THE PILOBOLUS WAY!

THE PILOBOLUS

EXPERIENCE!

A WORKSHOP ON PHILOSOPHY AND TECHNIQUE

7/17/19 – 7/21/19 BETHLEHEM, CT

As a psychoanalyst there are certain questions about the nature of existence that I can only attempt to answer from the perspective of direct experience. 

What is awesome?

Awesome is being in the audience of a PILOBOLUS performance! 

What is exciting?

Exciting is the realization that one can aim for and execute the PILOBOLUS philosophy and technique learned in a workshop THE PILOBOLUS WAY!

What is THE PILOBOLUS WAY?

Since 1971 PILOBOLUS dancers have exhibited dance and athletic skills; strength; non-verbal body communication by touch, breath, and gaze; use of scientific principles of gravity, weight management, and balance; and the passion of creativity. The audience has been invited to participate emotionally, virtually, and idiosyncratically in the performances. The works, accompanied by distinctive music, usually depict events among humans and other objects the observers perceive or imagine.

The founders were Dartmouth students, not dancers, who nonetheless decided to take a dance class. They then named their group PILOBOLUS after the fungus one of their parents was studying. This resilient organism that lives on horse excrement (which might be considered a form of fertilizer) became a symbolic name for a WAY of nurturing extraordinary creativity and diversity. The PILOBOLUS WAY combines modern dance, gymnastics, and wit into visual art and the non-verbal language of movement through human collaboration, creativity, com-passion, and courage. The result is body art that is both sensational and thrilling, producing a desire for more and more…

Over decades of being in the audience I yearned to experience the PILOBOLUS WAY. The opportunity arrived in an announcement of the PILOBOLUS WORKSHOP in The JOYCE Theatre PLAYBILL. The workshop offered the prospect of moving from desire to action – a very big step and not easily taken. Reactions to my expressed desire were mixed. Those under 50 years of age urged me to “go for it!” Those over 55 years were cautious, citing all the compromises they had made to keep their bodies free of injury by reducing challenges and risks.

I wondered what was driving me. Why the “urgency” to participate? It was not only the likelihood ‘if not today,’ then probably ‘not tomorrow.’ It was also about my work! My patients and many of my colleagues believe that in the unconscious are the driving forces that define our unique being. In the philosophy and technique guiding the bodies of those who execute the PILOBOLUS WAY there might be clues about the route to the root to which I aim to engage with courageous patients interested in the unconscious and their enjoyment of life. Each “one” bravely talks and opens and stumbles and slips and uncovers and falls into “nonsense” or lack of meaning, disengaged from universal meanings of words. They become immersed in their perceptions, visual memories, body sensations, dreams, and slips of the tongue in order to uncover what is real in them. There was something luring me to experience my own body in workshop with others in the communion of feelings, sensations, and movement. Each participant would be different, yet human, and still possess some personal mystery. The PILOBOLUS WAY could help us learn and discover more of ourselves and about others.

Each of us in infancy is first touched by our caregiver, usually mOther, but not always a mother. The first Other is followed by other caring surrogates — father, siblings, extended family, friends, teachers, neighbors, etc. Each one learns the (m)Other’s tongue. While the words multiply as we mature, the results are actually increasing degrees of separation, alienation, prevarication, and disguises in the multiplicity of meanings of most of the Others’ words. If we pay close attention, we discover there are difficulties of communicating with words, where the meanings of others may approximate but are often not the same as our own. We eventually discover each word can have multiple and even equivocal meanings. We are fortunate to have shared speech. However, this shared speech often results in confusion or misunderstandings. Somewhere in the PILOBOLUS body experience there was the lure of feeling earlier life moments that could circumvent the limitations of verbal speech and more accurately bring participants closer to mutual and visceral experience and understanding.

 

Here is some of what I learned during the 5 day workshop. It was about dance and movement and another version of living with others. The PILOBOLUS method usually involves the immediate presence of one or more “others.” It is not usually solo work. It is like life — only in dance and physical activity. A participant is in relationship — social relationship with other humans. There is always an exchange of energy that makes for non-verbal communication and often effectively achieves transmission of intent and alerts the participants to work it out. Problems arise requiring efforts at solution, as in life. The problems could involve discussion, but ultimately they demand “action.”

