“You Have One Now”

It’s almost impossible to exaggerate how much Bart Starr was adored and admired in Green Bay. Not merely a Hall-of-Fame superstar and 2-time Super Bowl MVP who led the Packers to 5 championships, Starr—a devout Christian who supported many charities—engendered a mythology of greatness and saintliness. He had championship rings—and a halo. Almost everybody in tiny Green Bay had a heartwarming Starr story: words of encouragement, acts of kindness, patience with autograph-demanding fans.

One man came to Starr’s home, where Starr was meeting with a coach, wanting an autograph for his father, who waited in the car, and, over the man’s objections, Starr left the meeting to chat with the enthralled fan.

Another said: “I met Bart in Milwaukee, and he said, ‘Next time you’re in Green Bay, drop by for a Coca-Cola.’”

(Everyone called him “Bart.”)

“My brother was driving over the river bridge, and it was 20 below, and his car broke down, and the first one to stop to help was Bart.”

And on and on.

Players and colleagues over many years uniformly used variations of one phrase to describe him: “He was a fine human being.”

          After Starr’s glory seasons as a player, the Packers suffered years of embarrassing mediocrity. The city’s moniker, “Titletown,” became a mocking taunt. Despite Starr having no head coaching experience, a powerful movement grew in Green Bay for the Packers to hire Starr. Citizen-by-citizen, Packers fans collectively decided Starr, whose coaching experience was only 1 season as Packers quarterbacks coach (1972, when they won the division—a faint sign of hopefulness), could translate his championship aura and quarterbacking-on-the-field success to on-the-sidelines coaching success and restore the quaint town’s tarnished image. The slogan “Fresh Start With Bart” proliferated all over town: bumper stickers, handmade signs fluttering in Lambeau Field stands. It was everywhere.

One fan said, “He was a smart, take-charge guy. We assumed he was everything we needed in a head coach. I thought his lack of experience would be overtaken by his status.”

Another fan said, “We thought the football gods would smile on us.”

Packers historian Cliff Christl said, “That was almost a case where the fans hired the coach.”

The Packers executive committee, according to former Packers historian Lee Remmel, “felt they had no choice because there was so much groundswell of enthusiasm.” The executive committee was a small group selected from the Packers board of directors, and it ran the team, along with the president, whom they chose. They were all members of the Green Bay community and routinely interacted with these avid Bart Starr-endorsers. In line at the grocery store, one might get a nudge from behind: “You’re going to hire Bart, right?”

All of Starr’s close friends advised he decline the offer, citing his inexperience, his promising business pursuits, and the difficulty of the risky job. But, deeply loyal to the team that let him rise from lowly 17th-round pick to 5 championships, he said, “They could have cut me, and they didn’t.”

Starr was named the Packers head coach on Christmas Eve, 1974. In a photo of that announcement, on the wall behind him and his wife, both smiling broadly, were banners that featured the Packers’ many previous championships. The banners over his shoulder demanded: Put more up here.

Then-corporate general manager Bob Harlan said of the fans’ thrill at Starr’s return to the Packers, “It was almost like Jesus was reborn.”

Through early disappointing seasons, Starr remained confident that with time he would succeed. Starr was not a naturally great player but worked himself into one, and now, he would do that as coach, with his charismatic smile and inspiring talks, steely determination, methodical intellect, championship experience, and character.

He seemed to be the perfect hire.

But he wasn’t.

Years later, at the 2004 unveiling of the Bart Starr statue near Lambeau Field, he thanked the fans for their loyalty and said with a humble smile, “even during the coaching years.” The crowd chuckled nervously.

The 1983 season was inconsistent— inexplicable losses and amazing victories. Mid-season, in the highest scoring and one of the most exciting games in Monday Night Football history, the 3-3 Packers defeated 5-1 defending Super Bowl champion Washington, on a field goal with under a minute to play. The dominating offenses—combining for 1,025 total yards (771 by the pass)—zipped up and down the field. The game featured 6 lead changes, 3 ties, 56 first downs, and an impressive 9.1 yards per offensive play by the Packers. At the final horn, the stadium roared as exultant players ran on the field, taking bows, waving to the championship-starved, frenzied crowd. Starr told them to stay on the field as long as the fans kept cheering.

The team was ecstatic, including running back Eddie Lee Ivery, who decided, what the hell, I’ll celebrate all week. “I was so caught up in the excitement, I didn’t worry about consequences,” he said. “If I’m caught, I have enough money for a good lawyer.”

By this point he was addicted to cocaine and alcohol, plus weed, and several nights that week he indulged lustily. The night before the next game, against Minnesota, he stayed up all night using, and was still high when he committed a crucial fumble on the Vikings’ 2-yard line, a turnover that probably cost the Packers the overtime game. And the playoffs. And Starr’s job.

Ivery said, “Without a doubt, absolutely” being high contributed to his fumble.

The following week Starr confronted Ivery about rumors of his cocaine use. Ivery denied it, and Starr said OK we’ll do a drug test—right now. Ivery turned to leave, paused, realized he was caught, turned back, and confessed. For the rest of his life, Ivery praised Starr for his humane approach. “Bart was concerned about me as a person,” he said, “then a player. He treated me like family.” Starr protected Ivery’s privacy by publicly saying he left the team due to “emotional problems.” Starr wrote a statement for Ivery, and Ivery read it to the press.

The honorable Starr said that if he promises confidentiality but doesn’t deliver, “They won’t come to us with their problems.” Unlike many coaches, Starr wanted to know their problems. Starr never divulged how the Packers learned of Ivery’s drug use. When the press finally discovered it, Ivery released a statement thanking Starr for his support and saying he prayed for forgiveness.

The Packers arranged outpatient counseling. Ivery said, “I talked to the counselor high. I lied to him and everyone else. They did drug tests, and I used someone else’s pee, twice.” But he eventually failed a test, and in a meeting with Starr, Ivery lied: “I told him I had it under control, but when I walked out the door, I started crying. I went back in and said, ‘Yes, I have a problem.’”

The Packers paid for 4 weeks of residential treatment at the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota. “For me,” Ivery said, “Hazelden was 28 days of vacation. I didn’t go to fix my problem. I went to save my job. I didn’t think I had a problem. The Packers still paid me while I was there, so I said, ‘Heck yeah I’ll go.’ I thought, ‘I don’t belong here. I have it under control.” Those losers belonged there, but not him. He enumerated the reasons: “I’m still married. I haven’t lost my cars, pawned belongings, or lost my house. One guy there was paralyzed. Not me.” Ivery convinced a cafeteria worker to bring him weed. “I smoked a joint with her and her boyfriend,” he said. “I went in dirty, and I left dirty.”

But he convinced everyone that Hazelden worked, and that he was drug free. Flying first class back to Green Bay, he ordered a gin and tonic. The team’s top rusher, he missed the rest of the season.

Perhaps one reason Starr was so compassionate is that he knew the agonizing hold that addiction can have on a beloved person. His own younger son, Brett, a few years younger than Ivery, was also addicted to cocaine—the Starr family’s deepest anguish. They—like, eventually, Ivery’s family—experienced years of hopes and disappointments; lies, deceptions, missed family gatherings. Brett would call home, sobbing, apologize, commit to recovery, renew his faith in God, and they would hope, desperately, then he would disappoint them. Repeatedly.

Starr literally treated Ivery like family.

Ivery began using at home in the basement. “I got paranoid about getting caught,” he said, “so I did it down there.” His wife, Anna, wasn’t fooled. “I lied my way out of it,” Ivery said. “I pretended I was down there playing with the dog.” His alcohol consumption was copious. “By then,” he said, “I drank to get drunk. I crossed that ‘imaginary white line.’”

The Packers needed to win the 1983 season’s last game to make the playoffs (which means if they had won the Minnesota game in which Ivery fumbled at the 2, they would already be playoff-bound). But, after leading late, they lost the last game on a field goal with 10 seconds to play. Early the next morning, the Packers president, Judge Robert Parins, tersely fired the legendary Starr. No, “Thank you for 26 years of service…” No, “We’ve come to the difficult decision….” Just, “We’re letting you go.” Afterwards, a shocked and furious Starr closed his office door and wept.

Quarterback Lynn Dickey groused, “He fired him like he was a towel boy. That was horrible.”

Christl said Starr arrived with little experience and “left as a coach who was loved and respected, who remained true to his character, but he didn’t win enough games.” In the NFL, you can be dedicated and compassionate; you can be idolized and deified, but if you don’t win, you’re out.

In 9 years, Starr had only 2 winning seasons and 1 playoff appearance. Only once did they win 4 consecutive games. While Packers fans knew this firing might happen, given Starr’s record, a melancholy pall clouded Green Bay. One fan said, “It was like firing Jesus.”

Packers historian Lee Remmell said, “There was such a feeling of sadness. He was a gentleman, and he tried so hard. He lost sleep, and winning still didn’t happen.”

In his final press conference, a disappointed and emotional Starr quoted Theodore Roosevelt: It’s “not the critic who counts” but “the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood….” You can fault me, Starr implied, but I was in the arena, competing. The gentlemanly Starr graciously thanked the Packers for hiring him. He thanked the fans, players, coaches, and staff, from trainers to secretaries. He declared he was still the Packers’ “number one fan” because “no one has more of his heart and soul in this organization.”

He concluded by saying there was some good he had done that perhaps atoned for the disappointing results, and the example he gave was his relationship with Eddie Lee Ivery. He said he had talked with Ivery about a “particular situation” and challenged him to become the player he had the capacity to be. Ivery said he wasn’t sure he could do that without Starr but promised he would. Starr said to the press, “Maybe some of those things make it worthwhile.”

For Starr, his humane way of dealing with people made up for the lack of victories, and the relationship that came to mind at his farewell news conference, out of all the players that Hall-of-Famer Starr had coached, all his coaching colleagues, all the fans he had treated with kindness, was his with Ivery. The player whose fumble—and absence for the rest of the season as their best rusher—was a key reason the Packers missed the playoffs, which cost Starr his job.

In his farewell to Green Bay as coach, the man whose son was struggling with addiction concluded with a touching moment aching for hope. Starr placed faith in compassionate human connection. Starr said that just a few moments before that news conference, he and Ivery had “exchanged a few tears and embraced.” A despondent Ivery told Starr he had never had a father, and Starr replied, “You have one now.”

The Rare Mystical “It”

On September 2, 1979, Eddie Lee Ivery entered Soldier Field to compete against the Chicago Bears in his first game as a professional football player. The playing field was topped with an early type of artificial turf that most players didn’t like, although place kickers did. Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud, who played most of his career for the Kansas City Chiefs (He scored their first six points in their victorious 1970 Super Bowl), then played for the Packers 1980-83, loved the surface. It never got muddy and provided sure footing. “For a kicker it was easier,” he said, “because many natural grass fields late in the season were muddy and slippery with little grass left, and I would wear mud cleats on my left (non-kicking) foot. But artificial turf fields looked like a beautiful golf course fairway.”

That turf helped Stenerud when he planted that left foot because the turf gripped football shoe cleats tighter than natural grass. In the lingo of the science of synthetic surfaces, as described in a National Institutes of Health report, synthetic turf lacks the ability to “divot,” the “complete shearing or removal of the turf/root system from the remainder of the root zone.” That “cleat-release mechanism” of natural turf is better for a football player’s leg joints because the foot is “released” from the grass in tandem with the movement of the player’s leg and is thus less likely to cause a “potentially injurious overload situation,” as when a player streaking down field plants a foot and quickly changes direction—the exact move that made Ivery able to buy him and his wife Mercedes Benzes. Synthetic surfaces “have the capacity to generate greater shear force and torque on the foot and hence throughout the lower extremity.” So there is solid belief (though not conclusive evidence for any particular injury) that football players were more likely to be injured on the fake stuff—even if there was no contact with another player. The NIH report concluded, “Studies that focus on lower extremity injuries caused by a twisting or shearing mechanism typically show greater rates of injury on synthetic versus natural turf.”

(Plus, synthetic turf in 1979 had a layer of asphalt beneath it, and the surface was more like carpet, and less imitative of swaying blades of grass as with later synthetic turf, which made skin abrasions more likely—if a player hit the ground and skidded. Ouch. And surface temperatures on early synthetic turf could be as much as 80° hotter than on grass. Whew.)

Packers center Larry McCarren said, “Those early turf fields were brutal. The traction was too good, and Soldier Field was never known for having the best turf.”

Onto that field Ivery trotted for his first professional game. It was great football weather: cool and sunny. Packers and Bears veteran players sensed their long rivalry in their guts, each combatant eager to savor a satisfying victory. Thousands of rabid Bears fans shouted and chanted for an opening day win. “You couldn’t ask for a better day,” Ivery said.

The Bears offense was led by future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton. Throughout Ivery’s career, when his team’s defense was on the field, he usually rested or conferred with players and coaches. But when opposing a team with a great running back, Ivery became almost an excited fan watching an idol, toes to the sidelines, observing intently and admiringly. “I wanted to learn from them,” he says. “Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton. I didn’t sit. Dorsett was smooth and quick. Campbell—I just hoped our defense could contain him. I was amazed. They were exciting. I would think, ‘Wow.’” When the Bears had the ball, Ivery, for the first time in his life, got to watch Payton from the sidelines where he could see up close the moves, speed, and strength of one of the very best.

Dick Stockton and Johnny Morris, the television broadcast announcers, noted the Packers’ Bart Starr had not defeated the Bears in Chicago as head coach. Starr, who had led the Packers to so much glory as a quarterback on the field, had so far had mediocre results and no playoff appearances in his 4 years as head coach. The Packers believed Ivery was a key to returning Green Bay to the pinnacle of the NFL. Anticipating Ivery’s debut, the announcers said Green Bay’s first-round draft pick was “the one to watch.” They said it was a “courtesy” that returning fullback Barty Smith started the game and that they would see a lot of Ivery. Clearly, they had been briefed on the Packers’ effusive enthusiasm for their hotshot rookie.

When the 1979 NFL draft had taken place, Packers Director of Player Personnel Lee Corrick was thrilled that Ivery, who played tailback at Georgia Tech, was still available at #15. He had seen Ivery on film and in person and observed, “When you think you have him down, he can explode out of there.” He vividly recalled a University of Miami game in which Ivery made an acrobatic over-the-head pass reception and gained over 100 rushing yards, more by breaking tackles than outrunning defenders. “He breaks tackles like a fullback,” Corrick gushed. “I thought he was a heck of a steal. I didn’t think he would fall that far. He had great balance, elusiveness, strength. He was a heck of a receiver. He could block. Eddie Lee fit all the criteria for what you’d want in that position, and they don’t come along that often. And he was a class kid from a class university.”

Packers historian Lee Remmel said, “I told Eddie Lee he was the finest Green Bay running back we had ever drafted.”

 Veteran Packers players knew when they saw him practice that he was what the team desperately needed. When McCarren, who played center 12 years for the Packers and made 2 Pro Bowls, saw Ivery play, he thought, “That is what a big-time running back is like. The speed with which he hit the hole, his instincts to find a hole. If I’m thinking my block wasn’t good enough, hoping the back could get through the line, Eddie Lee, well, he would get through, and he’s 10 yards down field. It was a different level of excellence. I felt, this kid is special. I had the experience to know, and I thought this guy has the rare mystical ‘it,’ the rare mystical it, who could be a difference maker, and there’s not a lot of them.”

Veteran quarterback Lynn Dickey, who had known nothing about Ivery before he arrived in Green Bay, said he was just another rookie to him— until he saw him in action. He was astounded. He said to teammates, “That kid is unbelievable. He’s quick and fast, has great hands. He’s picking up the offense fast. This guy is going to be something. He’s everything you want. You just don’t see guys like that come along.” He thought, “This guy is going to set records we can’t even believe.”

Backup quarterback David Whitehurst said, “He just glided. He was so smooth. He made cuts, would give the old lift-leg fake, so smooth. He didn’t have a quick cut like Barry Sanders, but would glide through the line. He made catching the ball look like he had a baseball glove on and the ball became a part of his hand. He could catch the ball not even looking at it. He’d see it coming, take his eye off it, and catch the ball cleanly every time. He was fantastic one on one. If there was an option route, one on one he’d win every time. He glided through the route, then suddenly he was wide open. His vision was unbelievable.”

In preseason games, Ivery had led the Packers in rushing yards and running-back receiving yards. He impressed with his ability both to power through the middle and speed around the end. In his first weekly predictions of the 1979 season CBS sports commentator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder picked Green Bay to win the Bears game and mentioned the running game had much improved with the addition of Ivery. Several football commentators said he would be in contention for Rookie of the Year.

When Ivery entered the game in Green Bay’s third offensive possession, the announcers mentioned it like they were introducing a new star. “We knew it was a matter of time” before Ivery became a regular running back, Stockton said, and added that he broke all Georgia Tech’s rushing records and is a “quick, hard runner who can go to the outside.” On his first carry he gained 7 yards, but the play was nullified by a penalty. The next play he was hit after gaining 4 yards, then spun from the tackler’s grasp to gain two more—a classic Ivery move. Stockton noted, “It takes a whole bunch of blue shirts to bring him down.”

On the next Packers possession, Eddie Lee’s block helped Terdell Middleton gain 7 yards. On 2nd down and 4, Ivery powered through tacklers for 6 yards for a first down. Stockton commented, “So far, I like what I see of that fella. He seems to be tough to bring down.” Morris added, “Anyone who can gain 356 yards can run the football. He has good hands, is a good blocker. He’s not real big for a power back, but he plays like he’s bigger.”

On 3rd down and 27, the Packers’ at their own 15-yard line, after a penalty followed by a quarterback sack, on what is usually a pass play, the quarterback handed the ball to Ivery. He was hit at the line of scrimmage, spun to his left (how many times had Georgia Tech fans seen that?) and broke free using his power and speed. At the 25, he faced a defensive back—and he saw a Green Bay blocker behind that defender and no other defender close enough to stop him. The thought flashed in his head: In my first game as a professional football player I’m going to get past him—one tackler, especially a defensive back, rarely brought him down—score an 85-yard touchdown on Walter Payton’s home field, and gain over 100 yards before halftime. This was going to be a spectacular introduction of one Eddie Lee Ivery to the NFL. All he had to do was get past one small defensive back—which he did routinely—follow his blocker, and he’s gone.

He faked left then ran right. This move was what had made him a star in high school and college, what the Packers envisioned would propel him to stardom—and the team pulled along with him—starting with his very first game against the team with one of the NFL’s greatest running backs. He could change his direction, lose very little speed, then quickly re-accelerate. As he had done many times before, he would leave a defender behind and race downfield. His cut was normally so swift and deceptive that would-be tacklers often missed him once they had committed to a direction as they neared him, or he would hit them at an angle that prevented them from grasping him effectively, bounce or spin free, and away he would go.

But as he cut back to his right, planting his left foot, he stumbled and fell, hitting a defender on his way to the ground. On Soldier Fields’ artificial turf, there was no divot, no tearing away of grass to release his cleated shoe. Because his left knee buckled, he had no power or speed to push past the defender, as he had intended. The pain in his knee was so great—the worst pain he had ever felt— he screamed and let the ball go as he fell, grasping his knee. “Damn the ball,” he thought. In the frenzy around him, the Bears recovered the fumble, and Ivery lay face down, barely moving except for tapping his right foot nervously on the cursed artificial turf. Ivery writhed and sobbed. The tears, he says, were from the pain, not the sadness of possibly being unable to play.

Green Bay Press Gazette reporter Don Langenkamp had a direct view of Ivery, and he cringed as he saw the injury take place: “I, very clearly, could see that knee coming apart. It was horrible. It’s so tragic because he had greatness. From then on, watching him, you winced, worried it would come apart again. If you saw it, it never leaves your mind.”

In the stands was Ivery’s cousin Jerry Ivery, who attended with his uncle Austin Ivery, who lived in Chicago and worked as an Army recruiter. Jerry’s heart sank. Jerry, who grew up next door to Eddie Lee, was so familiar with Eddie Lee’s body movements and style that he knew immediately something was wrong. “He went down and grabbed his knee,” he says. “He didn’t fumble much, and when I saw how he fell and how far the ball went, I said, ‘That’s it.'” Somber, Jerry watched and waited.

Years later, when asked who were some of the hardest hitters he faced, Ivery said, “The entire Bears defense. That was the only time I was leery of getting the ball.” But on the play when his knee buckled, no one on that great defense had yet touched him.

Analyst Morris said, “I think he may have pulled a hamstring, or may have a muscle cramp.”

If only it were so.

Ivery had gained 24 yards on 3 carries (8 per). After a commercial break, the broadcast showed him lying on his back, still on the field, both knees bent. Two trainers helped him to his feet and to the sidelines as he limped. A teammate slapped his butt. Stockton said he hoped it’s not serious because the Packers “have a good young ballplayer who was going to help them this year.” Morris added that the Packers were counting on Ivery to “take some of the heat off Middleton who was hurt at the end of last season. So this is a tough break for Green Bay.”

Later in the second quarter the broadcast showed Starr on the sidelines, and behind him Ivery reclined on the bench, grimacing. An ice pack eased the pain somewhat. The announcers said without Ivery, the Packers have no long-gain threat in the backfield. During a play in which Payton ran with the ball, Stockton announced Ivery had a “twisted left knee” and wouldn’t return to the game. Ivery repeatedly picked up the ice pack and looked. Once, he thought it looked fine and tried to walk, but the pain sat him back down. He began to think, “This might be bad.” The team doctor told him it might be a sprained ligament, and he wondered, “What the hell is that?” and thought he might miss a couple of games.

Walter Payton was terrific: agile, strong, fast, blocked powerfully. His fakes on defenders were quicker than Ivery’s. His style was more to come to a stop and make a very fast cut, rather than change direction in one fluid motion like Ivery. After one Payton block, Morris said, “Look at that block by a scatback runner.” Payton was strong for a scatback. He finished the game with 125 yards rushing and 49 pass receiving. The Bears won 6-3. No touchdowns were scored.

The next day an MRI on Ivery’s knee revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage damage. He would have surgery and miss the rest of his rookie season, after playing less than 2 quarters. Ivery attended the film session on the game, and when they showed the play, Starr said, “Damn, Eddie Lee, you have to hold onto the ball.” They laughed a little, but Ivery could tell Starr was dead serious. “That’s the first time I really understood that professional football is about winning and supply and demand,” he said. “The attitude wasn’t, ‘Poor Eddie Lee got hurt,’ but: ‘We need to win.’ If you fall, hold onto the ball, and then we’ll look at the knee. We were on a drive and could have scored.

