Sidewalk Pilgrimage

“Today the Church of the Heavenly Rest on East 90th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is launching their Sidewalk Journey for Justice.
It includes 6 icons on 90th Street with QR codes that link back to resources to learn, pray, and act against racism. This sidewalk pilgrimage offers visible witness for our neighbors with the values of human dignity & equal justice that are foundations for our faith. The project builds on the energy of the Virtual Pilgrimage for Racial Justice that the church hosted in June.

The church is launching the pilgrimage today because August 28 is the anniversary of both the “I have a Dream Speech” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955.
— Rev. Matt Heyd

As a minister’s daughter, I am cut from similar cloth as my dad, but maybe in ways that you might not expect. My father has sometimes practiced his faith and calling outside of mainstream religion. He said to me recently, “I’ve never been an Orthodox Christian”. For him, nature breathes Spirit into him more than dogma ever could.

I have always felt God’s presence in my life, and I feel that relationship most acutely when I am in nature, and also through connections with all the people who enrich my life. This includes loved ones, but also those who teach me through contrast, keeping my paradigm ever shifting and growing. Every exchange can be an adventure and opportunity for my soul to find its true north.

But my connection to a religious community has been more elusive. I’ve spent much of my adult life experimenting with various communities. I attended a Unitarian church for a number of years, where I taught Sunday School to 8/9 year-olds, and met one of my dearest friends. My life partner and I followed a New Thought church as it grew over a decade and then folded. During the past few years, I have been actively searching for a spiritual community that I could make my own. It took a pandemic for me to find that community in my own backyard, two blocks away from my home. It had been there all along.

And the other weird thing is that my involvement with the Church of the Heavenly Rest has been largely online.

Who knew?!

There are many reasons why this place feels like home. It is after all the denomination that I grew up in. The warmth and inclusiveness of the clergy, and the kindness of the parishioners is part of it. But the values that I see enacted are also a huge variable. The clergy and members constantly call upon us all to expand our perceptions, to make room at the table for everyone, to shoulder collective suffering and to celebrate our joys together. We are invited to be accountable for the injustice so present in our world. And most importantly, to act.

In the padlet connected to the pilgrimage website, I made this commitment today: “I commit to engaging in conversations about inequity with marginalized people so that I can stand in witness and listen to learn more  about what I need to do to bring about change. 
I will continue to look for opportunities to facilitate conversations about undoing White Supremacy at home.” 

I had a wonderful conversation today with a child life student of color who taught me a lot in one hour. It was immediate proof that listening and witnessing changes the witness and the narrator.

What is your commitment today to bend the arc towards justice? I invite you to add your commitment to the padlet link to turn your thought into action.

Glue & Ballast

I am wondering how many people out there are feeling a bit broken these days. Whether you are parents, teachers, child life specialists, essential workers, or caregivers, whether you live alone or navigate relationships and conflicting needs at home amidst the pandemic, are there times when you feel — well — certainly not at your best?

Monday was a day like that for me. I was following my typical morning routine that involves prayer online with the Church of the Heavenly Rest. I settled onto my couch and lit a candle while my laptop booted up. I signed into my email and clicked on the Zoom link for the video connection …… and all I got was an ERROR message. Thank God I was quickly able to find a workaround. I dialed in with my phone while I reached out via email to Lucas, the program organizer at the church, and simultaneously tried another browser. I was into the service in a minute or two. You would think that I might feel accomplished at this feat of multitasking, but here is the thing. Even though I was functioning and problem solving in real time, I was also bawling my eyes out, with all the unleashed vigor of a toddler.

And I cried so hard that there was no way I could turn on my video or microphone once I got into the service. I think I scared my dog too.

Since the pandemic began, I have only missed one service, and that was for a medical appointment. Amidst the tears yesterday, I was struck by how dependent I’ve become on the routine and comfort that morning prayer provides me: the reverend Matt’s steady, soothing and cheerful presence, the stalwart group of parishioners, who, like me, show up every day, helping one another carry our collective burdens and celebrate our joys. The predictability of the liturgy.

In that brief moment of disconnect, I felt panic at the thought of not being able to join in the service. The panic was followed by a crushing wave of grief, all out of proportion to the situation, but greatly indicative of the accumulated losses of these past 5 months.

