Something bothered her.
With eyes closed, the Vietnamese elder rocked forward and backward while following my instruction at the Good Companions Senior Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a sprawling facility run by Henry Street Settlement. The Latina and Black women flanking her sat as still as possible despite the health challenges they’d mentioned during introductions at the beginning of the workshop, when they established why they were interested in participating in CUENTOS, a meditation and storytelling program for seniors being developed by The Clemente.
They settled into stillness as much as possible once I rang the bell, despite the bickering at the pool table in the recreation area beyond the door, where seniors played cards and ate lunch to the sound of blasting salsa music. The elderly women had grown accustomed to the chaos it appeared, and I abided by my colleague’s advice on working within their comfort zones at first. The masks we wore didn’t seem to impede their breathing, though the Vietnamese lady, “Sara”, kept leaning forward and backward as if tormented by emotion.
The deeper into the session we went, the faster Sara swung and swayed. I couldn’t understand why since she’d sat still during the introductions, when she informed us that she’d come to the United States from Vietnam as a young woman. Sara appeared to be in good physical shape and didn’t seem to be contending with any cognitive challenges despite her leaning backward on the in-breaths and forward on the out-breaths.
I’d walked them through the three steps of taking one’s “seat”, placing the awareness on the breath, and returning to the respiration when distracted by thoughts or sounds. The key was to catch oneself and come back as soon as possible, which would become easier. We would begin with our eyes closed —I informed them— but would open them once we were ready to cultivate proper calm-abiding (shamatha) and insight (vipashyana)—or mindfulness.
(This meditation is practiced with the senses open to everything in Buddhist tradition, whether we’re in the middle of a traffic jam or amidst birdsong in a forest.)
The single women and widows had even mentioned the challenges of living far away from relatives. “Janice”, a Black elder who grew up in Brooklyn, had heard that meditation could help with the anxiety-induced insomnia contributing to her fatigue. “Marta,” a Puerto Rican woman, admitted to living with chronic pain ever since her stepmother broke her back when she was seven. At 83 years old, she’d raised children and cared for a husband who had since passed away. Other ailments plaguing the elders included arthritis and asthma.
Sara’s eyeballs started trembling behind the eyelids while she shook back and forth, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was that was causing her so much distress.
The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center (known as “The Clemente”) was opened in a former Lower East Side public school in 1993, the year that the Puerto Rican Nationalist poet it was named after died. Executive Director Libertad Guerra wanted to revisit his metaphysical aspirations of serving community through creative and spiritual liberation, so we threw ideas around over the course of the COVID-19 lockdown.
A vision came into focus when we found statistics on the plight of the elderly during the pandemic, how social distancing had accelerated their physical and mental decline as well as their mortality rates. Addressing this problem with creative and holistic tools fascinated me as a teacher and program consultant whose work has focused on vulnerable communities such as the undocumented, LGBTQI youth of color, and elders of color.
The final design for CUENTOS took shape once I earned my certification to teach meditation, as taught by senior Buddhist teacher David Nichtern through Tibet House. We paired meditation instruction with oral storytelling (as opposed to memoir writing) to circumvent any mental, physical, or linguistic limitations the participants might encounter. Documenting their testimonials for an oral history archive followed, which Jeremy Reiss at Henry Street Settlement wanted to try at their senior center.
Sara leaned back and forth until I rang the bell at the end of our first session. As is custom, I checked in with each participant to gauge whether they were taking to the practice or not, which impacts everyone differently.
“Relaxing,” Janice said. “The stress in my body melted away.”
“That might not always happen,” I told her. “But enjoy it when it does.”
Marta the 83-year-old followed: “I saw bright, bright sunlight,” she said with a toothy grin. “Like being at the beach in Puerto Rico.”
“Have you been back recently?” I asked.
She shrugged and said, “Never once since I left in 1952.”
Another Puerto Rican elder, “Donna,” shared that sitting quietly and focusing on her breathing took her mind off things that were bothering her, such as a spike in gang violence sparked by the economic fallout of the pandemic plus inflation.
Sara’s turn arrived at last.
Will she reveal what’s troubling her? I wondered.
“He was so healthy,” she said while shaking. “Even more than me.” Each of us sat up straight as she trembled with despair. “My husband just died from COVID-19,” she added while rocking back and forth. The rest of us gasped in unison.
Janice reached over to rub Sara’s back while the others showered her with words of comfort. Sara’s husband of forty-plus years had survived so much in life but had succumbed to the virus after they were infected in early 2022. A knot formed in my throat as the women held her hand and encouraged her to talk about it, to not internalize it since she lived alone.
Our final session arrived a month later where Janice reported that she was sleeping better. “Wanda”, confined to a motorized wheelchair, had even experienced a reduction in arthritis-related pain. Donna added that she wasn’t stopping to catch her breath as often while running errands due to asthma. Sara had signed up for other classes at the center such as tai-chi and craft-making to get her away from her husband’s ghost at home.
I had weeks to reflect on the solitude they’d encountered toward the end of their journeys, a world falling apart. When did we become such a lonely society? I wondered. Or have we always been this way? The least we owe our elders is the time they’ve given so selflessly, such as the minutes and hours we dribble away on social media and the internet weekly. They’re owed this much and more, especially given the times we’re in.
Janice taught me the value of breaking past my own troubles to offer myself to others, such as when she whispered “Oh my God” upon hearing Sara’s confession. How the Brooklyn native reached over—despite her own pain and limitations—to comfort the recent widow. How the other women consoled her with frail and spotted hands, hands that had soothed sorrows and fed mouths from infancy to adulthood, hands that had seen it all.
So, volunteer. Show up. Make that call. Be the person you’ll hope for when your days are almost up. Like the ladies did for Sara.
Charlie Vázquez is an arts innovation consultant, founding member of Latino Rebels, and the author of Fantasmas: Puerto Rican Tales of the Dead (CV Publishing, 2020), a collection of horror stories inspired by family folklore. His work appears in the graphic novel collection Ricanstruction (Somos Arte, 2018), which donates proceeds to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. He served as editor for the anthology DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Undocumented Students (PEN America, 2019), as well as having edited the first two volumes of Bronx Memoir Project (BCA Media, 2014/2018). Charlie is the former New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra and was awarded a Commendation from the City of New York for his contributions to Latino literary heritage. He lives in the Bronx.