“I was on my way to a 100-yard day,” he recalls. (Ivery often recalls specific plays from college and pro in detail.) “We ran a slant, and I was the fullback in the split formation. I ran off tackle to the left. I was supposed to look at the outside leg of the tackle and pick a hole. Our tackle made his block, and the guard picked off the linebacker. All I had to stop me was a little defensive back. I saw him coming and knew what I would do: cut against the grain.

“Now I wish I had just run over him.”

“That was a terrible blow to us,” Starr said. “He gave us speed and quickness at that position that no one else had.” Packers CEO Bob Harlan, remembering past draft fiascos, wondered, “Are we unlucky yet again?” Everyone knew of players who never recovered from that injury. Packers historian Remmel said, “That was hard to swallow. There were very few Eddie Lee Iverys in the NFL.”

While Ivery had been lying on the turf in pain, Payton trotted over from the Bears sideline and said, “God bless you. You’re a hell of a running back.”

The great Walter Payton had been watching him, too.

A Short Walk

A Short Walk

              I took a break from writing and walked to what we call “the corner,” which is a half block south of our house, and back. I saw a woman walking her dog, then another woman walking her dog, on opposite sides of the street. Were they keeping their dogs apart? Responsibly keeping their potentially covid-laden breath-particles apart? Had they even noticed each other?

              I looked in the window of the new restaurant at the corner, Hippin’ Hops Brewery, and saw several full plastic Kroger bags on a dining table. Is that where they get some of their food? I buy food from Kroger, too, and I don’t charge anything to eat in my house. I noted that their large round metal brew kettles in which they craft beer are very clean and shiny, so scientific looking. The restaurant’s dining room and bar area is small but inviting. Outside, on the elevated, railed, sidewalk, are a row of picnic tables in a space that, pre-pandemic, would have been too narrow for them. But the building was designed and constructed before covid, when that walkway would have been mostly for walking. There is barely room for waiters to ease between the tables and the rail. Yet, now that for two years eating outside is safer than inside and enclosed proximity can be virulent, diners cheerfully shift forward a tad to let a waiter walk by.

              On the stroll back, I checked our Little Free Library (one of the first in Atlanta, which earned our front yard coverage on CNN). Three of the six DVD movies I had placed in there remained. How many passersby are old enough to take a DVD home? I recently re-watched “The Sopranos” from start (when Tony was somewhat slim) to finish (when he may or may not have been whacked), and that show was made when DVDs were a hot new thing, so much so that gangsters would kill three people for a truckful of DVD players. Now, DVD players are donated to thrift stores, who discard many of them after they sit unsold.

              My most recent “Sports Illustrated” was still in there on the bottom shelf. It featured an introduction to the 2022 Winter Olympics. I guess I will place it in the recycling bin soon, as no passersby seem interested.

              As I walked to my front door, I saw daffodils blooming—in February. Tulips were about an inch above the ground. It was 71 degrees—in February.

              Back to work.

Prayer With Noise


instead of silence,

noise led my prayer,

on the front porch,

fronting a busy road.

Normally an annoying intrusion, noise became a sounding bell, a call to prayer.

The cars rumble by to work, some aroar. I pray each rider balances toil and joy, that their work is meaningful, that their workplace leadership is humane, that they have friends there. I pray they make a living wage.

Trucks pulling large metal landscaping trailers loaded with gas-powered equipment rattle-bang loudly along the uneven road. I pray for the earth, that we shall poison and exploit it less as we are awed by its gracious beauty. I pray the crew is paid a living wage.

Rat-a-tat hammering—nail guns firing—from new townhome construction a half block south jabs through the air. I pray for affordable housing. Instructions are shouted in Spanish. I pray these immigrants feel welcome, that their skills are rewarded aptly.

I hear the dreaded leaf blowers. So often I retreat to the back deck to avoid their shrieking whines. This time I stay. And again pray for the earth, that what we call “yard waste”—so rudely pushed around, eventually, despite being treated as a nuisance, somehow, somewhere—decays its way back into the soil. I pray the leaf blower handlers—their ears muffled from the piercing sound—make a living wage.

I pray these busy people have time for prayer, stillness, contemplation—that they feel God’s healing presence.

Between noises, I hear birds.

I pray that all these sounds impact

how I see

what I hear

how I act.

Jerry Has No Taste: Jerry Sees an Acupuncturist

Jerry Sees An Acupuncturist

If someone tells you it never hurts, don’t believe them.

Does one have to believe in acupuncture for it to work? Or is it just as effective if one simply gives it a try, fingers crossed? When I was a teenager dabbling in charismatic Christianity, we were told if you had faith, you could pray for a sick person to be healed, and, if God willed it, that person would be healed. My charismatic teachers told ecstatic stories about—after fervent prayers—cancer miraculously disappearing and painful backs inexplicably restored to bounding-around-the-room health. (It made a better story if the doctor acted astounded, and if the doctor was an atheist, that was a triple play.)

When they prefaced their instructions with, “If you have faith…,” I never understood whether you had to truly, deep in your heart, believe in miraculous healings before the healing took place, or could you merely pray, hopefully, and it might work. (The “if God willed it,” by the way, gave God a capricious dominion over our health, but I was unwilling to think much about that at the time.) If I were miraculously healed of something after praying for healing, well then, of course, I would believe way down deep, but is that belief a prerequisite?

As my friend Tere Canzoneri once said, quoting the oncologist Bernie Siegal, “In the face of uncertainty, there’s nothing wrong with hope.” Willing myself to be hopeful, to the acupuncturist I went, at the recommendation of a friend who had benefited from his treatment. She added, “I liked what he had to say.”

Hope message on the beach sand.

The acupuncture doctor stressed that acupuncture promotes the body’s ability to heal itself. He didn’t speak of the needles as one would speak of taking medication or getting a surgical procedure—which cure or fix some thing. He told me that acupuncture addresses the energy, or “Qi,” (pronounced “chee”) that flows through the body along 14 stream-like channels called meridians. The needles, when inserted at certain points along the meridians, act sort of like antennas and reprogram the body to a healthier state by restoring the flow of Qi to what it should be. There is much more detail you can read about meridians and acupuncture points (there are lots of them in at least 3 categories).

If the flow of Qi gets blocked (a range of factors—physical, emotional, spiritual— can cause this blockage), the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function, or illness. Acupuncture releases blocked Qi, restores the body’s harmony, and stimulates the body’s natural healing through its own systems. The acupuncturist said modern research has affirmed acupuncture’s effect on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating these systems, acupuncture helps to resolve pain, balance hormones, decrease stress and inflammation, and improve sleep, digestive function, and well-being, he said (to me in person and on his website).

Do I have to believe in Qi and meridians for acupuncture to help me? They won’t appear in an x-ray—or an autopsy— so are they real? Does it matter whether I’m convinced they’re real?

If you want to occupy a few hours (or months), look up “does acupuncture work?” on the internet. You can read passionate, heated arguments in both directions. You will see terms such as “life-saving,” “relief,” “wholistic,” “pseudo-science,” “quackery,” etc. Wikipedia referred to a study in which “placebo acupuncture”—needles inserted here and there in the body, not at official acupuncture points—worked just as well as those placed according to proper acupuncture. Ouch.

When I told him I was there for my loss of taste and smell, he said he had a good success rate with that problem. However, he smiled and said he couldn’t write that on the form he sent to my insurance company because they wouldn’t accept it. He wrote, “For pain.” It’s not totally untrue.

The doctor asked me to remove my shoes and socks and roll up my sleeves, and lie on the table. He felt my pulse using three fingertips, checking for far more than beats per minute. More than 30 pulse conditions have been documented in Chinese medical texts. Each fingertip felt a spot that he said was connected to specific organs. He said he initially felt to see how hard he had to press to feel my pulse, then felt to sense the many nuances of my pulse.

