Writing a letter to a friend that recaps my path to chaplaincy this morning, I realized I had never posted my essay for applying for Clinical Pastoral Education. It has five parts:
- A reasonably full account of my life.
- A description of my spiritual growth and development.
- A description of my vocational history.
- An account of a “helping incident.”
- My impressions of clinical pastoral education.
I’m going to post numbers 1,2 and 5 here as separate posts, as I think I’m going to be referring back to this essay from time to time. Even broken into separate posts, they’re long for a blog, so forgive me if you were looking for a quick read.
Here’s #1, “A reasonably full account of my life.” As always, love to hear your thoughts.
A reasonably full account of my life.
I was born in 1964 in Los Gatos, California. While very different from each other and ultimately divorcing, my parents shared a respect for a life of the mind and a stubborn independence. Both had been married before. Eleanor was born in 1921 in Chicago to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, was a feminist and atheist who identified with her Jewish heritage. Thorne was from Carmel-by-the-Sea and a WWII veteran, with a piece of shrapnel in his back and a PTSD diagnosis. He was a seeker who did yoga and meditation, chanting and Nichiren Buddhist gatherings, and corresponded with Ram Dass about appeasing the souls of the men he had killed in the war. As a family, we celebrated Christmas and Channukah in a secular way, and when I was young we went to Unitarian services.
My mother had a daughter from her first marriage, Ann. She was fourteen years older than me, and when I was four, she went to UC Berkeley, where she came out as a lesbian separatist and joined the Gay Liberation Front. My parents were supportive, and I have a photo of us in Sproul Plaza wearing handmade lavender sweatshirts reading Gay Lib Mom, Gay Lib Dad, and Gay Lib Little Bro. Ann came home weekends and summers, told me about her witchcraft classes, and taught me “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with all the pronouns for G-D switched to the Feminine.
During that same time, my father and Ann both went to jail for sitting in at the Oakland Induction Center against the draft, and we visited them during their incarcerations. My father was arrested with Ira Sandperl and Joan Baez and came home with a deep yearning to follow in the steps of Gandhi. He sent his WWII medals to President Nixon, along with a six-page letter against the Viet Nam War. He also sent a copy to his father, a WWI veteran and at the time Head of Americanism for the Veterans of Foreign War. Dad never heard back from Nixon, but Grandpa responded with a postcard: “I do not agree with your actions, but I defend to the death your right to take them.”
After graduating from UC, Ann spent some years in Europe, and when I was eleven my parents sent me to live with her in Athens for a few months. While there, my sister, who had studied education in school, assigned me readings—Graves’ The Greek Myths, Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, Hamilton’s Mythology. We played Monopoly in Greek and traveled by bus to the mainland sites and by ferry to the islands of Crete and Ithaca. When I returned to the United States, my parents had decided to get divorced.
My dad moved out to an old Jesuit retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains, then bought 30 acres in Eastern Washington with a half-built, unelectrified and unplumbed cabin, 25 miles from the Canadian border. I moved up there the summer of 7th grade and we slept outside and worked to get the place in order before the snow flew. I spent the next couple of years shuttling between California and Washington, suburban and rural. The cabin never really got in order. We put electricity in after a few years, but we still hauled water to the house every day from the creek.
One winter when I was up there, my mother told us in the P.S. of a letter that she had found a lump in her breast and that she was getting the mass removed the next day, but it was nothing to worry about.
I was living in California two years later when my mother died in the hospital. I had asked her once what she thought death was and she said, “It’s like a light switch being turned off.” It’s not surprising that she died panicked and crying, with the mandate to do whatever was medically possible to hold it at bay. There was no funeral and no memorial. I believe she thought these superstitious. I was fifteen, and have no memory of what I was feeling, or of talking about it with anybody. I never saw her body, and I was back at school two days later.
My father offered to come from Washington, but there were bad feelings between him and my grandma and my sister, so they asked him to stay away. I lived with my sister and her new husband in the house where I grew up, and continued going to high school. My sister and I struggled, but her husband was a kind and comforting presence. Looking back, I can see my sister was 25 years old, a young woman suddenly saddled with a house in a place she mostly despised, her beloved mother dead, and responsible for an 82 year-old woman and a 15 year-old boy who verged on feral. It must have been extremely difficult and confusing for her. I lived there with them for a year. When I told her I was hitchhiking north with a friend the summer of my junior year, I can’t blame her for showing relief.
I worked in orchards and restaurants in Washington and Idaho, visited my dad, and fell in love for the first time, then returned to Los Gatos and found a place to live, in my town’s only residential hotel. I had a bedroom with a lock, and shared bathroom and kitchen privileges with others on my floor. I was sixteen years old, and living on my own.
I met Penny through her daughter, Amy, who went to my high school. Penny was perhaps the smartest, most honorable, and infuriating person I’ve ever met, not because she didn’t care what other people thought, but because she believed deeply in being free. This freedom was not easy for her. She was an alcoholic with a two pack a day habit and a love of poker. She was also a voracious reader—Flannery O’Connor and Jim Harrison were two favorites. She was an atheist and feminist like my mother, but wild like my dad. Over the next few years I spent many nights at Amy and Penny’s kitchen table talking, arguing and laughing, sleeping on their couch. Penny, while a menace and an attractive nuisance in so many ways, helped me to hone my thinking and my ethical ideals.
After high school I moved to Santa Cruz and lived there for three years, going to school, playing music, and working. In March 1986, a number of friends took part in the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament (GPM), and I became involved in the local organizing, media outreach and fundraising. When the GPM was halfway across the country its administrative base moved to DC, and I went with them. That year, I did civil disobedience for the first time at the Nevada Test Site, earning 30 days in jail. It was there I was first exposed to religious people who I found ethically, radically consistent—Catholic Worker folks, often seniors who spent hours a day in their cells, praying.
I spent the next three years organizing and doing direct action demonstrations in Florida, Nevada, and the San Francisco Bay Area, demonstrating against nuclear weapons, the wars in Central America, protecting the environment, and supporting the rights of people who are poor and homeless. During that time, now living in San Francisco, I worked in restaurants and as a door-to-door canvasser for peace and justice organizations. I estimate I spent about nine months in various jails during this time. I continued to be impressed by the seriousness and humility with which religious people took part in these activities, and began to notice and wonder about the high representation of people, like myself, of Jewish descent, who seemed reluctant to discuss our heritage. After about two years I began to wonder whether I was investing, with my actions, in the continuation of what I protested against, and began considering what I wanted in the world as well as what I didn’t. I started classes at City College of San Francisco and decided to get my bachelors.
At that time my mother’s mother, Bella Liph, died of a heart attack. I was 25. Again, I never saw her body and there was no memorial.
I soon switched from City College to New College of California. There I came into my own, publishing in the school’s literary journal and small magazines, doing readings, and finding a joy in being a student I had never had before. I also studied a semester in Mexico. I graduated with a BA in Humanities with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
After graduating, I traveled and worked in Alaska, then returned to San Francisco, where I started work at the front counter of Tassajara Bakery and soon became a baker. While working there I also wrote short stories. Amy and Penny had moved to San Francisco, and we all lived and worked in the Upper Haight. Soon, I decided to apply for an MFA program in Creative Writing. It was at this time that I first went to services at a synagogue and fell in love with the spiritual practice of being a Jew (see #3, “A description of your spiritual growth and development”).
I was accepted at three graduate programs, and went with the one in Spokane, Eastern Washington University. The teachers were good, and I would live near my father for the first time in years.
While this was happening, Penny developed a chronic cough. It turned out she had late-stage lung cancer and, presented with her options and probable outcomes, chose no treatment and was given a year to live. I suggested delaying my start at the Writing program but she was against it. She had always been my best editor and reader, and I believe she took my attending the MFA program to be as much a victory for her as it was for me. I left for Spokane, found an apartment in a few days, but my first night there I was contacted by a family friend. “You should come down now,” she said. I got there the next evening, but Penny was gone.
Entering the program, I was in a strange combination of grief and excitement, having just lost someone who had become family to me, but beginning a process I had dreamed about for years. For the first time, I attended grief counseling through the school’s Counseling Program. The two years I was in the MFA program were an extraordinary and monastic experience, with 30 other people from across the country who took the work as seriously as I did.
After finishing my thesis and graduation, I moved back to San Francisco and started at the bakery again, then became the office manager at a methadone clinic. It was a hard time for me (see #3, “A description of your spiritual growth and development”). I had surpassed my own expectations in getting a Masters, I finally had to live with the death of my friend, I was sending out stories but getting none published. I was faced with confusion and sadness that was manifesting in compulsive behaviors, and I was full of existential doubts and questions. I went through a “dark night of the soul” that lasted three months.
