Vignettes from Rebecca Doverspike
This summer we were so fortunate to have Rebecca Doverspike work as a chaplain with COTW. And, not only is Rebecca a wonderfully kind, thoughtful, and compassionate chaplain, but she also writes beautifully. She shared some vignettes with us that give such a strong feeling of our ministry and communities in Waltham. Rebecca is currently in a year-long chaplain residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her own spiritual reservoir is filled through conversations with friends, writing poetry, and practicing Zen Buddhism at Greater Boston Zen Center.
Summer 2019 Vignettes –
During Wednesday morning meditation in the church choir room, where we flip a basket upside down and place upon it a blanket, a bell, and other holy objects to make an alter, three people from the community sit together with Reverend Becky and I. One of them, currently caught in the throes of addiction, seems filled with active grief as water brims in his eyes and he responds verbally, passionately, to each thing Becky speaks. He sits with his hands folded and something wants to come out of him in surrender. Becky skillfully decides to be with him in an adjacent room while I continue holding meditation for the two community members who seek a quiet space for that time each week. Later, Becky tells me that in the adjacent room, she had given him a project to try to keep a candle lit. She told me how moved she was that he put his full self into it- his hands cupped around the small flame, all his energy and focus on it. How he whispered, “No light deserves to go out unseen” over and over, bearing witness. If someone wrought with grief, undone by pain, worn down by a system that has not found a way to help him, can sit in a small corner of a church and cup his calloused hands around a flame, and with all his gentle might try to keep it alive, with the feeling that no light deserves to go out unseen- can we not, must we not, see these flames in one another, cup our hands around them, and try with all our gentle, patient, might to bring that light into fuller life?
We are driving T to the pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions. I am in the backseat, moved by Becky and T’s conversation up front. It is clear to me they have established a trusting relationship, as T speaks freely, and Becky honors his voice. In all the narratives, all the pain and immensity of suffering and violence, there is something about the depth of goodness in T’s heart that emerges to me: I trust him. Trust feels different than belief. When I hear what is happening for someone, when I hear various stories, the question has shifted from: is this “true?” to “how is this true?” I myself have sometimes cried deep tears and spun a narrative from it, to place on top of it, to try to understand it— but the truth is that even if the present cause and effect feels fairly correlated, I don’t know if that’s entirely “why,” and couldn’t really fully trace all the causes and conditions— but the tears are real. The sadness beneath is real, and the story is true, even if not in a literal way. (I think sometimes listening with a poet’s ear can help “read” in this way. And I think everyone has a poet’s ear, and I think reading is something that can be cultivated.)
T is having a very hard time and I am feeling moved by his heart, which I can tell is wider and deeper than could easily be imagined after what he has been through. How is it, I wonder, that such a heart which could understandably be constricted and small, open and kind? He has been trying to get housing for years and cannot catch a break. He does not see himself this way, nor, likely, does most of the world. I am learning how when a person is experiencing homelessness, most of their day and night may be searching for a place just to sit, just to rest. Spaces are policed against sitting and resting if you look homeless, or poor, or marginalized in other ways. Chronic pain and vigilance against violence keeps him awake at night, as with many. It is so hard for anyone to make sound decisions in this world, tangled as we are in causes and conditions honestly come by, much less with no sleep, with no food, and constantly working from survivalist energy against a world that feels at war with one’s own very existence in it. We drop T off at the pharmacy and go to get gas. When we return, he is standing, his tallness towering over, two old women with huge grins on their faces. They are holding Fourth of July pinwheels, springing in the wind. They are looking up at T with such large, warm smiles on their faces. I think: this is him. This is how I will always remember him. Dropped off to pick up medicine for terribly difficult conditions, dropped off in the midst of terribly difficult circumstances, and look— making two complete strangers smile, their eyes sparkling, those pinwheels spinning. When we get back to the parking lot of McDonald’s, Becky and T continue their conversations with me in the backseat. I am struck again by T’s trust and openness. He is caught in a difficult place. Becky says, “You know this is not all of you. This is not who you are. You are a good person, and this is only a part of living in a difficult world. This is not who you “are.”” She sighs with care. She openly admits she is afraid for him. She says, “Promise me you won’t sell to anyone I know. All those people died, and it’s so painful.” “I promise,” he says, “You have my word.” My eyes have tears in them, sitting right at the brim of the bottom lid. They say that love is blind, but I think it is only through love that we ever actually see. What I see are those two old women with pinwheels spinning in their hands, looking up at this person with a large, gentle heart, grinning. * One time, during a chaplaincy internship at Brigham and Women’s, I stood in a room with a man suffering from cancer and his wife. It was perhaps my third or fourth visit. They were speaking to me about things, and about each other, and I said with that feeling in my heart that is speaking without knowing where it’s going: “I don’t at all think suffering needs to occur for such incredible love to come through, and I wish dearly that it were not, but I am absolutely amazed at the incredible love that is able to come through despite such suffering.” When I had first met the woman, she had been staring out the window crying, unable to speak or look anywhere else. By the time this moment arrived, something had opened. Connection, for at least a moment, was possible. Relationships matter. *
