The Chasm And The Continuum

Obnoxious, intrusive, frightening, harassing, assaultive — sexual misconduct takes place on a continuum. An obnoxious remark and a rape are obviously not the same, but they share the same continuum. As Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz stand (and cringe and punch and flail) in the spotlight, a gap (more like a crater) separates their perceptions from the perceptions of their accusers. The interplay between that chasm and the continuum weaves through each incident of sexual misconduct.

Andrew Cuomo — Governor of New York, accused of sexual harassment — stood in front of the cameras and said “I’m sorry” for “whatever pain I caused anyone.” He added that he felt “awful,” “embarrassed,” and that his mistakes were “unintentional.” He also asserted  that kissing is no big deal, that it’s how he greets all humans, that he had no clue he was hurting people. As he spoke, the chasm between his experience and his accusers’ viewpoints became glaringly, disturbingly, increasingly wide and deep.

Gov. Cuomo stated several times that he regrets making women feel “uncomfortable.” But let’s call it for what it is. Uncomfortable is trying on a pair of shoes a size too small, or meeting your fiancé’s great aunt who announces that your hips are too skinny to bear children properly, or being offered a bison burger at a dinner party and explaining that you’re vegan. Uncomfortable is nowhere near how demeaned, unsafe and often enraged people feel facing sexual harassment. 

From the other end of the political spectrum and at a different point on the continuum, Matt Gaetz (a member of Congress) is facing allegations of having sexual relations with a 17-year-old, of sex trafficking, and stories have emerged of his bragging about his conquests (including nude photos) to his Congress-colleagues. So far, Mr. Gaetz has expressed no regrets and appears sorry for nothing. He has been loud and brash in his outrage at the allegations.

In contrast to Matt Gaetz, Andrew Cuomo has tried (more like visibly struggled) to hit a humble note, saying he’ll “be the better for this experience.” I hope so, but “being-the-better” is only the beginning. The cultural undercurrents (and tidal waves) that led to #MeToo and #TimesUp are alive and well and kicking people in the teeth. There’s no easy fix for a chasm that’s centuries-deep and a continuum that’s millions-of-incidents-long. So instead of balancing on the ledge and shouting across the gorge, I’m stepping in. From the depths of the chasm, I’m offering this short post from the less-violent-but-still-damaging end of the continuum.

A while ago, on a popular social media site, a middle-aged man wrote a brief anecdote that he clearly thought was amusing. Years before, he and another male friend were walking, and noticed a woman’s breasts. The post briefly described how the two gentlemen stopped for a moment of silence, gazing in reverential awe at this stranger’s chest. The comments following the post suggested that at least some agreed that his story was funny.

Seemingly simple, deceptively complex. 

From age fourteen until my hair turned gray, strangers (always men) stared at me. Sometimes they approached and tried to initiate conversations, inviting me to join them for coffee or dinner or a certain aerobic activity. Sometimes they leered, rating my level of attractiveness, expecting me to be pleased at what they considered to be a compliment. Sometimes they whispered, huddled in a pair or a group. Sometimes they gazed in a moment of gentlemanly silence. Whatever they did, it was at best obnoxious, at worst scary, always threatening. (And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve never been assaulted.) This didn’t happen because I was a creature of such celestial beauty that the angels burst into chorus whenever I appeared. It didn’t happen because I always wore mini-skirts (never owned one) and spike heels (never could walk in them). It didn’t happen because of any of the go-to excuses (you’re so pretty – you dressed provocatively) people offer to shift blame onto the survivor. It didn’t happen because I was special or remarkable in any way. It happened because I’m female. 

Perspective #1: My friend and I weren’t threatening. We were admiring her breasts in a respectful manner. She didn’t even know we were looking at her.

Perspective #2: She knew. And what you experienced as admiring and respectful may have felt quite different to her.

No matter how subtle this man and his friend thought they were as they stared at the woman’s breasts, I can guarantee that she was instantly aware. How do I know? Because almost all women on the planet, regardless of how conventionally attractive they are, deal with unwanted intrusions so often, from so young, that we’re trained to know. We have to know for our own safety, because too often, these situations escalate.

Perspective #1: We were just looking. Don’t you think maybe you’re overreacting?

Perspective #2: Rule of thumb: be wary of any sentence that begins “We were just….” And nope, I’m not overreacting. Welcome to the continuum, from the other side of the chasm.

When I faced similar situations in my younger days, I was immediately watching carefully, trying not to let the man know I was watching, in case he misinterpreted my attention as a sign of interest. I was gauging his build in relation to my own, in case I needed to defend myself physically. I immediately experienced him as a potential threat.

