Reverberations: Thoughts for the Month of Elul


I opened Facebook the other day and saw the official announcement that Zen Hospice Project Guest House was closed. The carpets were rolled up. The furniture had been removed. The house is almost ready to sell.

The staff at Zen Hospice was so caring and compassionate. The Threshold Choir sang bedside there twice a week, adding to the clients’ comfort during their last days on earth. This hospice was a model of what hospice could be, but, alas, their funding was private and had dried up. I read the sad comments on this post, and also felt sad, but at the same time I thought about the reverberations that would permanently continue to resonate from anyone who had been witness to the special care provided here.

This is the Jewish month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; traditionally a time for self-reflection and change. As I thought about the reverberations of the now-closed Zen hospice I felt compelled to remember other instances that continue to inspire me to be a better person. To keep this short, I’ll share just three.

  1. I belong to the Threshold Choir, a choir that trains people to provide comfort by singing bedside. The rehearsal circle meets once per week to practice our songs. The culture of this group is a model of how people can relate to each other in community. We arrive to many hugs of welcome. We are kindly led by several rotating song leaders to work diligently on perfecting our singing. When we sing bedside in groups of three or four, the leaders have an uncanny sensitivity to the needs of the individual patient and choose songs appropriately. I am not a naturally warm and fuzzy person, but I am being inspired by the culture of this choir, to connect more with others in a warm way.
  2. I will always remember and be inspired by my almost 4-year-old grandson when he apologized to a friend of his. We all know that it can be difficult to admit that we were wrong and make amends. The next time I need to apologize to someone, the image of B, bending down and looking his friend in the eye and saying, “I’m sorry I yelled at you” will be there.
  3. Twenty-five years ago I was invited to a dinner at the parents home of a co-worker. The entire evening was so pleasant and comfortable for everyone. My co-worker’s father served the dinner in the most gracious, loving way. I continue to work on emulating his graciousness. He served one dinner that continues to affect my thoughts and behavior, even after 25 years!

As I reflect during this month of Elul and during these trying times I am committed to remember and foster these reverberating moments.


Tell me your stories, please.

What is your favorite story? I have several favorites that are helpful in times of distress. I am telling you these stories from memory. Of course, my own interpretation and cultural context probably play a part in how I remember these, but stories we tell ourselves are always more powerful when seen through our own eyes and experienced in our own emotional context. These are all Buddhist stories, as far as I know.


If I’m angry I like this story:

A man was out in his small boat one Sunday, enjoying the quiet, though foggy day and having some me time. He was so relaxed and satisfied – until . . .Oh no! A boat was coming towards him.

He yelled, “You’re coming right towards me! Move!” But the boat kept moving directly towards his boat.  

“Stop! Steer clear!” But the boat got closer and closer, and, finally, CRASH! The man held on for dear life – his boat was almost capsized, but remained on the water.

The man was furious; incensed; angry; and purple with rage! “How dare you crash into me,” he said, “You could have killed me!”

There was no response. The man took a moment and looked into the boat that had crashed into his. There was no one in the boat! The boat had broken away from the dock and drifted into him. The man laughed and laughed! His anger was gone.

Next time you’re angry, remember, there’s no one in the boat.


The following story helps for any kind of distress. It may be considered to be sexist, but considering the time context, this doesn’t bother me. The message is powerful.

Two monks were walking through the forest. These were monks who were living in a time when male monks were celibate. They had strict rules about any touching contact with women. The monks walked silently through the forest. They came to a stream where they saw a woman in distress. She was knee deep in the water but the water was churning too fast for her to wade across. One of the monks lifted her up and carried her to the other side of the stream. She went her way and the monks continued on their way.

The monk who witnessed the other monk carrying the woman was incensed. All day he kept thinking, “How could he do that? Doesn’t he know about our rules?” As the day went by, he became more and more angry. Finally, he could contain himself no longer: “How could you break our vows? What came over you?”

The monk who had carried the woman said, “I carried the woman for 5 minutes; you’ve been carrying her all day.”


If I’m fearful, I like this story:

A woman was walking in a mountainous area. Suddenly, she heard the roar of a tiger. Clearly the tiger was about to kill her. She ran and ran until she came to a cliff. She leapt from the cliff and held on to a vine to keep from falling down all at once.

As she looked down she saw a tiger at the bottom of the cliff. She tightly gripped the vine and then noticed a mouse nibbling on that very vine!

Tiger above and tiger below.

The woman looked around her and suddenly saw a wild strawberry. She picked it and popped it into her mouth. “Mmmmmmmmm, strawberry!” she thought.


I have a request. Do you have a favorite story? If so, I would love if you would share it with me. I’d like to compile these to celebrate my 70th birthday, which is in December. I’d like to start now so that I have time to put these all together to share with others – possibly to publish in book form. I’m happy to share with attribution, or, if you are shy and don’t want your name made public, I’ll respect that request. So, please, tell me your favorite stories! I can’t wait to see them!

Art equals artist: NOT

blog sex harThe renowned Zen practitioner and teacher Charlotte Joko Beck quotes the priest Anthony Demillo, who said that we should view all people as mean, vicious, untrustworthy, and manipulative. And innocent. And blameless.

We are all products of our cultural backgrounds. We learn behaviors and beliefs from our parents and they from their parents and so on. We are influenced by media, our education system, our peers, so many conveyors of various cultural expressions, some, as we know being racist, sexist, all kinds of ist.

We struggle on. We change, or at least try very hard to change.

Soon I’ll be talking with some children in a secular Jewish school about my personal story as a feminist, how I grew up in a religious environment that valued boys over girls, how I left that world to fight against the war in Viet Nam and ultimately to become part of the new wave of feminism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Thinking about my own history, I remembered the newscasters on a particularly liberal news program on public television called Newsroom. The newscasters, all men, snickered about this new wave of feminism. It was a big joke to them. These same newscasters would never laugh now about feminism. Those now in their chairs have changed. Remembering this episode in my own history feeds my optimism.

What am I leading up to?

Big gulp!

I love the creativity of Louis C.K. I love the films of Woody Allen. I love the writing of Leo Tolstoy and Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. I could go on. Claire Dederer recently wrote a piece in The Paris Review called “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” She included a long, though not comprehensive, list of famous men whose values in their actual life (as opposed to their art) were unacceptable.[1]

Bill Cosby, Carravaggio, Ezra Pound, John Galliano, Lead Belly, Max Ernst, Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Pablo Picasso, Phil Spector, Richard Wagner, Roman Polanski, Sid Vicious, S. Naipaul, William Burroughs, Woody Allen

These are just Twitter tags and certainly not a comprehensive list.

Will I never see a Woody Allen film again? Will I never listen to Miles Davis? Is Ezra Pound on the no-read list? Is Tolstoy? No. I would feel impoverished if I could no longer see “Annie Hall” or read War and Peace.

I, personally, am more comfortable separating the artist from the art. If there is something that I find objectionable in the art, I’ll be the first person to point this out. When Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” came out, I saw it. I felt comfortable critiquing his breaking of the criteria for the evaluation of dramatizations of the Passion that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had drawn up.[2] Whether or not Mel Gibson was or is an anti-Semite is irrelevant to me, except insofar as his anti-Semitism is conveyed in his films. In that film, I believe it was, and I was quite vocal about my objections. Should I not see “Braveheart?” “Mad Max?” I refuse to be confined to seeing the work of proven righteous people. How are we to know who is righteous enough to be allowed to express themselves artistically?

I am strongly disappointed in Louis C.K. and Woody Allen and all the flawed artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct. But I do not want to deprive myself or anyone of their genius. So I am also strongly disappointed in the call for boycotting all the work of these perpetrators. We are punishing ourselves for their misconduct, and this makes no sense to me.




[2] Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1988


What Shall We Do?

questionI am as distraught as I’m sure you are about the times in which we find ourselves. There are violent white supremacists marching in the streets; violent antifa activists who think they can take care of the situation; and most of us, who show up to say that we will act in a peaceful manner and make ourselves heard. We will stand against Islamaphobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. But is standing up and being seen enough? I think the answer to that question is no. Here is why.

We who are liberal are blind to those who voted for Trump. That is why Trump won the election. When you live in a bubble you do not have a whole lot to say about what will happen in a national election. I know – Hillary actually won the popular vote – but 63,000,000 people voted for Trump. Why is that? We need to know about the suffering of those who were so desperate for change that they voted for Trump.

Young conservatives become radicalized when they are treated as less than human. Groups like the Patriot Prayer folks who were about to rally in San Francisco, are paranoid and feel a persecution complex. When you beat them up; when you do not recognize that they are human beings, they become more and more radicalized and may eventually become more extreme than they already are.

I was impressed with how individuals who were likely from the Patriot Prayer group walked through the crowd at the Civic Cberkeley aug 2017enter in San Francisco and were not harassed. They were just there – no issue at all. The situation in Berkeley was completely different. The antifa people, who, apparently, love a good fight, may have helped radicalize people to a more extreme position than they originally held.

Having peace requires being peace, as we will always remember from the Civil Rights Movement.

The Southern Poverty Law Center offers a list of 10 ways to counter hate. Below is a summary:

  1. Act
  2. Join forces
  3. Support the victims
  4. Speak up
  5. Educate yourself
  6. Create an alternative – do not attend a hate rally. Find another outlet for anger and frustration and for people’s desire to do something. Hold a unity rally or parade to draw attention away from hate.
  7. Pressure leaders
  8. Stay engaged
  9. Teach acceptance
  10. Dig deeper. Look inside yourself for biases and stereotypes. Commit to disrupting hate and intolerance at home, at school, in the workplace, and in faith communities.

I would add that as we educate ourselves and dig deeper, that we look at our own demonization of those who disagree with us, and see if we are projecting something undeserved on those who may not be as extreme as the most radical right-wing Nazi living room conversationwhite supremacists. There are organizations like, and Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. We need to talk to each other before it’s too late and we end up being divided beyond repair.




IMG_2015I haven’t written for quite a while. I’ve indulged my obsessive orientation towards whatever project to which I’ve committed myself. The latest project was to create an in-law apartment for my husband and myself. The project involved hiring a contractor, discontinuing our relationship with that contractor due to cost concerns, hiring another contractor, being involved with every detail of the design and building of the place – picking out woodwork, cabinets, sinks, faucets, tile, flooring, paint; everything. I spent countless hours shopping on the internet, shopping for the basic items such as pulls for cabinets and all the other basic items that are needed to create a kitchen and bathroom. Most of the furniture we bought was used, but to find nice used furniture also involved more obsessing; hours combing through listings on the internet; hours going from thrift shop to thrift shop. The process took well over 2 years. We have finally moved in and I’m reeling with exhaustion, excitement, joy, sense of accomplishment, and a strong sense that the difficulties involved were surely a First World problem. I go back and forth between thinking that it surely was worth the time and cost to create a nice place for my husband and me to live and to provide space upstairs for our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. The conflict that creeps up on me, though, is the sense that with the world as it is, how can I spend this much time trying to make us comfortable when everything around me is falling apart, when refugees are dying as they try to reach a safe haven; where health care access is being decimated in the U.S.; where populist movements in the west are destroying what I used to think of as a progressive globalism. You get the picture. Is it okay to meditate, garden, create a warm space for yourself, your extended family, and your friends? Is it okay to live a comfortable, privileged life when the whole world is falling apart around you?

Let’s flash back to the 1960’s. In those days I was obsessed about one thing – to end U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. I remember the militant anti-war demonstrations. Since that time I’ve read more about Vietnam. I know people whose lives in Vietnam were destroyed not only because of U.S. involvement but from abuses done by the side who we thought were so pure and good. I learned that political activism requires a balanced, integrated approach that considers all sides of every issue. One-sided obsession is immature and nonproductive; rather, a balanced, rational, empathic, open-hearted approach is needed. Militancy against war makes no sense to me now. Looking at issues in absolutes doesn’t make sense either. I look for a middle way.* For me to achieve that balance requires paying attention to my own balance as an individual. To have compassion for all concerned needs to start with my own balance, rather than the old way of obsessing in a one-dimensional way that ignores my own needs and that ignores my own dark side. We project that darkness onto what we perceive to be our enemy and the self-righteousness that ensues leads nowhere, in my opinion.

There it is – some hearty stream-of-consciousness words that will give you an idea of what I’m thinking about. Does any of this make sense to you? Let me know your thoughts.

