in memory of Alan Balsam M.D.
By the cricks in my knees, the forgetfulness of my brain and the grandmotherly face that looks back at me in the mirror, it is clear that I am aging. Kneeling in the garden is a thing of the past and so is chocolate before bedtime.
I fear that coming to terms with inevitable change is what’s up now, and fear is the operative word here. Everything is up for grabs as the world spirals out of control, scaring us witless.
I remember the night I went into labor with our first child, that moment when I realized this wasn’t just one night’s big adventure. Once this baby was born everything, but everything would be different! Laboring, on that stormy night in winter, was a precipitous voyage on an unknown sea with high winds and wild waves that went on and on before finally landing me exhausted, but safe upon a new shore.
I remember my good friend and doctor, Alan Balsam, holding up our son as he emerged from my body and calling out, “What kind of baby do you have?” and me gasping back, “A boy baby!” And then he laid that squalling creature on my stomach, still attached by a spiraling umbilical cord, and I burst into tears as my life irrevocably changed forever.
We’re all in a birthing process now, after a centuries-long and painful labor that have seen war and revolution, bloody Crusades and runaway injustice going back to the dawn of written history. Like it or not we’re all having contractions, trying to catch our breaths and go with the waves of pain as this new era struggles to be born.
These days, as our collective ‘labor’ heats up, I’ve been asking myself questions about things I passively give my consent to every day – as most of us do, really. Like the assumptions of privilege taken by people with light skin; like an economy based on personal profit; like the Earth for sale, parcel by parcel, to the highest bidder; like patriarchal religions that define us as sinful.
I saw a film last night, “TRACES FROM THE TRADE, A Story from the Deep North” about the slave trade in Rhode Island. It was made by a young descendant of a family that made its wealth as slave traders generations ago. The family mansion still stands tall, white pillars and all, in the center of their quaint New England town.
The filmmaker, Katrina Brown, says,
“Of course we all knew about the past, but until now none of us ever bothered to really know.” So she courageously decided to find out, and along with eight of her relatives, made a voyage that traced the family’s slave-trade route from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba.
They indeed found traces, many still right there on the ground: small holding cells in a dungeon where 1000 people at a time were shackled until they could be baptized with Christian names for the auction block. (The church where the baptisms took place was built right on top of the dungeons!)
They found the plantation owned by their ancestors, where sugarcane, to make the rum traded to transport those people across the ocean from Africa, was grown – by slaves! They found the site of the marketplace where men, women and children, oiled to shine for potential buyers, were displayed, sold and taken away.
How amazingly clever we humans can be!
We’re built, it seems, for ingenuity on the grand scale – on the one hand. On the other hand, however, we have the potential to deviate, to use our genius for evil. It is as if something goes awry, a crack in the imagination where evil can seep in, gain a foothold and twist reason into monstrous cruelty, turning the human heart frigid.
Who – us?
The resulting mayhem is coming to a head now, thick and fast. How do we parry with this shocking inhumanity as we are forced to confront the evil entering the world through our own species? Can we meet it straight on and intercept the pattern?
I will not believe evil is inherent to our human souls! But I do believe that we may be unsuspecting hosts of the ‘virus of evil,’ however we catch it.
Alan and I were both in our 20s when we met at a party in the 1960s. That evening we chatted mostly about body-mind medicine, a subject that at the time hardly existed on anybody’s radar. We agreed that healing was about addressing the whole person - body, mind, heart and soul. Then, I remember, he poured me some wine from a jug over his shoulder – I found that enchanting - I told him I was newly pregnant, introduced him to my husband and asked if he would be our family physician.
From then on, along with my regular appointments, he and I met in his office every few weeks to do our own explorations. We wondered how emotions affected the healthy functioning of the body, how the body revealed what the heart was feeling. He asked about my dreams that, in my pregnant state, ran the gamut from nightmares to ecstatic visions.
One dream I recall was about poisoned meat falling out of the sky. I was the only one who knew it was poisoned and I ran around desperately trying to protect the children. While I recounted the dream to him, choking on my tears, he asked where I felt the pain in my body, measured my blood pressure, took saliva samples, tested my pulses. He watched for the dilation of my pupils, the tension in my hands, for when I held my breath.
Then he would tell me about the autonomic nervous system and how the body responds to stress. It was he who taught me that the stresses in my body could be linked to the common wisdoms we took for granted in our society, and to ask questions, always ask questions.
I now do that questioning on my own, as Alan died long before his time. I miss him still, and would give a lot for us to still be talking about how fearfulness manifests through our collective autonomic nervous system, making us weak and reactive when strong, imaginative collaborations should be the order of the day.
Alan and I would have aged together, still challenging the system and agreeing that healthy bodies required the foundation of a healthy society based on justice and emotional well being in order to function well.
That they go together is so obvious, I wonder how we keep missing it.
I watched Pope Francis give a Ted Talk on video the other day – imagine, the Pope giving a Ted talk! He spoke about human tenderness, about the importance of us knowing we were ‘we’ rather than “many you’s.”
“We need each other,” said this man sworn to celibacy. (I can hear Alan ask, “Celibacy? Who dreamed that one up?”)
The Pope talked about the importance of relationship, of shared comfort levels, of reciprocal love. “Everything is ultimately all about love,” he declared.
This man who is called ‘Father’ and wears special robes is gray-haired like me, his gentle eyes fatigued. As a priest, he chose to accept a rule that goes against our natural impulses, denying himself the companionship of life partner and children. That makes me sad, especially as he spoke to us about the embodied kind of love we are all capable of.
I like this man. I would like for him to know human intimacy firsthand.
Love and tenderness, relationship and kindness, compassion and comfort and care – I believe that’s how we confront the forces of evil in ourselves as well as in the world.
It sounds too simple, right?