Perspective #1: This is harmless fun, a bonding moment with my buddy.

Perspective #2: Do you mean harmless and fun for you and your gentlemanly buddy, or for the woman? While you and your friend are happily bonding, she’s probably trying to figure out how to protect herself from an intrusion that might escalate into a threat. 

I’d assess the people around me, where I might turn for help if I needed it. I’d be aware of every building on the street, an office I might enter for safety, a restaurant with too many witnesses.

Perspective #1: If the neighborhood wasn’t safe, why’d you put yourself in danger by being there? If the neighborhood was safe, what were you so worried about?

Perspective #2: Your first question is an example of blaming the survivor. Regarding your second question — a common misconception is that sexual assaults take place only in dark alleys, by masked strangers, holding rusty shivs, surrounded by abandoned buildings. 

Whenever I walked alone, I was automatically alert, wearing a don’t-even-try scowl. In spite of my death-stare, some men crashed through the boundary. Sometimes they were overtly threatening. Sometimes they took my arm to stop me from walking away. Sometimes they invited me for lunch at a restaurant they owned, for drinks at their night club, to the theater, a concert, a movie. Every time, the answer was no No NO. Many of these unwanted overtures began with a moment of silent gazing. 

Perspective #1: You must have been doing something, sending unspoken encouraging signals, that invited men to approach you. And your scowl — no offense, but you don’t sound like a nice person.

Perspective #2: Sending encouraging signals — absolutely not — unless you categorize WWF (Walking While Female) as an encouraging signal. As for my scowl, apparently we define Not-A-Nice-Person quite differently. “No Offense” duly noted.

Even if the situation began and ended with gentlemanly reverence, I was painfully aware that I was being sexualized by strangers when I was going to the corner store for a carton of milk, or meeting a friend for lunch, or picking up my kid from school.

Perspective #1: You need a sense of humor. You’re taking everything too seriously. 

Perspective #2: Possibly — but not regarding this issue. Still, don’t take my word for it. Ask Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz. I’m confident that at this point in their lives, considering the trouble they’re in, both would agree with their accusers (and with me) on at least one point: this issue is serious.

Finally, take a quick moment to calculate the number of underlying currents, social norms and cultural mores I challenged or violated by writing this post. 

Perspective #1: Yeah, right, whatever. Can I go now?

Perspective #2: Sure.   

Or you can pause, gauge where you stand on the continuum, and take a step toward the other side of the chasm. 

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Passover During Plague

We’re entering our second Passover during the coronavirus pandemic. The story of Passover, told through a Seder, is about the emancipation of the Jews, and celebrates the freedom of all people. It’s a voice against persecution, and a celebration of the human spirit. The story includes plagues: blood, frogs, bugs, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of firstborns. That’s ten.

Today, We The People have our own cluster of plagues: the coronavirus — isolation — white supremacy — hatred and rage targeting Asians and Pacific Islanders — violence against #BlackLivesMatter — families living in such unimaginable desperation that they send their children to flood our borders — voter suppression — homelessness — poverty — educational inequality — hunger — an environment and climate that people have stretched to the point of breaking — lack of mental and physical health care — oppression and violence toward the LGBTQ+ community — sexual harassment and assault — school shootings — gun violence. That’s more than ten, and the list goes on. 

As a psychologist of 20+ years and as a person of 60+ years, I’ve witnessed the astonishing human capacity to heal from terrible injury. I’ve also seen the astonishing human capacity to cause those terrible injuries. Our country is at a crucial juncture. Too many have lost their moorings, swept up in currents of power at the expense of decency, driven by rage rather than by common sense. They don’t realize that their own corruption is another plague, causing damage not only to others, but to themselves as well.  

I look forward to the day when COVID-19 is under control, and my home can return to being a comfortable and safe place to host a Seder. Until then, I’m inviting each and all, every religion, to join together from our separate places, uniting against our plagues. 

Next Year In Jerusalem.

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Reaching Far Across The Aisle

Dear Mike Pence,

You and I don’t have much in common. I’m a liberal Democrat, an LGBTQ+ ally, a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, a believer in a woman’s right to choose. Still, we share a big problem, so like it or not, we’re on the same team. Our country is dangerously divided, and it’s up to me and you and each and all to help. I was a therapist for over twenty years, and a basic tool of my trade was empathy. From that foundation, I’m reaching out to you, far across the aisle.