The misery of the moment didn’t dissipate. It sucked and pulled at me like quicksand for most of the day. It wasn’t until late afternoon that the despair began to lift. But I can see the seeds of recovery planted throughout the day, some even in the midst of my emotional tornado. The kindness and speed with which Lucas responded to my distress. A chat with a friend midday. In the early evening, another daily ritual, FaceTiming my parents. Our conversations are as predictable as liturgy – we share the highlights of the day, whether or not my folks went for a drive to their local farm, or my dad went for a walk. We ask one another what we are having for dinner, I ask what wildlife they’ve seen, and my dad tells me a bad joke that he saw on the internet and memorized just for me. My mom busts my dad’s chops for hogging the phone, and then joyously exclaims, “There you are!” when he turns the phone her way so that she can see me.

These conversations are the glue and ballast that hold me together.

But there’s more to it. After I wished my parents a good evening, a friend called me and asked if I could spare some time to listen to her about the hard day she’d had. While I listened, nursing a cup of tea, I remembered what Matt had said earlier that day, that when people are struggling, they don’t always need advice. Sometimes, the listening, the gentle witnessing, and just asking the right questions is the way to go, so that our loved ones can access the answers within themselves.

Later in the evening, the phone rang again. This time, it was a child life colleague seeking some support as she prepared for a radio interview. After we discussed her plan of action, she went on to share some great stories of how she has been using Loose Parts to help hospitalized children make meaning out of their medical experiences. When I hung up the phone from these conversations, the change in my mood was nothing short of remarkable. How could it be, that during such a low day, when I felt so beaten down and miserable, the universe could make such good use of me? If loose parts are what children need to make sense of their suffering, it seems that encounters with others, be they friends, colleagues, family or strangers, can serve as our loose parts. Our mutual conversations and witnessing can bring solace, perhaps a shift in perspective, and sometimes even an answer or two. The amazing part is that we don’t have to be at our best to show up and make a difference.

I have a porcelain angel who has knelt in a state of constant prayer on my bedside table since I was a small girl. She is somewhat worse for wear, battered, stained and the tips of her wings broke off years ago. But she brings me comfort every night.

It’s not just how others shore us up when we stumble. It is how even in our brokenness, we can be the glue and ballast for others, and in doing so, burgeon our own healing and open our hearts to the presence of a love beyond our understanding in the midst of our suffering.

For your listening enjoyment, click on the link below.

Blackbird by the Beatles

No Es Mi Idea: Hablemos acerca de racismo:

Not My Idea

Where do we begin when it comes to talking with children about racism? Is it possible to discuss traumatic events with our children without traumatizing them too? How do we prepare for the conversations children need us to be having with them so they can step into this historic moment and help undo what should never have been done. Who gets included and invited to the conversation?

Anastasia Higginbotham has written a children’s book that can jumpstart adults taking on these courageous conversations. And now she is partnering with me (Deborah Vilas), Modulo Learning, and Maria Fernanda Busqueta to plant seeds of conversation here in the USA and in Latinex countries around the globe.

In workshops available through Modulo Learning, we have explored the book: Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness. Although it is a children’s book, this workshop is designed for adults. We use the book as a jumping off point to support your exploration of how to self reflect and begin conversations at home about racism. In this book, a white child sees a news report of a white police officer shooting and killing a person with brown skin who had their hands up. “We don’t see color,” the child’s mother says, but the child senses a deeper truth. An afternoon in the library uncovers the reality of white supremacy in America. The child connects to the opportunity and their responsibility to dismantle white supremacy–for the sake of their own liberation out of ignorance and injustice.

We have decided to run a workshop in Spanish, because we are aware of the intersectionality of racism and immigration, and the discrimination that the Latinex community faces in the USA. Systemic white supremacy exists in other countries as well, creating a caste system where light skin is prized over dark skin. The COVID pandemic has made these schisms even more evident to the general public, although the pain they cause have been experienced by many for years.

Our first workshop in Spanish will be held on August 7th. It is pay what you can or attend for free.

Hora: 3:30 pm (Hora del Pacífico), 6:30 pm (Hora Central), 7:30 (Hora Estándar del Este). 

Duración: 2 horas.

