Sunday, June 28, 2015


By Robert R. Schwarz

                                    It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life;
                                    therefore they are eager to take the narrow road.
                                    A  Rule of St. Benedict

            For many of us, monasteries and the lives of monks and cloistered nuns appear other-worldly and  a convenient way to avoid the realities of everyday life;  monastic lifestyles, due mostly to Hollywood movies and the scant number of in-depth media  reports, have  left us  with the distorted  impression that these  lifestyles , though laudable in many respects, are severely strict and  unnecessary  for a Christian life.  As a former newspaper reporter and editor, this once was my perception, too .  But it gradually changed, not due  to any particular religious leaning but rather to  interviewing and writing about  monastic people around the world, including Mother Theresa and her Sisters of Charity  at their Calcutta headquarters.  A few months ago and now retired,  I  decided to update my observations of monastic life and,  with my wife, Mary Alice , drove to the Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa. This is a  report of that visit ( with a  bit of editorializing added, I admit ) .  
         As  a journalist ,  I  naturally loved to probe for the truth of the matter.  After my confinement for ten days in  a Czech  prison during the Cold War and later, as president of a mental health agency,  I valued human   freedom to search for truth  more than ever. I also loathed  the loss of one's free will to realize the truth  about one's self.  Nowadays, though much of  my search for truth is still in a cloud of unknowing, I feel unshackled in pursuing it, thanks to these words from  my  favorite Mentor and Life Teacher:  " You shall know the truth, and the  truth shall make you free."

