Kristin Westbrook is sipping a cup of coffee and smiling, letting the morning light run its warm fingers through her long, blond hair.
Pinky, her pit bull, has just returned from a romp in Astoria Park and, exhausted, is lounging in a pillow-piled bed by her side.
All is calm and peaceful, as if Kristin and Pinky have not a care in the world.
Kristin, who is being treated for metastatic breast cancer, has worked long and hard to make it seem so.
Pinky rouses herself only to take a treat that Kristin offers.
The dog, who is 14 and looks like a big snowball, is a rescue. Kristin found Pinky one New Year’s Eve; she was tied to a fence, sick and starving.
“She was about six months old,” Kristin says. “Nobody thought she would live.”
Kristin, who got her initial diagnosis a decade ago when she was 42, undergoes targeted chemotherapy every three weeks. By 2012, the cancer had spread to her abdomen, lungs and liver. By 2017, it was confined to her liver, which, all things considered, is positive progress of a sort.
“I was really young when I got cancer,” she says. “In chemo, I met a lot of people going through the same thing.”
She doesn’t know when – or whether — the medical regimen will end.
“The chemo has changed me a lot,” she says, “especially going through it the second time. I got ‘chemo brain,’ which affected my cognitive thought processes. I could barely speak because I was afraid I would drop words or even sentences.”
What she does know, and which she is now able to articulate flawlessly, is that meditation, a practice she began nearly 20 years ago, helps her get through the bad times.
That’s why she founded Calm City, New York’s first mobile meditation station.
“I started meditating to cure a chronic broken heart,” she says, adding that it wasn’t any one guy she was trying to get over. “It was all the guys and the whole dating thing.”
She must have done something right because shortly after she got her mind in order, she met her husband, Jeff, on Match.com.
The year before they married, Pinky became part of their family.
At different points in her life, Kristin, who is from Califon, New Jersey, was an aspiring artist and actress. She made a career for herself in graphic design for a variety of publications and companies, most recently DirecTV, where she was a creative director.
Once her cancer treatment started, she used meditation to, as she says, “connect with my superpower and the center of who I am. It helps me stay in the moment and keep myself anchored.”
She added that while she’s sitting in the oncologist’s office, “waiting for the other shoe to drop, meditation has been an incredible tool to help me keep myself anchored in the present moment.”
Kristin, who is a certified meditation teacher trained in transcendental technique and in mental health first aid, came up with the concept for Calm City in 2016, shortly before she left DirecTV.
“I wanted to create a place where people could go to meditate during the work day,” she says. “I wanted it to be as convenient as a food truck, where you could go for 10 or 15 minutes. My original idea was to create a series of kiosks so there would be a Superman’s phone booth on every corner.”
She dipped into her savings and bought a 1976 GMC Motorhome RV for $5,000, transforming it into a meditation mobile that hit the streets in 2017.
At first, she parked the RV in public spaces, inviting people from off the street to stop in for 15- or 30-minute live or audio-guided sessions.
Now, corporations, schools and institutions hire her to bring peace of mind to staff members.
Kristin, who has no training in business development, admits that getting Calm City off the ground has been anything but calming.
“Starting this business has been very stressful,” she says, adding that she tries to make time to meditate every morning. “The first year I thought I was failing constantly. There have been many times I’ve wanted to bail out on the business.”
It is, of course, meditation and her desire to help others learn the life-changing technique that have kept her focused.
“I see the difference in people who use Calm City,” she says. “Meditation creates happier, healthier people – that’s my mission.”
Kristin provides the financing for Calm City, which has one employee – a driver. Someday, she’d like a corporate sponsor or a large-scale city contract so she can put more mobile units on the streets.
While she’s looking for like-minded investors, Kristin and Calm City are moving forward.
“We’re both doing pretty well,” she says.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling