She has a skip in her step that makes you want to join her in a snaking line dance at a celebration, or to participate in a worthy cause. Her eyes glitter roguishly like a pirate’s, with a twinkly defiance that charms; when she looks at you directly it seems like she is giving a wink and a nod to the universe and is challenging you to be just as awake.
Many in Albuquerque know Paula Amar Schwartz from her years of community service on boards, including the Jewish Community Center and Congregation Albert, the Jewish Family Service, where she served as president, and the Open Space Alliance Board, and her spiritual and meditation interests, including ten years leading a pre-Shabbat Jewish morning meditation, and four years of parallel Shabbat meditation services at 10:30 on Saturday mornings at Congregation Albert (next dates are Dec. 14, Feb. 15, Mar. 21 and May 17). She also writes poetry and memoir, travels around the world with her husband Mel, and spends the summer at the Jersey Shore. Looking forward to skiing again this winter as she turns 80, she says blithely, “I’m hoping for a good snowfall this year!”
Then you learn about her many pioneering professional and academic accomplishments as a clinical psychologist, including her being one of the first to use biofeedback in clinical practice. As former chair of the Applications Standards Committee of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback and editor in 1992 of “Standards and Guidelines for Biofeedback Applications in Psychophysiological Self-Regulation,” she has recently been asked to again serve on the committee to update the guidelines, and is reviewing the literature of the last 20 years.
Eventually you catch a glimpse of the many tragedies and difficulties that have salted her life, including being diagnosed with Parkinson’s six years ago. Yet, she is launching new projects. She’s the sort of person you don’t want to let down, because her spirit and her example makes you want to accomplish more.
Hillel House Tribute
On Saturday, January 11, at 6:30 p.m. at the Hotel Andaluz in Albuquerque, the community will have the opportunity to celebrate Paula Amar Schwartz as she turns 80 in an evening of poetry, music and dining. The celebration is a benefit for the Aaron David Bram Hillel House at the University of New Mexico. Tickets are $100 per person; call (505) 821-3214 for more information. The completely tax deductible donation will all go to Hillel, and guests will receive a copy of her latest book of poetry, “Unfolding Universe.”
Paula’s son Aaron Bram was a brilliant promising medical student at the University of South Florida and a member of Hillel there. Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, he was in Costa Rica studying Spanish for medical students, since he felt that as a future emergency room doctor he should speak Spanish, when his blood chemistry suddenly crashed. He died instantly.
Hillel at UNM had no permanent home. As Mel put it, “They met in apartments. They were a bunch of kids that really didn’t have a community.” When Mel and Paula learned from Hillel director Janet Gaines that a building became available at the corner of Sigma Chi and University, they purchased it in1995 and dedicated it to Aaron’s memory. “Now,” Mel added, “they have Friday night Shabbat dinners together every week, and an incredible executive director, Sara Koplik.”
As it happens, Paula later realized she had attended seminars in the living room there as a UNM student while she was pregnant with Aaron. As Paula says, there is no greater loss than losing a child. “It is out of the natural order of things.”
Her son Adam, who is younger by six years than his brother, is married with two children, Reed and Naomi. Paula and Mel count seven grandchildren altogether. Her poetry books are dedicated to Zachary, Nathaniel, Kayla, George, Sarah, Naomi and Reed. As Paula is telling me this, Adam calls to wish Mel a happy birthday, his 87th. Of Mel, Paula says fondly, “We just celebrated our thirtieth anniversary together. He’s got one of the kindliest souls and good heartedness of anybody I ever met. He is genuinely a gutte neshuma.”
New book, Unfolding Universe
Paula’s new book “Unfolding Universe” also includes the first chapters from her latest project, her first novel, written in the voice of a cousin from Hungary. “In my memoir group I was writing a piece about the night the telegram came from a relative in Hungary who had survived a concentration camp. She had been rounded up in ’44 and had survived, and had sent a telegram to my grandparents who were deceased. It was the first time, as a ten-year-old, that I had heard the word ‘perish.’ The telegram read, ‘I regret to inform you that mother and father, my brothers and sister, your cousins and uncle have all perished. I am the sole survivor. Please help.’ It was signed ‘Lily.’”
Then, Paula said, “A year ago, I took a fiction-writing class, and we were given an exercise to write whatever comes to mind about a person who was not a part of our own experience. What came out,” said Paula, “was the voice of Lily: ‘I’m an old woman. I’m 87. Why didn’t you write back to me?’” The fiction-writing class was with Maria Espinosa, accomplished and award-winning novelist, poet and translator.
Their family had tried to find Lily, but the telegram had taken three months to arrive and everywhere they inquired they were told that she must have joined the thousands of people who had come out of the camps. Thousands were walking the roads, heading for home. The family was never able to locate her. But now, Paula says, writing the Lily story is a book about women’s resilience in differing circumstances.