Empathy is defined not by a single point, but by a spectrum. One end of that spectrum holds the folks who are naturally empathic, sensing what others feel with depth and accuracy, knowing intuitively how to respond. On the other end of the spectrum are people entirely lacking the capacity for empathy, no clue about others’ feelings, and don’t care. Most folks land in the middle. Of that middle group, some need to go through an experience in order to empathize with others going through a similar experience. They are capable of empathy, but only when they themselves can identify with the experience.

Mr. Pence, on the spectrum of empathy, where are you?

Through the years, I’ve viewed your career with sadness, outrage, fear, disgust. But on January 6, 2021, you surprised me. You took a stand, and refused to try to overthrow a fair election. You paid a steep price. A mob stormed the Capitol, hunting for you, chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” During the insurrection, your president never checked on your safety.

Powerful experiences, including trauma, can change people. A mob storming the Capitol and chanting their intention to kill — you don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to know that meets the criteria for a “powerful experience, including trauma.” So I wonder, did that experience lead to any changes in you?

Mr. Pence, nobody should ever go through what you went through on January 6, 2021. However, now that it’s behind you, I have a question. When you look back on that day, hiding in fear, pack-mentality-rage erupting and infiltrating the sacred ground of your workplace — have you thought about the fear you have caused in the course of your political career? 

Every LGBTQ+ student who was targeted and bullied — fearful of being hurt or even killed— terrified to go to school because of pack-mentality-rage — have you thought about them? How about their parents — having no choice but to send their children to school, knowing that they’d be targeted, in part because you paved the way for hatred to run wild against their kids? Can you feel empathy for those students, for those parents, now that you’ve known that same fear? 

How about the Black trans folks who have been murdered, because people felt it was okay to target Black trans folks, just because they’re Black trans folks? When Donald Trump turned against you, a powerful person who withdrew his protections, how did you feel? Can you understand that you’ve made many others feel exactly the same way when you, a powerful person, advocated withdrawing their protections?

And what about your insistence that “All Lives Matter” replace “Black Lives Matter”? Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the issue here. The point is that Black lives are often treated like they don’t matter. When your president and his mob decided that your life didn’t matter, how did you feel? In that moment, the mob didn’t chant “Hang Them All!” They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” Can you understand, in that moment, the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Mike Pence’s Life Matters”? Now, having survived that experience, can you understand the difference between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter”?

Take a pause, Mr. Pence. Imagine going through your trauma not once, but every day as you go to school, as a child or an adolescent on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Imagine fearing every minute that you’d be targeted with verbal abuse, or assaulted, or murdered in cold blood, because of the color of your skin or your sexuality or your gender identity. I’ll bet you never thought you’d share an experience of such emotional breadth and depth with people you’ve targeted. But like it or not, here you are.  

Before I began my second career as an author, I was a psychotherapist for over twenty years. Part of my job was to help clients find their hidden strengths — the kernels buried deep, camouflaged and cocooned. When these pieces reveal themselves, even just a glimpse or a flicker, the patient has a choice — learn and grow and build on those kernels, or run back to the old ways. Change, no matter how healthy, is scary and difficult. Healing means choosing an uncharted path, and always involves holding yourself accountable for your choices. These road-not-taken moments are pivotal points in therapy. The patient either enters a phase of tremendous possibility, or quits treatment. 

Through most of your career, Mr. Pence, you’ve treated many of your fellow humans as less-than, unworthy, disposable. But recently, a kernel of strength and decency emerged when you stood up to your president. On January 6, 2021, our country watched you undergo a powerful experience, a trauma. Can you learn and grow from your experience? Can you build on that kernel of integrity, forced out of hiding? Can you wrap your hands around it, own it, bring it into the light? Can you use it to forge a path into a new level of empathy?

Our country is broken and hurting, divided and scared, angry and sad — also hopeful and strong and ready to heal. It’s a pivotal moment for the United States of America, as we enter a phase of tremendous possibility. Like it or not, it’s also a pivotal moment for you, Mike Pence. 


Amy Kaufman Burk

Doctor of Mental Health


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Clarity Through Chaos

One of the most difficult parts of being a psychologist is thinking clearly through chaos. Those moments are part of the job, and they matter. Decades ago, when I began training to become a therapist, my supervisors gave me several guidelines for evaluating a client, to help me think with balance, care and precision through emotional storms. They told me to begin with the basics, the setting.


Presidential Debate. 


Just over a month before the 2020 presidential election. 


National television, and immediately available internationally (in other words — everywhere).

The experienced therapists taught me to listen not only to the content (what was said) but also to the form (how it was said).

