Monday, December 11, 2006

An Excellent Sunday, Despite Exhaustion

Yesterday, to my great relief, went fine. (And I slept well last night: hallelujah!)

Church, with Brecht

As planned, I went to the 8:00 church service, where one of our deacons -- who's also a theater instructor -- gave a very moving homily about how difficult it is to be good in a broken world. He discussed Bertold Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, in which three gods come down to Earth looking for a good person. They find a prostitute named Shen Te who does everything she can to help her neighbors, but who's so disillusioned by the process that she has to create a hard-hearted, calculating male alter-ego to survive. Our deacon just finished directing a production of the play, and one of his students, in costume, delivered one of Shen Te's monologues. The play concludes by asking the audience how it's possible to be good, and ends with the line, "There must be happy endings: must must must."

Our deacon told us that when the three gods come to earth looking for good people, they're looking for us.

Any regular reader of this blog will guess how much this moved me, especially given how frustrated and angry I'd been about the state of the world yesterday morning. The homily broke me wide open; it was one of those mornings when I sobbed through church, although a lot of that was probably just sleep deprivation. As happens so often, I showed up for the service feeling weary and cynical and then heard exactly what I needed to hear: a message that affirmed the reality of light without denying the reality of darkness.

This is why I love Christianity, at least as it's practiced in my parish: it doesn't simplify or sugar-coat anything, but it also insists that realism needn't be synonymous with despair.

And after church, also as planned, I got in forty minutes of swimming, which always makes me feel better.

Assisted Living, with Ukeleles

When I got back from the health club, I sat down to make Christmas packages for the assisted-living service: three of Gary's ginger cookies in a baggie, wrapped in red cellophane, tied off with red curling ribbon attached to a World Market animal ornament. Gary took the photo at the beginning of this post, showing some of the ornaments, which were all different and really funny. The seahorse and hedgehog were my favorites. Wrapping the packages made me feel Christmasy for the first time this season.

Three of us from church came to the service: I officiated -- if that's the right verb for someone who isn't ordained -- and two friends played their ukeleles (they're from Hawaii) and led us in singing Christmas carols. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir we weren't, but it was great fun. Six people from the facility came, five residents and one staff member, which makes it one of the larger services I've done there. I think everyone really enjoyed both the music and the Christmas favors, and there were nine packages for nine people: perfect!

A new lady had come, rather shyly, and asked if she could join us. Of course I said yes, and also assured her that she could take Communion (our parish's written policy on this is that anyone who loves God and seeks a deeper understanding of God is welcome at God's feast). At the end of the service, when everyone was picking out packages, the newcomer chose the purple seahorse ornament, with great delight, because purple is her favorite color. "I never would have guessed that I'd get a purple seahorse today!" One of my regulars took the hedgehog, and told us that her English grandmother had a pet hedgehog when she was growing up in the Midlands. Another regular picked one of the bird ornaments, and said that she wants to come back as a bird after she dies. So the favors turned into an opportunity for grace and some personal stories.

I also found out that the staff member who joined us is a UNR student whose boyfriend volunteers in the same ER I do. Small world!

Hospital, with Trail Mix

After I'd dashed home, grabbed dinner and changed into the Magic Shirt, I went to the hospital for my ER shift. It was pretty calm while I was there. The place was becoming much livelier when I left -- we were starting to get hammered with ambulances -- and if I hadn't been so tired, I might have stayed longer, but at that point, I could hardly see straight. I'd gobbled down some trail mix halfway through the shift; I often have a snack just to sit down for a few minutes, but this time, the calories definitely helped me keep going.

Before my shift started, I had a nice conversation with one of the staff chaplains and another volunteer, someone who finished CPE and volunteers about five hundred hours a week. I mentioned the recent chaplaincy controversy over at PlainViews, and the staff chaplain rolled his eyes and said, "Most board-certified chaplains know how helpful volunteers are. Sometimes you guys are the right people for the job in ways we aren't." I'd already known he felt that way, but it was nice to hear it.

During the shift itself, I spent a lot of time with a psych patient who's facing a number of scary challenges, and who mainly needed someone to hold her while she cried (which was about all I had energy for last night). She brought out the best in the staff: everyone was very compassionate to her and concerned about her. I think most ER staff really do usually feel this way, but they don't always have the time and space to show it. Listening to staff expressing their sadness at her situation helped me, because it was another reminder -- on a day that had begun with my desperately needing such reminders -- that most people really do want to make crooked roads straight, and try to accomplish that however they can, and get as frustrated as I do (or as Brecht's Shen Te does) when they can't, when systems or circumstances defeat them.

When I got home from the hospital, Gary said, "So you made it? You're still standing upright?" I was, but not for long!


  1. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. That's what we've all got, a little light. If we can only let them all shine together aliens will see it clear across the universe. Until then, however, be satisfied with the light you shine on people who need it.

    Now that's what I call doing God's work.

  2. Thanks, Martyn. It helps to be in places where other people are trying to be shiny, too. Or at least playing ukeleles. That makes one feel less foolish and quixotic.

  3. I'm glad you survived your day...

    Psych patients can be the most draining patients we have, for many different reasons.

    I try to approach them from a "there but for the grace of God go I..." perspective, but its not always easy..

    The ones that will let you get inside to talk to them often make up for all of the other manipulative, foul mouthed and occassionally violent ones that tend to color everyone's perspective on the mentally "different"

  4. Hi, John! They're often my favorite patients: partly because I'm pretty passionate about mental-health issues (and reasonably well-educated about them, at least for a layperson), and partly because I sometimes have more to offer these folks than medical staff do. Psych patents are usually sitting in the ED waiting to be transferred to another hospital, rather than needing medical care. I have time to listen to them: medical staff usually don't, even if they want to. So these patients make me feel useful!


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