Friday, February 17, 2012
By Susan Esther Barnes
Last weekend, I attended days 3 and 4 of the Kol Haneshama class series given by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The purpose of the class is to train volunteers to work at the Jewish Home in San Francisco with people who are approaching the end of life. The class is also open to people like me who don’t live in San Francisco, and who will be using what we learn in our own community.
I was glad that, after breakfast together, we started Saturday morning with Shabbat services. We were told we were welcome to bring a tallit, so I wore mine, as did the rabbi leading the service, and a couple of other people.
Saturday was all about loss. There were two activities that particularly stood out for me that day. For the first one, we were each given 16 post-it notes: a set of four each of four different colors. On one color, we were asked to write one activity that is important to us on each of the four post-its of that color. For the second color, we wrote four roles we play that define us. On the third color, we wrote the names of four people who are important to us, and on the last color we wrote four physical objects that we own that are important to us.
Then, we were asked to select one post-it of each color, and to place it in a bowl. At first, I didn’t know what the activity was about. I thought maybe the trainer was going to read out loud a selection of the things we had written. Foolishly, I picked the four things that were the most important to me, and put them in the bowl.
We were then asked to look at what we had left, and I began to realize that what we were being asked to do was to imagine what it would be like if we lost some of the things that are important to us – activities, roles, people, and things. The activity was helping us to see what kinds of things people lose when they become ill and/or elderly, and to imagine what that would feel like.
Next, we were asked to pick four more post-its, of any color, and place them in the bowl. This time, I chose more wisely. I held on to the things I had left that I would least like to lose. Once again, we spent some time contemplating what we had left.
The trainer then announced that he was going to come around and take some of our post-its. This was the same trainer who did the photo activity with us on the first evening, and similar to what he did at that time, when he gave different numbers of photos to different people, he took different numbers of post-it notes from different people. At least one person was left with all eight remaining post-its, and at least one person was left with only one.
Once again, he asked us to look at what we had left. He asked us, “Is it enough?” and someone else answered what I was thinking, “It has to be.” All in all, it was a sad and sobering experience to contemplate being left with so much less than I have now, especially in terms of activities and roles.
When the trainer asked what it was like when he said he would take some post-its rather than allowing us to pick them for ourselves, I told him, “I was thinking, ‘That’s too bad, I used to like you.’”
The other activity that stands out for me was at the end of the day. Each of us were asked to think about someone we knew who had died, and to write on an index card three things: Something we regret, something we would like the person to know, and something we wish for the person. On my card, I wrote to my grandmother who died in 1983.
One by one, we stood up and read what was on the card, then dropped it into the bottom of a ceramic pot, while the other members of the class said, “Amen.” Once everyone was done, together we all put dirt into the pot, planted a houseplant in it, and watered the plant. The plant is going to be brought to the Jewish Home, where most of the people in the class will be volunteering.
What surprised me the most about this activity is how emotional I felt, even though it has been so long since my grandmother died. She had the same disease as Katharine Hepburn, so that her whole body shook all the time. It always seemed to me it must be hard to sleep in that situation. My grandmother always seemed so strong, self-reliant and capable, it had never before occurred to me to wish for something for her. What I wished for her was the ability to be still when she wants to be.
One other thing that struck me about day 3 is that we were told that our lunch hour would be a silent lunch. I took this to mean that none of us would speak during the lunch break, yet several people from the class spoke to me. After I ate, I left the building and took a walk around the grounds, which include lovely paths like the one picture at the top of this post, but I found myself spending more time than I would have liked feeling annoyed because people had spoken to me. When I returned to the building, again, people from class spoke to me even though the lunch break was not yet over.
When class resumed, we were asked what the experience of the silent lunch was like for us. At the risk of alienating various people in the room, I spoke about how frustrating it was to me that so many people spoke to me, when I had been anticipating having a chance to spend the hour in silence.
Later that afternoon we had another, 15 minute, silent break, and once again someone from the class spoke to me during the break. Believe it or not.
So Saturday was focused on ourselves and on loss. Sunday was focused on serving others. We did some text study and learned a bit about listening skills, and did some roleplays of what we would say and do when we were visiting residents at the Jewish Home.
The best part of the day, for me, was a video of Jewish Home residents, centered around a performance they put on of songs they had written. The documentary started filming in the week before the performance, which had been scheduled to be on September 12, 2001, adding an extra dimension to it because of the September 11 tragedy.
As you can see, day 3 was much more impactful to me than day 4.
Worse, I’m afraid I won’t be able to write about the classes on days 5 and 6, because I came down with a nasty intestinal flu, and was unable to finish the class series. I don’t yet know what that will mean to my potential future as a volunteer.