 

The potential and multiple movements of the PILOBOLUS WAY are diverse. Among the movements which represent a form of interactive body language include pushing forward; pushing apart; pulling away; walking or running in various directions (forward, backward, sideways, diagonally); walking requiring avoidance of collision (around or through or halted); walking at various levels from the ground; strategic mounting of another or being mounted for human constructions; extension of energy mutually in relatively equal amounts so as not to injure but engage in connection and contact; leading or being led blindly; being lifted by another’s body’s movement—rising, descending; lowering through one’s own initiative and being enabled to lower further by the paradox of the support from one or more others; being received and caught; assuming leadership, relinquishing leadership, and following; and more…

Often the movements of engagement require that one have access to personal trust — first of self and then trust of the other. Being led with eyes closed the first time was challenging. Once closed and in movement, my eyes involuntarily opened. Insistent that I try, I gave up my gaze to trust the other. Falling into the arms of others required that I resort to the meditative breath, so I could execute the task, assuage my anxiety, and end up in a calm state. Finally, I allowed myself to be caught and supported by my comrades.

This precious moment was available to every participant – a profound moment of trust. It was an opportunity to re-experience in adulthood a feeling of extreme dependency. Each one was as if at birth – without the words to describe this original condition of life.

And then there was the choreography in conjunction with one or more others, encouraging one’s expression of creativity. Here I was feeling initially incapable and hoping to be ignored. I reluctantly offered my ideas and was comfortable, when I saw they fell short of acceptance. Then I experienced a need to offer other ideas, possibly more acceptable ones. These new ideas contributed to the promotion of our joint projects. Something in the collaboration ignited the creative spirit from within that drew me and each other person into participation as contributors. No one seemed willing to submit to “dropping out” or being dominated by another’s point of view.

The other participants are remarkable people. Each is different from the other but similar in the passion to learn more of the PILOBOLUS WAY and also in our ability to perspire profusely. The workshop took place in a gym with cross ventilation but no air conditioning. It was the time of a heat wave. Once the perspiration began dripping and we began to slide together and share it, the heat and perspiration were a means of gluing us more deeply into togetherness and cooperation.

Initially our teacher-leaders asked for our names and for a “movement” or gesture to identify ourselves. They asked us to say how we were feeling at the start, the conclusion of each day, and frequently in-between. Their questions encouraged self reflection, if we were not already in the habit of doing so. They encouraged us to share ourselves and learn about the activities, foods, and other personal experiences each other enjoyed. The teacher-leaders welcomed our reports of our physical and/or emotional states to the degree we were inclined to share. They spoke of themselves, as well. They encouraged us to become confidantes and comrades. Trusting and caring evolved.

Sometimes participants spoke from a place deep down in the gut or from the depth of their hearts, often choked up and sometimes with tears. We spoke not only about ourselves but also about the other. We gave feedback about how we felt about and thought of our own work. We were encouraged to speak of the work of the others. In reflection it was the most graceful form of constructive criticism I have experienced. The feedback seemed sincere, was sensitively delivered, and offered with respect and caring. Collaborative input could bring initial gambits of work to subsequent levels of excellence, achieving actualized expressions of intentions or new and admirable renditions of the initial work.

A starting point of the initial work might have been simply the instruction to create something using two words like “wait” and “weight” OR create something by touching a predetermined body part (e.g., the “wrist”) to another’s body part. The growth process seemed seamless – without a glitch, a blip, or an impossible hurdle. It was a labor of love among participants and their PILOBOLUS teachers. Works started and created in the gym reached new levels of excellence in the nurturing process of observation, discussion, re-working, more feedback, and practice. These works were eventually performed on a stage at a festival at the conclusion of the 5 day workshop. They were joyfully performed by the participants and received with appreciation by the audience.

It was interesting how we came to speak of ourselves to others. We managed to say important words in multiple ways: excitement, gratitude, awe, exhaustion, pain, anxiety, etc. We were often in these feelings. The different ways these messages could be sent and received were impressive. It should be noted the participants were from many different locations and cultural backgrounds. Some but not many were from NY and Connecticut. Others were from Arizona, Massachusetts, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Florida, California, Wisconsin as well as arrivals to the US from Siberia, Russia and Paris, France and even a participant from Colombia, South America.

Our PILOBOLUS teachers were very skilled “group” leaders. They facilitated physical-motor processes and verbal processes with mastery. Their ability was similar to professionals whom I know well who have doctorates in mental health practice. When I discovered the first morning that one of the teachers was reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND, I felt we were in store for a memorable “human” experience.

The Workshop was a significantly “humane” experience. Direct experience of the PILOBOLUS WAY illuminated the perceptual, motor, emotional, and visceral experiences of the body underlying and influencing our verbal discourse and awareness. The gems of the PILOBOLUS WAY have provided valuable “know how” to discover and enhance the unfamiliar, mysterious, and unconscious in each of us.

My Salute to the Members of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York

My brother died. He was a member of the Patriot Guard Riders of NY (PGR). I did not know what his membership and this group meant, until he passed. I became a recipient of and a witness to the mission of the Patriot Guard Riders of NY. I salute them here as a representation of Earth’s Angels who do the work of compassion for an often insufficiently acknowledged group. This group would be that of US Veterans of all military services that either through voluntary enlistment or conscription protected the interests of the USA. We are the beneficiaries of their patriotism.