RSVP para enlace de zoom privado.

Anastasia Higginbotham has written a courageous and necessary book to guide us in conversation about hard topics in hard times. Please join us as collaborative learners, putting one foot in front of another, walking the path towards a more just society on a global level.

Wonders of The World: Hope & Resilience Amidst a Pandemic

Camp Klicek, Malejovice, Czech Republic

Playing at a Distance

As a consultant working with the child life team of Sabara Children’s Hospital in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I am so grateful to be in close contact with them during the COVID19 crisis. I meet regularly with the clinicians online to discuss their work with children and families (currently they are working at a distance, as they are sheltering in place). In order to support their challenging work during the pandemic, we have spent the last several sessions together participating in creative arts activities, such as the ones I have been blogging about. Today, we did one of my favorites, Wonders of the World, adapted from Rebecca Carmen’s Helping kids heal: 75 Activities to help children recover from trauma and loss. As we play together via What’sApp, the team benefits from the parallel process of participating in a relaxing, inspiring activity which they can then bring to the children and families in their care.

Shizuoka University, Japan

Activity Instructions

Introduction:

The Wonders of the World activity is meant to instill hope and resilience in children and adults who may have difficulty picturing their lives beyond the walls of sheltering in place. It has been used with hospitalized and traumatized children and teens for the same reasons. Sometimes it is hard to imagine our lives beyond the present situation. It can be a challenge for us to move our bodies when we are leading a more sedentary existence. This activity is a great way to get us up, moving, and interacting physically when we do a life-sized body tracing. More conversation and joy tend to occur when we do it on the larger scale, but it still has therapeutic value and is enjoyable when done on a smaller scale with the outline of a body on drawing paper.

I have conducted this activity with nurses, hospital play specialists, social workers, psychologists, hospital administrators, and children in the Czech Republic and Japan. Thank you to the Czech and Japanese students and professionals in the photos.

Materials

  • Drawing paper with body outline (Links to an external site.) or butcher paper on which to trace your body, should you decide to do this with a friend or relative. Participants can also be invited to draw their own body outline on a piece of paper.
  • Pencil/Pen
  • Crayons/Markers/Watercolor pencils/Paint

Instructions:

You can use the body outline provided, or on large butcher paper, whiteboard (or sidewalk chalk if you want to do it outside!), have someone trace your body. The body tracing can be done lying on the floor/ground or standing against a wall.

Tokyo, Japan

Decorate the body outline with facial features and clothes.

Imagine your life in the future outside the pandemic quarantine. Then draw/paint the following items on the outline or anywhere on the paper that seems appropriate:

  • What you want your eyes to see in the future
  • What you want your ears to hear in the future
  • What you want your nose to smell in the future
  • What you want your mouth to taste in the future
  • What you want your heart to feel in the future
  • What you want your hands to do or make in the future
  • Where you want your feet to take you in the future

Activity Tip

  • Consider playing music in the background to accompany drawing (kid’s choice), maybe a childhood favorite.
  • If a participant is reluctant because they feel they cannot draw, encourage them to pretend they are an artist.
Jess in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Reflections

The sharing out is one of the best parts of this activity, both during the artwork and after.

Today, Jess shared: “When I imagine what could happen, I think of my friends all at the bar – so here we all are hanging out at the bar. I am missing my muay thai. The classes were in the middle of the process of my self perfection. I want to go to the beach and the sand and to smell the smell of the beach. The wave represents things coming and going.”

Dora in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Dora shared: “I put different colors for different feelings and senses. I want to be in nature, because when we go out now, it is just buildings and concrete. I want to hear the wind in the palm tree. I am listening to music a lot. It helps make the days more light. Here is a bird singing. I would like to hear news about a cure for COVID, so I put medicine here. I want to see landscapes, the Christ the Redeemer in Rio, because my best friend lives there and I won’t be able to be there now.

I want to smell the wet ground after rain. I would like to eat the cheesy bread of my grandma, a very special recipe. I would like to feel myself with all things that make me feel safe. We aren’t in a safe context right now. I want to touch things and people and hugs, touching things without fear. My feet want to go to the sea and the sand, and I also put paths to different routes and ways to walk without fear and with freedom.”