     As you drive southeast from  Dubuque , you see  rolling land shaped beautifully by the  Mississippi river bluffs . Once you turn off the highway, it' easy to pass the small  Abbey Lane  sign . A  little further down the narrow, winding road is the " Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey"  sign.  It , too,  is obviously not meant to attract  visitors, yet several hundred come here annually;  some (never more than ten)   stay a night or  two in one of the   five , unadorned   guest houses  among the woodlands now in view. Soon  on your right  appears another   narrow road leading  to the abbey's  "candy factory," where the nuns make and process the caramel candy and mints ( 33 tons of it in 2013 ) they ship all over the world t o support themselves.  A few hundred yards later is a road that dips down to a   two-story, stone guest house which, like the others,  has a kitchen with a container  on a countertop for  a free-will donation for your stay.  Near this house is a large barn with a corral , a  vegetable  garden and  an old wooden gate that opens to a dirt road  that transverses 600 acres  of  farm land, more than half  of it  in harvestable  forest .
            Abbey Lane ends at the chapel  and a circle of flowers and gurgling rivulets of fountain water with a statue of  Mary holding the Christ child . The abbey is named after  this statue.  I am reminded of my first visit here more than 20 years ago when I came to produce a documentary  slide program  for retirement  homes in Chicago land suburbs.  The abbey,  I had learned , was founded in 1964 by 13 Trappistine  ( known today as Cistercians ) nuns whose goal was   to continue and extend a tradition of monastic life that had its origins in the early Middle Ages.  The sisters here now  number 17. Their daughter house is in Norway.
Two of the abbey's laborers , Sisters Myra and Rebecca
            After parking my car, I began walking back down the road , enjoying the May day with its loud chirping of  birds and its morning sun dappling upon leaves of trees .  Approaching  me  was an elderly sister  walking a  small dog. She held a cane in one hand and an uprooted flower in the other. We paused  and immediately  struck up a conversation.  She told me she was Sr. Joan and her dog was Pangie, a  seven-year-old rescue dog , part collie and part Shetland Sheep—she thought—and that one of Panjie's eyes was brown, the other blue .  Sr. Joan was 75 and  celebrating her 50  th year of  monastic profession , of  living in an unshared room ( as her other abbey  sisters  did  ) under the  Rule of St. Benedict (  480-543 A.D. ): solitude, silence, prayer, work, and a disciplined life of communal living.  She was amiable and  cheerful and her face radiated contentment. Anyone  would  get the impression she enjoyed speaking to  stranger—church-goer or not-—as much as  she  did to her best friend.
            I asked her about the cane and the flower she was holding . The cane was made by a fellow sister  from a tree branch . " This rose I'm transplanting to the flower garden here , " she said , and again asked Pangie to stop barking  and jumping around so much so I could take a photo of both of them. " He's a nice  dog but he barks," she said.
" Yes," I replied,  that's what dogs  do."  She laughed.
            I told Sr. Joan that before I had left home, I  had asked two nuns from different orders for a  question to ask the abbey sisters , something with an answer  that would  benefit ordinary people.  I asked , " How does one draw closer to Jesus ? " 
            Still holding onto  the rose plant, she leaned heavily on her cane, and looked at  me  as if  I had simply asked her for the time ."Talk to Him in your heart, " she said. "You can draw close to Jesus anytime of the day, any place, while washing, cleaning, or grocery shopping. . The more you do this, the closer you come to Him . "
            I thanked her and suggested she get  some water for the rose. 
" Come on, Panjie," she said, and  headed to the garden…and I headed for my interview  appointment with Sr. Gail Fitzpatrick , the former abbess here .
Wisdom from the Cloister
" Reading the Bible brings us closer to Jesus "
            We sat in a small room adjoining an equally small gift office. At 77, Sr. Gail  was the oldest  sister ( the youngest was  30 ). She was obviously pleased to be interviewed , quick  to listen and empathetic to my needs as an interviewer.  She weighed her  words and spoke  clearly without any pretense . Her nun habit consisted of a black veil  and black scapula and a  blouse with white sleeves. 
She wore glasses , and a  tuft of white hair protruded from her veil . 
     We talked  close to an hour before I asked her what I had asked  Sr. Joan.  I prefaced it with a few remarks  about how ,  as a  roving reporter ,  I had never been be satisfied with what     " having  a relationship with Jesus " really meant . It’s   a common phrase  heard  throughout Christendom ,  and  though I had known individuals  who surely had this relationship—a closer one  than mine, I  surmised—I told Sr. Gail that I still could  not recall any doctrine or individual  defining this phrase   with   street-wise vernacular or with the diction  and semantics that resonated with me. Perhaps it's because  this "relationship" is different for everyone ?  I asked myself .  Maybe inexpressible ?  
      Sr. Gail   replied immediately in a soft voice: " We get closer t o Jesus by prayer,  but a prayer  that is really seeking to know Him. I know this is easy to say but not to people who have had no experience  in praying . And we need to read   scripture about Jesus, to hear  His Word. "
Then she stressed how important—even urgent—it is today  for those who evangelize or give sermons or homilies to " pin point "  the exact Biblical verse or chapter  that applies to the situation at hand .  In her book " Seasons of Grace: Wisdom from the Cloister "  ( can be ordered through one of  the abbey's  website, " " ) ,  Sr.  Gail writes: " I believe that it is this daily fidelity to listening to and reflecting on the Bible that  gives monasticism it vitality and makes it appealing to such a wide variety of contemporary seekers—from parish priests to Protestant pastors,  from faithful Christians to those who are deeply distrustful of the Bible and the  religion it represents."
A distant view of the abbey chapel on a spring day 
   I asked Sr. Gail to describe a typical day for the  sisters.  " We have a buzzer at 3:30 a.m. that will knock you out of bed, " she began with a smile. "Then there's vigils  that sets the tone for the day. This is the reading of the Psalms and  the Bible  and singing of  hymns. Then after  30 to 90 minutes of quiet prayer and meditation in our  own rooms or the chapel,  we have breakfast .   We go  to the kitchen and help ourselves to cereal or toast, nothing cooked. At 7:15 we have morning prayer , followed by mass . "
     From 8:30  t o 11:30,  the women work at cooking, cleaning, secretarial duties, making candy, and garden work . This is followed by  30 minutes of doing whatever a sister  needs to do, such taking a walk or washing their clothes. Just before lunch , which they call "dinner" because it's their  main meal—all vegetables—they have a five-minute prayer, their  "little hour ".  Siesta time is 1 to l:35 p.m. , then another "little hour" , followed by abbey tasks time until 3:45. 
     "Until 5 p..m ., we do things that are enjoyable, " Sr. Gail said , " such as studying, writing, or going for a walk."
      I couldn't suppress the question  "do you ever go into town to see a movie? "
   " No, " she replied, muffling a chuckle. We go into town only to see a doctor or   shop for things  we can't have delivered or buy online ."
            They gather in the chapel at 5 for vespers, then head to the kitchen for their "pick up"  meal , a sandwich or whatever  an individual sister can find there.  From this hour until  7:15  is their  "grand silence," meaning no talking,  no business. A night prayer sung in the chapel ends the sisters' day.  " A lot of visitors come to hear this prayer, "  Sr. Gail said. " It's short and melodious . Everyone is in bed by 8 p.m.  But we don't have a bell that says you have to have lights out. "
            "  And you keep this schedule Monday through Friday ? ! I asked. 
            " No. Seven days a week," she said,  rather casually, I thought. 
            "You wrote in your book [ " Seasons of Grace " ] about the great value your abbey places on communal living . " Do you ever have spats, conflicts, disagreements ?"
            " We do. Our communal living is just as  difficult to maintain and grow as marriage or any other environment where you have more than one person. The difference is we have a vocation  to love. We here are all trying to live like Christ, a life of love. "
            " Would you mind telling me what kind of conflicts you have and how you resolve them?"    I asked  politely, for  I was beginning to like Sr. Gail as a woman with  CEO-like responsibilities.  .
            " Sometimes it's talking too much, coming in late always to meetings, making too much noise at  night. Or our liturgy committee might not agree on how  the " Gloria  should be sung on a    feast day.  The key [ to resolving our conflicts ] is  to respect one another's opinions, to listen to the other person.  "
            " And what is your  advice to Mr. and Mrs. Jones on Main Street regarding  conflict resolution  ? " I asked .
            "We have to bring a deep respect to our communications with each other. I need to respect you as a person , who you are at this moment, not who you were or what you've done. I'm not the one to judge or call the shots. I need to have inner humility .  "
            We agreed that having true humility requires a  realistic honest   view of  who your are and who your are not. 
Beauty and Gratitude
            I told her I was  anxious to revisit the abbey land I hadn't seen in many  years.  " We used to do all the farming ourselves but it became a little bit  too much for us," she commented.  "Now we rent the fields .  A couple of times we had livestock but it became too much  to handle . But in our garden, we still grow tomatoes , lettuce, carrots, greenbeans, squash, raspberries and  pumpkins for salads , you know. Oh, and  this year we had a marvelous crop of asparagus. "  
Panorama of the abbey's bountiful square mile
            We rose from the table. Sr. Gail had several tasks awaiting her . We exchanged a few spontaneous words about "gratitude"  and then parted  company.  Our words about gratitude and her words about coming close to Jesus  lingered with me as I walked to the field gate below and opened it to a  mile-wide panorama of wheat, calf-high  corn, alfalfa ,  haystacks here and there and, beyond all that the abbey's woodlands.
            I began walking slowly  down a  wide dirt  path shaped by years of tractor wheels running over it. The sky was puffed with white clouds,  and  birds—most often  orioles— kept flushing  up from  patches of  wild  flowers.  Gazing upon this land and the life it was nourishing  as I breathed in part of it,  made me think of those life-lesson parables  Jesus told his disciples about humankind interacting with nature.
            I continued walking until , on my left and about a hundred yards down a gentle slope  of corn ,  I saw a pond with  a cabin on its far bank . A few tree branches , tall weeds, and bulrushes obscured most of this setting  as if nature itself had requested it so. I walked to the pond  down a furrow of corn and stood on a bank opposite the cabin , a stone's throw away.  It was a simple log  structure with windows without  any covering and an interior  empty of furnishings. I recalled being told that it was built without nails by pioneers  and that the sisters sometimes came here to  meditate and pray—as I did now,  sitting on earth and listening to frogs and crickets.
            Those thoughts about gratitude which Sr. Gail and I had shared  came to mind.  "Another thing about knowing God better, " she had said,  " is gratitude, and  gratitude for me is constantly around me when I look at  nature .When I walk around here there is so much beauty and so much life and so much gift that my heart is filled with gratitude. And that comes back to me in prayer.  I have so much to be grateful for: life, love, opportunities to know God in other people. " 
            Her words had  stirred me to say, "This may sound simplistic, Sister Gail,  but I am often grateful   just to have been created   as a human , to be given life instead of no life. "
            Sr. Gail smiled  and nodded her head.  " You know," she said, "the closer we get to God, the simpler  our thoughts about Him and Jesus will be."
            I  kept listening to frogs and crickets.
The founding sisters ( with a visiting priest  ) on Oct. 18, 1964. Holding the
new monastery cross is the abbey superior, Sr. M. Columba.  