To this brotherhood of US Military Veterans my brother Mitch had devoted a decade of his life as an active member, serving as Dispatcher to schedule missions and working out the logistics. The Patriot Guard Riders respond to requests of family and friends to honor deceased military men and women at the time of their funerals and burials. Mitch also researched war time experiences of the deceased and provided biographies of Veterans to recognize their honorable service. He actively joined in the processions riding his motorcycle. He often volunteered to ride in the rear of the procession, offering to take a challenging and often dangerous position. On the flag line he stood at attention, favoring the black and white POW / MIA flag at his side, unfurled and blowing in the wind.

Mitch was among male and female members, standing in the flag line of red, white, and blue in frigid or sweltering weather to honor the deceased and to comfort their families and friends in their loss.The presence of the PGR at the funeral and burial of a Veteran represents a celebration of service to the USA and its citizens. My grief was significantly transformed in the flood of color in the experience of reciprocity. That would be “back at ya” — when we experience poignantly what is given back which the deceased giver gave. Or, perhaps we could view it as a result of “Karma”, when the seeds that are planted by one’s behavior are eventually harvested in consequences, recognition, and appreciation.

Those who appeared that frigid Sunday in January 2017 had the look of baby boomers; but I could see a range in ages of those standing at attention in the flag line who could have been Millennials or even members of the Generation X. The majority were Viet Nam Veterans. They resembled siblings of a large family with graying hair, bearded or stubbled faces, robust physiques slightly revealing the changes of aging, wearing leather jackets or camouflage. Still looking like former military, they constituted a very large family.

As PGRs their mission on that day was to provide support to the grieving family and friends of one of their own. Upon arriving at the funeral chapel it was impressive to see American flags everywhere. More structured was the flag line, bordering the walkway into the Chapel. The PGR saluted the family and friends, offering their arms to escort them into the Chapel. As their numbers increased, the PGR filled the vestibule of the Chapel and formed a channel. Many took seats in the Chapel during the service. On this day one of the PGR eulogized my brother by reading the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis from her best selling book Live Your Dash: Make Every Moment Matter. This poem encourages people to consider the DASH between the date of birth and death that is on every tombstone. This DASH can also represent the life that we have lived thus far. The poem invites contemplation of how we wish to live the remainder.

In addition to being counted at funerals the PGR have other missions including honoring first responders of any contemporary crisis and assisting with direct service and/or monetary aid to service persons, veterans and their families suffering any form of distress. PGR are also advocates for MIA’s and POW’s and work on their behalf. They also participate in Angel missions by receiving the arriving remains of service persons returning home and accompanying their remains by procession to the chapel.

When my brother was dying, I knew the Patriot Guard Riders would be represented at his funeral. I knew the PGR would give back with their presence what he already had given to his deceased peers. However, I did not know in what numbers they would appear. They were far more than 25 and it seemed more than 50 or 100. We were immersed in their support and spirit. They led the automobile procession and protected it from interruption in route to the cemetery by locating their cars decorated with American Flags at intersections to stop oncoming traffic. The PGR alerted the Sheriff’s office to take over when the procession was approaching the cemetery.

And at the cemetery the PGRs were already at attention with flags unfurled, as they lined the narrow streets awaiting the three massive motorcycles decorated with American flags that escorted the hearse to the gravesite.

Two other groups took their places to expand the numbers of the PGRs. The Navy sent the well known Bugler whom my brother admired, a male and a female sailor, and a Commander — erect in stature and precise in their deportment. After the draping of the casket and before the folding the American Flag, the Bugler played Taps to perfection.

Then in the sky a red, white, and blue airplane and the a red, white, and blue helicopter flew overhead. These aircraft commemorated my brother Mitch’s mission in Viet Nam. The 2 aircraft were provided by a fellow member of the PGR.

 

The ceremonial folding of the American flag that had draped the coffin proceeded. The carefully folded American flag was presented to the Naval Commander as a perfect equilateral triangle. With grace and dignity he presented it to my sister – in – law with her 9 year old grandson tucked into her. Both received the flag. It was an intimate moment — reception of this symbol of this honorable Veteran for this grandson and for his grandmother. For those of us standing as witnesses we experienced how one could take loss beyond death and into the sphere of service and honor. This added to the meaning of a life, as it was celebrated in death.

Finally, their appeared yet another group — my brother’s son’s group of motorcycle riders — my nephew’s “brothers” — young Millennials and members of Generation X which also included at least one Baby Boomer. They came to honor the father of their fellow rider. Yes, here was another brotherhood of those faithful and committed to one another. These young, virile, muscular men lined up behind one another, each one taking turns to man the shovels surrounding the grave to finish the burial of the casket, after the family shoveled its share of the dirt, as is the tradition.