Content: Dangerous

Form: Chaotic

If I saw any sign of dangerous or chaotic thinking, then I needed to evaluate who might be at risk (self or others), along with the level of chaos.

Danger To Others: 

Consumed by self-interest. Appears unaware when his approach compromises the safety of others. 

Level of Chaos: 

High (unable to follow basic rules, violates boundaries, disregards structure).

If others were endangered, I learned to identify the targets and take steps to warn them.


1. We The People

2. Our Democracy 

To Those Targeted: Consider yourselves warned.

In evaluating patients, I gauged their capacity for insight (self-awareness, understanding) and judgment (the ability to consider behavior and its effect on self and others). Insight and judgment are helpful markers for assessing overall mental status.


Little-to-no evidence of self-awareness or understanding.


Impaired (unable to control his speech and contain his impulses, even though he knew he was on national television).

If insight and judgment showed signs of impairment, then I needed to evaluate reality testing (ability to assess accurately the surrounding environment, and one’s role in it).

Reality Testing: 

Evidence of inability to distinguish between truth and untruth. 

Words, behavior and thought process evident in my office provided a microcosm of words, behavior and thought process in the client’s life outside of my office. Using my interaction with the patient, I created a medium-to-long-term treatment plan.

Medium-To-Long-Term Treatment Plan:

Words, behavior and thought process evident in the debate provide a microcosm of words, behavior and thought process outside of the debate as well. As I imagine his debate-behavior at home with his wife and young son, or at an international summit, I am deeply concerned about this person’s capacity to function personally and lead politically. I strongly suggest forming a team to assess the damage and begin the (long, uphill, multi-faceted and jagged) process of healing on all levels — personal, family, community, national, international.   

To begin treatment, I was expected to document an immediate-to-short-term plan.

Immediate-To-Short-Term Treatment Plan: 

For The Subject — 

Subject is unqualified for his current job, and (urgently) needs to map out (assisted by others with intact mental status) an (effective and calm) exit strategy.

Treatment Plan For Everyone Else In the USA — 


Clarity through chaos. 

This moment matters.


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His Own Personal Wall

When I was in graduate school getting my doctorate in mental health, I spent six months working in a locked inpatient psych ward. Some patients hated being locked in, but I was surprised by the number who confided that the locked doors helped them feel safe. When I asked why,  “Mr. X” explained. He was a middle-aged gentleman, always dressed immaculately in a 1920s suit and bow tie. He blinked at my apparent dim-wittedness and answered with the weary patience of an elder educating a youngling: “My dear, those locked doors don’t keep me in; they keep bad people out.”

“Build the wall.”

From the perspective of the medical model — identifying and treating the disease — the intensity of the cure needs to match the intensity of the illness. A nail clipper can cure a hangnail and a bandaid can cure a paper cut — modest interventions for modest problems. In contrast, an aggressive form of cancer might need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — an extreme treatment to match the urgency of the problem. If Mr. X needed the locked doors of an in-patient mental hospital in order to feel safe, then his level of fear must have been off the charts. 

“I will build a great great wall.”

Those locked doors were Mr. X’s version of Donald Trump’s border wall, but the border wall is more extreme — which means that our president’s level of fear is also more extreme. Fear is contagious and since he was elected, our president has spread fear like fire — adding kindling, stoking the flames, stirring the embers, causing sparks to fly. As fear has been running wild in our country, keep in mind that the “great great wall” isn’t actually about Mexicans or immigrants. It’s about overwhelming, consuming, irrational fear. 

“It’s going to be a serious wall.”

Like the locked ward of a mental institution, the “serious wall” comes at an equally serious cost which goes far beyond money. Both create barriers, narrow our world, limit our view. But at this point the analogy falls apart. As people healed on the psych ward, they experienced the hospital as increasingly confining. Over time, identifying the source of his own irrational fears, Mr. X grew mentally stronger. He worked hard, and eventually felt ready to reenter the world on the other side of the locked doors. As Donald Trump’s border wall is built, unlike Mr. X, the Unites States of America will deprive itself of the opportunity to outgrow its own irrational fears. 

“That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.”

With the murder of George Floyd, there has been a shift, and the United States is in turmoil. However, for the first time since Donald Trump took office, I see people turning toward each other, uniting instead of dividing. The magnitude of the movement against racism has snowballed, the momentum is fierce, and I feel a new level of hope for change. But apparently, our commander-in-chief doesn’t share my sentiment. Instead, there’s been a spike in his level of fear. In the midst of the protests, a new wall went up so fast my head was spinning — a fence surrounding the White House. 