He suggested I swing my arms when I walk or exercise and to sing, especially high notes. He also suggested I sing/hum the “ohm” sound associated with meditation. Ohm is considered by some Eastern religions to be the “primal sound,” God having created sound first and ohm being the “seed sound” of all creation. In this line of thinking, the universe, the gods, and all matter come from the sound “ohm.” My acupuncturist described it is “a primitive sound—like a baby saying ‘mama.’” Repeat it as a mantra, he said. The vibrations are good for my nasal cavity and might stimulate the olfactory nerve.

He pressed on my neck and shoulders and advised me to do neck stretches. And breathing exercises: take 3 seconds to breathe in, then 3 to breathe out. Then 5 seconds, then 10. He said my breathing should be consistently balanced.

Then it was time for the needles to unblock my Qi flow, which he said, based on his reading of my pulse, was low. He inserted them first in my feet, then pressed on and around my stomach, each time asking if it was uncomfortable when he pressed. Sometimes it was, sometimes not. He continued inserting needles in other places. The needles, he said, would also release tension. As he inserted needles, he sometimes said which organ a given acupuncture point was connected to.

He asked if I slept well. I said I usually wake up in the night to pee, and he said we shouldn’t do that, even as we get older. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the flow of Qi through our meridians and organs has a daily schedule, in 2-hour intervals, and interrupting our sleep interrupts the restorative function of Qi during the night. According to one acupuncture website:

“Every two hours the qi is strongest within a particular organ and its functions within the body. And that’s not all – the body, mind and emotions are inseparable in Chinese medicine – meaning that if you have disharmony in your physical body, it is tied to your emotional state. So if you wake up at 3 AM, when Liver energy peaks, you may be suffering from Liver Qi stagnation, which could be related to an unhealthy diet, excess alcohol consumption, unresolved anger or high levels of stress. If you consistently wake at 4 AM, it could be due to an imbalance in your Lungs, which is related to grief and sadness, fatigue, or reduced immune function.”

After inserting the needles, he said it was time for me to rest and let the needles do their restorative work. He left the room for about 20 minutes, then returned and removed them. Sometimes I fell asleep during this rest time—unless some of them hurt—and some did hurt a few times.

In the next visit, he first put two needles in my upper back and said they were “lung points.” He checked my pulse again, put the other needles in the same places as the last time. He pressed my stomach.

He said there are external and internal causes of illness. The interior causes include our emotions. Even happiness, he said, could make us sick, if it is excessive. He said we shouldn’t have too much of any emotions, even if they are emotions we typically enjoy. He advised I balance my emotions and not to go to sleep on my anger. Exterior causes include factors such as heat and wind.

He pressed on my neck and shoulders, to help the flow of spinal fluid between the brain and the spinal cord. He said the proper circulation of spinal fluid throughout the central nervous system is important: “Tensions at the top often mean tensions at the bottom.” 

He said, “God said, ‘I am that I am.’ What name is that? He said he will introduce us to someone who has no name. That means we should empty the self, like Jesus said.”

He asked, “Do you feel fear?”


“Do you feel sorrow?”


“Do you feel worry?”


He asked me to state my name. He asked my age. He asked, “Where you going today?” And, “Are you running late?” He asked about my home.

He pressed on my stomach, to feel for blockage and to ease tension. He said he could feel the tension.  He again pressed on my neck and shoulders. His movements and the pressure felt similar to that of a chiropractor.

He reminded me to breathe balanced, the same length in as out, and to do breathing exercises. He suggested I occasionally think about oranges and lemons and see if those thoughts make me salivate.  He said the color orange stimulates the digestive system.

He recommended a book written by a college friend of his, a Korean, who teaches theology: “The Holy Spirit and Ch’i (Qi).”

He spoke softly and had a gentle demeanor. When he accepted my credit card, he used both hands, almost cradling it. He spoke with an even tone, using the kind of balance he recommended to me regarding emotions and breath.

At a subsequent visit, he said my pulse still showed low energy and low fluid. He advised that I drink more water. He also said my pulse revealed dampness in my body, so I should eat summer fruits such as melons, and corn. He asked if I have a bowel movement daily. “Almost.” He pressed on my stomach again. It seemed less tense to me, but he said he could still feel blockage and tension.  

He pulled on my arms and moved each leg around and pushed, like when professional athletes are stretched by assistants before a game. Toward the end of this session, he pressed on my calves, back, and shoulders. Some of the pressure felt painful. It felt like a combination of massage and chiropractic.

He looked at my tongue each visit and referred to “the map of the tongue.” Once he showed me an illustration of this map on a small poster. In traditional Chinese medicine, different sections of the tongue are connected to specific parts of the body, so examination of the tongue might give the practitioner some clues about what’s going on elsewhere. They also look for the overall condition of the tongue: the color, shape, and coating. He said my tongue indicated my body is under-nourished. Once my tongue had bite marks, and he said that means I’m tired, that my digestive system is working too hard.

After several more visits, he said my pulse was better.

A needle in my toe hurt. He said that’s a powerful point, it can affect your head, like a Newton’s cradle, which has hanging metal balls and only the balls at each end move. A ball strikes one side, and the other end moves.

He gave me a new herb to take. The first one was to stimulate around the nose. This one was to stimulate the blood. He had me smell peppermint, which he said stimulates the olfactory system.

I eventually discontinued acupuncture. It had made no impact on my loss of taste and smell. (Western medicine didn’t either.) However, thanks to him I have reflected thoughtfully on my emotions, sleep patterns, breathing, and nutrition.

And I miss him.

In one session, he asked about my work, and I explained what it is like to be a hospice chaplain: being a non-anxious presence and attentive listener, saying prayers that not only beseech God but also calm the patient, and addressing fears compassionately and hopefully. He listened carefully, without interruption—sort of chaplain-like.

He again pressed on my back and legs. I asked if he was stimulating the spinal cord, and he said, “Yes, and the meridians.”

I knew about the needles and the meridians but not hands. Curious, I asked, “So you stimulate meridians with needles and your hands?”

“Yes. And with my words. Like you do.”

Jerry Has No Taste: Jerry Sees An Acupuncturist But First Gives Western Medicine One Last Try

Traditional western medicine has such an allure. It seems so logical and certain, backed by peer-reviewed studies, meticulously planned experiments, and intimidating scientific jargon spoken by the highly educated—and those authoritative white coats! It’s true that when we have surgery, we sign a form that lists possible bad outcomes, attesting that we are aware of them, but we know that, mostly, none of them happen. The heart starts pumping effectively again; the elbow allows tennis to be played; the tonsils no longer disrupt sleep. Take a problem to a doctor, the doctor diagnoses it, the doctor fixes it, and life goes on.

But then there is a condition like mine. I still recall the just-a-tad-too-long sigh that the nurse practitioner gave at the ENT office when I first told her I couldn’t taste or smell. The kind of sigh—along with that wondering quick look around the room—that gives the speaker an extra couple of seconds to figure out how to tell someone something they don’t want to hear. “That’s tricky,” she said.

Tricky. It’s fun when magicians trick us. Not so fun when our bodies trick us.

According to doctors I saw, I was past the point when my taste and smell might return on its own—perhaps by the olfactory nerve restoring itself—but, regardless, I visited a clinic in another part of the country that specializes in taste and smell problems. I went out of desperation, hoping they would find some something that the others had missed and say, “Aha! Take this pill, and you will savor Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk again.” I knew that wouldn’t happen, but, still, I went.

The first day, a lab clinician sat next to little jars of liquids and solids. The bottles clinked as he pulled them from their slots and when he returned them. I sniffed in alternating nostrils, and I swirled liquids in my mouth, trying to identify smells and tastes. In one test, he had a list of aromas (coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, etc.), and I was to take a sniff of an opened unmarked bottle and choose which one it was. (Eventually, he remarked, “You really like to guess peanut butter, don’t you?”) In another test I was to say if a clear liquid was sweet or sour or salty. I was pretty good at that one, and I was quite keen at identifying sour. These tests went on for two and a half hours.