This action coalesced with the Rabbi’s reminder of the “Mitzvah”. He explained this is a responsibility or obligation to “do the right thing.” Although there were people of many different faiths present, the Mitzvah was for all who were able — irrespective of religion, color, or creed — to honor the deceased, support the family, and shovel as much of the soil as one could in order to complete the burial. The tradition was simply to do what the deceased could not do for himself any longer.

I have a recurrent memory of my brother that suits the day well. Whenever I said or offered something kind to Mitch, he would say, “Back at ya !” That is what occurred on the day of his funeral, when what he gave came back to him. This, it seems to me, would be a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. It makes for humanity among men and women. Following the example of the members of the Patriot Guard Riders of NY — it is a fine guide for life — to do for others what you would have them give “back at ya ! ”

Photography by Carlos Varon, Member and Photographer of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York

To Help Or Be Helped Works In Two Directions

Many years ago I worked for Catholic Charities of the Rockville Centre Diocese during the tenure of Father Emmett Fagan, the Director. At an annual luncheon acknowledging the workers of the mental health clinics, each worker was given a pin on which was printed “WE CARE”. Those of us attending were urged to pin it to our clothing. I did.

In his speech at the luncheon Father Fagan pointed out that non-profit agencies were unable to pay generous salaries, so that other perks had to be provided to win employee dedication. He proposed that Catholic Charities gave us something we needed, which was demonstrated by the pins we wore. He confidently said that we “needed” to care for and to serve others. He concluded playfully and ironically that we should be grateful to Catholic Charities for gratifying our need.

Human Need

Father Fagan’s words are still with me and very frequently ring true. The most recent occurrence was in the wake of “Hurricane” Sandy, where once again I was among many other people eager to serve those in need. It became clear in a kind of par­a­dox­i­cal reversal that if those in need were willing to receive from those wishing to give, then the receivers would have the power to take and be ben­e­fited and also have the power to help the giver, who had the need to give. From this perspective the positions of dependence and independence can become inverted alternately. And, from whatever position one views it, it is WIN-WIN.

The invasion by “Hurricane” Sandy brings these alternate positions to me directly, because I too was a victim of the natural disaster – though to a comparatively minor degree. I am one of the 8 million people affected, living in one of 12 states located from North Carolina to Maine and as far west as Michigan. I am one of the people who want to “care” and help, but I am also a victim in need of help. That con­nects me to others. I expe­ri­enced pow­er­less­ness, which left me in the dark, when daylight vanished. My landline phone failed which dis­con­nected me from loved ones, family, friends, and clients. I own a mobile phone, but its waning battery power was directly affected by my lack of electrical power to charge it. My basement was flooded. I experienced darkness and cold.

I chose to leave my home in the face of the threatening Nor’easter, even though fearful of the looting I knew was happening in some Long Island towns. Many others had to leave their homes, because their cir­cum­stances were far worse. Their homes were uninhabitable and/or they were personally in mortal danger from rising tides. Going from having a home to not having a home or being unsafe and/or uncomfortable in one’s home is an exceedingly unsettling experience which rocks a personal sense of security. I was among many who felt disconnected, insecure, dependent, vulnerable, and insignificant.

“Hurricane” Sandy was a disaster of unexpected proportions from which many suffered and many still suffer. One month after Sandy’s arrival I was volunteering at a shelter in which there remained over 150 people. My personal experience and the experiences of others, which I witnessed by direct observation or their reports, demonstrate that there can be opportunities for personal development in the midst of anguish. What follows is testimony to the inspiration provided by some people without minimizing recognition of the distress they needed to overcome.

Relief: The Path from Oneself to Others

Because I found powerlessness aversive, I took action by expressing my need to volunteer to help and in that way I tried to flee my powerlessness. My message was heard by one of my colleagues. She delivered it to another person, who was seeking a volunteer. When I encountered the “seeker” who was not yet fully clear about her need, I acquiesced to her request. I did not know what I was signing up for but consciously made a commitment. My task was finally framed: to help approximately 2000 high school students living in a community severely hard hit by Sandy re-immerse themselves in their jobs of being the involved students they had been prior to Sandy’s arrival 14 days before. Accompanying the 2000 students would be faculty and staff, also victims of Sandy, who would be in attendance at the 4 assemblies, divided by grade into 4 groups of about 500. Although intimidated by the undertaking, I barely allowed myself to be conscious of the challenge facing me.