“A wall protects.”

Is Donald Trump protecting himself from the BLACK LIVES MATTER letters recently painted on the road to the White House, large enough to be seen from space? Is he protecting himself from the many colors of the people he’s supposed to lead? Is he protecting himself from those who are supposed to be compliant as they’re oppressed? Is he protecting himself from the #BlackLivesMatter movement? And if he needs to build his own personal wall for protection, then why is he so very, deeply, extremely frightened?

“I will tell you that the problem our country has is that our leaders are so weak.”

For once, President Trump and I agree.

All identifying information about “Mr. X” has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Except for the quote attributed to “Mr. X”, all quotes are from Donald Trump.

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For Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…

I was around ten years old, and my class was studying the slave trade. Many of us were deeply affected, and I remember having several emotional discussions with my parents as I tried to understand how slavery could have happened. As a white girl, I didn’t understand the extent to which the mindset was still happening. 

Strangely, I remember one art project in vivid detail from that time, over fifty years ago. “Stevie” was considered one of our class’s finest artists. He was great with color, deft with his hands, accurate with measurement, drawn to different textures. This time, he built a ship from wood. He carved out a half-watermelon shape, and lined the edges with a thin slat. He then sawed a flat cover. He attached a flag, and added color and detail to his ship, with the flat cover as his deck.  

The class ended and we gathered to admire Stevie’s beautiful ship. Then he lifted the flat cover so we could see the carved area below deck. He had created stick figures from dark-colored wire and seated them, crowded side by side. He took a thin chain, the width of a light necklace, and looped it around their legs. In contrast to the ship above, he added no light or decoration. 

The entire class, including the teacher, stood speechless. I distinctly remember standing frozen, trying to contain a surge of emotion, feeling a bit dizzy, realizing I had forgotten to breathe. Looking back, that was the moment when I understood that art can evoke oceans, speak volumes, empower action, incite change. I didn’t learn that lesson from a museum or a special exhibit in a professional artist’s studio. My teacher was a skinny, quiet, brown haired child. 

In May, 2020 (during Donald Trump’s presidency), as protests formed all over the United States, I watched an interview with Robert O’Brien, who was Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. In his tailored suit, his sensible tie, his perfect hair — Robert O’Brien firmly denied the existence of “systemic racism” in the U.S. police forces. Needless to say, Robert O’Brien is white.

Folks, I’m white, too, and I have a request — more like an urgent plea. We white folks need to stop talking and start listening. We need to admit that our lack of understanding stems from our privilege. We have no right to tell Black people what they have and have not experienced. As a white woman, I cannot ever inform anyone of color that racism doesn’t exist. I can ask them, but I cannot tell them. Then I need to listen.

When I say I need to “listen,” I mean listen in a specific way. I need to open myself to different perspectives. I need to accept that regarding racism, I’m always a student, never a teacher. If I realize that I have contributed to any form of racism, then I need to avoid my natural impulse to turn defensive. Instead, I need to embrace my own discomfort, because that discomfort is my guide to improvement. If I’ve made mistakes, I need to own my flaws and do better, then much better, then even better. Change is difficult, and in order to be on the correct side of change, I need to start humble, maybe more humble than I’ve ever been. I need to remember that there’s no loss of self-respect in humility.  

Declaring that racism doesn’t exist only worsens the problem. The United States has a history of several hundred years’ worth of oppression, damage and death due to ongoing systemic racism. Robert O’Brien’s words are outrageous, arrogant, infuriating. More to the point, his aggressive refusal to acknowledge racism is an act of aggressive racism.

Around five decades ago, a 10-year-old child caught the essence of racism in a stunning piece of artwork. In case anyone is misreading my message as being that all white people (or all people of any racial heritage)  are bad, here’s a quick fact check — Stevie was white. In my own way, with my own style, with my own skill set, from my deepest self — I’m going to follow Stevie’s lead. I hope you’ll join me, because in order to walk down a healthier path, We The People need to live up to our name.

RIP Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…


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Stop Calling “Coronavirus” the “Chinese Virus”

From our physical wellbeing to shaking hands — from opening our home to our basic livelihood — from our emotional health to getting a haircut. 

Everything has changed. 

Facing a pandemic, many of us feel an urge to band together. Although isolation is the right course of action, it’s counterintuitive, clashing against our basic instinct to huddle in a pack. Fighting our core instincts — even for the greater good — can cause a surge in anxiety.

Uncertainty adds additional layers of anxiety, opening the emotional field for anger and fear to run wild. As I write, vaccinations are up and running. Still, we don’t know how many are carrying the coronavirus, symptom free, contagious. We don’t know how many will become ill. When someone coughs, we don’t know if they have a garden variety allergy, or if we’ve just been exposed. Of those who get sick, we don’t know who will have a no-big-deal cough, who will spike a high fever, who will struggle to breathe, who will need emergency care. Yes, we’ve learned a lot — but we don’t know a ton. 

As the coronavirus continues to plunge us into turmoil, our natural inclination is to latch onto conclusions to counteract the uncertainty, grasp at targets to unleash our anger, search for others to blame for our fear and our losses. Being all-too-human, we have a bad habit of choosing the wrong conclusion, picking the wrong target, blaming the wrong Other. At that point, our anxiety can push us to turn against each other. Our country remains divisive and with COVID-19 surges ongoing, people continue to thrash and don’t know what to do.

Until the pandemic is under control, here’s what NOT to do: DO NOT take aim and fire at each other. I’ve heard several people (including our ex-president) refer to “The Coronavirus” as “The Asian Virus” or “The Chinese Virus.” Each time, I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp, back to the early 1980s, when I was seeing my first psych patients, as AIDS hit San Francisco. People referred to AIDS as a “Gay Disease,” homophobia skyrocketed, and the damage was incalculable. Folks, for the love of our country — viruses aren’t Asian or Chinese or gay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States confirmed the first person in our country to test positive for coronavirus is a man in his thirties. Yet, we’re not calling this pandemic “The Male Virus” or “The Thirties Virus.” Why? Because that would be ridiculous. But it’s no more ridiculous than attributing a virus to a specific racial heritage or a particular sexuality. So let’s call it for what it is. Homophobia is homophobia. Racism is racism. A virus is a virus. A surge in coronavirus should never be an excuse for a surge in bigotry. Now of all times, We The People need to live up to our name. 

And for the record — as a healthy coping strategy during this public health crisis, racism is an epic fail. On top of being vile, let’s be clear about the benefits of racism: THERE ARE NO BENEFITS OF RACISM. Aside from being hurtful and damaging, referring to the coronavirus as “The Chinese Virus” will give only a fleeting moment of relief. Then the next wave of emotion will surge, and you’ll need to vent again. Your anger and fear and uncertainty and anxiety will continue to spiral. From a mental health perspective, racism has enormous negative impact but absolutely no positive impact. So — and I’m being as measured as I’m able — CUT IT OUT.

Which leads to the next question — what should we do with our anger? If I’m trying to get through this pandemic with an ounce of dignity, should I rage at an ex-president who doesn’t care one whit about me (female, liberal democrat)? Even more undignified, how can I feel personal outrage toward a virus mindlessly searching for a host environment?

A word of advice from my many years as a therapist — emotions don’t hold much stock in dignity. For the moment, I suggest we all set dignity aside, acknowledge our feelings, and respect (yes, respect) the humanness of our emotions. If you’re mad at the coronavirus or at our ex-president, I don’t blame you one bit. If you’re afraid, you’re having a normal reaction to a scary situation. If you’re buckling under the uncertainty, you’re not alone. The goal isn’t to NOT feel whatever you do feel. The goals are to handle your emotions so that you own the feelings, rather than allowing the feelings to own you — and to channel your emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, maybe even does a bit of good. 

I don’t know how the landscape will look as this pandemic plays itself out. I do know that sooner or not sooner, later or much later, this public health crisis will turn quiet and today will become tomorrow’s yesterday. We’ll open our doors to gather, shed tears over our losses, steady each other as we find our way. Inch by inch, row by row, we’ll regroup, relearn, rebuild. Tentative and strong, we’ll venture into our next new world. Today, as individuals and as a country, let’s set the stage to take those steps together. 

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An Open Milk Carton

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.                                                                                                                                                                         “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

The Lorraine Motel (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was shot) has been converted into a Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. A path through the motel guides visitors into an interactive series of exhibits, tracking the Civil Rights Movement.

I entered a room of tables with computer screens, walls covered in photographs of civil rights leaders. A mother held a child in her lap, watching a video. The boy was confused why “the white people were mean to the Black people.” I watched as his mother struggled to help him understand. After a minute, he turned in her lap, face to face, and stated: “Racism is bad and it doesn’t make sense.” The entire room looked at the child, and a quiet solidarity began to form. 

A large area held a bus with only the back few rows open to Black riders. As we waited to board, a teen stepped forward to help an elderly man climb off of the bus. A younger woman gave her seat to an older woman. Two children climbed into their father’s lap, to make room for another adult, a stranger, to share their seat. Together, we chose the seats in the back. Nobody wanted to touch the seats in the front.

Toward the end of the exhibits, I faced a sheet of glass, separating visitors from the balcony where the Rev. Dr. King took the bullet. On either side, rooms 306 and 307 had been preserved to look exactly as they had when he stayed at the motel. A bed. A chair. An open milk carton.

Through the sheet of glass, the balcony was strangely ordinary, simple concrete with railing. Still, it pulsed with an odd energy. Three of us reached the balcony at the same time. We moved together, complete strangers, one much older than I am, one much younger, different racial heritages. We clasped hands. We stood together for a long moment while the line waited patiently. Nobody spoke. The silent pulse reverberated.

I walked outside. I thought about a child’s truth, an ordinary balcony, reaching for the hands of two strangers. I thought of the triangle trade, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Memphis Sanitation Strike. I closed my eyes for an instant, curious which image would appear in the forefront. Crystal clear, I found myself picturing an open milk carton.

Going forward, I’m bringing the image of that milk carton with me — open and unfinished, basic and vital, extraordinary and familiar, history and forever. When I began writing years ago, I never expected to work on an essay inspired by a milk carton. But I’m okay with it, because the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is humbling, heartbreaking, motivating and awe-inspiring in equal parts.

Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr.                                                                                                                                                          Rest In Peace


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Intimations Of Immortality

In college, I found myself facing an embarrassing problem. 

I was taking a course on English poets, and my professor introduced me to William Wordsworth — “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The title was a mouthful, and I gathered my courage. Then I began to read and the world fell away. I was swept off my feet by the current, the pulse, the heartbeat. But swept off my feet wasn’t the problem. The difficulty was that every time I read the poem, I broke into tears. 

Of course, this was horrifically unacceptable. But in spite of my finest efforts, I was unable to reroute my appallingly inappropriate reaction. Turning to my friends for help was out of the question. How could I admit that I was crying over my homework? Worse, I had only a few days to get a grip, because my professor would be discussing the poem in our next class and crying was not — repeat NOT — an option. So I barricaded myself in my bedroom and read the poem over and over, desensitizing myself. I made it through the class tearless and my near-miss humiliation remained a secret.

Fast forward four decades. 

My husband and I attended our 40th college reunion. As I walked the familiar paths of campus, I stepped into a time warp. I was a wide-eyed first-year, listening to the president’s welcoming speech, wondering if I’d become the Admissions Committee’s biggest mistake. I was a sophomore, seasoned and mature, strutting with confidence. I was a junior, questioning everything, wondering where I had misplaced the previous year’s self-assurance. I was a senior in graduation regalia, clutching the hands of two close friends as we bolstered each other through our final hours on campus. The reunion weekend was a medley of sounds and sights, each triggering a neuronal domino reaction, synapses shooting sparks. I was eighteen years old, and I was sixty.

Immersed simultaneously in my then and my now, I sat in the balcony for a concert in Woolsey Hall. A small group of “kids” took the stage. During their final year at Yale, they sang together and were now performing at their first official reunion, five years later. Afterwards, a friend joked that we should advise the young ones to sing while they had their voices, because “it won’t last.” We all smiled, remembering ourselves at their age. When the old-and-gray folks suggested that we’d one day be creaky, we’d nod politely. Somehow, those aging relics hadn’t figured out that unlike them, we were immortal.

We gathered for dinner in the Branford Courtyard, surrounded by stone gargoyles. The evening was mild, and we quieted as a reunion organizer took the mic. With an empathic blend of respect and warmth, she read a list of classmates who had died. It took quite a while. By the end, the courtyard was extremely still. Six decades into our lives, we all know that with or without our consent, sooner or not sooner, our names will land on that list. The notion is both knee buckling and strangely okay.

Before our class dinner was served, the Whiffenpoofs (an a cappella singing group) stood in their horseshoe, swaying with their signature song. A curious tenderness filled the courtyard, and my neuronal synapses began to quiver. I closed my eyes and for a quick instant, my hair was thick, shiny, the color of wheat at dusk. My skin glowed smooth, my musculature defined and strong. In that fleeting moment, I was immortal.

Standing in line at the buffet, I overheard someone say that their daughter would begin Yale in the fall. I wondered if she’d read Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Would she cry? Would she stage a mighty intervention against her own tears? In any case, I wish her a wonderful four years. 

It’s her turn to be immortal.

