January 15 was an auspicious day for claiming to be “on common ground.” It was the day of a reading by a distinguished former South End resident, Joan Diver, who returned to her former neighborhood’s library to read from her debut memoir, When Spirit Calls: A Healing Odyssey. January 15 also would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 90th birthday and, as Rev. Tim Crellin of St. Stephens Church who introduced the author pointed out, the towering figure in American civil rights history also claimed common ground, for humanity regardless of the color of their skin. And then there was the award-winning book by J. Anthony Lukas about the South End’s struggle with school integration and forced busing, titled Common Ground, in which the story of the Divers’ experience when they lived on West Newton Street in the 1970s was the title of its very first chapter.
Father Crellin captured the anticipation in the room where Joan Diver explained her quest for a spiritual life after devastating pain from an injured back forced her to seek relief in non-traditional venues and methods in cultural settings of both East and West. “Some of you may be joining us this evening because you know Joan from her days living just around the corner from where we are right now,” Rev. Crellin said, “or from her nearly two decades leading the Hyams Foundation, or from her leadership on boards like the Associated Grant Makers, the United Way and countless others. Perhaps you came because you know at least part of her story from reading Tony Lukas’ now classic book. Or maybe you came out tonight because you’ve heard about Joan’s commitment to healing: physical, emotional, spiritual. Regardless of why you’re joining us tonight, you’re in for a treat.”
Diver, who with her husband Colin, had hoped to raise their two boys in the South End in the 1970s but was thwarted by the constant battle over street crime and school choice, said she will always be connected to the South End. Moving to Newton for a better schools for their sons was traumatic. They were grieved over it and felt guilty for not staying to face the challenges of raising a family in the South End. When Lukas sought them out to profile their experience, she was very reluctant at first but then relented. “Tony told our story, which was a healing experience for us,” adding, “I could never have written my story of healing without the Boston story.”
She fondly remembers the rich diversity of the South End, and then requested a few moments of silence. “I want to talk about why I left a job I loved to write my healing story,” she said. “It was both an adventure and a love story and a tale of discovery of universal love that connects us and is the ultimate common ground. The adventure took me from West Newton Street to Newton Corners, from convicts hanging out on our street corner to watching people led to their execution in China, from an operating room at Beth Israel to a healing room in Santa Fe. These were never planned events but ones that called on me.”
Her medical crisis led her to surgery, after which she experienced certain phenomena when back at home, like a blinding white light that came and went, and a growing psychic awareness of “some challenges that come from dimensions that we’re not familiar with” as she put it, as well as a growing sense of the existence of “a universal consciousness.” A friend, a psychic, told her this was part of a re-balancing of physical, mental and psychological energy. Diver became convinced that turbulent times, in a personal and a broader sense, represented “a great breaking open,” something that is “coming up for its healing, like a boil.”
On various trips she took after her surgery she became familiar with members of healing communities with whom she was able to communicate in a spiritual understanding. She experienced a crossing of boundaries into previous lives she may have lived, including ones where she had been raped and committed suicide. “I felt love and forgiveness after that,” she said, “like I had become a different person, one with more confidence.” Lurching from painful medical crises to recovery and back again several times, Diver traveled a parallel path of the mind that led her to want to train as a healer, hoping to heal others who were in psychic and physical pain. She participated in healing initiations that took her to Egypt, India, China and Mount Sinai. She became convinced that “we were all led in some way, in our mind or by something beyond our minds,” but kept wondering, “what was driving me?”
Diver began to connect a new-found spirituality to certain decisions she had made, including of a medical procedure that she had suspected she did not need but left her in pain for nine months. She focused on whether there are “multiple messages” to help determine what one should do but concluded that “you need to open up to it.”
Members of the audience asked her to expound on this, pointing out that some people may see signs that lead to good places and others to bad ones. “How do you know the difference?” Diver answered that “everyone has their own path but if each of us, and enough of us, open our hearts a whole population can shift. It’s a shift of consciousness.”
Diver described how a certain incident had caused her family to leave the South End: husband Colin had hit a burglar with a baseball bat, and became terrified he would hurt someone even worse in the future. “But now you see it as a call,” someone asked her. “Whether we are led or called, we all have these signals,” she said. “Some see it, others don’t.”
For Joan Diver, the theme in her life is the common ground of a common consciousness.