Mostly, I just guessed, like a 10th grader who forgot to study for a multiple-choice quiz. The olfactory and taste feedback were just so minimal. Although I had been told already that by this time the loss was permanent, the repeated failure on these tests made the reality of the loss sink in even deeper. Each time I sniffed or swirled in vain, the message became clearer.

According to the report on these tests, my left nostril correctly identified baby powder, cinnamon, mothballs, peanut butter, and Ivory soap. The right nostril only got right baby powder, chocolate, and coffee. I believe many of those were lucky guesses. During most of those tests I felt like I had felt in college biology class: bewilderingly ignorant of what was going on.

The next day was a free day. I toured some local historic sites and visited an old friend from my seminary days in the 1980s.

The day after that, I saw two doctors, one who did a complete physical exam and the other, a taste and smell specialist. The first doctor and I chatted about where we liked to snow ski while he conducted his exam. The specialist went over the results of the Wednesday tests and conducted his own exam, including taking a deep look in my nostrils, using what looked like a chopstick to pry each nostril open wider. 

These clinicians never asked me my religious affiliation, but their medical record of me inexplicably, even though I am a practicing Baptist and an ordained minister, says in that category: “NO.” Unless they were sneakily very astute, we never discussed anything outside the taste and smell problem, but in my medical record, under “Constitutional,” it says: “No acute distress. Well nourished. Well developed.” Under “Psychiatric,” it says, among other things: “Not in denial. Not euphoric. Not fearful. No flight of ideas. No grandiosity. Not hopeless. No mood swings. Not paranoid. Normal insight. Normal judgment.” And: “Behavior is appropriate for age.” (I’m not sure about that one; I still like to watch “Green Acres” and “Gilligan’s Island.”) At least I make a good—albeit agnostic—impression.

I have “rightward septal deviation”—a crooked nose, not bad enough to require surgical repair, however. I can breathe OK. I have “mild hypertrophy of turbinates bilaterally” (both nostrils). Turbinates are rollicking little items inside our noses, which humidify, heat, and filter the air we inhale. Our lungs, apparently, are particular. They like their air the way I (used to) like cinnamon rolls: clean, warmed just right, and moist.

Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System web site describes turbinates this way:

“Turbinates are structures located inside the nose, along the sides of the nasal cavities. They are made of bone and are covered by soft tissue known as ‘mucosa.’ Their function is to regulate airflow, and to warm and humidify the air you breathe in….Turbinates achieve this in part by swelling up periodically with increased blood flow, and this process characteristically alternates between sides every few hours (called the ‘nasal cycle’). This results in airflow being temporarily restricted on one side before alternating to the other side. This is one reason patients may feel their nasal obstruction ‘switches sides.’…There are three pairs of turbinates, inferior turbinates being the largest and located lowest in the nose. If the inferior turbinates are too large…they can cause nasal obstruction in one or both sides of the nose.”

So, to sum up what is likely more information than you want about the inside of my nostrils, my turbinates are a little larger than normal but not so much that I can’t breathe well.

(Here’s a fun medical fact: If your turbinates are enlarged enough to require partial removal and the doc accidentally removes too much, you may have “empty nose syndrome,” wherein even though the nostrils are wide open, without the proper mechanism to sense air flow, you will think your airway is obstructed.)

One last roll-out-the-jargon diagnosis: I have “pseudosulcus bilaterally upon examination of hypopharynx and larynx.” Whew.

As a college professor once said, let’s unpack that (or, in this case, have two websites unpack it for us). According to the American Cancer Society, “The hypopharynx is the part of the throat (pharynx) that lies beside and behind your larynx. The hypopharynx is the entrance into the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach). When you swallow foods and liquids, they pass through your mouth and throat, through the hypopharynx and esophagus, and then into your stomach. The hypopharynx is made so that it helps make sure that food goes around the larynx and into the esophagus.”

And per Wiktionary.org: pseudosulcus (plural is pseudosulci) means: “A groove that has the appearance of a sulcus,” which is no help because a sulcus is itself a “groove or furrow,” according to dictionary.com—and they can be in lots of places in our bodies. After many internet searches I gave up on finding a layperson’s definition of pseudosulcus bilaterally upon examination of hypopharynx and larynx. All I know is that it is not relevant to my loss of taste and smell, and it is not a concern of the doctors. I’m just a groovy guy and, in one spot, pseudo-groovy.

They detected signs of acid reflux (the pseudosulcus was one sign), and they recommended diet changes. (I made that change, which did reduce the acid reflux.) According to the Schirmer test, my tears are normal, and according to the Saxon test, my saliva is normal. I can cry and spit just fine. Hallelujah.

I learned that I can smell better in one nostril than the other—something I didn’t know was possible. Apparently, each nostril stays separate from the other longer than I thought, and can function differently. My left nostril has “mild hyposmia,” and the right nostril, the more pitiful smeller of the two, has “severe hyposmia,” hyposmia being a reduced ability to smell and detect odors—less traumatic than anosmia, in which no odors whatsoever can be detected.

They diagnosed “whole mouth hypogeusia without focality.” “Without focality” means there is no spot to point at and say, “There’s your problem, right there.”  Hypogeusia is a diminished loss of taste—which, if one is inclined to look for silver linings, is not as bad as ageusia, the complete loss of taste.

While not having anosmia or ageusia—that unsatisfying and disappointing empty abyss of a gastronomic experience—is good, I suppose, it leaves me in a frustrating middle ground. I can sort of taste a few things if the taste is strong enough. But I can’t taste most things, and, among those that I do, I don’t really taste them in the “oh that’s yummy” way that is the reason we eat delicious food. We don’t robotically say, “I will ingest this fuel that is necessary for functioning. My body will keep what it needs and output the rest.” We salivate; we crave good food.

About those tastes that I can faintly detect, usually, the most I can say is: I know they’re there. Which is not satisfying. Sometimes I can tell what something is by texture, as with an apricot with its specific mushy-chewiness. Blindfolded, I can tell whether coffee I sip has cream added; blindfolded, I can tell if a hamburger has pickles. I can tell they’re there, but that’s about it. It’s like hearing the faint through-the-walls sounds of your favorite music band which your friends are ecstatically enjoying inside the arena while you’re standing outside on the sidewalk, ticketless.

Chocolate is pretty distinct, and I can tell it is sweet. There’s still something in my brain that says, “That’s sweet,” and, according to nutritionist Diana Sugiuchi, “Our brains are biologically programmed to seek out sweets. Eating sweets activates the same receptors in your brain that morphine and heroin do, but it’s easier to get your hands on chocolate.”

So my brain, perhaps desperately addicted, demands sweets and is immediately disappointed by their consumption. Every now and then I’ll eat something sweet (crunchy + gooey can compel me over there) then promptly think, “That was a letdown.”

The clinic, as expected, didn’t provide an answer to why this happened to me. They suspect a “silent viral infection” but don’t rule out a fall I had while skiing.

They suggested I try aroma therapy: sniff 4 or 5 strongly aromatic compounds such as coffee grounds, peppermint, vanilla extract, and peanut butter, 5-10 minutes twice a day. (I tried that—no change.) They said get a gas leak detector and be cautious about spoiled food.

I submitted to the medically specialized tests and observations and opinions that we, usually, count on to save us, but this condition eluded their ability to apprehend and resolve. They drew conclusions about me regarding religion, personality, and psychology without asking me anything personal or engaging me about how I am coping. I didn’t visit the clinic for those reasons, but I found it odd that they included these matters in their conclusions without any related inquiry.

It was time to try something else.

I haven’t much tried alternative medicine (there is a debate about what to call it), not because of disbelief or skepticism but more out of upbringing and habit. I have had friends who scoffed at it and friends who praised it. I haven’t joined the fray. But missing out on the sauteed snow pea leaves, chicken in clay pot, and salt-and-pepper shrimp at our favorite Chinese restaurant was enough to jolt me out of my assumptions and habits. I asked around about acupuncture, and a friend recommended someone she had seen. She said, “He helped me. Plus, I liked what he had to say.” That is next.

A Startling Keepsake of a Poem–And A Prayer

A Startling Keepsake of a Poem–And A Prayer

It was my turn to lead the devotion at the monthly deacon’s meeting at my church, so I turned to the reliably inspiring poetry of Mary Oliver. I found this one:

Alligator Poem

I knelt down

at the edge of the water,

and if the white birds standing

in the tops of the trees whistled any warning,

I didn’t understand.

I drank up to the very moment it came

crashing toward me,

its tail flailing

like a bundle of swords,

slashing the grass,

and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth


and rimmed with teeth—

and that’s how I almost died

of foolishness

in beautiful Florida.

But I didn’t.

I leaped aside, and fell,

and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path

as it swept down to the water

and threw itself in,

and, in the end,

this isn’t a poem about foolishness

but about how I rose from the ground

and saw the world as if for the second time,

the way it really is.

The water, that circle of shattered glass,

healed itself with a slow whisper

and lay back

with the back-lit light of polished steel,

and the birds, in the endless waterfalls of the trees,

shook open the snowy pleats of their wings, and drifted away,

while, for a keepsake, and to steady myself,

I reached out,

I picked the wild flowers from the grass around me—

blue stars

and blood-red trumpets

on long green stems—

for hours in my trembling hands they glittered

like fire.



This poem inspired me to pray this prayer:

Dear loving, watchful God, may you be the alligator who wakes us up. May your spirit crash through the flora of our complacency and remind us to be vibrantly alive. May we be startled into falling back into your embrace…and…then…pushed back into our lives, with a new awakening, a new vision.



Six Words That Changed My Ministry

Jerry Gentry

What is a good opening remark for a hospice chaplain when greeting a patient with a terminal diagnosis? Sometimes my mind habitually—lazily—goes to, “How are you doing?” Whenever I say that, I immediately regret it.

The person is dying.

When my family first moved into our home, we were a half block from a notorious intersection where drug sales and prostitution flourished. Poverty was all around. One evening I walked to that intersection and saw a disheveled man wearily put a large, well-worn bag of his belongings on the sidewalk. Cheerily, I asked, “Howya doin?”

He looked at me hard and said, “How the F–K do you THINK I’m doing?”


In everyday use, “How are you doing?” means, “Hello.” No one minds if “How are you?” followed by “I’m fine” works as a greeting, not really as a question and a thoughtful answer. But when I visit a hospice patient, I expect more than that. I hope for some kind of genuine connection, even if it’s wordless and involves only a gentle touch or listening to music together. I do want to know how they’re doing, or at least what’s going on, but I don’t want to begin by placing the burden on them to immediately articulate the status of their health or emotions or spirituality.

I vowed to take a fast from “How are you doing?”

(I did so even though that question once led to a classic zinger. I visited a patient who, though terminally ill, had good mental cognition, and I asked how she was doing. She answered, “I’m livin’ but I ain’t braggin’.” That nugget was an undeserved bonus.)

I can’t, however, walk in there and say nothing. I wanted an opening for when there is no singular remark that the circumstance called for. I wanted something that shows I am there for their benefit, not mine, and that doesn’t imply an obligation on my patient’s part. Something that sets a tone of openness and welcome. Something that says, You don’t necessarily have to say anything.

I chose something very simple—and, you might say, obvious (I’m not going to knock anybody’s socks off here.)—but, for me, that sets a tone and atmosphere that I think is beneficial for my patients. And is calming and centering for me. I chose: “I’m so glad to see you” followed by silence.



I’m not speaking for anyone but me. In facilities I visit, I hear patronizing talk: “We had fun playing bingo, didn’t we?” Which means: You had fun playing bingo. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. Maybe that’s just all there was to do.

I was at an assisted living facility listening to a visiting singer with a patient of mine, and just after his performance ended, another resident came around the corner from down the hall, pushing her wheeled walker, and she quickly surmised she had just missed a musical performance (guitar, speakers, chairs arranged for an audience). She scowled and said, “There was music in here? And I was down the hall doing that bingo s–t.”

Most of the patients I see have Alzheimer’s or dementia, but I assume that at least some of what is said gets through, so I dropped the talk that is really designed to make me feel better about myself, such as, “Let’s see a nice big smile.” Those are phony soothing words meant to convince me that everything is better than it is, not to communicate something.  If my words to someone else are sneakily trying to relieve me of my anxiety, that is not honest communication.

I’m telling the truth. I am not using a “trick” to get a certain reaction or trying a “technique” that I learned in my training. I am truly glad to see every patient, even the difficult ones (who might glower or shoo me away). I’m glad I’m a hospice chaplain, and I love my ministry. I don’t know how they will respond, but I’m honestly glad to be there in this person’s presence.

A consulting company sent someone to interview employees at my office to get a sense of the culture of the place, and he asked me what surprised me about my work. I replied, “I enjoy being around old people.” For a long time, I had the typical resistance to entering nursing homes. Some, truly, are unpleasant, but I have overcome the discomfort of being around people whose faces sag unattractively, limbs work sporadically if at all, teeth are missing or the replacements askew, and so on. It’s true those sights remind me that someday that will be me, but I have come to appreciate the mutual benefit of being present with these people. Yes, those visits benefit me. (I hope it benefits them, too.) I have learned patience and joy in small things: the rare smile, the look of recognition when hearing a familiar song, the hilarious quip, the “I love you,” the touch of my arm.

So when I enter a room at a nursing home or assisted living facility and say, “I”m so glad to see you,” I mean it. I don’t exaggerate by proclaiming, “You look great” or “We are going to have a great time.” I simply say I’m glad to see them, because I am.


I’m not implying the other person needs to answer. “How are you doing?” usually compels the other person to say they’re doing fine, and I don’t want that dynamic to take place. After I say I’m glad to see a patient, I don’t say anything for a bit. I sit in their presence. Some, of course, are not capable of saying anything and those who are often say gibberish. But that’s irrelevant. “I’m so glad to see you” doesn’t need a response. Some say they’re glad to see me too, and I’m very grateful for that. One woman stared at me after I said I was glad to see her and asked, “Why?” I said, “I just am.” Whatever I get—nonsensical words, sensical words, silence, awkward movements—is a gift.

I’m not implying that the other person has to agree. They might be glad to see me, and they might not. One patient, who the facility staff said needs more company, consistently asks me to leave. I barely get those six words out before he starts waving dismissively, although he never says, “Don’t come back,” and he usually thanks me for coming by. I don’t know if his thanks is genuine or sarcastic, but I use it to try again. I will continue to return for my 45-second visits until he asks me not to. Regardless of his reaction, I truly am glad to see him. He has an interesting life story, and I’m reminded of that when I see him. That’s good enough for me. And one day maybe he will allow me to stay, and when he does I’ll know there’s a good reason, and I’ll be ready.

If I’m visiting an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient, I may get no reply or some jumbled words or perhaps something that actually makes sense. That doesn’t matter. I let my opener sit there. It creates a sacred space where two people are simply together. With these patients, I then engage them verbally as best as is possible with each one’s cognitive abilities, then usually play music that their family has told me they like, and end with a prayer.