The End…and

The Abbey's Prayer for Discernment

Loving God,
You have a plan for each of us, you hold out
to us a future full of hope.

Give us the wisdom of your Spirit so that we
may discover your plan in the gifts you have
 given us, and in the circumstances of our daily

Give us the freedom of your Spirit, to seek you
with all our hearts, and to choose your will
above all else.

We make this prayer through Christ  our Lord.


17 Cistercian sisters gather for a meeting in the abbey's refectory 
The sisters fill in the grave after burial of a departed sister.


All comments are welcome.

© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Techie Who's Blind , Deaf, and a Family Man

                                     If we should ever feel burdened by the knowledge
of our weakness…let us remember what  the Lord
told St. Paul during his time of trial : "My graces
is sufficient for  you,  for my power is made perfect
 in weakness ." ( from Conversations with God
by Francis Fernandez )

[Note: All spoken or written  words attributed to Bapin
in this article were communicated either by the
tactile American Sign Language or a Telebraille
 machine. ]
[ last of a two-part report ]

His 'Dream Job' , Then Heartbreak

2.          Nine months later, Bapin was working full-time as an adaptive technology instructor at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths & Adults in Sands Point, New York. "He can take a computer apart and put it back together again," Bapin's  supervisor said. In his Internet-posted biography ( ), Bapin wrote that this  was his dream job, "a perfect opportunity for me to move ahead in my life where I can bring myself  at the hands of every deaf-blind person worldwide who is hungry for golden opportunities." Dinah was never further away than a tug on her  harness .
Bapin, Hook See, and Navin ( as an infant) eating out. 
I didn't hear from Bapin  until  eight years later when I asked him for an update on his life  .  " At this moment," he replied, "Dinah is resting on her bed in one corner of my office."  The two had just returned on a jet from a conference in Los Angeles. "She loves flying all the time. She even went to Kolkata [Calcutta] with me twice, and all of my family members loved having her there.  Dinah is now ten and a half and loves going to work all the time, so I don’t know when she will be ready to retire." He also mentioned that the dog's spleen had to be removed because of a benign tumor. 
            On April 4, 2008, in an email sent at 12:40 a.m. to more than 50 friends, Bapin related how Dinah had collapsed a few hours ago due to a cancerous tumor around her heart. He was now working in the San Francisco branch office of the Helen Keller Center.  "Today, Dinah led me home from my office, which was 12 blocks away….she ate her dinner and soon thereafter collapsed. I am praying and hoping for a few more days Dinah can enjoy living." 
            Dinah spent a few days in an animal hospital  and then was brought home. Another email followed: "I came home during lunchtime to check on her. Dinah still greets me when I get home, and she gets excited with the tail wagging hard, the usual Dinah. I took her outside for her to do her business. She dragged me to walk around an entire block  
            Dinah's veterinarian said the dog could collapse at any time.  Her medical bills so far had personally cost Bapin $3,500. Wanting his companion to live out her last days in a familiar environment, Bapin took Dinah back to New York to stay with his former landlord and co-worker at the Helen Keller Center. To avoid Dinah being left  too long without his master,  he flew monthly , from May until October ,  from San Francisco to New York to consult with a veterinarian .  Bapin emailed me on May 30: "She has not yet shown any decline in the guiding skills as she tries to guide me even on her leash when I am using my cane."
            In October,  Bapin posted on his webpage: "It's very sad to let you know that Dinah, passed away on October 14th. She collapsed at 3:45 p.m. as my co-worker James Feldman was trying to make her stand up from her bed under his office's desk. She would not stand up and needed to be lifted onto a cart by two other colleagues, John Baroncelli and Robert Pena. She was taken to Robert's car and driven away to the Animal Medical Center in NYC. The doctors found that the fluids in the sac around Dinah's heart filled up again. They had to flush out the fluids but 15 minutes later the fluids filled up fast. There was no other option to curing the tumor and Dinah's primary doctor recommended to have her put down. James and Robert were at the hospital with Dinah and I was in my office here in San Francisco. I was on the phone with the doctor with an interpreter and we talked for a long time. We all decided to let Dinah go at 6:30 p.m. Dinah will be cremated and her ashes will be put into an urn."  
            Adjusting to daily living without a Leader dog was slow and demanding  for Bapin , who now navigated with a cane . Demand for  his technical  skills at the Helen Keller Center  increased with  his added  role of  trainer for deaf and blind people. But Bapin remained his  quick-witted  and impatient  self   with any project he undertook; among his several innovations at the Center were Braille-capturing radio instruments that emitted emergency notices on National Public Radio to individuals like himself.  He  terribly missed Dinah,  but his frequent travels as a spokesman  for the Center  offered him a different kind of companionship.   "When you are deaf-blind, technology is an ever-present companion. I travel with a laptop for e-mail, phone and Internet access, " he told me ." I use a G.P.S.-equipped Braille Note note-taker to get information about my surroundings. To communicate with others, I have a Screen Braille Communicator with two sides: one in Braille, which I can read and the other,  an L.C.D. screen with a keyboard for someone who is sighted."
 He prayed again for a "close friend." 
The author interviewing Bapin  via a Telebraille machine 
      At the conferences where he had been asked to test his new adaptive technology products, he kept running into a deaf Korean woman, Sook Hee Choi. "We were developing feelings for each other," Bapin told me over the telephone.  Sook Hee is a slender Korean woman with black eyes and a melodic voice. She wears glasses, dresses  professionally when working with her husband, and speaks her native tongue  and a bit of English to her son.  
      He must have thought that marriage between a deaf-blind man and a deaf woman  might be more of a risk than that crisis moment at the Rochester intersection where  he had to "let go and let Dinah ." Knowing Bapin,  it was a question of  prudence or love .  Then his  email: "I am now engaged to get married. Sook Hee lives in San Francisco and works at the Lighthouse for the Blind there, and she is a wonderful woman! A wedding date has yet to be fixed. Do you remember that I told you…how I wanted Dinah to help me find a woman? Now, many thanks to her for finding me a girl!" 
     Sook Hee  accepted her fiancĂ©'s invitation to accompany him to India to celebrate his brother's birthday.  That same year, the couple were married in the  San Francisco city hall.  Eleven months later—on Sook Hee's birthday—Bapin and wife became parents of a healthy son, Navin.
His Shinning Moment in Las Vegas
A  shining moment of Bapin's professional life came last August 3 as he took center  stage before an    
 audience of several hundred  people at the first-ever International Deaf-Blind Exposition at a major  Las Vegas hotel. When he was introduced as the CEO of his own adaptive technology company , a not-for-profit firm which provided instruments  for deaf and blind people to schools, government agencies, and businesses around the world , he could not , of course,  hear any of the applause roar . 
      As the applause continued,  Bapin  felt the finger  tips of his interpreter writing on his palm a description of    all that was happening. Then Bapin  reached down to a dog sitting attentively at his side and  vigorously stroked  it  in a display of gratitude…This was  Walter, a five-year-old , 100-pound Labrador Retriever, Bapin's  new and  constant companion.
Family Life and Precious Memories
            It is a May day,  and Bapin , Navin , and Walter  leave their El Cerrito  home and begin a five-minute walk to the train station for a two-minute ride followed by  a ten-minute walk to Navin's public school…