One morning at McDonald’s, L tells me the story of how she was beaten to an inch of her life. I can picture it. And here L is— fierce, loving, loyal. She stands up for people in the community when someone speaks ill of them. She closes her ears, puts her hands over them, when the talk feels toxic to her. She is here for coffee before she goes to work at a different fast food restaurant. “Do you like your coworkers?” I ask, as for me in customer service positions, community with coworkers meant a lot. “Some,” she says, and tells me about the one she does not get along with. “But some?” I say. “Yes,” she says. “I’m 51 and I love my job.” In that moment, some new shade of admiration came into my heart. L has spunk, resilience, and dare I say, joy— the kind hard won. Earlier, she had gotten angry with me for asking, “how are you?” (which I generally do try to avoid, but when especially tired, it is so reflexive). She went on a rather, dare I say, beautiful, monologue about how it was the worst question: “It’s the same old shit. Nothing is helping me, everything is the same. Day after day, what do you want to know? I don’t want to talk about it.” I sat beside her calmly during this speech. I did not feel, or get, defensive. I sat down in a calm part of my heart and listened. There is a place to sit in the heart where love is fierce, where it walks toward fires, where it can be in relation to anger and be unmoved in its love. “I understand,” I said, softly and firmly. “That all makes sense.” I paused. She paused. We drank our coffee. In not too long, I commented on how much I liked her ring of leaves. She replied in the calmest voice she’d had since I sat down. “Oh this,” she smiled. She told me its story. “I find that jewelry can be like company,” I admitted. “Yes,” she said. Then she told me another story, of how the police put her in protective custody, and took one of her rings, and she never got it back. Later that morning, when another member of the community was convulsing and swaying unevenly in front of me, it was L I asked if the woman needed medical intervention or not. “No,” she said, from a place of deep knowing. Something had made us become, briefly, allies. Trust sat between us. We sat silently witnessing another. And then L went to work. * That same morning, R brought us flowers that had been floating on the river. She had been doing yoga on the rocks and picked it up with her toes. We sat one in a McDonald’s coffee cup to float. When it moved, the yellow stamins shook slightly, as if every piece of its colors were alive. As if color itself were alive. And texture, too. It smelled beautiful. When I asked her how things were, she said, “I have a boyfriend. I always have a boyfriend. So I’m doing just fine.” “I think you would do just fine even without a boyfriend,” I said, and she grinned. “Yes, absolutely. I have Jesus Christ.” Though I now know that for women on the street, having a male protector is sometimes key to survival. I marvel in my own ignorance. But still we sit, while R has a cigarette on the curb and tells me about her study of the Torah and how birds protect and what keeps her alive. She is bright and vivid and full of life. She says she is all spirit. I can see it. The people I meet here, on the streets, feel like prophets. * My step-sister told me when my step-brother got picked up by the police and was getting arrested, he gave her a hug and whispered, “can you clean out my room and car? There are needles and I don’t want mom to see.” It is not that his mother did not know. It is not that it had not happened many times before. It is not that he did not put my sister and her family at risk by engaging in those activities in their home. It is not that she herself did not battle addiction, and abuse, and get clean in such a hard-won way. But that hug, that whisper— it is tenderness meeting tenderness. It is pure tenderness. To have the wherewithall, the bravery, to say that. To want to protect people when you yourself are exposed with pain, are looked upon as failing. That whisper, a second of concentrated love, is everything. It is one of his many moments of grinning old women with pinwheels in their hands. I will let it break my heart more times than I can count, and it does. * I love the way J walks. Something about it makes me think: this person is like my brother, if my brother had lived his life. * C shows me the places on his skin that got burned from his work at the gas company for many, many years, before they found him unfit to continue. He is missing many of his toes, and walks with a cane. He often falls and hurts himself on the concrete. He is often picked up by the police, on a rotation of hospital to street. Each person I meet tells me he’s the nicest guy you could ever meet. He smiles like we could tell jokes as old friends. He smiles like all of this—his whole life— is one of those jokes. He takes a sip of vodka on the steps as the sun sets. “You’re a saint, aren’t you?” He says. “No, not at all,” I say truthfully, but it halts the conversation. “Only insofar as we all are,” I rephrase, and something remains open in the air. He nods. * Lunch at the Salvation Army. A man won’t stop suggesting I become his next wife. I am frustrated with myself that I cannot steer it. My friend gently intervenes and I am grateful. On the way home, I cry. Women on the street don’t have always have a friend to intervene. Sometimes the friends that intervene hurt them. Sometimes men they think are their friends hurt them. Sometimes intervening leads to more violence. I am protected in a way that they are not. My heart breaks envisioning what happens to them. I cry on the way home. On the way home. * K tells Becky at the church about her childhood. Her father. Her father’s friend. The basement. The early children. The child she lost and blames herself for. The two times she has tried to hang herself and says to me, “eh, it happens,” as if it is all very normal. It is her normal. She has bruises on her arms. And does he still treat her better than her father did? Maybe. And is she safer with him than she would be alone? Maybe. And it is enraging beyond words? Yes.
When K leaves, Becky says to me, “I know this story already, but you just heard it. It will hurt you later. Please call me if you need to.” That night at the Zen Center, I dedicate my practice to K. I picture her. It hurts, and it hurts— to imagine what view or lack thereof she could even have of something like love when the person she had meant to learn that from harmed her so, and how often this happens—yet somewhere in it, an intimate cord that only compassion can create. I also dedicate my practice to the person sitting next to me, for he was crying at the beginning, and I know a little why. In doing so, I feel closer to them both than I would otherwise. I breathe, and breathe. Long ago, when I practiced Tonglin, I would get stuck in the grief. I would inhale sadness and be unable to transform it into peace and love back out. I absorbed it, and it threatened to break me into pieces, too. Then, I thought: and why shouldn’t I break? Why should something so terrible happen to someone else and not me? It felt dangerous, that line of thinking, and I certainly felt I was failing at Tonglin. What good does it do to just breathe in pain and not even be able to give back joy? You’re not only doing it wrong, you’re causing harm, I thought, chastising myself further, piling pain onto pain. But now, these days, there is an in between. There is a larger container to hold both myself and another that is not me breathing, but holds me breathing. Because of that, I can breathe. I can love without dying. I can love with dying, with breaking, and still not be beyond hope. I could not do it alone; I could not do it if it were “me” doing it. This is what entrusting feels like to me, what faith feels like. I will bring this candle with my broken heart to the universe and say, “look,” and the universe will cry with its cracks but will not waver in its compassion, in its ability to hold. * During Compline at the Men’s Shelter one evening, the man who had cupped his hand around a candle and said, “no light deserves to go out without being seen,” is sober. We have built trust, and sit next to one another on the couch. After discussing the scripture and poem I brought in, he offers a thought on enemies and foes: “It does seem true that when people do bad things to me, bad things happen to them,” and lists a litany of sufferings bestowed upon those who have harmed him. I am comfortable enough to offer a spontaneous response: “I think that suffering might be everywhere, and so you notice it with people who have wronged you, but if someone else had wronged you, you’d see them suffer, too.” He nods. His hands are folded. He is calm. The whole room is calm. Someone tells me what they love about the beach, as spiritual nourishment. People smile. When it is time to offer prayers, I offer one from Joy Harjo’s poem we had read: “I pray that the door to the mind should only open from the heart.” When we had read the poem, “This Morning I Pray For My Enemies,” I had also loved the line, “It’s the heart that asks the question, not the furious mind,” and spoke about how to me the mind always feels “furious,”— not in terms of anger, but in terms of energy. But questions of the heart, the door from the heart: YES. Yes to this. * What questions of the heart does yours carry in its labyrinth? Can we learn to walk calmly to the center, no matter the meandering? Can we learn to blossom, unafraid of our own bloom? Can we walk with one another in heart and not furious, anxious, over-active mind? Can mind rest in heart? Can mind be given a task to keep a candle alive, so heart can do its work in the world? What is your version of self in which two faces look upon you with pinwheels in their hands, smiling? What lotuses have grown from the mud of causes and conditions in your life? In what ways can we harbor and shelter one another’s spirits? From providing clean socks if we able to other tangible things in the tangle of beaucracy like paperwork, to the more ethereal realms, like kindness. Not reflexive politeness. Not politeness at all. Kindness, when your own habit energy gets out of the way, and something opens, and something has a chance to get across. * One afternoon, Justi and I go to city hall to request the fund allocations for the emergency warming center. I notice scotch tape on the big wooden doors and wondered of its story, and thought of its holding this whole structure together. This structure that seems so in place, so rooted and safe, but which really is held together by a mere accidental piece of scotch tape. We are only ever a hair’s breadth away from anyone else’s circumstances.