surprised because “I look so healthy”. That’s why I carry around a picture of when I looked my worst during chemo.  Easing into healthfulness and vibrancy has been a process. One I feel grateful for overall.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Love Thy Neighbor


And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

   What happens when you trust in humanity enough to send an open invitation to 17 different neighborhoods in Oakland?
You make 20 new friends.
   I don’t mean 20 “friends”. Not theoretical “friends”, as in ones on facebook that I never see or actually spend time with. I mean friends I will now spend holidays with. Go over to their homes and do puzzles with. Friends I will see in temple and sit next to. These are the plans that we have crafted after spending only one night together. This is what can happen when you open your heart and love thy neighbor.
   With the terrorism that has occurred in Paris, Beirut, Kenya, and here in America with the black church burnings & shootings and the substantial uprising of anti-islamic, racist and anti-refugee sentiments in America, I decided to lead by example by inviting all of my neighbors to my home for Shabbat dinner. My goal was simply this – that we don’t need to fear one another. I wanted to show people that we have more in common than different. That I could trust my neighbors enough to allow perfect strangers into my home and it would all be ok.
And you know what? It was more than ok. It was amazing.
   Last night, my small one bedroom apartment in Oakland was filled with life. The joyful screams of children rang out as they played with toys on the ground. Small dogs chased one another in between begging for table scraps. Neighbors coming and going from my apartment knowing they didn’t need to knock. That my home was their home and they could just let themselves in. Perfect strangers brought foods from their cultures and countries and drank wine and hugged like old friends. At the end, these 20 people who crammed into my 1 bedroom apartment were sending each other friend requests on facebook and helping me do dishes. Ordinarily my home is monastery quiet. All too often I am either working or doing school work and I do it in complete silence. The loving energy was wonderful to have.
   I am Jewish. I converted to Judaism at 18 and was religious up until around age 25. I am not religious anymore as I found too much hatred and warfare done in the name of God, but I wanted to utilize religious practice for good. In the Jewish Sabbath, it is a time meant for rest, family and community. Since our western way of living in America is so isolating I wanted to open my home up to an interfaith gathering to celebrate Shabbos. I had people from all over the world gather in my home. But it was not just me that made this event happen. It could not have occurred without the help of every single person. I had neighbors bring chairs over. People brought food and wine. I have now received emails asking if they can donate children’s books for future Shabbat’s. People see me in elevators and when they hear my name they know who I am from the flyers I placed under their doors.
Now I’ve been crying lately
Thinking about the world as it is
Why must we go on hating
Why can’t we live in bliss
Everyone jump upon the peace train
Come on, come on, come on
Yes, come on the peace train
Yes, it’s a peace train
Oh, I’ve been smiling lately
Dreaming about the world as one
And I believe it could be
Some day it’s going to come
Now I’ve been smiling lately
Thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be
Something good has begun
– Cat Stevens, Peace Train
   I truly believe that peace is a choice. Trust is a choice. So many people warned me against doing this. Of the dangers of inviting complete strangers into my home. While I appreciate their concern for my well being, I am glad that my heart was right. That these other human beings were just friends I was waiting to meet. Not once did it feel strange or weird. Every single person who came to my door I hugged first and then asked their name. I did this on purpose to show that I don’t need to know your name to consider you a friend.
   One of my friends who lives in the building surprised me by bringing me a cake with a peace symbol on it. I’ve been promoting this dinner as a Peace Shabbat and when I opened the cake box and saw the peace cake, I literally squealed with joy. It made my heart so happy to see all these strangers from so many faiths, races, sexualities, generations, and countries come together and eat a peace cake together.
   This CAN happen where you live. You (yes, YOU) can do this too. If this can be successful with a single woman in a “dangerous” city like Oakland, CA with only a one bedroom apartment and limited resources…..what do you think you could do?
I say, lets all dare to dream a little. And then turn those dreams into action.
How will you contribute to peace in this world?

Hello, Human Kindness


The slogan for Dignity Health Care is “Hello Human Kindness”. In their advertising campaign they reference real studies showing how simple acts of human kindness can help reduce pain and ease suffering of physical maladies. Today, I got to see first hand how true that really is.

In the Parkinson’s clinic where I work we have one very sweet man who has dementia and refractory PD symptoms. He has exhausted most of the staff over the last 6 years he’s been seen. Today, he walked in when we had no physicians and only one very overworked nurse.

He was shaking violently and sweating profusely as he begged to be seen by a physician. He had just been seen two days prior. He had plenty of medication with a Nurses Aid at his facility to help administer it. I was more concerned that he had somehow been able to get all the way here from his home in the Peninsula without his wallet or ID with such severe symptoms.

Our nurse explained to me the sweating and tremors were from not having enough medication also known as ‘off’ symptoms. I asked her if I could give him a dose of meds and she approved it. After dosing him and letting him rest for half an hour I checked to see how he was feeling. At first he said he was ready to leave. But it became readily apparent he couldn’t. After getting the ok for a second dose I took him down to the ER. I sat with him at the ER for about an hour and then I had to leave.

But one thing he said to me stuck with me.

After I dosed him I picked him up and laid him down on an exam table. He asked me if I would give him a hug. That simple question touched my heart and simultaneously made me weary knowing that patients with PD can become hyper-sexual. In dealing with PD patient’s I’ve been asked out on dates, had patient’s expose themselves to me, and say very explicit things to me. All the while I rationalize it that this is not them speaking, it’s their disease. But the voice of this patient was full of pain and sounded more like a child, so I hugged him. His tremors were so bad that once his arms were around me he kept violently jerking me tighter and tighter, unable to loosen his grip. I gently loosened his dystonic arms and wrested myself free.

He said that during that hug all his pain went away. That he was completely serious when he said that. Immediately my mind filled with Dignity Health’s “Hello Human Kindness” campaign. In particular, the signs in the BART stations referencing a pain study indicating that human touch can reduce the perception of the severity of pain. In plain speak – human touch can lessen physical pain. I may not be a doctor or a nurse, but I am a human being and it is within all of us to extend simple human kindness to others in pain. By the end of my time with this patient I was covered in the sweat of a stranger, had missed my lunch break, and was dealing with what looked like very scary symptoms. Others might not have reacted how I chose to or might have been grossed out. But for me it is moments like this that make my life worth living and give me purpose.

So my question to you dear reader is this – how has kindness helped you today? What kindness have you extended to others?

Looking Back


Today, I watched the movie The Skeleton Twins. If you have not seen it, it is about twins Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig who have been estranged for 10 years in the wake of one of them being molested and their fathers suicide. Bill’s character Milo tries to kill himself and Kristin Wiig’s character Maggie comes to take him back to their hometown to convalesce. Some of the theme’s of the movie are regret, unrequited love and death. This got me thinking back on my own life…

There is a box I keep in one corner of my apartment that has a menagerie of items from my past lives. My life as a married woman, as a new 27 year old divorcee living in New York and my time living in Los Angeles as an actress. There were old love letters, younger photos of me in headshots and postcards from old friends. I found an old Bhagavad Gita from my Hari Krishna days along with some meditation beads. As I picked up each one of these items, it ripped my heart out just a little. One was a birthday card from Britni. I still use the decorative small  bowls she gave me and the jewelry box they came in. I usually reserve them for dessert so I can always remember the sweetness of our friendship.

Reading the old love letters and cards from my ex-husband was the most painful. I remembered how in love we were. There were bad times yes, but reading these letters reminded me that I was once loved. I’ve been perpetually single since that divorce with partners not ever lasting more than a year. He is now in a relationship and I honestly hope that he is happy and in love. Even though there is nothing more that I want than just to see him once more, I know that will never happen. I admire him from afar during the occasional google search. Sometimes, I think about him dying and finally being able to see him by visiting his grave. But I’m happy he’s still alive – The world is a much happier place for me knowing he is on it too. Knowing that we both breathe the same air and look up at the same moon.

I’ve come to a place where I believe I will spend the rest of my life single – but not alone. I do love my life and have many wonderful people in it, but when I look back on the pattern of my love life I seem to be unsuccessful at creating meaningful romantic relationships.  Even though I was the one that left, I’ve never really completely let him go. There is a place in my heart that he’ll always be. A place where he and I will always be young and in love.

I also found some of my old photographs I took when I first took up the hobby in New York. I was extremely depressed then and I used to wander through Manhattan taking pictures with a plastic Diana camera to get myself out of the house. I see how my technique has changed and improved since those early days with better equipment and practice. Tonight, I’m being paid to shoot another well known photographer’s birthday party. Back then it was my goal to become a professional photographer.

There was the post card from New York that my friend sent me saying that both he and New York missed me. He said that I was brave for starting a new life so far away and he admired me for it. I put that up on my refrigerator.

I also found out today that one girl I knew from my New York days died this past June at 34 from Uterine Cancer. I read a beautiful eulogy from one of her friends that moved me to tears. It reminded me how so very lucky I am and I am still wondering why I did not die. It seems impossible. It feels both unfair that I still live and extremely lucky.

When I opened the Gita, I turned to a random page:

As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such change.

– The Bhagavad Gita

A sober person is not bewildered by such change. Even though I am not bewildered by the change, right now my heart hurts a little. I accept this pain as the nature of life is to suffer knowing that it is only temporary and impermanent. Overall, I’m grateful for the life I’ve led and know that there are even more adventures in store as I look ahead. But for now, I’m remembering the past.

Final Passages


   Last Thursday I found myself on a ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo, CA. I was on that ferry to meet Britni’s mom Nancy. We both were enrolled in Final Passage’s death doula certification in Sebastopol, CA. Earlier in the year I heard about this program from Nancy. She had found it and shared it with me. She didn’t know about home funerals and wished she had so she could have taken back control of Britni’s death, body and funeral. Coincidentally (or not! Depending on your worldview) my grandfather died on July 19th of this year…the same day that Britni died in 2012. I’ve only known two people who have died and they both died on the same day. I’m still trying to figure out what this means, but I do know I do not believe in coincidence.

   The program was held in the middle of some of California’s most beautiful northern woods. During the day, we picked blackberries and sat in the sun as we learned the philosophical and practical issues around home deaths and funerals. At night, we sat in hot tubs looking at the stars; decompressing with foxes scampering not too distantly in the woods. Jerrigrace Lyons and her husband Mark teach this program. Jerrigrace came into this profession by way of her friend Carolyn who died in the 90’s and left her last wishes for her friends to care for her body and memorialize her utilizing the home funeral model. Jerrigrace is now one of the foremost authorities on the subject.

   The training was filled with beautiful people coming from all over the United States. Some were chaplains, some were nurses. Some were past clients of Jerrigrace’s now wanting to help others. All of us were there to work out past issues and learn to be better human beings. I personally loved the fact that this was a space I could walk into and have both spiritual and clinical personnel involved. Often at work I feel like I must choose between these two worlds. That to believe in a spiritual world is somehow in opposition to medical science. Here, I got to have my cake and eat it too and felt completely supported in these notions.

   Pema Chodron says (and I am paraphrasing here) that where we find discomfort, we must lean into it. That discomfort is the most clear of teachers because it shows us immediately and with extraordinary clarity where our issues lie. I can’t say that I did much work around death personally there. That work I’ve been doing since my cancer diagnosis. But I did work out many issues that pertain to how I live. I cried many times at this training, but not because of death. I cried at the couple who had been together for 34 years sharing their story of how they met. I cried when it hit me that I hate living in my modern, urban, solitary lifestyle. I realized that even though I am loved by a few, I feel a lack of love in my life – especially from myself lately. This week I leaned into that discomfort.

   Following the training was leaving for Sacramento to attend my grandfather’s funeral. There was more discomfort around this not because I am mourning his death, but because I feel anger and pain at our last interaction. The last time I saw my grandfather was in June when I came up specifically to say good bye to him. He was in the hospital and nobody knew if he would make it out considering his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer with several brain and throat metastases. When I got to his hospital bed he ordered me out. He said some really cruel things, including telling me he was going to call security on me if I didn’t leave. At first, I didn’t leave. I sat there calmly as he wiped tears discreetly from his eyes. He also never came to visit me, call me or expressed any concern when I was diagnosed with my own cancer. For the majority of his suffering these past months I have only heard about it through my mother. It’s been difficult hearing how close he got to everyone while on me he called threatened security. Everyone likes to tell me it’s the brain tumors affecting his judgment. But honestly, he was incredibly anti-social and he had been for a long time. My family especially likes to remind me of this when I express feeling unloved. Perhaps he did love me when I was a child, but I cannot say that he did at the end of his life and I feel anger at this.

