September 28th, 2008: Today, I gave a presentation to the new group of volunteers at Maitri Compassionate Care. Twice a year, Stan Stone, the Volunteer Coordinator at Maitri trains new volunteers. It’s always an honor for me to attend these trainings and give a talk for some 45 minutes about the wide-ranging social forces that helped to create Maitri.
I start with the development of penicillin in the early 1930’s. For the first time in history, sex and death were unlinked. Because penicillin could cure first and second stage syphilis, it was possible to have sex without fear of contacting a life-threatening illness. Then, I move to the late 1950’s and talk about the unresolved guilt among Americans about dropping nuclear bombs twice on Japanese cities as well as interring Japanese Americans in camps, the post-War occupation of Japan and the ongoing grief over troops who died in the Pacific Theatre. Within this post-war ambivalence the arrival of Susuki Roshi to San Francisco to offer spiritual guidance at the invitation of the Japanese American community went unnoticed at the time. The Beats and other West Coast literati picked up on Susuki Roshi’s dharma talks and his teachings about Soto Zen ideas such as satori, sitting with the dying and other monastic Buddhist traditions began to filter into the American mainstream. Then, a shift to the Afro American Civil Rights movement in the mid-50’s. I explain how this struggle set the pattern for subsequent civil rights movements later in the century: write the unwritten history of the afflicted people; identify the goals of what liberation means; define the social changes needed to correct the injustices of many centuries. Then, I launch into the Hippie movement and its counterculture values; barter, communal living, sexual freedom, use of music, drugs and meditation to alter and raise consciousness. Followed by other 60’s social movements including the sexual revolution supported by the birth control pill. In the early 70’s, the rise of Feminism and gay liberation. Then, I move to the mid-70’s in England, and address the emergence of the hospice movement which transformed end-of-life care into a mix of pain relief using the Brompton cocktail (oral morphine) and access to open air gardens and a deep respect for patients prior to their death. In America, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross adds her pioneering advocacy work with death and dying, including her postulate that the journey after a terminal diagnosis may traverse denial, depression, anger, bargaining and acceptance. And then, the arrival of AIDS in the early 1980’s when, for the first time in decades, sex and death are reunited and the fear that having sex may kill you returns to the culture.
Finally, the unifying element that ties all of these wide-ranging movements and social cross-currents together in the life of one person: Issan Dorsey, the man who founded Maitri. Issan: a suburban kid from Santa Barbara who became a dancer, a gay man, a drag queen, a hippie, a drug user, a zazen sitter, a Zen Buddhist monk, a Zen Buddhist priest, the first abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center specifically opened for gay Buddhists and a man infected with and actively dying of AIDS. The rich cultural baggage carried by Issan Dorsey is alive and functional every day at Maitri.
It’s a wonderful lecture to give, because the volunteers are focused on bedside care, best anti-infection practices and all manner of close up, real life health care issues and ways of supporting the terminally ill. This talk gives them a wider context of how Maitri came to be and why it is such a valuable and unique place. Not just a building that was funded by some larger health care budget, but literally the creative result of many yearnings from many centuries and many people that the end of life be humane, and dignified and honorable.