The community in which the high school was located was in many areas inundated by flooding. There­fore many of the 2000 enrolled students and the faculty and staff either lived in areas requiring evac­u­a­tion from their homes from this community or from neighboring ones. Some who attended the assem­blies had been in mortal dan­ger. Those who did not evacuate their homes witnessed their pos­ses­sions being destroyed by water and/or wind. Some of those who did evacuate and then returned saw the destruction in its aftermath. Some returned to apartments or homes where the doors could not be open, because water pressed the doors shut and relocated very weighty furniture. Others saw 4 to 6 feet of water inundating their basements and first floors, threat­en­ing to mount the steps to the second floor leaving in its wake walls stained with water, sewerage, mold, and devastated and dete­ri­o­rating possessions.

Building the Field and Providing the Forum

The seeker who was a Guidance Counselor and her Principal each with their own entrenched needs to help had defined the field – the auditorium and the structure – 4 assemblies of approximately 500 or fewer students and faculty and staff. I was to provide the rest.

So I began to define my needs. Equipment: two microphones standing in each aisle; a white board; a glass with colored liquid. My goal: to encourage audience participation and to provide information by expanding from what participants shared about their experiences. My comments would illuminate the thoughts and feelings of those willing to speak for themselves and for the others who could not speak or did not speak aloud from the microphone. The assembly would be an OPPORTUNITY where anyone could take the microphone. Among those who took the microphones would be students, teachers, and administrators. Those who spoke could help those who listened get in touch with similar or different disaster related experiences. Whether acknowledged overtly or not, we were all in the experience together with opportunities to confirm ourselves publically or privately.

Actuality

Each assembly began with the Principal welcoming the grade – the first was ninth; second, twelfth; third, eleventh; and fourth, tenth – and then he introduced me. I provided two experiences to invite involvement. The two experiences were designed to illustrate the idea that there is usually more than one way to view an experience.

The first experience consisted of presenting a transparent glass container filled to the midpoint with an amount of orange juice. The students were asked to tell what they saw. Students in each assembly responded: “the glass was half empty”; “the glass was half full”; “the glass has orange juice”, etc.

The second experience requested they read the following, which was written on a white board:

Opportunity isnowhere

Students were willing to offer: “Opportunity is now here”; “Opportunity is no where”; “Opportunity I snow here”. Once it was clear that people could view the same experience in different ways AND the experience could be viewed from a negative, positive, neutral, creative, clever, and/or a humorous perspective, we were on our way to looking at the experience of Sandy in a multitude of ways, depending on the person’s point of view.

One of the first students who vol­un­teered to speak seemed a little ambiv­a­lent, getting my attention with a slightly raised hand. With encour­age­ment she approached the microphone and began to speak without hesitation. She reported that she and her twin sister were living at her boyfriend’s home, apart from her family who had to vacate their home due to flooding. She and her sister were determined to attend school and therefore were willing to be separated from their family. Being the first to speak she revealed the need of many victims – the need to talk about the trauma. Her report led another student to speak from the opposite microphone with some confusion of his family’s going to another family’s home for shelter and then separating and re-uniting seem­ingly more than twice. In the descrip­tion of his travels he related the stressors involved in being grateful for the shelter but also spoke of the challenge of adapting to the requirements of being needy guests in the home of hosts, not always relatives whose life style was different.

Some students addressed their distress about being separated from their parents as well as their worry over the welfare of their parents. They spoke of the difficulties of living with strangers or relatives, even though they expressed gratitude for the kindness they received. The act of reuniting after a period of separation and the sense of relief in not being in a fractured family, despite the disintegration of the devastated family home, was expressed by other students.

Some of the members of the audience (faculty and administrators) spoke of the world as they knew it as being turned upside down by Sandy. Depending upon the community and location of their home within the community in which they lived, some experienced inundation by waves from ocean on one side and bay on the other. Sandy, having been reduced from a hurricane to a storm was still considered by some experts to be a tropical cyclone. The flooding combined with pow­er­less­ness and cold from the loss of electricity turned life upside down in a real and concrete experience. Those who were able to come up to the microphone to speak required a sense of balance in the aftermath to put one foot in front of the other. Arriving at the microphone was an assertion that they had regained a greater sense of balance and were sufficiently rooted to speak of their experience.

Some students spoke of their observations of parents in the face of the disaster. One student reported he was more responsible for himself and for his parents than he felt they had been for themselves and for him. Not interested in speaking of his feelings, he preferred to describe his encounter with a neighbor, formerly a stranger to him, but now becoming an acquaintance. This neighbor, who had electricity, offered to connect the boy’s family’s refrigerator by extension cords to his own outlets, seemingly very willing to share his power. The student, an eleventh grader, minimized his own “power” in achieving this consideration for his family. So the audience both seriously and playfully applauded the Good Samaritan neighbor for the help he gave to the boy’s family through this student’s initiative.

When I introduced the idea of “being helped” and “giving help” more directly, I noticed a pair of boys (one very tall and of color, the other much shorter and white) marching up, not to the microphones in the aisles but right onto the stage, where I was at that time. They were spirited and friendly. I learned when they reached me that they had decided to come up to “help” me. They asked on their arrival, “How can we help you?” I was struck by their perception of my words about “being helped” and “giving help”. I definitely needed all the help I could get from the audience. It seemed that the desire to be helpful was pervading the space of the auditorium. What help I needed at the moment was that they share their experience of either helping or being helped. So, each took the microphone from me and proceeded to tell how while not suffering directly from powerlessness or flooding, each had family who did. They detailed how they went from one town to another town to help out family members.

This desire to help was elaborated by a student, not a victim of flooding or powerlessness, who had been noticeably concerned about her extended family devastated by Sandy. She told of her own family’s efforts to help them. Following this report, a cool kid got up, walked confidently to the microphone in the opposite aisle. His popularity was affirmed by cheers coming from the audience, which often occurred throughout the day when a student made the walk down the aisle. He started out by saying, “I did not feel anxiety. I felt angst.” He proceeded to speak of his father who lives in a community surrounded by water, where it was known there was likely to be extreme devastation by Sandy. He was powerless to go to help or find his Dad. He spoke without hesitation of his “angst” and his preoccupation with his father’s welfare. He admitted unashamedly his relief in being able to report that his father survived the devastating surge in his community.

When the level of sharing reached this degree of emotionality, kids with differing levels of angst came up to speak. An eleventh grader spoke of the strain on his special needs sister who could not understand the flooding. He spoke of his extreme efforts to help his parents help this sister understand what the family was undergoing. This highlighted the assembly earlier in the day where many special needs students were in attendance. They were present with the twelfth graders. Being less inhibited than many of the soon to be graduated seniors, several of the special needs stu­dents spoke without self-con­scious­ness of their feelings during the storm. They spoke proudly about how they rallied and how they felt they had been a credit to the efforts to overcome the stressors and difficulties of the upset caused by Sandy. There was a persistent theme from those who spoke of feeling proud of themselves and their commitment to their school and community.

There is an occurrence deserving mention, because many members of the faculty remarked repeatedly about this event. At the conclusion of the second assembly to which I am referring that included the 12th graders and many of the special needs students, one of the special needs students was speaking. The warning bell rang indicating the period was coming to a close as the student spoke with some hesitation and mannerisms that identified him as having some special needs. He had more to say and continued. Then the second bell rang indicating the period was over. What followed left many of the faculty incredulous. Not one senior stirred. The student continued to speak, finished his sharing, and then, when he finally left the microphone, did the seniors dash out of the auditorium. “Incredible,” said the faculty members who remarked that when seniors hear the second bell they are like race horses breaking out of the (classroom) gate. However, not so on this day in that special moment, when the seniors gave their respect to the story of the special needs student who actually concluded with “…High School will prevail!!”

There was an Asian-American student with some difficulty speaking English, which seemed to be his second language. Not unlike the special needs students who wanted to belong, this Asian-American student also wanted to be part of the sharing. Though expressing himself in English seemed to be a challenge for him, he stood at the microphone and spoke of his alliance with his father. He and his father tried to help the neighbors to share their community’s resources and address the lack of cooperation and frustration.

It was probably after he spoke of the anxiety he experienced where people were competing for what they needed that a cool student of color came up and talked about how he had not been upset by powerlessness or flooding. As he spoke he moved his body in a rhythmic flow, a bit like dancing, and connected to the audience. He spoke of the camaraderie with his peers during the storm, playing games by flashlight and enjoying their friendship. We learned from him that the glass being half empty (lacking power and warmth) turned out to be for him moments of connection with others that he had been missing. When the lights came on, the togetherness had been interrupted. There was some sadness here. However, he went on to report in the following days he went to relatives in other towns to help them out. It seems he was telling the audience he needed to connect and did so, helping himself and at the same time others. I learned later that his beloved grandmother, who had cared for him, had recently died which explains further his enjoyment of the connections he had during the storm.

Summing Up

One of the themes of the day of the 4 assemblies was that of being helped and giving help. As conceived by the Principal and the Guidance Counselor the assemblies were designed to help the students return to their “jobs” as students. As understood by Father Fagan long before there are some people who just have to care and help. As demonstrated by the students and the faculty, whichever side you are on—helper or receiver of help—you are helping someone who is also likely to be helping you. The circle revolves and those involved are benefiting in one way or another.