*I’m an active member of The Middle Way Society. If you’d like to learn more about this approach I suggest that you check out their website:


Five Questions

questionWhat if five questions you ask others and yourself could enhance the quality of your life and the lives of others? Would you want to know what they are? I love lists, especially lists that make total sense and can be brought to mind at any moment of the day to help me make sense of the world. A fellow member of the Middle Way Society, and podcast interviewer extraordinaire, Barry Daniel, shared a video recently. Dean James Ryan who gave the Harvard Graduate School of Education commencement speech posed the five questions. Here they are:

  1. Wait, what?
  2. I wonder why? If?
  3. Couldn’t we at least?
  4. How can I help?
  5. What truly matters [to me]?

Later in the day, I saw a post requesting prayers for Jerusalem. Many people quoted the Bible and Jesus in response to this request. My first thought was that I would ignore the post, since the responses seemed insular. But – wait, I just learned the five questions.

  1. Wait, what?

Do I have to look at this request as demanding an insular response?

  1. I wonder if?

I wonder if I could answer the request from a perspective that makes sense to me.

  1. Couldn’t we at least try to find a way to express our point of view that is inclusive and loving?
  1. How can I help?

I could begin to help by expressing an inclusive point of view. Maybe further down the road I could become active in a dialogue group that would help to change the situation in this contested part of the world.

  1. What truly matters to me is love – for myself, my family, my community, the world community; I believe that we have to have compassion for everyone; looking out only for ones own will not serve humanity and the planet – and I think that the conflict this attitude produces prevents your own and everyone else’s happiness.

I posted my thoughts about my wish for peace among all people in Jerusalem; Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist – ALL people. Maybe my post wasn’t in sync with the others, but maybe someone was open hearted enough to realize that there are more points of view than what was reflected in the hundreds of absolute fundamentalist statements rolling down the page. These five questions inspire me to consider engaging in more dialogue than I am wont to do ordinarily. These times may require that we all engage more in dialogue.

For me, posing these five questions even on something as possibly insignificant as a Facebook post is a helpful exercise to try them out.

Music, Death, & Donald Trump

musical_cleff_-_maroon_copy-e1367955072178This morning I enjoyed reading an article that my husband sent me about how important music is to those who are dying. He sent it to me because I am in the Threshold Choir, a group that sends several people at a time to sing at a person’s bedside when they are near the end of their life. Reading the article triggered a memory that I had suppressed. In 2012, I accompanied my mother home in an ambulance as she was released from the ICU to go home to die. She sang with delight that she was going to be able to die at home. She was transferred to a hospital bed in her living room and had an attendant for that first night home. I stayed in her bedroom. In the middle of the night I heard the attendant and my mother arguing with each other. The attendant kept turning off the music that my mother was playing and telling my mother to go to sleep. I got up – turned the music back on, and told the attendant that it was my mother’s choice to listen to the music and it was going to stay on! Music comforted my mother more than anything else. I was angry at the attendant for turning it off.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with Donald Trump. As I thought about this memory, I began to wonder about the attendant. She was working two back-to-back 12-hour shifts. That is why she wanted to sleep through the night. She chose night shifts with the thought that she could sleep at night and be fresh for her next day’s work. That was the last thing on my mind because my interest was for my mother to have whatever she wanted during her last days on earth. More than four years later I’m thinking about that attendant in the way that I think about Trump supporters. There is always a reason that someone believes what they believe – or behaves the way they behave. Everyone has a story. The attendant was tired. The Trump supporter may have a major issue with a woman’s right to choose, or with unemployment. The rhetoric that they hear from Donald Trump may give them hope, however unjustified.

In these coming weeks, months, years, we are going to have to learn to hear each other across the great divide. It will not be easy. There will be no quick fixes, but whatever the election outcome we can no longer live in our little cocoons of certainty and righteousness. No. It’s going to be messy and difficult. I plan to give some effort to understanding people who have different beliefs than mine. I hope you will, too.

L’Chaim! To Life!

Periodically during the year, associated with certain holidays, we light candles to remember people from our families who have died. My husband and I choose to light all of these candles on the evening before Yom Kippur and on the anniversary of the death of each of our loved ones who are no longer with us. We light these candles to honor our family members and to remind us that life is finite.