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You don’t mess around with chest pain and shortness of breath, so my father-in-law was rushed by ambulance to the Emergency Room. A week later, still in the hospital, he wasn’t responding to his meds. His lungs continued to deteriorate. His heart grew weaker and his kidneys began to quit. Eating led to nausea. He couldn’t walk, then he couldn’t stand. His body was shutting down. He was 85 years old.

I met Arnold when I was a college sophomore. My boyfriend, years later my husband, introduced me to his parents. I was nervous, sitting silent and wide-eyed on their living room couch. Arnold spoke gently, setting me at ease. He asked the names of my family’s two yappy toy poodles. Blushing, I explained that the smaller (and decidedly more bad tempered) dog was also “Arnold,” named after my brother’s best friend. He said he was flattered to share a name with my family’s noble steed. Several years later when we had become close, I admitted that my brother’s friend was “Jonathan,” that together they had chosen “Arnold” as Jonathan’s nickname because they picked “the funniest name” they knew. We joked about yappy-Arnold for 40 years. 

Now, I loved his name and I loved him and he was dying. 

My husband and I lived in the same city as Arnold, so we had been visiting the hospital every day. I arrived on the morning after Thanksgiving, 2017, Day 7 of Arnold’s hospitalization. As always, we relaxed in our comfortable friendship. Then I noticed his IV was out. I assumed the line was clogged and would be replaced. When he refused his morning pills, I asked what was going on. Avoiding my eyes, he told his nurse that he wanted the oxygen mask off. He had decided to stop treatment. I asked if he understood that without his oral meds and his IV and his oxygen he would die. He spoke gently, knowing his words would cause me pain: “Amy, I’m already dying.” My eyes filled with tears and I nodded. He was right.

A team of physicians, social workers and nurses — professional and compassionate in equal parts — talked to him several times, to make sure his decision was lucid and entirely his own. He was clear and calm. He asked the doctors for a time frame. They believed that when the oxygen mask came off, he’d die in as little as two hours, as much as two days. 

Then my husband’s cell phone rang — Bruce Ramer, Arnold’s closest friend of fifty years. Bruce is a wonderful blend of contradictions: brilliant and scrappy, kind and tough, hilariously irreverent, unfailingly respectful. He announced he was booking a plane ticket to visit and say goodbye. Since Bruce, like Arnold, was in his 80s, my husband assured him that a 2,500-mile dash across the country wasn’t mandatory. Bruce answered  that “a stick of dynamite up my ass” wouldn’t stop him. 

I had become aware of the intensity of the bond between Arnold and Bruce several years before when Bruce’s brother died. Bruce was devastated, and he exchanged several emails with Arnold. Arnold had suffered a mild stroke and asked me to type his messages. Arnold’s last name was “Burk,” but he told me to sign the messages “Arnold Ramer” (Bruce’s last name). I was concerned that he was confused, but Arnold spoke quietly. “Amy, it’s okay, just send it.” I did, and soon a reply came back signed “Bruce Burk.” 

“We’re brothers,” Arnold stated simply.

As the first day of hospice care unfolded, Arnold’s cognition turned fuzzy. He drifted into a hazy zone, hovering between life and death. He felt safe, and knew he was surrounded by people he loved. Entering the second day, he was fading. We hoped Bruce would get to him in time to say goodbye.

While Arnold’s body prepared to turn still, Bruce arrived — blazer, scarf, silver hair, handsome. Bruce is a force of nature, and his presence filled the room. His eyes are extraordinary — not quite hazel, not quite brown, laser sharp. In an intense instant, he scanned each of us, as though gauging our character, our emotional state, our capacity to cope, our love for his dearest friend. His eyes circled the space and rested on Arnold who lay in bed, frail and unfocussed. Bruce’s eyes filled. He brought himself into Arnold’s line of vision and said hello. He reached for his friend’s hand. Arnold opened his eyes. He looked through Bruce, then at him. Several moments passed. Recognition took hold, Arnold smiled, and we watched his mind reignite.

The two men exchanged insults about their gray hair, about how they weren’t glad to see each other, about how much they didn’t love each other. Arnold gently slapped Bruce’s chest. Bruce caught his friend’s hand and brought it to his own heart. They clasped each other and Arnold returned to us. 

He lived two more weeks.

Looking back, I don’t understand what I witnessed. Bruce’s friendship brought Arnold back to life. Call it magic, a miracle, the ties that bind — I don’t know. Maybe I’m not meant to know.

Rest in peace Arnold, and live on Bruce. Your love for your “brother” was…I have no idea what it was. I only know it was wondrous.

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