Leandro in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Leandro shared: “I think like a kid. At first I was doing philosophy, and it was too hard to think of big ways to change the world because I am so tired. But then, I tried smaller concrete things, and it was easier. I would like to be in nature now and to eat vegan cheese bread and good coffee.

My feet are on the beach between the water and the sand. My hands hold an electric guitar because that is what I want to hear. My eyes want to see the forrest and to smell the forrest – the trees and the green.

My heart is a yin yang because I want to feel good things, but I understand that it doesn’t happen every time. I understand the balance of the good and the bad. “

Thank you, Team Sabara, for doing such great work all the time. You inspire me.

Everyone Poops: Family Play Activity for Sheltering In Place

Humor as a Coping Mechanism

How many of us are feeding our souls with hilarious made-at-home videos about the coronavirus? There is some pretty amazing creativity happening out there, individuals and families who are using humor to cope and sharing their art with the rest of us through social media. I have several favorites, the Sound of Music one, and a family remake of Les Miserable’s One More Day. If I could figure out how to copy one from FaceBook, I would have included a video Yigal Azaria that has made me laugh loudly, something that is not so easy to these days.

Materials

  • Bran cereal – the kind that looks like twigs (but any cereal will do, and so will other ingredients like dry dog food).
  • Two zip lock bags, quart sized (because the first one may break as you pound and crumble the cereal)
  • pitcher/glass/cup of warm water
  • loose parts digestive tract made from items you might find around the house, plastic bags/umbrella bags, string, cardboard…..
  • tape, glue, staples (whatever way works best to make digestive tract)
  • Scissors

With humor in mind, I am stepping out on a limb to introduce a family activity that we have used in hospitals to help kids play and laugh about bowel issues that are usually a cause for shame and embarrassment. Many kids with chronic illness, disabilities, cancer, or trauma suffer from intestinal difficulties, toileting issues and discomfort. Playing about it can break through the shame and silence, teach children about how their bodies work and how healthy diets, hydration, and exercise can keep things running smoothly. Perhaps in this time of sheltering in place, we aren’t getting the exercise or diet we need to stay regular. So, bare with me and I will lead you through a fun, gross, and silly activity for the whole family.

Family Connection in Hard Times: Play Maps

Sheltering in Place

Welcome to the new normal, at least for now. In this time of forced seclusion due to COVID19, nuclear families are spending more time together than ever before. Parents are juggling so much – keeping their family safe from infection, their own work, profound stress if they aren’t working, their children’s schooling, their worries about vulnerable and elderly family members, and everyone’s myriad of coping mechanisms – some functional, some less so. We are all doing the best that we can, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel like we are doing a great job. But, hopefully, we have compassion for ourselves and one another, and we forgive ourselves when we lose it. Then we regather, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

There may be some silver lining for many families though. Perhaps there are moments of unexpected joy and closeness. Maybe we are putting down our devices and grabbing moments to play games, read aloud, enjoy nature, watch movies, cook together, or just to snuggle. In this vein, I want to share some of my all time favorite family activities over my next several blogs , They were designed for child life specialists to do with hospitalized children and families, but they are perfect for family fun at home. They are all affordable, need minimal supplies, are simple and guaranteed to spark fun and connection. The one I will focus on today is called Play Maps.

This Little Light of Mine

To Look or not to Look: That is the Question

In times of uncertainty, when there is so much out of our control, one of the things that is within our control is how we show up for others. And how we show up for others often has a lot to do with how we show up for ourselves. Since my posting last week, my self care regimen has taken on a whole new look — prayer and yoga are now online rather than in person. Each day I have decisions to make about how I spend my time, who I am in contact with via phone and video conference, and how I interact with others.

Child life specialists are trained to acknowledge and respect the many and varied coping mechanisms of children and families in hospitals. We are trained to assess, respond to, and expand these coping skills. For example, some children like to watch when they are undergoing an iv insertion. Others would prefer to close their eyes, blow bubbles, or search for items in an I Spy book. Some children want to know every detail about their diagnosis and treatment, while others prefer to skip the details.