With patients who can actually converse, after my opener, I still wait. If nothing else, the waiting helps me resist my innate urge to talk about myself. A man with Parkinson’s disease, after I said I was glad to see him, looked at me for several moments—there was a long silence—then, laboriously, in a whisper, said, “Glad……to……see.…..you…..too.” I’m glad I waited; otherwise, I might have trampled over a beautiful moment of grace. Even with patients who converse, I’m not necessarily looking for a reply, although there usually is one, and I allow that to set the tone of our conversation, which may merely be an act of companionship or may be about how they are dealing with the fact that they’re dying.

As a Christian, I call that waiting a spiritual moment, holy patience. It allows the Spirit to move in the patient and in me. It reinforces in my mind that I’m there solely for that person’s benefit. I don’t feel obligated to fill that silence with my talk. In that waiting, I trust that the other person will find a way to claim what they need, or that the Spirit will eventually jostle something meaningful from our conversation. I trust that the simple, genuine, statement of being glad to see someone has some small healing impact. There is great, subtle power in sharing presence together with no expectation other than gladness.


A Most Unwelcome Advent

I wrote the following for my church’s 2016 Advent Meditation Booklet. It appeared in early December.

Romans 15:5-7

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

On a visit to see a hospice patient at her home, I, her chaplain, was greeted by her paid sitter, a friendly young woman, who escorted me to the patient’s room, where she was watching television. Her hearing isn’t so great, so the TV volume was LOUD. Her sitter said, “You have a visitor.” Then she shouted, “YOU HAVE A VISITOR!” The sitter used the remote to turn the volume down, and the patient looked away from the TV and at me. She smiled and said, “Oh, hi.”

If I may take a liberty or two with what Paul said in Romans 15, and surrounding passages, where he was trying to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to realize they had more in common than they had differences and that they could sit on the same pew without agreeing on everything, I will say that I was feeling that this patient and I had accepted one another as Christ has accepted us (v. 7). I’m a Baptist Christian, she a Catholic. I’m not terminally ill; she is. Male, female. That’s not the level of difference that Paul and the early Christians dealt with, but, still, all my visits with her were satisfying, at least in part because two different kinds of people shared fellowship in the same room. We usually watched the birds at her feeder, talked about this and that, listened to some classical music, then ended with a prayer. We didn’t solve global warming or figure out how to keep email accounts from being hacked, but we enjoyed one another’s company and thanked God for that.

On this day, I was grateful to be in her company again and anticipating another delightful visit. But, after saying, “Oh, hi,” and still smiling, she said to me sweetly, “I’m not interested in you today.”

Well, that, of course, hurt my feelings at first, but such is the reality of a disease that can lead to personality variances. It also means (perhaps again taking a bit of a liberty) that differences we have with other people don’t always go away. They don’t always flare up into tense confrontation, but, especially if they are deep-seated differences that go to the core of who one is, they lurk around and periodically surface. There’s the family gathering that is friendly enough…until someone mentions abortion or gun rights. And so on. Our own church has had serious, painful conflicts with people of good will and hearts on both sides of issues. And in the visit with this hospice patient, something inside her surfaced and said, “Go away.”

The 2016 presidential election was the most contentious that I remember. Hateful words and actions surfaced, arising from deep-seated, long-simmering fears and anxieties. Many Americans are far, far from being “of one mind and one voice.” I had my convictions, and voted them, hoping my side would win, but I hope and pray that I will never forget that all of us are sometimes wounded and vulnerable, frail, in need. All of us.

I actually wrote this before the presidential election took place, and I wrote that last paragraph about the election looking to the future, as in: “I hope my side wins.” (Our sharp editor rewrote it so that it would make sense when it appeared after the election.)

My side didn’t win.

When I wrote this reflection, I assumed—like everyone else who reads The New York Times—that Hillary Clinton would be elected. When I wrote about being aware all of us are sometimes wounded and vulnerable, I was thinking of Trump voters who would be upset that he lost and that people who vote like me should be sensitive to them as they pondered four years with a president they disliked. I was planning to be the magnanimous victor.


Instead, I’m one of those looking in from outside the gate, wondering what to do now that values I hold dear are being discarded regularly and cavalierly in our executive branch. I myself don’t feel vulnerable. I’ll be fine. But many others may not. So many fears—for people, the environment, the economy, international relations, democracy. So many lies thrown at us.

Despite this turnabout, in addition to activism in which I will engage, I still pledge to communicate openly and compassionately with Donald Trump voters, try to understand their motivations and acknowledge valid concerns—as long as they’re not insulting, in which case, I have better things to do.*

As a Jesus-inspired peacemaker, I’m compelled to speak truth as I understand it and listen humanely and kindly, regardless of who is the winner and loser.






*Check out the Saturday Night Live skit, “Black Jeopardy,” for a clever look at how we can be surprised with whom we share beliefs:

Downhill From Here

Downhill From Here

The only sounds I heard—which were muffled by my goggles and helmet—were my skis cutting through the snow and the creaky grinding/mechanical moaning of the ski lifts. At first, I felt lonely. I’m an extrovert who makes acquaintances easily, and I love being chatty, but this day I intentionally spent in silence. I saw few people because it was a very slow day. On some runs, I might not see another skier at all once I got a bit away from the lift drop-off. It felt strange not seeing more skiers. I missed seeing parents teaching their small children to ski, although I enjoyed freedom to roam unimpeded. I sat alone on ski lift rides. That was hard. So many times in the past I’ve had conversations with strangers on ski lifts, brief talks with people I never saw again, and never will. Those conversations, silly or inconsequential as they are, entertain me and enliven me. (Cashiers all over Atlanta are nodding their heads, or rolling their eyes.) This time, riding alone over and over, I sometimes felt as if I weren’t doing enough to be the kind of person I think I am. “Come on, extrovert, do something social.”

At first.

Eventually, however, the silence took me deeper into myself. I would occasionally stop and take in a view, alone. With no one to whom to say, “Look at that,” I stared across at a distant mountain fronted by a frozen lake, and I smiled, wonderfully, simply, satisfied. I would stop at the top of a run and look down, anticipating the exhilaration, planning my method: quick-turn speed or leisurely wide turns. Speed feels joyful. Wide turns feel sensual. I like them both. Skiing alone, in the silence, I felt the speedy skiing and the sensual skiing all the way through me. I sensed my body’s motions acutely. No one against which to compete or compare, I felt satisfied with however I skied—smoothly or clumsily.

Thickly insulated inside my gear, warming packets in my gloves and boots (I’m a winter weather wimp), I could see the cold—the snow, the vapory breath—but not feel it. The sound of my breathing resonated through my head. The rhythm of breath and the rhythm of skiing were like choreographed dancing. At moments I felt spiritually energized as my movements became a kind of prayer. It was more than looking around and appreciating God’s beauty, although it was that. It was more a sense that the Creator, the beautiful scenery, and I were united as I moved in my isolation and silence down the slopes.

And then, that afternoon, my skis began to cooperate with each other as never before. I have always admired skiers whose skis are always parallel to each other, moving in unison, while mine often seemed to be playing a game with each other: I’ll go this way and see if you can catch up. I tried turning my ankles simultaneously, shifting my hips, slightly shifting my weight upward as I turned—none worked for me, until this day finally it somehow came together. I was shocked and pleased to see and feel my skis being a coordinated tandem. I’m not sure why it happened. Maybe it was the repetition of it all. Over and over, the same thing, like chanting, until my body, mind, and spirit had a breakthrough. Everything felt as one to me. In my solitude and silence, I celebrated simply, by smiling and thanking God. It was a deep soulful gratitude, a prayer with no words, instead that full-body sense of God’s presence. I would have enjoyed celebrating with another person there, but this time the joy percolated within me. The whole full experience was a prayer.