Paula observes her life in a positive way. “I’ve not felt ever that there were obstacles because I don’t see it that way, just boulders to climb over or walk around, allowing me to discover a new path,” which in the telling becomes a sort of story of applied consciousness.
Applied Consciousness and biofeedback
In Squirrel Hill, the Jewish community in Pittsburgh where she grew up, a major influence was her high school history teacher. “Dr. Quattrochi, the first woman I ever knew with a PhD., taught me about historiography – and I’ll never forget the tenth grade project on the Panama Canal which required telling the story from different points of view. I think that was the start of my always being aware of vantage point and point of view as determiners of what’s taking place; it’s made me aware that there’s more than one story for every event. I’ve always had a mind that allowed me to see more than one possibility in situations. And if you can do that, you’re stepping outside the boundaries, stepping outside the box. That leads to this question of consciousness, and spirituality.”
The overall theme of her life, as Paula sees it now, is resilience, “the ability to take what is taking place and what seems like a real obstacle and turn it into a stepping stone. It’s something I learned from my parents and didn’t realize it. They went through the Depression years. For my parents, resilience was simply the ability to transcend difficulties. But in the long run, I think resilience is one of the factors in what in higher consciousness is called transcendence. Resilience is another form of transcendence, to step beyond.”
She apparently also had an ample measure of chutzpah. Married early, she followed her husband out to the University of New Mexico. Her exposure to psychology with a scientific perspective began in her studies here with George Peterson. “Peterson was one of the first psychologists who studied hand dominance by looking at rat brains.” That tweaked her interest. In 1969 they were back East again, and with two children, she divorced her first husband. But then, with her divorce, she needed a loan to finish her dissertation. When the bank officer told her, “We don’t give loans to women,” she said, “You better go talk to your bank president and lawyer because I’m going to sue you.” He disappeared upstairs. After a while she saw three men in three-piece suits coming down the marble staircase. They crowded into the cubicle. “What seems to be the problem?” asked the bank president. “No problem,” she replied, “I’ve applied for a loan.” She got it.
She did her doctorate in medical psychology as part of an experimental program at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. It required attending the first two years of the medical curriculum. “That allowed me to become a clinical psychologist with the added measure of neuropsychology and physiology. The degree was called Health Psychology and was the first of its kind. There are now many such programs.” Finding that program “was a natural fit, though I didn’t know it at the time. After completing the course work and while working on my dissertation, I did the required clinical internship. I did it in Joseph Wolpe’s behavior therapy unit at Temple University. In the ‘50s clinical psychology tended to be psychoanalytically based.” In the 1960’s Wolpe, a South African psychiatrist, came to the U.S. and started talking about behavior and desensitization to anxiety and exposure to fears.
“What he did was use relaxation techniques to get people to calm themselves and to visualize the situation they needed to face, and then go out and do it. So if you had someone who was agoraphobic, and wouldn’t go out of the house, you worked with them in the house, having them imagine walking out the front door and down the street, and then you walked with them out the front door and down the street. And he got amazing results. And this was also the period of time when people began looking at cost-effectiveness.
Biofeedback to treat migraines
“I was teaching at Jefferson Medical College on a tenure track position. The year after I started working at Jefferson, I met Henri.” With the help of her colleagues, she overcame her fear of remarrying, and joined households with French theoretical physicist Henri Amar.
“At Jefferson, I became the psychologist in a new program, establishing a psychosomatic clinic. I was running the clinic, teaching, doing clinical research, and consulting to other departments.
“At that point biofeedback had been primarily experimental. Nobody had tried to apply this in the real world to patients who had psychosomatic illnesses. I became one of the first clinicians trying to do applications of biofeedback for treatment of dysregulated physiology. Back then it was a stretch to talk about mind-body interactions and the ability of the mind to influence physical body action, activity, physiology.
“One example is migraine headaches. Migraines are the result of blood flow into the brain, which causes tremendous amounts of pain. One of the ways of approaching migraines is to teach people to draw the blood flow away from the brain to the periphery of the body, to the hands and feet. So if you put little tiny temperature sensors on the fingers and on the feet and you say to the person, ‘I’m going to show you on a computer screen, what’s happening to the constriction of blood vessels in your fingers and toes, and I want you to take a deep breath and think to yourself, my hands are growing warm and heavy, and watch the screen, which will give you information in tenths of degrees, or even hundredths of degrees.’ Eventually, if they could work up to a half a degree and then a degree and then five degrees, they wouldn’t have the migraine anymore.
“There were two keys, one was the mind’s ability to talk to the body and the body’s ability to respond, and the other was our technology and ability to show that in tenths of degrees, which is possible to change. So, the start of biofeedback was the beginning of the ability to have visual images on the screen that would show what was happening physiologically in tiny increments so that people could learn a skill for changing their own physiology.”