 "He's learning English and Korean in his kindergarten class,"   Bapin said. " He's really smart and loves  technology. "  Some days ,  Bapin and Walter  might also ride a train for 35 minutes to  Bapin's office in Berkeley or travel  to Fremont where Bapin  teaches a deaf-blind interpreting class at Oholone College .  I once asked Bapin if Navin senses that his father is blind . " Sometimes he says to his mother, ' Dad can't see. ' But he knows to clasp my hand for me to get him something. He also knows he needs to guide  me. He has good communication with us and  we make sure he is exposed to a lot of different experiences. With his mother he uses sign language  and is learning to  speak to her in Korean . She also reads his  lips . "  Bapin then paused , I think to probe a thought : " I have a higher priority for him .  We teach him how to be respectful to his parents and other people. But I've got to figure our how to help him more. I have to make more time for him because I'm very busy and want to make a good relationship with him. He's a sweet little kid."
"I  want to make full use of my skills and give of  my self "
        ….The fragrance of lavender and chirping of birds  fills this  May day air .  Bapin, of course, does not hear the chirps nor see the flowers, but is gladdened knowing  that his son does .  All three well know the route , especially Walter, who needs no GPS. As instructed by his parents, Navin does his best not to stray ahead of Walter.  Traffic is minimal at two of the three intersections ; the group easily  crosses all of them.
         On weekends Hook See might travel to her husband's office to manage his company's distribution  But today she is likely in her  backyard garden hoeing out weeds and uprooting some early vegetables. She is planning for a special meal tonight to celebrate the good news that her son will, for sure,  enter the first grade in September.  The sight of a lone seagull flying away from a neighbor's yard  delights her ; she recalls the pleasure of seeing  her son wave at a  gull here  last summer  and ask her  what kind of bird it was. Hook See did her best to name it .  
program .
            For that special dinner tonight, Sook Hee has  decorated the table with colorful , hand-stitched napkins and a table cloth from her native county; they were gifts from her mother when she lived here with Bapin and Hook See to help them through the challenges of their marriage and her daughter's expected pregnancy. The dishware is equally colorful, brought back from India by Bapin and Hook See when they visited Bapin's parents .
            Bapin unlocks the front door  , and he and Walter enter .  Bapin is bone-weary, mind-weary. It's been a tedious, often hectic nine-hour day of communicating many business matters  via  his Telebraille and  the repeated  tactile signing between him and a colleague. There also was his two-hour delay in taking Walter outside to relieve himself and then that  hunt—frantic for Bapin—for  that latest piece of alpha electronic equipment an employee had placed in a remote section of the office , not telling Bapin about it.  Now, Bapin's only desire is  to release Walter from his harness and sink into a  favorite chair. No thinking, no communication, no task.
            I saw him once like this after Dinah had been washed out of training and he was exhausted from worrying about  his final college exams  and the anxiety over the  uncertainly of receiving a new Leader dog. I knew his thoughts were similar to those he had once expressed to me :  "I need to learn to deal with  people who don't understand that I don't need them to pity me because  I'm deaf and blind or to treat me any less that any other human or say ,' Oh, he's not very smart because he's blind and deaf. ' "  
            Bapin's two-bedroom apartment is very old. "It is like any other house, " he says  . " It has a stove, oven, microwave, oven. "  Unlike most homes, it has an alarm system which vibrates his pager when the phone or doorbell rings or if there is an intruder.   
          His family greet him with tight hugs. Navin throws his arms around his father's thigh .  Bapin caresses  his head ,  then reaches down  to release Walter from his harness , signaling to the Lab that he's now  off-duty .  Pizza and garden vegetable  ala Korean— his very favorites  he smells but he's too tired to even smile.  " It is special tonight ,"  Hook See signs to  him , "because our son  going soon to be  first grader. We are happy  and want to celebrate ."
            Bapin frowns. He has forgotten all about this event  and , worse, to bring home  that toy gift home for his son. He feels poured out , no emotion left . Yet, for my son's  sake, for a happy Hook See… But he is too weak to celebrate anything .  
     Hook See  and Navin tell him how beautiful the table setting is . Bapin  sits down at the table and  slowly glides a finger across the dinner plate. He hopes his face will not show his emptiness.  
            The family prays .
Could this act of addressing God , Who had given him so much through the years, remind him of  those times  he had ignored God's  prompts to forgive that  rugby team boy who had made him completely sightless?  I  once asked  Bapin about that boy: " I've kind of let it go. I never saw him again. I've never fully forgiven him but have looked at the positive things that have come out of this experience. How I've developed who I am. "  
            During dinner, Bapin visibly becomes restored . He talks to his family , using cheerful and affectionate words about them—and he appears very much aware of his wife's presence . "To marry her would be a risk,  " I recall him saying years ago. Then, a little later in life: " Bob, I found the right woman. She really takes care of me. We cherish each other. Sometimes we'll have bad days and sometimes good days. We really want to be better for our son." 
            During our last interview, I asked him for opinions about the current American culture and his  own spirituality. "I feel bad," he said, that so many people have lost their moral values. Well, you know, as we get closer to the end of the world, as the Bible says, we will see  more and more of that. "  Sometimes I wish I could do things my way, but then God tells me: "No, my way.'  I read the Bible, I pray before I go to bed ,  but I can't go the church very often because in California it's hard to find a good church that has interpreters. "  Encouraging  my friend to say more, he said : " I cherish life every day. I try to do the best things for other people, through God's help. But sometimes I feel I don't have enough power or  energy . Then God helps me. " Two things made him happy: "family and exotic good food."  And sad ?  It's world hunger and people with disabilities who have to live with discrimination.  
            Dinner over, Bapin walks eagerly to a small adjoining room  for an hour of woodwork; this time it's  replacing a broken  chair leg . After, there's an unfinished cabinet he's been constructing. He loves it. 
            Nearing the end  of writing this,   my mind returned to that family dinner and of Walter  fast asleep under the dinning room table , his harness  hanging on the wall by the door. I began to think deeply about Dinah , too,  and the five dogs in my own long life  who have been my  "close friends,"  particularly two German Shepherds  , Luther and Moses . Their   loyalty , obedience, and constancy of disposition taught my late wife and I a few things about what our relationship to God, country, and family should be. Writing more, I recalled asking Bapin   what Dinah and Walter have taught him.  "I understand God better now because of Dinah and Walter. The reason is that God makes wonderful creatures and that gives me compassion. Walter is God's gift to me. And I can see how a dog can understand me. "
I see Bapin  at that same dinner table with Hook See and Navin , all using different forms of communication to express their love each other. It makes me think of that first  Pentecost .   
I  hear in my mind the soft, deep- sleep whimpers of Moses and Luther  and now those of  Walter in Bapin's home , and I hear Bapin telling me , " Sometimes when I have frustrations, Walter helps me calm down and tell myself, Get over it !  Then I feel more positive about life. "     I hear him say , " I want to give of my self . "  It reminds me of an  exhortation of a 19th Century holy man  cited at the bottom of an old email Bapin had sent me : Don't let your life be sterile. Be useful .
 The light which Bapin's life shines on the path through my twilight years path comes from a title of a book written in the 1960's by a former chaplain of a renowned rehabilitation center: LET GO AND LET GOD.  And so I conclude : that at  that traffic-laden intersection in Rochester,  that's  what a blind-deaf  man had to do to become fully alive .               
With Dinah, his first "close friend "