Kids at Home? Staying Sane Through the Power of Play

School Closings

During this time of the coronavirus, school closings are causing tremendous stress for all parents, especially working parents whose child care options are limited or nonexistent. While your children are at home, providing a wide range of play activities will help ratchet down anxiety, promote healthy expression of feelings, and it might even be a unique opportunity to strengthen your relationship and attachment to one another. As a child life specialist, I have spent my career in hospitals helping children and families play as part of the family-centered care approach to healing. Today, I am going to share some ideas for keeping your children calm, happy, and occupied.

Self-Care as an Antidote to Coronavirus Anxiety

When The Caregiver Needs Help


We are all facing personal and professional fears regarding the coronavirus. Everywhere we turn, we are saturated by information, much of it needed, some unnecessary, some sought, some dropped in our laps without our consent. As a dear friend said to me today, there is a lot of noise but not a lot of guidance. We are doing our best to stay calm so that we can care for the children and families in our midst, as well as for our own families. 


The question is, what do we do to calm our own nerves, so that we don’t unwittingly increase anxiety around us? How do we keep from contributing to the growing hysteria, while still remaining prepared and logical? A piece of the answer lies in self-care.

Self-care is certainly something that child life specialists know a lot about. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves to reach for it, especially in times of challenge.  I want to share with you all what I am doing for myself, and then list some added suggestions that might be helpful to you. 

Home Away from Home

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How often is it in life that we truly feel at home in a place other than our own home? What are the ingredients that allow us to feel comfortable in our own skin, undefended, and at ease?

I seem to have stumbled upon many of these intangibles as I return for the seventh time in five years to the Czech Republic. Ostensibly I come here for work – collaborating with the Klicek Foundation to grow hospital play work in their country. We travel to various cities and venues, giving lectures to students and professionals of medicine, nursing, social work, psychology, and play work about the philosophy and logistics of providing humane, family-centered care to children and families facing medical treatment. I join them in the summertime to volunteer in their hospice summer camp.  But what happens here is so much more than work.

With each visit comes an immersion in the Czech culture, and more specifically, the culture of the family who sponsor my visits. In between travel and lectures, we gather at their hospice and home in the tiny village of Malejovice, about 40 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Bohemian countryside. Here in a century old schoolhouse on a small farm (replete with donkey, sheep, chickens, many cats and a dog), the Kralovitzes welcome children and families who seek respite and comfort from lives affected by illness, disability, and loss. It is not a hospice in the way most of us would imagine. It is neither a medical facility nor a place where children go to die. Rather, it is a retreat where individual children or the whole family can relax in a natural environment, receiving nurturing in the form of companionship, a warm and caring listening ear, opportunities for play and exploration of the surrounding fields, forrests, orchards and gardens, and astoundingly good and healthy food. One falls asleep to the quiet darkness of the countryside and awakens to the bray of the donkey. It is, quite simply, magic.

Daily outings to local farmers and vendors, for cabbage, potatoes, apples, bread, butter and other essentials are interspersed with visits to hospitalized children and home visits to grieving families in neighboring towns and cities. No trip seems too far if someone can be served. This past weekend, my hosts drove a six hour round trip journey so that a teen could enjoy a visit to the hospice following a hospital discharge post heart- transplant.

Over the past five years, I have joined the family in celebration of the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, decorated Christmas gingerbread cookies, accompanied them to church, fetched water with them from a natural spring, traveled with a theater troop visiting holy places throughout the country, played with Roma children in their neighborhood, and viewed many monuments such as the sculpture memorializing  the children of Lidice, murdered during World War II,  and the sculpture honoring Jan Palach, the young man who set himself on fire in martyrdom in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. We have traveled to the far corners of the Republic, and visited neighboring Poland and Austria. With each visit, Marketa draws up a map and schedule to help orient me. 

We have explored curriculum, translated documents, done voiceovers for video, co-presented at global conferences, met with political leaders, and have appeared on local Czech TV.  We have driven countless hours in cars, vans and their iconic 1950’s bus, stopping for never-ending errands and house calls.  We have shared life stories, played music, laughed and cried (Well — I’VE cried!) and sat talking by the fireplace late into the night. 

And so perhaps this is the secret ingredient, the simple yet rare experience of being included in everyday family life while pursuing a shared vision, that ill children and families everywhere might feel witnessed and safe. What we wish for them is what I end up experiencing in a profound way.