Her research interests led Paula to study yoga as well as Buddhist meditation. “I hired a Yogi, Vijaiandra Pratap to work in my clinic. I was chanting in a Buddhist Temple in Pennsylvania in Sanskrit and I had a sudden light bulb go off – why am I chanting in a language I don’t understand? I started learning Hebrew, and heard about a Temple University professor, Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, who had just started P’nai Or and I was among his students.
The brain keeps making connections
An area that is very exciting in current research is brain plasticity. We can document that the physical brain changes as new skills are learned. There is research being done here at the Domenici Center showing some of these changes. A group of women that learned to play a game called Tetris increased their spatial relations capacity, and the areas of the brain that do spatial relations had more connectivity and greater mass after training than before.
“For anyone who’s had brain damage or injury this is incredible stuff. And it’s for everyone. What this is saying is that unlike what I was taught in the 60’s and 70’s, –that the brain peaks at a certain age and then it’s all downhill, it ain’t so! Every time you learn a new skill you’re developing a whole set of brain connections and very likely new brain cells are being created. It’s like exercise.
“So when I lecture about brain plasticity, which I still do once in a while, I thank my class for requiring me to learn new computer skills like PowerPoint, because in doing it, I too have grown new cells.”
A near-death experience that brought news, God’s way of staying invisible
A turning point came in her life that tested all her life skills. As it turned out, she was well prepared. “My husband Henri was diagnosed with lung cancer. I needed to be at home. I went to my department chair expecting a merciful response. I told him I needed to cut my hours to half-time, I had been working there seven years, I was on my way up, but he told me he needed me there full-time or not at all.”
When she told him she was leaving, he said, ‘What will you do instead?’ She replied, ‘you watch.’
She went home. That was when she began Ambler Psychological Services. A cottage they had on the property was converted to a new use. “I took a map and drew a circle in a fifteen-mile radius and sent a letter to every medical practice in the area. It turned out that many of the residents and interns I had taught at Jefferson were in that area. Within three months I had more referrals than I could handle and I hired a psychologist intern. Within six months I received a letter of interest from an HMO and by the end of the year I had seven people working for me.”
“When my husband Henri was dying, he had an experience. He was lying on the couch in our bedroom and he stopped breathing, and I thought, okay this is it. I was just about to get up and call the rabbi, the doctor, the undertaker, all those things, when he started to breathe again. And he opened his eyes and, Henri, the man of science, the physicist, doing research in mathematical physics and in n-dimension space, opens his eyes and says, ‘Paula, I’ve had the most remarkable experience. I saw a bright pathway of light that I was walking along, and I saw my mother and my sister beckoning to me, both of them of course had been dead for many years, and it felt so warm and so welcoming, and I wanted to join them so badly, but I knew I had to come back and tell you about it.
“Then he says, ‘I now understand that I will be able to watch over you. You’re young, I want you to remarry, and a number of men we know are going to hit on you, and they’re not the right guy.’ And he proceeds to name about twelve men we knew, colleagues of his, colleagues of mine, people in the community, ‘none of these are the right man. I will help find the right person for you. Be patient.’”
“At that point the last thing on earth I wanted to hear was I’m going to meet somebody else. I didn’t want him to die, so I was pretty upset. Well, what happens next is he lives another couple weeks and then he does die. And in the next year to come, one by one every one of the twelve guys he mentioned made their play.
“About a year and a half after Henri’s death, I’m really ready to meet new people. I couldn’t do the bar scene. Then one day I hear about a mixed doubles for singles tennis and it was Valentine’s Day. That’s where I meet Mel. We’re playing, he’s an interesting guy, very competitive. I didn’t stay for the social afterwards, I was too uncomfortable. I went and picked up my son Adam and a friend of his and took them skiing, and we were gone for the next couple of days. I said to my friend Esther, ‘you know, I met a really interesting guy playing tennis, I just know he’s going to call me.’ So Mel calls and invites me out for dinner.”
As Paula is telling this story, Mel happens to walk by, and interjects, “Did you tell her how close it was that I didn’t call?”
“That’s true. He called all day Monday and Tuesday and couldn’t reach me and there were no answering machines back then and he was about to quit calling.
“I was!” Mel again interjects.
“So we made a date to go out for dinner. Here’s where it gets interesting. Mel, like many men, if he’s a little uncomfortable, will start out by telling a joke, to ease the way. And the joke he tells is one that Henri Amar used to tell all the time to make visiting scholars feel at ease. The hair on my arms stood up a little bit and I thought, well that’s interesting. And then Mel tells a second joke, and it’s another of Henri Amar’s jokes that he used to tell and I would kick him under the table because everyone had already heard it because he told it so often, so I’m thinking, ‘okay, pay attention.’ It also turned out they had belonged to the same fraternity, although in different cities.