All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Techie Who's Blind and Deaf and a Family Man

If we should ever feel burdened by the knowledge
of our weakness…let us remember what  the Lord
told St. Paul during his time of trial : "My graces
is sufficient for  you,  for my power is made perfect
 in weakness ." ( from Conversations with God
by Francis Fernandez )

[Note: All spoken or written  words attributed to Bapin
in this article were communicated either by the
tactile American Sign Language or a Telebraille
 machine. ]

By Robert R. Schwarz

 I.         Many years ago I was  saddened and  dismayed by the death of two friends whom I had considered paragons of emotional,  physical, and intellectual strength. As a journalist with an attitude of a wagon train scout, I set out to know how our society defines true human strength and weakness. I  began to probe the lives of people  whom had been misperceived  as  weak ,  yet  eventually put their celebrated  critics to shame .  I knew these individuals personally or through well-documented  reports.
The vast majority displayed  a common trait ,one which Lt. Cmdr. Eric Greitens   also observed    while training   U.S. Navy SEALS . " They had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose ," he was  quoted in the Wall Street Journal. 
This report is about one of those "weak" people ,  Anindya 'Bapin' Bhattacharyya , an American and the  strongest "weak" person I  have know during my 60-year career as a journalist and facilitator of leadership workshops for the world's largest volunteer service organization .  In following  Bapin's  career through the years, I have learned  new definitions of "hitting rock bottom"  and the metaphysical  concept of  absolute freedom , that is , the  "emptying of  one's self. "
Bapin and  Dinah , his Leader" 
          Today Bapin and I are "speaking" to each other with help of " Interpreter  46A"—she's  in Utah—and Bapin's deaf wife, Sook Hee Choi , who's at his side in her husband's office in Berkeley , California.   Also helping , in unfathomable ways , is Bapin's constant companion , his guide dog Walter, now lying under his master's desk.  I am on my phone in Arlington Heights, Illinois , feeding questions to the interpreter , who is relaying them with sign language via Skype to Sook Hee, who then communicates my words to Bapin by pressing her fingers onto his palm, using    tactile American Sign Language . Bapin replies to the interpreter  with sign language for the deaf, which the interpreter then speaks to me. ( In previous face-to-face interviews with Bapin, we dialogued by using a seven-key Telebraille machine; I'd type my questions, and Bapin, after reading them with  fingertips, would type his replies. )
 Bapin is 45. He has a few tufts of black hair left on his head . He tells me he stands   five-feet-four-inches, and when I toss him a  compliment that he always appeared to me as six-feet tall in courage, he laughs, that is, the interpreter laughs for him.  What is most striking is the speed with which he walks and moves the rest of his body; it defies  blindness and deafness.  His mind is  unusually swift . When  with Bapin years ago, his personal interpreter told  me ," Bapin can read Braille as fast as a secretary can type. "
     There is a lot to update about Bapin's life trek, and we began by recalling  what I regard as the inciting incident of that trek. 
Blinded by Jealously
It began  one night  around a potato-roasting  campfire , where  eight-year-old  Bapin sat with his rugby  team members.  Their school was near  the India farmland village of Telari, where Bapin had been born and where 85 per cent of the population was illiterate and poverty stricken.   The Bengali language of  the soccer team rang with cheer about  their recent game victory. They had just elected Bapin team captain.  One team member, however,  had been sure the captaincy would be his and  grew increasingly  morose . He continued to stare at the fire until it burned to red coals.  How can you all  have a captain who is deaf and blind in one eye, he must have thought, for he suddenly leaped up , scooped up several  glowing coals and threw them at Bapin's eyes.  
 Bapin had courageously coped with life after being born deaf and , later, after losing one eye in a soil-digging accident. But now he was all deaf and all blind. Where in the world would there be help, asked  he and his parents  all night long. Certainly not even near Telari.  
 Bapin expressed his tragedy to me during our initial interview several years ago: "My blindness frustrated me because I did not understand how to express my problems, and became angry and mischievous .I often would sneak out of the house to make trouble while everyone was having a siesta. I would sometimes throw hay through my neighbors' windows. Other times I would lock their doors from outside by hooking up chains."
Friends and neighbors throughout the family's countryside saw no hope that Bapin's  life would ever become humanized.  "Although I was troubled as a child, " he recalled,  " I found a little peace in creative expression. I developed a hobby by using manual skills to make statues of Indian gods and goddesses through woodworking and ceramics. Since my mother was a talented artist, she always offered to paint these statues for me."
Something else  would deeply trouble him much more  in future years : his  inability to forgive the youth who destroyed his one remaining eye.
A Life Completely Changed  Learning 
Braille and Sign Language 

    The family for four years searched unsuccessfully in India for a school equipped to educate a deaf-blind student. Then, through the efforts of a persevering father and a kind aunt, Bapin in 1983 received a scholarship to attend the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. Airline tickets for Mr. Bhattacharyya and son to America cost the father one  year's salary. "My father accompanied me to be my English-to- Bengali translator , "  Bapin later wrote in a short  biography. "All I knew was English alphabet letters and a few words such as 'I love you,' 'I want to go to the bathroom,'  'I want to eat,' and, 'I want to go to sleep.'  The enormous step in taking a journey halfway around the globe was an awakening adventure .But my life was completely changed from a life of darkness to light when I came to Perkins.  
      "Upon arrival at Perkins and entering my dorm, the first question I was asked, was whether I wanted to live alone or with my father. I told my father that I wanted to live by myself to force myself to learn English. From the next day on, I rolled up my sleeves to learn English, Braille, and sign language at the same time. My father also learned Braille and took courses to acquire new knowledge about how to work with deaf-blind children.
"I started to see a different world by meeting other students who also were deaf-blind, which encouraged me to adjust to my deaf-blindness. I never imagined that from a village with a large population living in poverty and illiteracy that there could also be people in similar situations as myself who existed on this earth. The only drawback was that I could not communicate easily with these deaf-blind students because of my limited sign language."
Bapin's father returned to India , leaving  his son under the guardianship of Bapin's English teacher. During Bapin's  years at Perkins and a subsequent year at Gallaudet University , a  liberal arts university in Washington, D.C., Bapin developed a strong interest in helping blind and deaf people . "My enthusiasm to achieve higher education also continued," he said. A few years later he became the first deaf-blind student at the University of Arkansas.  Bapin, who today remains characteristically aggressive about learning new skills,  soon persuaded the university to add  Braille to its computer lab and hire signers for lectures.
He was  now 26 and dealing with a sadness common to many college students away from home for the first time: He  was lonely , friendless. Though his fellow students were always signaling their willingness to do him a favor— often ineptly— "none of them were willing to go the distance of true friendship, "  Bapin told me.   
One afternoon Bapin went to his dorm room and closed the door. He likely began thinking of a boyhood conversation with his Hindu mother about his parents' god  or  the recent lunch with two teens from a Little Rock church who had told him that  God is first before anything else
Bapin went to his knees, perhaps for the first time in his life. But soon began doubting the  rectitude of his prayerful behavior. He quickly rose to face the painful dilemma of telling or not telling  his Hindu parents that he was thinking of becoming a Christian.  Then  he was reminded of something else those two teens had told him. Don’t worry about your parents. God will work in their heart, too. Again Bapin went to his knees . He prayed for a "close friend. " 
"Two Sundays later, " he said, "I answered an altar call from the church pastor and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. " It changed my  life overnight. There was so much peace. I began to ask God to 'see' and 'hear ' for me."  When informed of his decision, his parents  rejoiced. "I didn't expect that !" 
Still, he continued to pray hard  to  have  a  "close friend." 
He also prayed that night for the willingness to forgive that boy who had maliciously destroyed his remain eye. Yet , it would  have been natural for Bapin to ask God,  Do you really expect me to forgive him for what he did to me ?
Bapin took his final exams in political science for  his B.A. degree. Stress mounted as he waited for test results. Being an outstanding student over the past five years  had won him a scholarship from the National  Federation of   the Blind. As he  was sitting one day in  the university cafeteria  eating pizza, an excited  staff member came to him and not-so gently tapped him on the shoulder. Bapin turned around and learned  he would soon have his "close friend."  Though this  friend was not exactly what he had prayed for, she would be  close and faithful .   She  was "Chica" , a yellow Labrador retriever .  Unbeknown to  Bapin,  , news of  his scholarship had caught the attention of the Rochester (Michigan )  Lions Club , one of several thousand clubs of Lions Clubs International (LCI ),  the world's foremost supporters of Leader dogs .  Chica, who would  cost $19,000 to train with Bapin  at the  Leader Dog School for the Blind in Rochester, Michigan , was a charitable gift to Bapin.
Confused and stunned,  Bapin rose from his chair and stood for a long moment to discern how an animal , especially a  dog, could be a close friend. It would be a grueling  lesson for him to learn.
Master and Dog Train Together