That the glass is perceived as half full (or even half empty) indicates there is a quantity of substance, which can be viewed as energy. Opportunity being “now here” allows for the exchange of energy to occur. We pretty much can count on the WIN-WIN of helping or being helped. In the face of disaster everyone needs an opportunity to turn the tide and be a winner. Turning the tide is a pretty powerful place to be!

We Must Be Our Brother’s Keeper

As I left the Nassau Community College Shelter 33 days after Hurricane Sandy, I considered the three-hour deployment I had just completed. At first three hours seemed a short time. Upon leaving I realized the three hour limit had been demanding but merciful.

I was in deep con­tem­pla­tion, when I saw a petite woman with dark, curly hair loa­ding items into a van. I could not avert my gaze. She seemed so fami­liar. She resem­bled me. I thought, “No, don’t go there.” She returned my gaze intensely. A ques­tion escaped from me, “Do I know you?” In one word she clipped abruptly, “Yes.” I stepped for­ward, search­ing. In this uncanny moment I rea­lized that I could have been this woman or any one of the other peo­ple I had just encoun­tered in the shel­ter. I had been power­less also, impo­tent to make a dif­fer­ence ini­tially, and flooded. It seemed the same for all of us: “disaster” – not expected and defi­nitely not wanted.

Finally, I recognized her. She was the assistant to a shop­keeper in my home­town. Absurdly I asked, “Why are you here?” I have only seen her in the shop, when I ask her for help. She explains that she has spent the last 33 days in the shelter with her sister, having been forced from her home by the surging waves and the subsequent flooding. She was fatigued, without makeup, in work clothes, and seemed resentful. She said, “I have just been given a hotel room in town, and I am going there now. I have not worked in a month.”

With Hurricane Sandy’s arrival I had had my own struggles with “powerlessness”. I also had my clinical work which included some victims of Sandy and my volunteer efforts with nearly 2,000 students in a school district, not my own, seriously affected by the hurricane.

In the weeks that followed my encounter with the shopkeeper’s assistant I often thought of her while driving through my town, where I had witnessed downed trees, some resting on top of roofs, lawns, and sidewalks and others dangerously close to homes. They were gone, leaving some streets oddly naked of their former stately presence. I was relieved that she could move out of the shelter and return to work, though dissatisfied that she could not return to her home.

I start at the end of the time of my deployment, because the beginning was even more sobering. I was deployed by the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) to the Functional Needs Section of the shelter, where only three people remained after 33 days. These residents were people who required custodial care for their special needs. Of the three one had been sent to quarantine, because he had a virus. Contagion at the shelter was to be seriously avoided. The second person was sleeping under his covers, head and all. The third resident lived behind a divider that resembled a hospital room. She did not eat shelter food. Fortunately, her personal aides, who served her when she was not a hurricane victim, visited her at the shelter, as they would have at her apartment if Sandy had not taken it out. I met one of her aides who served as her legs and did her shopping. I got quite a lesson from this shelter resident on how she had adapted her eating to the shelter without budging from her cot. It was inspiring how she, a paraplegic, had managed to set herself up fairly comfortably, like some others I would meet. She had created her own living space and required others to serve her need for functioning legs. On the surface she was upbeat, talkative, and required that I be a sounding board, so long as she needed. When she dismissed me to obtain her privacy, I moved on to the aides who I suspected might need a sounding board as well.

I was not wrong. The course on Psychological First Aid can be found on line. It clearly instructs that first responders and the caregivers following them need to be cared for also. The two aides assigned to the Functional Needs Area had been on duty for 33 days and wanted to talk with me. I learned about their families, trials, tribulations and past month’s duty. They were paid workers not volunteers. They did many more than the three hours for which I was deployed. I would soon find out that any amount of hours working in a shelter could be challenging.

The Red Cross Director of the Mental Health Section of the shelter was a psychologist who traveled from a place off the US mainland to volunteer. I was struck by how many Red Cross Volunteer workers were from distant states. This does not minimize the importance of the several hundred volunteer professionals that serve in the Long Island Medical Reserve Corps. It does underscore the wide area from which people come to help other people in need.

This Director gave me permission to enter the larger shelter area, which included the Families Section. This consisted of the remainder of the gymnasium, which was very large and filled with cots. There was a television, rows of cots, and notable efforts made by some shelter residents to make a home for themselves during their stay.

I observed a woman practically folded over – head down, hands clasped in her lap, seated at the edge of her cot, small suitcase beside her. Crossing the boundary of her limited space felt like it would be an intrusion. I remained outside an imaginary border I had erected and crossed it with my voice, offering my first name and asking for hers. She looked up at me, unfolded, and said her name. Encouraged I asked if I could sit down on a chair that was nearby. She nodded.

I learned she had arrived at the shelter the night before after trying to adapt to the conditions of her friend’s flooded home in which she rented space after her divorce was finalized. Both women moved to the home of a neighbor who was not flooded and not powerless. They all worked to help restore the damaged home, including fighting the ruthless growth mold. Being prone to allergies the mold was especially toxic for her.

She was diag­nosed with aller­gic bron­chitis and forced to aban­don her friend. She moved into an apart­ment with her daugh­ter which was ren­ted by her daughter’s part­ner who was on bad terms with his land­lord. The land­lord refused occu­pancy for a third resi­dent. She reported having to hide during the day and crawl on the floor, so as not to be visible to any one peer­ing through the win­dows into the apart­ment. Unwilling to accept these con­di­tions after trying for a few days, she asked to be taken to the shel­ter. Reluc­tantly her daugh­ter agreed.

Now this woman sat on the cot explain­ing to me that she never ima­gined being in such cir­cum­stan­ces. She was incre­du­lous that she was tell­ing me of her plight. She was will­ing to speak of what had hap­pened in her life. She ela­bo­ra­ted a bit more on the cir­cum­stan­ces of her unan­ti­ci­pa­ted divorce, which was a trauma that pre­ce­ded the trauma of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. She spoke of her hopes to leave the shel­ter as soon as pos­si­ble. I had learned from the Director of the Mental Health Division of the Red Cross that FEMA and the Depart­ment of Social Services were expec­ted by Monday (36 days after Hur­ri­cane Sandy had arrived in NY) to find lodgings for the remaining shelter residents. When I asked if she wanted to facilitate this process with the FEMA and DSS representatives on site in the shelter, she eagerly agreed. Very quickly I found the location of both FEMA and DSS at the shelter and brought her to where she actually began the process of re-location.

I resumed my wandering through the Family Section and the rest of the gym. I met a mother with a whining, frustrated four year old who seemed forlorn in this new home far away from his flooded, lost home. Mother wanted him to take a nap, perhaps to give himself and her a break from the monotony and limited child friendly opportunities. The boy wanted to go downstairs to where a play area had been set up and where he might find other children. He was a member of a family – mother, grandmother, pre-teen daughter, himself – living in a four cot, somewhat barren family space. His grandmother and sister were away, taken by taxi to visit family outside the shelter. The day before they had visited the Children’s Museum not far from the College and the day before that had gone shopping. It became clear that families were adapting the best they could to their new circumstances, some waiting until the next change in their circumstances would be arranged. In the moments of my encounter with this mother, she was waiting. This was in contrast to the previous woman, the newcomer, whose expressed need resulted in her taking action to facilitate re-location.

My next experience showed me how it was possible to distinguish oneself and one’s living space. I was first attracted to a colorful space and then to a colorful woman. Both she and her living circumstances were attractive. She had manicured nails with bright colors and designs. She wore a tank top and tight jeans. She did not spare her face of cosmetics. Her site included a double cot covered by a colorful comforter, a beach umbrella, a VCR player, a shelf housing many videos, and stuffed animals perched around the bedside. As soon as I arrived at her site she was friendly and eager to share information about herself. She shared this two-cot bedstead with a partner who was “out”. She had had surgery just the week before which had been scheduled before Sandy’s arrival. She decided to recuperate at the shelter. She was managing pretty well on the painkiller, which she had just taken. She was a bit off balance but making the best of it. She was expecting to be re-located before long. She seemed to be a person who would benefit from services from DSS. I supported her expressed plans to make a home for herself where DSS would locate her.

When my three hours of deployment were concluding, I was thinking about what I was learning about shelter life. I was able to see that some people can make the most of the new circumstances in which they find themselves. The paraplegic woman and the woman recovering from surgery in the comfort of her two-cot home site showed this to me. The new arrival wanted the circumstances to be very temporary and was willing to do whatever was necessary to make alterations as quickly as possible. Yet others like the four person family could be very dependent on the “system”, perhaps because needs were multiple and might require some coordination of efforts.

One observation was very clear: the shelter is a very important place for people in distress. The Red Cross and the MRC volunteers provide respect for and assistance to those who lives have been seriously upset. In the society in which we live, life is challenging. From my clinical practice I witness the hard work people do to improve the quality of their lives. Upon the arrival of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy life becomes even more challenging for those who are victimized. Wherever a person has arrived in his or her life at the time of crisis, it will take even more effort to adapt. We, who are not directly affected by the disaster or affected but not halted by the disaster, may be able to lend a helpful hand.

The petite woman with the dark curly hair could have been me. Nature does not play favorites. Predicting the future is not a sure thing. When disaster arrives, no matter what side we find ourselves on when help is needed – giver or receiver – I am comforted that there are volunteers – good neighbors, a Red Cross, and a Medical Reserve Corps.