But the methadone clinic oddly cheered me, letting me get out of myself and help others. I was the first person clients saw each morning, and was often the voice answering the phone when people had “reached bottom” and were calling to get on the program. I found I was able to sit with people in crisis and set a calm, welcoming tone, but also be firm and make good boundaries. I had a positive impact on the lives of our clients, and was moved by their bravery in the face of events and lives that were so much darker than my own.
Time passed, and the darkness lifted. I joined the cast of Re: Place, a large performance inaugurating the opening of Zeum, an arts and technology museum in downtown SF. The director and I began working together on the script, and by the end of the show we had begun a relationship. A year later, she and I moved in together. I still struggled with the habits that had arisen during my dark times, and began attending 12-step meetings, which I did for three years. I found a lot of solace in those rooms. In 2000, we decided to have a baby. Our daughter, Esmé, is named after my mother, Eleanor, in the Jewish tradition of choosing a name with the first letter from a family member who has died.
While Rachel was pregnant, I became the development director for a community-based neighborhood center, where I began to build the skills I’ve used to support my family for these last thirteen years. When Esmé was one, Rachel got a California Arts Council Grant to teach performance to youth, and we moved to Point Reyes Station and I began working from home part time. As the years passed, I evolved from staff at the center to being a consultant to them and working with other nonprofits as well.
Eventually we moved to Petaluma where we live now, and Rachel began studying at Sonoma State’s graduate MFT program. It was at that time I began training as a hospice volunteer at Hospice of Petaluma, something I had wanted to do for a number of years. The training was 35 hours over nine weeks, an extraordinary physical, mental, social and spiritual preparation. In addition to the preparation for volunteering, this is where I first met Dr. Scott Eberle, their medical director, the author of The Final Crossing: Learning to Die in Order to Live. He is also the medical director for School of Lost Borders, an organization that has been taking individuals to the desert for solo rites of passage since 1981. I felt deeply drawn to this work, and talked with him often about it.
After I completed my hospice training, I sat with dying clients and their family members weekly for over a year. My last client was an 80 year-old man who passed while I was there, and I had the privilege of helping his niece and the hospice nurse prepare his body. I feel that any service I have provided as a hospice volunteer has been outweighed by the benefits I’ve received. This period of volunteering began in me a long reevaluation of my priorities, of what is true and what is false. This application for chaplaincy training traces directly back to this service.
Not long after that client passed, my half-brother Jeff died. I was advised to take time off from volunteering, and, in fact, benefited from grief counseling with hospice. Finally, eight years later, I’ve been able to return as a volunteer. I will begin working as a grief counselor with Hospice of Petaluma in January 2015.
In 2007 I began a two-year training for an adult bar mitzvah, studying Hebrew, the Jewish liturgy and the prayers weekly with Judith Goleman at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa (at the time there was no adult bar mitzvah class at my temple in Petaluma, B’nai Israel). This deepened my commitment to a daily spiritual practice, to Judaism and myself as a Jew. I received bar mitzvah in 2008.
I also began beekeeping around this time, and the hives have given me so much more than honey—spiritual comfort, intellectual stimulation, and the community of other beekeepers. Keeping bees keeps me aware of nature’s cycles of light, temperature and weather, and gives me a sense of the world’s scale. My wife wrote a book on urban homesteading—our home is alive with bees, gardens, chickens, rabbits, our daughter and greywater catchment systems.
In 2012, my father died at the age of 82. I still miss him immensely, but a silver lining in the process is the relationships I have built with the children from his first marriage. I grew up thinking of myself as an only child, but as an adult, I feel that I have been blessed with siblings.
In 2013, I finally listened to the call I had heard from Dr. Eberle so many years before, and in May took part in a four-day-and-night solo fast in the Inyo Mountains with School of Lost Borders, then four more days with the group, telling our stories and reintegrating. This ritual time alone marked a quickening of the call to chaplaincy for me.
Since my desert journey, I have continued to raise a daughter, be a husband, work at my job, and meditate on the spiritual path of the householder. The process of rearing a human is engrossing, and also the most rigorous spiritual practice I’ve ever taken on. But I have felt a great calling to something that connects me to the world outside my blessed family life, and I have been praying for guidance. In June 2014, after much contemplation, I decided to begin the process of training to be a chaplain, with a long-term focus on palliative and hospice care.