   At the funeral, my family wanted me to get up and share some meaningful memories of when I was a child. I could have shared him whitewashing one of his paintings to teach me to paint, or how he built me a swing or got me a puppy. But the anger and hurt prevented me from doing so. Instead, I leaned on the common experience of cancer and sharing that I was there in supportive service to others from my death doula training. That was my comfort zone.

   In order to attain full certification next May one of the things I have to do is write two letters of forgiveness: one letter I write to forgive someone else, one letter I write to ask for forgiveness. I can ask for forgiveness. But I have a VERY hard time forgiving when the other person is not asking for forgiveness. I’ve been trying to lean into this feeling. To understand why I cannot forgive. I think part of the answer is I haven’t really had to in my life. In my experience, people rarely ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness or apologizing is detrimental to the ego and personally very few people in my life that have caused me harm or pain have ever asked for forgiveness from me. How I deal with it is shutting people out of my life and moving on. I don’t think about them. I just don’t want them in my life. I’ve ostracized several people in my life for this. A part of me is wondering how I will ever move past this to write this letter. How can I forgive when I truly don’t feel it? I am so sick of hearing from others that we don’t forgive for the offenders sake, that we forgive for our own. I know this logically, but I can’t force myself to feel something when I truly don’t.

   In conclusion, I came away from this week with a deeper understanding of who I am, what my needs are and what work I still have to do. Now, I need to challenge myself. I need to live my ideals and make the necessary changes to grow myself spiritually.

Here’s to making the change.

What makes a Minister?

Earlier this year I was offered an incredible opportunity. The attending physician of the Parkinson’s clinic I work at saw how intimately I connected to our palliative care patients and thought I would be great as a spiritual counselor for a UCSF study on the role of spirituality in palliative care.

Considering I’ve done hospice work since I was 25 (I’m now 36), started a peer based therapy group two weeks after having been diagnosed with stage III cancer, and dealt actively with my own death while comforting my family members….to say I was excited would be a vast understatement. This is what I feel I’ve been put here on this planet to do – comfort the dying.

That opportunity has now been rescinded.

I reached out to a chaplain today because they wanted me to have a mentor. I could see on her face she didn’t think I would be a good fit for this study because I don’t have a Masters of Divinity degree and effectively talked the physician out of hiring me.

I am devastated.

This has made me question how we choose our spiritual leaders and what we look for in them. For me personally, I don’t trust clergy. I’m not religious nor have I ever had a positive experience with clerics (Today included). One thing this chaplain said that sticks out as I was crying at work was “I’m making things worse aren’t I?”. If you have gone to school and earned the piece of paper that says you’re a minister, shouldn’t you be able to soothe the souls of others? If you work as a chaplain in a hospital, shouldn’t you know what to say? What about people like me who don’t hold degrees in theology but who seem to know how to soothe and counsel? Does this inherent gift not matter because I have no paper?

In the eyes of the world I am useless.

It’s completely ok to counsel people for free with no diploma. I’ve been doing it for free for a very long time. I’ve given so much of myself over the years and I’m so tired of getting nothing in return. I’m so tired of my worth being measured in education or looks or a number on a scale. I’m so tired of being told by people that what I do matters yet never being able to benefit myself. I’m so tired of feeling like my life doesn’t matter and seeing proof of that fact in my every day dealings.

I feel like nobody values what I do. The fact is if I was really making a difference women would come to my cancer babes meetings. People would value my work. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t keep on giving and receive nothing in return. I’m too tired of hearing that it’s too far or it’s not what they want to do. If it was important to people they would come. I’m most likely going to dismantle Cancer Babes. I’ve worked really hard for 3 years to build it and I just can’t do it anymore by myself. I can’t keep investing money, time, energy and my heart only to have nobody appreciate these sacrifices.

I’m done.