“One of my favorite rabbis, the mystic Lawrence Kushner, says coincidence is God’s way of staying invisible. If a coincidence can happen, and they do, God’s way of staying invisible is to let the coincidence happen, instead of appearing and saying ‘hello! I’m going to make this take place.’ There is something in the universe that is operating that creates that synchronicity in the moment, and, maybe that’s God.
Mel was different from the academics Paula had dated. “Mel was a very successful businessman in the Philadelphia area. He took over a family business and built it up into a very successful paper distributorship and supplied paper to all the little stationery businesses, to large businesses, to book publishers.” He also sold the business itself just before the big box stores like Staples and OfficeMax moved in.
Paula adds, “Mel is more than a little competitive, and a much better skier and tennis player than I’ll ever be. He is a regional master bridge player and enjoys playing poker. He will be the first to tell you, though, that he’s not a meditator. He’s learned not to fidget.”
Mel, when asked what he’s proud of that people might want to know about him, replies, “I have an obituary file – should I get that?” Topping his long list of civic accomplishments is his service as trustee and honorary director and VP of Congregation Adath Jesurun in Elkins Park, Pa. He is also the oldest living Past Master of Columbia Lodge Masonic order #91, and has served on executive boards of many museums and universities. These days he may be spotted at the airport or Balloon Fiesta or in Old Town as a volunteer for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau. Mel and Paula moved to Albuquerque in October, 1991. That move was delayed in part because Paula was suddenly in Israel.
Helping Israeli children overcome their fears, with Dr. Ruth Westheimer
In February, 1991 during the Gulf War Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Israel. Every family had to create a room that was impervious to gas, which in an apartment might be a bathroom or closet. Children attending schools had to be able to put on a gas mask and walk 150 feet to a sealed room, and there were many who had trouble doing so. When Paula heard this she contacted the Israeli government and volunteered to come and was accepted into a special mission. She developed a desensitization program which allowed the children to learn to overcome their fears. She started by asking each child to bring their favorite teddy bear or stuffed animal to the group program at the nearest child guidance clinic.
She told the children that the teddy bear needed their help to get over his fears of wearing a gas mask and to help teach teddy bear to wear the gas mask, making sure it fit right and was comfortable, and within short order she was also able to get them to wear theirs. Then, she told them now they were in a Purim parade and they walked the requisite 150 feet. She was paired in a team with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famous sex therapist. “We had this dog and pony show and as we went from city to city, Dr. Ruth was besieged by reporters who asked her questions like ‘is it okay to have sex in the sealed room?’”
They found that many of the children who had fears about wearing gas masks had had anesthesia and while those children were able to overcome their fears in one session, there was another, smaller group whose parents were survivors who were unwilling to go into sealed rooms, and those children required more help.
“I am very proud of that time in Israel,” said Paula. “We were each given a certificate which says, “To save one life is to save the world.””
A healthy life with Parkinson's Paula is also proud that her neurologist says she is the healthiest Parkinson’s patient she’s ever seen. She attributes meditation to having made a great difference in her life and quality of life. She also practices a form of Tai Chi and Qi Gong, and yoga. “Meditation has made me aware, aware to be fully there – it’s the antithesis of multi-tasking. Meditation deepens that moment of focus, and has an effect on everything you do, skiing down a mountain, interacting with a loved one. It’s that moment of stillness. It is also a way of quieting fear or sorrow or the extremes that happen in daily life. It has allowed me to treat an illness as a part of wellness, and may be why my neurologist calls me her healthiest patient.”
She often does a morning meditation which includes going outside at dawn, watching the sun rise over the mountains, and says her favorite prayer, the Shehecheyanu, often. In her take on it, she says, “Praised be thou, Creator of the Universe, who has allowed me to live, sustained me, and allowed me to be present in this moment.” And her first poem in “Unfolding Universe” also speaks to that constant wonder of existence.
n dimension space
Physicists speak of n dimension space,
beyond our universe of fixed time and place.
Poetry is of that no-time place. A point of tsim-tsum
light contracts, bursts out, a new universe is born.
This universe, anew, renews our contact with the One.
A poet speaks, her breath a spark, her words
illuminate the empty dark. A world comes forth,
brought into being by a word. Expression is creation.
Vectors and manifolds, unfold. How many degrees
of freedom hang on that string of a word?
A calabi yau, spaghetti of her mind, seasoned
by time, basted by n dimensions of untold space.
--Poem by Paula Amar Schwartz from her new book, Unfolding Universe.
This article first appeared in print in The New Mexico Jewish Link, December, 2013, page 1. Diane J. Schmidt is a writer and photojournalist in New Mexico. Be sociable, Subscribe! to the Albuquerque Judaism Examiner, at the above link, and just receive a monthly or semi-monthly notification when another article is posted.