An important part of my spiritual practice is allowing myself to be aware of the preciousness of life. As a humanist I don’t believe that life continues after death. Death is likely real. It is likely that we only live in people’s memories and even that ends when those who remembered us are gone. This makes life exquisitely precious. We cannot shrug and say that life will be better in the world to come. This is probably it.

candleLighting these candles is both bitter and sweet. I appreciate having this ritual. I remember my brother, my mother, and my father. My husband remembers his parents and his brother. Memories of them burn brightly.

The day after all the candles are lit, we soak the little glasses that housed the wax and metal in hot water to remove the labels and the remnants of wax. Like most Jews who have this practice, we don’t waste those vessels of remembrance. They become little juice glasses. Life goes on and those whom we honor drank from glasses just like these the morning after the candles remembering their dead had finished burning.

A new year begins. We celebrate life. We love our friends and family. We raise our little juice glasses to life! L’chaim! May your New Year be sweet and may you savor each moment.

To Love Through Song

Shabbat morning. I have found a new way to celebrate this most important day of the week. First, some background:

Let me start by saying that the joy of my life right now, aside from my husband, children, and fabulous grandchildren, is singing with the Threshold Choir. We sing at people’s bedsides, mainly to those who are dying. There are Threshold Choirs all across the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The experience of singing at a person’s bedside is profound and beautiful. Recently, KQED, a local public television station, showed a short segment about our work, if you’d like to see what I’m talking about.musical_cleff_-_maroon_copy-e1367955072178

Kate Munger founded the Threshold Choir. Years ago, she found herself at a loss when she was visiting a friend who was dying of AIDS. She felt helpless, but then she began to sing to him, and her singing comforted him. This is how the Threshold Choir was born.

I joined the choir in San Francisco almost a year ago, learned about 30 core songs, and began singing at bedside recently. The songs are spiritual but not “religious.” Whether a person is deeply religious or secular in orientation, the songs are comforting, calming, and loving. Those are the facts – but how do I describe the experience?

I’ll tell you about that Shabbat morning. We visited one person who was in great distress, crying out with anguish. No one had been able to calm her, though she was in a facility with the highest standard of care. Three of us from the Threshold Choir sat by her bed and we sang. We watched as she became more and more calm, and ultimately drifted off to sleep. We were barely able to keep singing; we were so moved to see her relax. When can you do something you love to do and have that profound an effect on someone else? What a gift it is to be able to sing for people. It is as simple as that; to do what you love and to help others. The boundaries of who is singing and who is soothed melt away. We are singing and hearing and calming and connecting. What a joy! Shabbat is an imaginary moment of perfection. On that day, for me, Shabbat was truly realized.

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Not everyone would feel comfortable singing at bedside. If you would like to contribute to this wonderful organization to support their work, please do! This could be an especially kind and comforting way to support a friend or family member who has recently lost a loved one.

Hammer or mindfulness?

There are so many internet memes about gratitude. “Wake up grateful.” “Count your blessings everyday.” “Gratitude changes everything.” I agree with these thoughts, but for me this is a skill that needs exercise just as much as strength training. Gratitude doesn’t come easily to me. I had the good fortune of being reminded about how great it is to have running water in my kitchen. Yes, you read that right – I’m grateful to have running water in my kitchen. There is construction going on in our house and one day we have water – the next day we don’t – then voilà; water again 2 days later. The first day we have water back, I am hyper-aware of how great it is to have running water in the kitchen. I feel the warm water on my hands and I rinse the dishes. I don’t have to walk the dishes to the bathroom to wash, rinse, and dry them. I freely cook and use as many pots and pans as I need to. I become watergrateful for ordinary plumbing.
The brain makes strange connections. When I thought about my gratitude for running water in my kitchen I again became grateful that I could walk. I spent 3 months in a wheelchair 14 years ago after being hit by a car. It took me 5 years to begin to feel somewhat “normal” again. Now, I make a point of taking at least 10,000 steps a day – walking – dancing – doing tai chi and Feldenkreis. I am aware of how lucky I am to be able to walk, to dance, to move on my own two feet, but somehow, the water issue – the loss and then restoration of plumbing inspires gratitude for gaining my ability to walk as well.

Do we need to have loss in order to appreciate what we have? Is it possible to walk through various scenarios and inspire our own gratitude without the ‘ole hammer trick?