Bapin and Dinah with trainer Keith MacGregor
My first encounter with Bapin would become the most memorable. It occurred  in the Leader Dog School dining room , and  I was there on assignment in 1998 for  LCI's  global magazine, "The Lion."
            At eight round tables  sat 22 blind men and women  anxiously and silently  waiting to be introduced to a "close friend " ,  24-7. Then, one by one, German Shepherds and yellow Labs and black Labs were led in by their trainers and escorted to each individual , including  Bapin, the only blind-deaf student. The  dogs were soon at their masters' feet, where they remained quietly , lying with heads between paws . Hands reached down and searched for a head or back to stroke. For long minutes, the room was quite, as if respecting a kind of sanctity of the moment.  One student  grabbed his dog's  harness and made his way to a piano and began , impromptu, to play a cheerful melody. I saw sightless eyes moistened.
            The arduous, military-like  training that would last 24 days for Bapin and Chica and  others began the next day at 6 a.m., when all dogs were taken to an outdoor run to relieve themselves.  An hour later, a training cadre of  more than a dozen  men and women attired in khaki shorts maneuvered students and dogs out to the 14-acre school complex that had  evolved from a single farm-house operation in 1939 . Chica and the other dogs had already received  several weeks of preliminary training and an exhaustive screening process that had  began soon after they were whelped by volunteer dog lovers. 
Under the overall direction of the then  school's director Bill Hansen, a retired Air Force colonel, Leader  training begins gently but  with the precision of a military drill . Students and dogs first learn hand signals: "forward," "left," "right," "sit," "down," "stay," and "walk faster." Later, the canines  will learn to guide their masters away from oncoming cars, construction zones and other hazards such as tree branches that overhang sidewalks. Each dog  must  acquire "a sense of responsibility" for his or her  master . But more critical—and often painfully  slow— is for master and dog to learn what to expect from each other. Before a Leader dog can be released to its new owner, both it and the owner must pass a final test. What neither Bapin nor I learned until a climatic training moment arrived was  the paramount  importance of trusting one's Leader dog. 
I  kept my eye on Bapin and Chica as both strained to "keep up" and to coordinated  their movements . Other students  relied on listening to their trainer's  voice commands,  but Bapin was forced to react quite  fast to read the sign language which his trainer , Keith MacGregor ,  kept pressing  hard and often on his palm as if it were a notebook. On  one   particular day, a substitute trainer for Bapin was called in because MacGregor's shoulder was in much  pain due to the prolonged downward  force he had to use to write with his fingers on Bapin's palm. I was told that MacGregor then was likely the world's only guide dog trainer skilled in tactile signing. 
            I asked MacGregor , " Does Chica know that Bapin is blind ?"
            "I  believe that Leader dogs know something is different about someone who can't see, " he replied.   Said Melissa Holbrook Pierson, author of the book  The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from How Dogs Learn ,  " Though dogs have been our best friends for tens of thousands of  years, they still read us far more skillfully than we read them. "
Bapin and Chica and the others closed their training day with a lecture at 8 p.m. Everyone rested  on Sunday; some students went to church,  but without their dogs.
     Six days into the training, while we are talking via his  Telebraille ,  Bapin begins to frown. He is obviously worried. He tells me: " I took the college exams ten days ago and do not know if I passed. " As he begins another sentence, the Telebraille malfunctions. Bapin has a moment of angry panic, wondering how long his voice medium will take to repair.  I was about to tell him of a major crisis now developing , but now I haven't the heart.   MacGregor had told me at lunch  that he had been noticing Chica was sometimes refusing to lead , now  causing  Bapin to doubt Chica's  ability to lead him. " Truth is, he mistakenly expects his dog to walk in a straight line like a robot and never to pause to sniff something," MacGregor told me. He  speculated—but hadn't yet told Bapin—that Chica might be over-reacting to the strangeness she senses from human deafness.  Solving this problem is urgent,  he said ,  for both dog and master  now face being dropped from the training  program.  
                 Two days later , MacGregor approaches me shaking his head. "You won't believe this," he said.  " Chica is Bapin's very first experience with any dog! . My guess is that  bonding with a dog is emotionally alien to this  young man from Indian . "  He confronted Bapin with this, but the insight had come too late.
 Chica was dismissed and , according to program  policy, would not ever be  considered again for Leader dog training.  I visited Bapin in his room that night. "I was hit hard and I miss her," he said. "I was slow to understand what a relationship to a dog really means .  I had never felt this kind of emotion for an animal. I found myself loving her, yet I didn't keep a balance between this love and her need for discipline."  
My friend was obviously crestfallen yet exuding an indomitable spirit that defied his awesome handicap.  
            News came the next day that Bapin had passed his final college exams. "I tried to be happy, but could not," he said. Between 1993 and 1998 ,  the university had presented him five various service  awards .
The Final Test: Trust or No Dog
 MacGregor persuaded director Bill Hansen to give  Bapin  another opportunity . Bapin waxed joyous when he was introduced to Dinah, a 21-month-old, 64-pound yellow Lab . She had been returned here  three months ago by an individual who had diligently raised her as part of the
school's volunteer puppy-raising program .
Master and Leader Dog take a walk in Rochester, Michigan
  Dinah and Bapin worked well together , though the vital bonding process took longer than the normal ten days because Dinah could not hear any voice command from her master. Graduation would require Bapin and Dinah to pass a final test that proved the two of them could work with mutual trust. For Dinah, this would require her to obey all commands riveted to her by  MacGregor , her trainer,  and by Bapin, her master; for Bapin, whom I knew was a bit head-strong, it could mean the  monumental challenge of  deferring to a dog's sense of correctness rather than his own.
         On the day of the test,  I drive  from my home  near Chicago to be with  Bapin.  MacGregor, Bapin, Dinah, and I converge on a Saturday afternoon at a traffic-laden street corner in downtown Rochester . We are tense.   Dinah, I suspect, is sensing that something extra-doggy is about to happen. "This trust thing ," MacGregor says opening his van door for Bapin and Dinah,   "can be  a life or death issue when,  for example, both are about to cross a busy  street intersection  but  their instincts  are  demanding different behaviors.  Trust can be difficult enough for a blind person, but for a person who is also deaf, it sometimes seems impossible." 
        He and I exchange anxious glances while observing Bapin and Dinah  navigating  through pedestrians  down a sidewalk towards another  busy intersection where the test will occur. We stay put. I hear MacGregor again  mumble to himself that he  will have to fail both Bapin and Dinah if they can't develop  this mutual trust. "This guy is a very independent dude," he mumbles for the second time.    
All is going well; Dinah skirts his master around an overhanging, curbside tree branch. The two now halt at the corner  curb. MacGregor has purposely not told Bapin that the pedestrian crossing for this intersection, unlike the right angle crossing on which they had been were trained to cross, must be followed diagonally from corner to corner.  
           Rochester townspeople are used to seeing blind pedestrians and their Leader dogs and will  often help them cross streets . But not today, for some reason.  We wait about a hundred feet away  for Bapin's first go-ahead tug on Dinah's halter. He tugs, commanding Dinah to proceed straight ahead, NOT to enter the diagonal pedestrian crossing .Dinah refuses to obey her master's command and  tugs to the right, towards the diagonal crossing. ( "We want our dogs to use 'intelligent disobedience' , stubborn enough to say no when necessary, " Leader trainer Will Henry  will later tell me. ) Bapin firmly pulls Dinah back. I see  MacGregor wince at this clash of wills; night and day for more than three weeks he  invested all his training skills to win this test  for  Bapin and Dinah.   
A scene from a day ago flashes before me: It’s Bapin and Dinah taking a nap together on Bapin's bed. I now look at Bapin and ask: Has he  again , as with  Chica, failed to discipline his affection for a dog?  ?
Dinah tugs twice more to her right. "Damn it," MacGregor exclaims, " he believes  Dinah is confused. He thinks he's got to  do the leading ! "
Our eyes stay on Bapin , who seems frozen in an  inexpressible thought.  Then, being  the professional Leader dog she is ,  Dinah moves forward into the  diagonal crossing.  Bapin   follows .  

With wife Hook See
and "close friend" on
break at seashore

The  conclusion of this two-part
report will be posted two weeks
from now.
All comments are welcome.

© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz