Volume 4, Number 98
15 March 2004

Note: I continue with my biographical sketches of why I came to the economic thinking that I do. This Letter has little to do with economics, however, but much to do with life. — Jack

The Brown Cushion

Dear Friends,

When Robin and I were married, we decided to use Quaker plain talk with each other ("thee" and "thy"), which had been traditional in her family but not in mine. But when our daughter Cindy was born, we addressed her as "you," because we didn't want her to feel peculiar among her playmates. A year later, however, we changed to plain talk with her as well. Nevertheless, when Cindy first spoke words six months after that, she said "you," not "thee." Thus she performed her first experiment in psychology, demonstrating that a child learns speech before she starts to talk.

This was the first of many lessons Cindy taught us on how to learn, how to live, how to love, and eventually how to die.

Caught up in the turmoil of the 1960s, Cindy dropped out of high school and "hung out" with her friends at a youth center. Education was not important, she said; real life was in the workplace. When she tired of that and tried to re-enter school six weeks into the semester, however, the principal would not accept her. "Only if you get the permission of every teacher, make up all the work, and pass exams in every subject." He phoned me that night to ask if Robin and I approved of his making it tough for her. After consulting Robin, I said, "Go ahead, we're behind you."

"I'll show him," Cindy said the next night. She did all he asked, and in a very short time she was back in school, all caught up.

She entered music school at the University of Colorado, studying piano, viola, and voice. Becoming interested in Zen Buddhism, she dropped out once more and moved to the Zen Center in Rochester, N.Y.

It was a peculiar form of alienation. Always close to the family, always loving toward us, she nevertheless adopted a religion and attitudes half a world apart from our own. "Zen is just like Quakerism," she told us over the phone.

"Then why change?" we asked, believing that her interest lay not in the religion so much as in being different from us. She also became Cynthia, no longer Cindy as we had called her.

When Robin and I visited her at the Zen Center, I was appalled. She was being taught about earlier worlds, migration of souls, enlightenment, and reincarnation. To me, that was all "knowledge" invented by people who feared death and who therefore wanted desperately to find everlasting life. It did not correspond with what scientists know about the origin and voyage of the universe. It all seemed selfish — a search for one's own salvation, not a concern for the world. Furthermore, her sessions with her "teacher" were held in secret, not in open, academic dialogue. Worst of all, the teaching was "absolute truth," with no opportunity to challenge ideas or compare them with other thinking.

Robin and I participated in meditation, in which Cindy and others marched, toting brown cushions military style, it seemed to me — into an auditorium where they sat on the cushions facing a wall and were poked on the back if their minds seemed to wander. I grew to resent that brown cushion, which to me symbolized the whole autocratic experience.

Finally, however, Cindy decided to try the outside world again. She enrolled in Nazareth College in Rochester, from which she graduated with a degree in music.

Her first assignment was as a music therapist, using piano to reach out to disturbed children. When Robin and I visited her on this job, we were delighted to see the children crowd around her, laughing and seeking her attention. Later on, she took a master's degree in education at the University of Rochester. After that she taught in an alternative high school for students who couldn't "make it" in the regular system.

As apprentice teacher, Cindy was assigned five boys who had been given up by the system. They could not read but were being held until they reached the age at which the school could legally turn them loose. But Cindy discovered that they were intelligent. Somehow, there was a missing link between the brain and the piece of paper on which they scribbled disconnected ideas. Cindy substituted a computer for that link, taught the boys to use it, and they could write essays on a par with other students. Then they began to read. To the astonishment of many, every one of them passed the state reading exam, and two of them went on to colleges, one of which was Harvard. Cindy was then invited by the New York Department of Education to give talks on her method throughout the state.

She took a course at Cornell, on teaching, and there she came to the attention of Eliot Wigginton, the founder of Foxfire, an experimental way to teach reading through writing. Wigginton invited her to be his assistant for a year in backwoods Georgia. There Cindy helped her high school students preserve Appalachian culture through interviews with people of the hills, which they published in a magazine of national circulation.

We visited Cindy in Georgia and later in Rochester. Wherever she lived, she set up a meditation comer. She sat on the brown cushion on a brown pad, facing candles and her favorite statue, a bodhisattva named Kannon, who is a Buddhist goddess of compassion. A "graven image," I thought, but by now I was feeling neutral toward the cushion and the statue. Buddhism was just another religion with "invented truths." I have had trouble with the "invented truths" of Christianity as well.

One day Cindy wrote us something like the following: "Imagine me walking across the campus of a small college. I meet a student who says, ‘Ms. Powelson, I'm having trouble with my psychology assignment.' 'Come to my office,' I reply, 'and we'll straighten it out.' Later I go home and there is 'Mr. Right' waiting for me. Together we prepare supper." She was telling us she had decided to go for the Ph.D in psychology, hoping for a career in teaching and research.

She applied to several universities, and. much to her surprise, they all accepted her. The University of Michigan offered her one of their top fellowships, but Rochester — where she had been doing preparatory work — equaled it. “I was dumbfounded,” she told us over the telephone. "but I’ve got it all together now. And there’s still some time for a family.”

It was then that cancer struck. At first the diagnosis was bewildering, unbelievable. Stomach cancer, the most deadly of all kinds: by the time it shows symptoms, it is too late. Only a short time to live, the doctors told her, frankly and sometimes brutally. Robin and I were benumbed. Every doctor we spoke to told the same story; linitus plastica, cell-type signet ring. It grows fast, travels fast, and sticks to everything.

Cindy decided to fight it with everything available: surgery, chemotherapy, and alternative treatments such as meditation, nutrition, massage, acupuncture, and prayers. I dropped my writing (I had already retired from teaching) and read voraciously on stomach cancer, also books on alternative healing by Norman Cousins, Bernie Siegel, Ken Wilber, and others. Cindy's boyfriend, Tim, was utterly devoted. He drove her to the Mayo Clinic in New York and helped her find doctors who would believe in her.

I found there are many people ready to make a dollar on someone's misery by offering invented "cures." One doctor — not allowed to practice in the United States — would inject substances including blood. The National Cancer Institute examined samples of these and found some to be HIV-positive or to be infected with hepatitis. I checked out several other practitioners with both the NCI and the National Council Against Medical Fraud. Some doctors did offer legitimate treatments through nutrition and exercise. Conventional doctors found these not harmful, but not effective either. Cindy left a doctor who emphasized hopelessness: her new doctor would agree to anything Cindy wanted to try, providing it was not harmful.

Robin and I flew to Cindy's side for the surgery in which her stomach was removed. We slept on a pad in an upstairs room in her apartment. In one corner was the brown cushion in front of Kannon. I was too upset by the cancer to pay much attention to them, however.

After the operation, we returned to our home and Cindy to hers. Two weeks later Tim phoned: the tumor had reappeared, in her abdomen, and chemotherapy would be tried. One week after that came Tim's fateful telephone call: the chemotherapy had not worked. If we were to see Cindy again, we should come at once.

Robin and I jumped into our car and drove 32 hours to Rochester, along with Cindy's sisters, Judy and Carolyn. Upon our arrival, Cindy told us: "I need each of you to release me to go,” meaning we must accept what was happening. Judy and Carolyn stayed for two days to say their good-byes. Her brothers, Ken and Larry, arrived from the West Coast the next day to stay for the rest of the week.

Cindy and Tim were married by a weeping justice of the peace, she in her bed and he beside it. During the final weeks, she was too weak to see more than one or two persons at a time. Old friends, from high school and other days, flew in from all over the country. Meditations were held at her bedside for half an hour five days a week, with up to 15 friends present, who might then speak to her individually for just few moments. She was graceful and smiling, thanked them for their attentions, and was concerned more for how others would suffer than for herself.

During this period, one of her professors wrote her the following:

"Knowing you and working with you is a great pleasure, as I find you a rare and remarkable individual. The way you take interest in people, managing to integrate the experiential, spiritual, and analytic ways of knowing is wonderful to observe. The combination of your sensitivity and determination is a powerful starting point for being, relating, and doing."

A Buddhist Rinpoche came in daily to recite the chants in preparation for death. Cindy wanted him rather than her parents to be beside her at the moment of death. "I care too much for you," she explained, "so it would be hard for me to let go." We were honored and accepting.

The Rinpoche told us that after the outer breathing stops, there is half an hour of inner breathing, during which the proper chants will improve the way to enlightenment. Om Ami Dewa Rhi, a prayer to be reborn in Buddha Amitaba's Pure Land, was sung along with other chants.

Did Cindy believe this literally, or was it symbolic? I don't know, but it didn't matter. Buddhist practices, like Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or other, can be symbols of whatever we believe, and symbols help us believe. To me, Cindy became enlightened when she put her life together. She was also reincarnated in the lives that had been changed because she had touched them: the Buddhists with whom she meditated, the disturbed children to whom she brought music, the boys in the alternative school, the young authors in rural Georgia, and her fellow students in the university. To me, one's own reincarnation takes place in others while they are alive, and from them it passes on to still others. That is how our souls are made immortal, for good or for ill. No longer did the search seem self-centered. Her friends who came nightly to meditate poured out their love to her and to Robin and me in a beautiful passion.

Shortly before she left us, Cindy called in her family and close friends and asked us what among her cherished possessions we wanted as reminders of her. More than anything else, I wanted the brown cushion.

So now I sit upon it, gazing into the compassionate face of a bodhisattva named Kannon. In meditation, she brings me Peace.

Cindy died on November 19, 1992, age 37, only four months after the diagnosis. Her doctor, Timothy Quill, wrote a book, A Midwife Through the Dying Process, Baltimore, MD. Johns Hopkins University Press, in which Cindy’s story is Chapter 1. The title reflected Cindy’s request to Dr. Quill, to "midwife" her though the dying process. This letter (TQE #98) was published in Friends Journal, April 1993, pp. 20-22. ©1993 Friends Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

I would have liked to know Cindy/Cynthia.   She sounds like a chip off the old block. I believe our children come to us to teach us, more than they come to us to learn from us. That's why we listen to them, more than they listen to us. You and Robin are blessed to have known such a wonderful soul, so intimately.

— Free Polazzo, Anneewaukee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasville (GA).

Thanks for this moving and insightful piece. Let's have more of the autobiography!

— J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.

A very moving story — and you hit home with the thought "...one's own reincarnation takes place in others while they are alive..."

— John and Ruth Craig, Friends Meeting of Washingon (DC).

Thank you for your TQE Letter No. 98 about Cindy. I am grateful and feel honored to receive it.

— Wink Halsted, Racine (WI).

Thank you for sharing about Cindy — I imagine you will get a slew of similar responses. But the aspect of comparative religious responses interests me intensely, but just to try to say such a thing is so weak in the face of the reality you and others have lived.

— Maurice Boyd, Friends Meeting of  Washington (DC).

Thank you for the touching story about your daughter, Cindy. I also share your views about life here being what's important, that we have "immortality" through interacting with others. I also find your economic perspectives refreshing and factual, and just wish more people understood the world the way you do.

— Sallyann Garner, Lake Forest Friends Meeting, Illinois.

I could not read your story about Cindy/Cynthia with dry eyes. It is heartbreaking. Thanks so much for sharing it. I also have a daughter Cynthia who has always been Cindy. Fortunately, she is still very much alive and the published author of two books on doll collecting.

— Dick Bellin, Friends Meeting of Washington (DC).

What a powerful writing.

— Robert Wieland, Third Haven Friends, Talbot County (MD), attender.

During my graduate school days in Boulder, I had a chance to talk to Cindy a few times, believe she was in Boulder High at that time. I remember her fondly as a bright, thoughtful, and a concerned young woman who was searching about the meaning of life — the meaning of her life.

What is wonderful about Cindy's life and what she stood for (I  believe) is that there are many paths to salvation and it is through love and openness of our hearts we can really understand that. The other thing that stands out in my mind is that our children eventually turn out to be our teachers and guides.

— Tapan Munroe, a Friend from Moraga (CA)

What a beautiful, touching story about your daughter. She was "reincarnated" in the lives of the many people she touched while she was alive, and now a few more have had the chance to share in her good, wholesome life. Thank you.

— Amanda Monaghan, not a Quaker

Thank you for sending out the story of Cindy. Most moving. What a waste of a good life. And yet she surely touched and inspired many.  All deaths are sad, even when they are a happy release from suffering. "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee" (for each and all of us), and how true.

— Eric Walker,  Ipswich (UK) Yearly Meeting.

Thank you for the gift of sharing Cindy's story. Her brief life has touched, and, through you and others, continues to touch so many. I was deeply moved.

— Cyndy Blumenthal, Gwynedd (PA) Friends Meeting

We are so pleased to read that other readers shed the tears as we did when hearing about Cindy's life and death. I agree with one respondent that children come to teach us and that is why they do not listen to us! This Letter No. 99 teaches me more and more about economics and forces my aging brain to work a bit harder. Jack, you are a teaching light to us all! Thank you.

— Lorna Knowlton, Boulder, Colorado

I was quite touched by your last issue. Thanks for your good work.

— Jason Stacy, Lake Forest (IL) Friends' Meeting.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2004 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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