Sunday, December 31, 2006

Marshwiggle of the Year


Yesterday I talked to my mother on the phone, and she said -- I think as a result of reading the chapel sonnet -- "Your blog's getting awfully religious."

Mind you, I think most readers would concede that it's been fairly religious all along. (Hi, Mom! Check out the blog's subtitle! Check out the "about me" description!) But this brought us back to a recurring theme, namely the "How in the world did you ever start believing that stuff?" subject.

I didn't go to church as a child. My father loathes religion; my mother simply finds it incomprehensible. I hadn't started going to church yet when I met Gary, and one of the measures of his love for me, or else simply of his general tolerance, is that he puts up with my church activities (and edits my homilies), even though he wouldn't be caught dead at any worship service himself. My sister's Quaker, and thus somewhat more sympathetic, although Episcopal liturgy makes her want to run screaming out of the room. (That's okay, since silent Quaker worship does the same to me.) Of my pre-church friends, a few -- generally either Jewish or Buddhist -- have well-developed faiths of their own (hi, Claire!), but most of the others are dyed-in-the-wool secular humanists. When I started going to church, one of my closest friends from college called in alarm from Europe to make sure I wasn't having a midlife crisis. And although several people in the English Department at UNR are religious themselves, work does tend to be a very secular environment. I've told the story here before of a grad student who summed up her own perception of the academy's take on religion with the memorable phrase, "Smart people don't go to church."

That's nonsense, of course. Plenty of profoundly smart people go to church. But that general attitude means that many of my nearest and dearest find my faith both bewildering and embarrassing: if smart people do go to church, they shouldn't talk about it, any more than they'd tell people about their preferred brand of underwear. (Hanes men's cotton briefs, because they're more comfortable and better made than women's. Gary, bless him, gave me a bunch of these for Christmas so I'd stop stealing his. Yes, I'm now at the pathetic age where I like getting underwear for Christmas, and you now have official proof that I have no shame.)

My nearest and dearest do approve of my various ministries. Since they're all compassionate people, they find my hospital and nursing-home work perfectly acceptable, even admirable. Visiting sick or lonely people is a Good Thing, although talking about the ways in which those public activities are informed by private faith lands us squarely back in "How can you believe that nonsense?" territory.

My mother and I got into this conversation yesterday because I was telling her about one of my recent hospital shifts, where I wound up seeing two people I know from other contexts: one from UNR, one from the health club. Both of these individuals were there with sick parents, and were understandably worried and distracted, but both also seemed really uncomfortable with my being there, even though one had already known I did the work. These were very awkward "when worlds collide" moments. My impression -- which may very well have been completely wrong -- is that they were embarrassed by the idea of any sensible person praying out loud with patients in an emergency room, that they didn't quite get how a smart person could believe that nonsense.

"I'm with them," my mother said when I told her this story. "I mean, come on! The immaculate conception? The trinity? The resurrection? How can you believe all that stuff?"

"I don't believe all of it," I told her patiently. We've had this conversation before. "And what I do believe, I don't believe 100% all the time. But I've figured out that I don't have to believe every article of the Nicene Creed to be a Christian. What I do believe works for me."

"But how did you start believing it? It doesn't make any sense. You never went to church when you were a kid!"

I've had this conversation with both of my parents more times than I can count. I don't have a simple, coherent answer. (As one of our deacons is fond of saying about the Trinity, "It is a mystery, and should remain so.") My faith journey has been extremely long and meandering. But one of the factors, surely, is that I adored and devoured fantasy when I was a kid, and was especially moved by work by fantasists I now know to be Christian: Tolkien, Lewis, L'Engle. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of the sometimes heavy-handed Christian allegory in the Narnia books, which I now enjoy less than I do The Lord of the Rings. All I knew was that I loved Narnia and wanted to live there.

And for all his heavy-handedness, Lewis has given me what's still the best answer to the "How can you believe that nonsense?" question. This is the passage I turn to on the days when even I find my faith ridiculous, when I find myself agreeing with the friends and relatives who think I've bought into a bunch of hogwash. I have this passage typed out on a piece of paper that's taped to the filing cabinet in my study; I read it to my mother over the phone yesterday. She liked it.

It's from The Silver Chair. Puddleglum, the gloomy Marshwiggle, and the children have been captured by an evil witch who's holding them captive underground. She's hypnotized them into believing that their own belief in the world they came from is nonsense. She tells them that there is no sun, that they've simply extrapolated the idea of a sun from seeing lamps. She tells them that there is no Aslan, whom they've simply invented from seeing housecats. She tells them there is no Narnia.

Puddleglum, in a heroic act of resistance, shoves his foot into the fire so the pain will clear his head of her enchantments. Then he makes this speech:
"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always likes to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.
Amen.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The ED Sonnets: Hall Beds 1 and 3


Here are the next two sonnets. For those of you who don't hang out in hospitals, or who don't regularly find yourself glued to hospital TV shows, "ETOH on board" is paramedic-speak for "this patient's drunk." (ETOH is ethyl alcohol.)

The contrast between these may be a little too obvious and preachy; I had fun writing both of them, but they may need to be split up at some point.

Oh! But first! Today's mail brought Rachel Barenblat's chapbook of poems about chaplaincy, fittingly entitled chaplainbook. This is beautiful, piercing poetry, and you must all go buy Rachel's book without delay, and right after you do that, you must must must read Marcia's amazing Open Letter to a Family I've Never Met.

And then you can read my sonnets. And oh, yeah, I shouldn't have written these: I should have spent the time doing other work. Oh well. I'll pay for it later.

Now I have to go to sleep. G'night!

*

Hall Bed 1

They’ve brought her in on CareFlight: broken hip.
She’s eighty-eight, four hours from her home
by car, and no one’s with her. “I’m alone,”
she says. “Oh, I have neighbors, but this trip’s
too long for them. Please, sweetheart, will you pray
with me? The Lord’s Prayer, maybe? That would make
me happy. Jesus bless you, dear!” I take
her chilly hand in mine. We start to say
the prayer. Our Father . . . . When we reach forgive,
she says trespasses. I say sins. Her eyes
fly open. “You just changed God’s Holy Word!
That’s unforgivable!” I bite my cheek
to keep from laughing. “Ma’am, you realize
they’re both translations?” Icy, undeterred,
she glares. I might as well be speaking Greek.

*

Hall Bed 3

A homeless guy arrives by ambulance.
“ETOH on board,” the medic says,
and rolls his eyes. The nurse is even less
amused. “Stop cursing!” -- giving me a glance --
“This woman is our chaplain! Be polite!”
The patient, halfway through a graceful stream
of expletives, sits up and grins. “You seem
to be a lady, chaplain. Well, all right.
You pray?” “Of course.” He beams at me. “Me too!
Most every morning: ‘Hey there, Big Dude!’ Then
God answers: ‘Hey there, little dude!’ And when
I’ve fed the birds, well, me and God, we chew
the fat a while. He feeds me like a bird.”
I laugh, delighted. This one has the Word.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The ED Sonnets: Chapel I


Here's another sonnet. I wrote it in half an hour, just because I was getting itchy from not writing any. As a result, it's extremely simple, but that fits the mood I want.

The hyphenated word at the end of the third line is a bit of a cheat, but Marilyn Hacker does it, and if something's good enough for her, it's good enough for me.

This is Chapel I because I often take several chapel breaks during a shift. It's a bit out of order, since I'd normally wait until I'd seen more patients. But this is all a draft anyway, and I'm sure I'll be making all kinds of changes to the sequence if I ever get a complete cycle of poems.

*

It’s almost always empty when I come;
I’m almost always empty, which is why
I come. I sit. I breathe. I notice some-
one else, off in a corner, and I try
to let myself be filled. I cannot bring
God’s love to others if I do not feel
that love myself. I don’t feel anything
right now except exhaustion. Should I kneel?
No: I’m too tired. Sit and pray. Dear God,
make me your hands, your feet, a hollow reed
through which you speak. Make me your lightning rod,
your vessel. Help me give them what they need.

Has that done anything? I’ll only know
by visiting more patients. Time to go.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Change of Shift, and "Minor Complaints"


This week's Change of Shift, the nursing blog carnival, is up over at NeoNurseChic. Thanks for including me, Carrie!

And, while we're on the subject of medicine, here's a subject that's been nagging at me for a while: the issue of people showing up in the ED with "minor complaints." DisappearingJohn wrote this post a while back kvetching about the problem, and during a recent volunteer shift, I heard a doctor venting about the same thing. "These people come in with nothing, nothing! They don't need to be here!"

A few notes: Everybody who talks about this acknowledges that people who don't have insurance have to use the ED for primary care; in addition, DisappearingJohn informs me, laws designed to protect the uninsured mandate that EDs have to evaluate anyone who walks in, even if the triage nurse considers the problem minor. There's also a trend where primary-care providers tell patients, "Just go to the ER," even for problems that might be better handled with an office visit. And some nurse hotlines, cautious about liability, seem to use "go to the ER" as a default (although the one I use has always been good about saying, "No, that's not that serious; you can see your primary tomorrow," or, "This doesn't sound serious now, but if XYZ happens, go to Urgent Care").

However, all these factors aside, I hear in many such complaints an exasperated expectation that patients should be able to figure out for themselves which problems are minor and which aren't.

Dear doctors and nurses:

Newsflash: We can't do that. In most cases, we don't know how to evaluate our own medical conditions. We aren't the doctors and nurses: you are. You're the ones who are trained to figure out if something's minor or if it isn't. That's why you get the big bucks. (Ed. note: Since this line has deeply offended certain readers, I feel obliged to point out that it's ironic; I've never heard it used any other way, but I guess some people have. See comments.) That's why you wear the scrubs and white coats and we wear the oh-so-fashionable gowns gaping in the back, okay?

Also, there are entirely too many people who go to the opposite extreme, who consider their own problems minor and won't seek medical treatment unless other people tell them to. Consider:

* My classmate in graduate school who had a huge red boil on her arm but wanted to wait until after our three-hour seminar to go to the university health service. My cousin had once had a boil like that, and it developed scary red streaks and he had to be in the hospital for a week, so I told her to skip class and go to the doctor. She said no. I said yes. I convinced her. She went to the health service and received very prompt treatment from ashen healthcare providers; about a week later, she told me, "My doctor's only now telling me how serious that was."

* Another friend who had an annoyingly painful paper cut, one she couldn't even see but that hurt like blazes, and who finally went to the doctor for it, feeling really foolish, and who then discovered that she had an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, and who spent quite a while in the hospital and had to take several months off work.

* The time I thought I had a stomach virus and was really embarrassed about going to the ED, even though my aunt the nurse told me to very firmly; the ED staff thought it was gastroenteritis, until the bloodwork came back with a white count of 29,000 (I know I've told that story here before, but it was pretty traumatic, believe me). A friend of mine told this story to a friend of hers who's a nurse, who evidently turned pale and said, "She could have died."

And then there's the sort-of-funny story an urgent care nurse told me once when I went in, feeling very embarrassed, to have a very small and painful splinter removed. (She took it out, and told me that I'd been right to come in.) She'd been working in an ED once when a call came in from a guy who said, "I have a splinter in my hand. Are you busy? Would it be okay if I came in now?" She told him to come in, but she and her colleagues were rolling their eyes about the wuss with the splinter -- until he came in with a 2x4 driven through his palm.

You see, doctors and nurses, if you ask us to decide what's minor and what isn't, sometimes we're going to err on the wrong side. We aren't the best judges of this. You are.

And yes, we all know that you have to deal with too many hypochondriacs, too many people who come to the ED for the wrong reasons (drug-seeking, social contact), too many people whose sore throats and coughs would respond very nicely to over-the-counter medication, and whose germs aren't doing the ED staff and the other patients in the waiting room any good, either.

But think about the other side: the times you have to tell a patient that he's having a heart attack, that she's had a stroke; the times when you have to tell patients and their families that a suspicious mass has showed up on the scan, that it looks a whole lot like cancer, that emergency surgery has been scheduled.

You hate those moments. I know you do. I've seen you steel yourself to deliver bad news. I've heard you say, "Oh, man, we just had a guy come in with an inoperable brain tumor."

I know that the patients with the coughs and sore throats take up valuable time, time you'd rather spend with the patient who's just been diagnosed with cancer. I know that your frustration with "minor complaints" is really a larger frustration at having too many patients and not enough staff. I know you wish you had the resources to give everyone your fullest attention.

But think about it: wouldn't you give anything to be able to tell your cancer patient, "It's nothing, really. You just need a bandaid and some aspirin. You can get dressed now and go home."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why I Like TV Better than Movies


One of the downsides of working in a profession where you have to read a lot, all the time, is that recreational reading tends to fall by the wayside. After a day of grading papers -- even really good papers -- the last thing I want to do is look at more text. And so, several years back, Gary and I hit on a new form of relaxation: watching TV series on DVD.

I should add here that when we started doing this, we didn't own an actual television. We watched the DVDs on Gary's computer. Back then, the only TV we'd ever owned was one of those tiny beach TVs; I'd won it in some raffle at a temp agency where I was working in the 1980s, but the only time we took it out of its box was when Gary wanted to watch the NBA finals in 1994. This meant that even though we've never been TV people, we too -- along with most of the rest of the country -- got to watch OJ's slow-speed car chase. How weird is that?

Last year we splurged on a 42" plasma screen, but we still don't watch TV in the conventional sense. We don't have cable; we just use the plasma as a giant DVD player. When we explained this to the salesman who sold us the set, he looked at us as if we'd just landed from Mars.

The plasma's mostly for Gary, who's completely obsessed with movies and manages his Netflix queue the way other people monitor the stock market. Gary watches movies every day -- either in a theater or at home -- and adores both fine films and really schlocky ones ("good bad movies," as he calls them). I, on the other hand, have found my appetite for feature films steadily decreasing over the years, especially since so many movies I've gone into with high hopes have so thoroughly disappointed me. I come out of most movies thinking, or saying to Gary, "They spent umpty-ump million dollars on that piece of garbage? Did anyone connected with this project have a brain? Did anyone notice that the story makes absolutely no sense? Did anybody think about how much food and medicine those umpty-ump million dollars could have bought for people who need them?"

So I'm now very picky about what I'll watch. In particular, I won't see anything scary or too violent, because there's more than enough fear and violence in the real world. Gary, on the other hand, revels in cheesy action flicks and chainsaw-style horrorfests.

But, I've discovered, I adore good TV shows, even gory or scary ones. We started with Buffy and moved on to Oz, ER, Scrubs, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, Firefly, and, of course, Battlestar Galactica. These are just the shows we really enjoy; I won't list all the ones we've started watching and have given up on after a few episodes because the stories were just too ridiculous. (Grey's Anatomy is probably the most egregious of that group.) There are other shows we're ambivalent about but have watched through an entire season or two anyway: Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Smallville.

At some point, I sat down to figure out why I loved TV shows so much, even though I'm increasingly lukewarm towards movies. The answer has to do with the episodic nature of TV. Movies are the visual equivalent of short stories; TV series are multi-chapter novels, giving the viewer more of a chance to get immersed in the world and familiar with the characters. There's just more going on, so they're more interesting in narrative terms. Also, TV is more forgiving of weak patches than film is (just as novels are more forgiving than short fiction). Even the best TV shows we watch have an occasional weak episode, but that's okay, because we have faith that the story will get back on track. A few weak episodes damage a TV show less than a few weak scenes damage a movie.

In other words, I enjoy TV shows for the same reasons many people enjoy daytime soaps or those multi-volume Tolclone fantasy sagas ("Volume 27 of the Dragonbarf Chronicles!"): I've become invested in characters and situations and want to stay with them for as long as I can. My reading tastes run to standalone novels, but my viewing tastes are the polar opposite.

We've now been watching TV series since March 2002, when we got our first disc of Buffy. We've learned to recognize actors from one series when they pop up in another. We've become quite adept at predicting plot outcomes, especially in weaker episodes. Remember the ER episode where Mark Greene's doing ambulance ridealongs with the annoyingly chatty female paramedic who keeps telling stories about her son, whose photo is taped to the dashboard of the rig? "That kid is so dead," I told Gary about five minutes into the episode. "That's why she keeps going on about him."

And indeed he was. "You called that one," Gary said approvingly.

One of my quirks as a writer, though, is a kind of chameleon effect where if I absorb many examples of a certain kind of story, my own narratives start to come to me in that form. And so an unexpected (and not entirely welcome) side-effect of watching so much TV is that I now have my very own TV series running through my brain.

This is ridiculous. I know nothing about the very technical aspects of writing for TV. I don't want to write for TV; my one brush with Hollywood (when Flying in Place was optioned by Columbia Pictures) left me thoroughly cynical about anything to do with the TV or movie industries, and I'm far too much of a control freak to hand my ideas over to strangers. Even if I did want to write for TV, it's not like I'd have the time.

When I first told Gary about this, he said, "Well, you could write the story as a novel." But it's not coming to me as a novel. It's coming to me as a TV show, complete with specific actors, character arcs, music, quirky visual details, yada yada. Yesterday Gary and I were listening to a song and he said, "This would be perfect for your soundtrack." Oh, dear.

I started making notes on this puppy a year ago. I now have about twenty pages of notes, which isn't very many, but on the other hand, the story and characters have stubbornly refused to fade into the background. I keep thinking about them. For the time being, I've decided that this is a harmless form of fanfic, a way to invent juicy roles for my favorite underutilized actors (Paul Ben-Victor, Clea DuVall) and pass time in doctors' waiting rooms.

If the idea's still stubbornly nagging at me after I've finished the ED sonnet cycle and the fourth novel (currently sitting in very fragmentary first draft on my file cabinet), then maybe I'll try to do something with it.

And on that note, back to proofreading Shelter galleys!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Grand Rounds: Home for the Holidays!


Dr. Nick Genes, the founder of Grand Rounds, is hosting this week's edition over at Blogborygmi. I'm honored to be included, and the statistics Dr. Nick has compiled about the history of Grand Rounds are impressive indeed.

Enjoy!

Voices


Yesterday morning at church, our priest read, as part of her homily, an essay about God, supposedly written by eight-year-old Danny Dutton of Chula Vista, California. (Snopes.com argues that this essay is probably a hoax, composed by a much older person, but it was fun to listen to anyway.) One sentence in particular struck me: "Because He hears everything there must be a terrible lot of noise in His ears, unless He has thought of a way to turn it off."

Hearing that, I flashed back to a particularly haunting hospital visit some months ago. I was going to try to work it into the sonnet cycle (and I may still do that), but right now, prose is easier. This one feels right in second person, for reasons I can't quite articulate.

*

You're on a bed in the hall, huddled into a blanket. When I introduce myself, you sit up and look at me anxiously, nodding when I ask if you need to talk. But it takes you a moment to collect yourself, or to gather the courage to speak. "The doctors don't understand. Nobody understands."

"What don't they understand?"

"The voices. No one knows what it's like. I just want them to stop!"

I kneel next to the gurney so you won't have to strain your neck to look up at me. "It's hard for people to understand something they haven't gone through themselves. I want to understand. Will you explain it to me?"

You say you will, but you're fretful. You don't like being in the hall: it feels like everyone's staring at you. There's a newly empty room nearby, so I get permission from your nurse for your security guard to move you there. (All psych patients are watched by security guards. This sounds unkind, but it's better than restraints, and the guards are profoundly sympathetic people; this part of their job has given them excellent listening skills.) The room gives you a little more privacy, although we still can't close the door or draw the curtain around your bed, because the guard has to be able to watch you from the hall. There's a radio playing in the room, and it bothers you: the guard turns it off.

You ask if I'll sit with you. I sit, trying to be quiet, trying not to press too much, and gradually your story emerges.

You've been here at the hospital for going on twelve hours, waiting for psych evaluation and transfer to another hospital. You've been hearing the voices for twelve years. The voices never stop completely: not even on meds, not even when you're asleep. When I ask what they say, you tell me flatly, "They want me dead." They're never friendly. There are two or three different ones, distinct from each other but always the same, a chorus of enemies. They sound as if they're in the air around you.

"It must be like being in a really noisy bus station," I say, and you nod. They're talking to you now, of course. They're really bad right now, which is why you're here. I can tell how much effort it takes for you to listen to my questions, to talk to me over the din: you wear the strained, distracted expression of someone who's trying to hold a conversation over jackhammers, or screaming infants, or car alarms. Or voices that want you dead.

Your parents hate you, you tell me. You have siblings, but you don't have a relationship with them, either. Your spouse and child have just left you, which is why the voices have gotten worse again. "I miss them," you say, and your voice cracks. "I want them to come back." You have one friend in another part of the state: someone who understands about the voices, someone who loves you. On the phone this morning, your friend told you that you needed to come to the hospital, and you listened.

I tell you that I'm glad you have a friend like that. I ask if there's anything else you enjoy. You think a moment and say, "I like my job." You hope you'll still have your job after you get out of the hospital.

You're tired of waiting, hungry, exhausted from the voices. I find some crackers for you to eat. I ask if you'd like a magazine, but you shake your head. "I can't read when the voices are this loud." I ask if you'd like some paper and crayons to draw with, and you nod, giving me a shy, surprised smile.

I bring you paper and two packs of crayons, one in mostly bright colors and the other in darker ones. I'm curious to see which you'll choose. You choose the bright ones, and start to draw a flower. When I compliment you, you say, "It's not very good," but you smile again when I tell you that it must be good, since I knew right away what it was.

We talk about the psych hospital. I ask if people there understand. "Some of them do," you say. "Some of the doctors. It's okay there. They're pretty nice." But you don't have anyone to talk to once you're out of the hospital, except your friend across the state. You mention NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and I suggest that maybe the local chapter has a support group for people who hear voices. If they don't, maybe they can help you start one. That would give you people to talk to outside the hospital, people who understand.

You appear to consider this, but your expression's more strained again. I tell you that I'm going to try to find out how much longer you'll have to wait for the psych evaluation, and I go to find your nurse. The nurse doesn't know. When I go back to your room, you show me the picture, finished now: the flower, a tree, a house, a sun. A heart. The colors are bright, the lines delicate. I tell you that the picture's beautiful, and you look pleased.

I tell you how brave you are to keep going despite the voices: how brave to have constructed a life where you have a job, a place to live, a family (even if they're gone now). I tell you again how beautiful your picture is, how happy it looks. If I heard nonstop voices that wanted me dead, I don't think I could draw a happy picture. "I just want to be be normal," you tell me. "I just want to be like everybody else." It occurs to me then that your picture's a prayer, a drawing of the life you want: sunny, peaceful, calm. Quiet.

I wish you luck in the hospital. I thank you for talking to me. I say, "I know I can't understand what this is like for you, because I haven't gone through it, but thank you for telling me about it. Thank you for helping me understand a little better than I did before."

I can't tell if you hear me. The strained expression is back; I think I'm being drowned out by the voices.

Later that evening, I think about a story I didn't tell you, because it's too sad. In college, I studied poetry with Maxine Kumin, who had been one of Anne Sexton's best friends. One day in class, Maxine talked about Sexton's suicide, which had been no surprise to anyone who knew her. The remarkable thing, Kumin told us, was that Sexton stayed alive as long as she did. "She heard voices. She told me once that the trees spoke to her every June." It had taken unimaginable courage, Kumin told us, for Sexton to function as well as she did for as long as she did.

I pray for you every day. I don't want you dead. I wish my voice could make the others go away, but I don't have that power. Only God and the doctors do.

I pray for your doctors, and I pray that the ones who don't understand will listen to you, and try to understand.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Bringing Up Baby


This homily is really old -- I preached it in 2002! -- but I still like it, and if it covers some of the same thematic territory as the one I posted yesterday, it has a decidedly lighter tone.

The Gospel is, once again, Luke 2:1-20, not that I talk much about it here.

* * *

Merry Christmas!

We’re gathered this morning on one of the most joyous days of the Christian calendar, the day when God put on a body and was born as a human child. But if any of us are feeling more dazed and exhausted than joyous, it’s not too surprising. By any measure, religious or secular, Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. These past few weeks, we’ve all had too much to do -- cooking, cleaning, shopping, wrapping -- and not enough time to do it. We may fervently wish that we were able to give more -- more time, more money, more presents -- or we may resent being asked to give so much. We may be mourning the absence of people who used to put the joy into Christmas for us, and who aren’t here anymore. Whatever we’re actually feeling, though, we’re under enormous pressure to show only the socially approved emotions of cheer, fellowship, and good will. Christmas is an object lesson in the difference between expectations and reality.

I strongly suspect that it’s been that way since the very first Christmas; I have a hunch that Mary and Joseph were feeling dazed and exhausted that first Christmas morning, too. Jesus was a first child, and his parents, temporarily homeless, were bedded down in a barn. The Gospels don’t tell us how long Mary was in labor, in that era before anesthetics, but first children are usually more difficult to deliver than later ones. It’s a safe bet that if epidurals and comfy birthing rooms had been available, Mary would have jumped at them. Like the shepherds in the fields, we don’t hear about that part: we only get the engraved birth announcement, delivered by angels and accompanied by a heavenly choir.

We and the shepherds are told that the child’s humble housing is actually a sign of his aristocracy, proof that he’s really front and center on God’s Society Pages. This would have been good news indeed to the shepherds, who were considered unclean laborers; the fact that they were chosen as the first to hear the news is one of the many radical things about the Nativity, underpinning the New Testament’s insistence that “the last shall be first.” The most radical part of this story, of course, is the sheer fact of the incarnation, the appearance of God the Son -- Our Lord Jesus Christ, the author of creation -- as a squalling infant in an unprepossessing building in an obscure corner of an occupied territory.

When we hear the phrase “God the Son,” we usually think of Jesus as God’s son, as the son of Yahweh, who is also our Father. This makes Jesus our brother. But Christmas reminds us of another meaning of “God the Son:” for Jesus was also Mary and Joseph’s son, and when all the angels and well-wishers and wise men bearing gifts had left, when these dazed, brand-new parents had digested the announcements and prophecies about who their child was and would become, they were still left with the day-to-day realities of taking care of a newborn.

If God appeared among us as a human infant, then God needed two a.m. feedings. God needed his diapers changed. God had to be burped and rocked and soothed through nightmares and teething pains and colic. God went through the terrible twos. God got scraped knees and chicken pox. God had to be toilet trained. And if Mary and Joseph, like all new parents, thought that Baby Jesus was the most beautiful child in the world, he probably also frequently drove them nuts. Where were the angels when Jesus got the flu and was up projectile vomiting all night? Where were the Wise Men when Jesus went through that stage where he asked “Why?”every two seconds? That’s when Wise Men would have been useful!

We don’t hear about any of this in the Gospels. The Apocrypha -- early Christian writings that were ultimately left out of the New Testament, partly because their authenticity was contested -- are far more forthcoming about the challenges of raising such a singular child. In the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, written during the second century, we learn that Jesus and his playmates liked to make clay animals, which Jesus obligingly brought to life. This alarmed his friends’ parents, who accused Jesus of being a sorcerer. Granted, Jesus could be helpful at home, especially since his father wasn’t a very good carpenter. When Joseph spent two years making a throne for the King of Jerusalem, only to find that it was two spans too short, his son said, “Do thou lay hold on one side of the throne, and I will the other, and we will bring it to its just dimensions.” Jesus and Joseph tugged the throne to the proper size, “which miracle when they who stood by saw, they were astonished, and praised God.”

But these folk stories of Jesus’ childhood contain as many disasters as wonders. It seems that he hadn’t yet figured out the part about loving his neighbors, because he did not play well with others. Yes, he healed the sick and raised the dead, but he also killed children who bumped into him or broke his toys. When Jesus misbehaved in school and his teacher threatened to whip him, the teacher’s hand withered, and the man died. One can only imagine what Mary and Joseph went through during all of this, not to mention their neighbors. The summary of the second chapter of Thomas’ infancy narrative presents a succinct portrait of parental strain: “Jesus causes a boy to wither who broke down his fish pools, partly restores him, kills another boy, and causes blindness to fall on his accusers, for which Joseph pulls him by the ear.” If Joseph and Mary expected that their miraculous baby would be easier to raise than other children, they quickly discovered that the reality was very different.

And here we are two thousand years later, still learning the same lesson, year after year. We’ve experienced the joy and wonder of the miraculous birth, and everyone we know has given us gifts, and we’ve sung joyous hymns and cooked a lot of food for our visitors. And now we have to go home, clean up after our guests, and begin the hard, daily work of tending our faith. Right now it’s sweetly wrapped in swaddling clothes in the living room, cooing at the stars and angels on the Christmas tree. It’s adorable at this age, isn’t it?

But we all know that parenting is the hardest job there is. Over the next twelve months, the church year will lead us through a series of challenges and heartbreaks, as well as triumphs and miracles. Jesus’ life was nothing if not eventful, and -- like conscientious parents who attend every dance recital and soccer game -- we’re called to witness to all of it. Our own lives have a way of getting complicated, too, but we’re charged with the task of never neglecting our faith, the presence of Jesus in our lives. We’re called to listen to Jesus, talk to him, play with him, grieve over his pains and setbacks, and cheer his victories. We’re called to be patient when he appears to be a wayward child who’d rather hide than come when we call. Above all, we’re called to love him as much as we can, even when we’re distracted, short-sighted or short-tempered.

And we’re called to trust that Jesus will forgive us when we goof. No parents are perfect, and he’s a good kid. He’ll love us no matter what; he’ll never forget to call, to write, to bring presents. And when we can’t take care of him anymore, he’ll take care of us. He’ll stay with us to the very end; he’ll be our strength when we lose our own, until at last he brings us home, to live with him forever.

Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Angel of Incarnation


I preached this homily on Christmas Day, 2004. Our Christmas morning service is very small and quiet, and often attended by people struggling with loss, people for whom the holiday is difficult. It's the closest we come to a Blue Christmas service, which is why this isn't a conventionally joyous Christmas homily. (Tomorrow, I'll post a much lighter one I preached in 2003.) Several of our long-time parishioners died in 2004; you'll see their names near the end.

I'm still very fond of this piece, and I still keep, in my study, both of the angels I talk about here. One of our cats likes to jump on top of my bookcase and sniff around the base of the ceramic angel, but so far, both angel and cat have stayed safe. Since my 2004 visit to Biloxi, the George Ohr Museum has been renamed the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art. They're rebuilding after Katrina, and have found their own angels of incarnation.

The Gospel -- for those of you who don't have it memorized from having watched A Charlie Brown Christmas when you were a kid -- is Luke 2:1-20.

* * *

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

This is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. I never went to church as a child, but I knew this story by heart, because every year I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on television. And every year, when Linus read these lines during the school Christmas play -– and later, when he and Charlie Brown and Lucy and the rest of the gang sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” –- chills went up my spine. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is still one of my favorite Christmas carols, simply because it moved me so much when I was a child.

As a little girl, I uncritically believed the Christmas imagery I saw all around me. I pictured the shepherds as slightly bigger kids than I was, hanging out on a grassy lawn somewhere -– possibly playing frisbee -– while surrounded by cute, fluffy animals. As a sheltered suburban child, I imagined sheep to be rather like large, friendly dogs, like the lambs at the petting zoo who ate food out of my hand. And of course, the angels were beautiful and smiling.

Here’s an angel I drew one Christmas when I was eight or nine. My mother carved the picture on this woodblock, which we then used to make Christmas cards. This angel has long eyelashes, a goofy happy-face smile, and wings that look like elephant ears. This angel doesn’t have a care in the world, and neither did I, at that age. I loved Christmas.

But as I’ve gotten older, Christmas has become more complicated for me. I’m now much more aware of the suffering in this story. First-century shepherds were social outcasts, dirty and poor and marginalized, and Joseph and Mary were turned away everywhere they went. The fact that God sends good news first to the poor is one of the things I love about this story as an adult, but it can’t help but remind me that the poor and rejected are still with us. And because this is a story about birth, it’s also a story about death, about mortality. Mary risked death in labor, as all women did then, as many women still do. Some commentaries on this story claim that shepherds would only have kept night-time watch during lambing season, which -- in addition to shifting Christ’s birth from winter to spring -- means that they and Mary were engaged in the same exhausting, biological business of bringing new life into the world. This is a story about labor, about hard work and pain, blood and afterbirth.

And then there’s the angel. He terrifies the shepherds and tells them to “fear not,” which are the first words of nearly every angel in the Bible. Angels are evidently not serene, beatific presences. They scare everyone who encounters them. Shepherds were tough customers, used to protecting their flocks from wolves. It would take some doing, to terrify a shepherd. Because I know this, I’ve become allergic to commercialized Christmas angels, to cuddly cherubs and sentimental seraphim.

But last month I found this angel in the gift shop of the George Ohr Museum, a pottery museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, while I was visiting my father for Thanksgiving. This angel, wearing a quizzical expression and covered with wounds and bruises, fascinated me: I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He made me think immediately of the angel who wrestled with Jacob, and whom I’ve always imagined must have sustained his own scars in the process. I carried him around the store with me for at least half an hour, while a woman who was buying everything else in the shop told me that if I didn’t buy him, she would. I finally caved in and handed over my credit card, fretting about how I’d get the angel -- and his fragile, brittle wings -- home safely on the plane. When I got back to my father’s house and unwrapped my new purchase, Dad’s lady-friend peered at the sculpture and said, “That angel looks kind of scary.”

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly.”

The museum shopkeeper had told me that the artist, a woman named Dina O’Sullivan, was Director of Education at the museum. I found her e-mail address on the museum’s webpage and sent her a note, asking her if there was a story behind the angel’s creation. She wrote back almost immediately; she told me that she’s Jewish, and that for her, the angel symbolizes all the stories of struggle in the Hebrew Bible. So my instinct about the Jacob story was confirmed.

I cradled the angel, swaddled in bubble-wrap, on my lap during the long, bumpy plane ride home, and then I started doing research. According to one tradition, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was Gabriel, the same angel who appeared to tell Mary that both she and her cousin Elizabeth were -- impossibly -- pregnant. It makes perfect sense to me that Gabriel would also be the angel who appeared to the exhausted, anxious shepherds as they mid-wived their lambs. And Gabriel, in many of the sources I read, is called “the angel of incarnation and consolation.”

Incarnation and consolation, mortality and comfort: they’re two sides of the same coin. Incarnation is the miracle of God become naked, vulnerable human flesh, of God growing a body. But bodies are fragile, and need to be comforted. Hearing this story two thousand years after it happened, we know how it ends. We know that the God who was born a mortal baby to an outcast mother will die the humiliating death of a criminal. We know that he will be bruised and wounded. We know that this is a story about labor, about hard work and pain. The ultimate comfort, Christ’s resurrection, will come only after the incarnational agony of Good Friday.

As I grow older, there are days when I think that resurrection is the only thing that makes incarnation bearable. Our embodiment inevitably subjects us to loss. I miss Vern and Del and Eleanor this year, and I know all of you do, too; we trust in their resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve, that we don’t need comfort. We rejoice whenever a baby is born, but we also know that all babies, as they grow, will meet trouble, will be bruised and wounded. We long to spare those we love from suffering: we yearn to swaddle them in bubble-wrap and hold them in our laps to protect them from turbulence, and sometimes we are able to do this, for a little while. We do everything we can to keep what we love from breaking. But Lent and Good Friday await all of us, as surely as Easter does.

And so we need Gabriel, the angel of incarnation and consolation. He appears to us in the darkness of our most difficult labors, as we bring forth new life and as we face death. He tells us, “Look, I’m scarred too; I’m wounded, too. I’ve struggled all night with fierce enemies who refused to release me. I’ve sat with women as they labored in childbirth. I am the angel of everything that is bruised and broken but stubbornly survives, and I am here to tell you that for every pain there is also joy, joy at the end of everything, joy and the peace that passes all understanding. God is with us; Emmanuel has come. From now on, you will not suffer anything that your Lord has not also suffered. You are no longer alone, no longer poor and outcast: you are the Lord’s beloved. Today everlasting life has been born, and today death has died.

“Do not be afraid; for see --I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Would You Like Some Insane Stress With that Winter Break?


I already knew I wasn't going to have much of a winter break this year; in the two weeks before January 8, I need to prep and write syllabi for my two spring courses, collate my own annual-evaluation materials (which, this year, includes wrestling with a new computerized form we're required to use), write a couple of recommendation letters, and read a book I'm reviewing.

After January 8, it will be all Personnel Committee all the time. I'm on the four-person committee that reads the annual-evaluation materials of everyone else in the department (roughly fifty people) and sets merit levels. This is solid, rewarding service, but it's very time-consuming: hours and hours of reading, followed by hours and hours of meetings.

Oh, and starting next Thursday, we'll be attending a chamber-music marathon -- seven concerts in four days -- which should be great fun, but also means that I'll have only the mornings of those days to work (and Sunday morning I'll be going to church, of course).

So this sounds like enough to do, right? Right. I think so too.

And then, yesterday, the first-pass galleys of Shelter arrived. It's very exciting to see actual typeset pages (yes! it will indeed be a realio trulio book!), but this means that I have 574 pages of text to proofread and correct and return -- by January 5. Yikes!

Oh, and I forgot: I'm also preaching on January 7.

So I'm reluctantly putting the sonnet sequence on hold. Tomorrow and Monday I'll be posting Christmas homilies from previous years. I was hoping to post sonnets again after that, but it looks like they'll have to wait. I hope the people who've enjoyed them will be patient and keep checking back, because (if all goes well) I'll be writing another thirty or so. But probably not in the next two weeks!

Friday, December 22, 2006

The ED Sonnets: Room 3


The first of these is an odd hybrid of Elizabethan and Petrarchan, but I only realized that when it was finished, and I liked it too much to change it.

*

Bed 3.1

Her hair’s a tangled mass, spun fine and white
-- bird’s nest or halo -- soft and disarrayed.
She’s bird-thin, too, and like a bird, afraid
of sudden noise, new people. “It’s all right,”
I tell her. “I’m the chaplain. Do you need
a tissue?” She’s begun to weep. I find
a Kleenex, wipe her face. They’ve had to bind
her to the bed: dementia. Were she freed,
she’d wander, but she’s no less lost with us.
“Her husband dumped her here,” the nurse explains.
Head cocked, the patient peers at me and strains
against the bonds. Her eyes are luminous,
pale blue. She speaks now. “Mama?” That faint cry
grows louder, so I sing a lullaby.

*

Bed 3.2

He’s hooked to leads, blood pressure monitor,
IVs: a maze of tubes. “My three kids died
last year: a car crash. I’ve been crucified,
you know? I can’t tell what I’m living for.
My wife, I guess. Each day’s a funeral
at our house. Now I need heart surgery.”
I squeeze his hand. “That kind of tragedy
would flatten anyone.” Original!
Just what he needs: cliches.
“What helps you get
up every day?” “My faith. This agony’s
God’s gift to make me grateful they’re not here,
where so much hurts.” I blink. My eyes are wet.
We’re trained to deal with bad theology:
It’s theirs. They need it. Do not interfere.

*

Bed 3.3

He glares at me the moment I appear.
“So you’re the chaplain? Lady, I’ve no use
for your profession.” What, you’ve been abused
by English teachers?
“That’s okay. I’m here
to offer any help I can: some talk
to pass the time, a blanket?” “Yeah, you’ll plot
to get me into church! No thanks. I’ve got
more sense than that.” I smile and start to walk
away: I don’t get paid enough to deal
with insults. “Hey! So what makes you believe?”
I turn. “That isn’t anything I can
explain with formulas. My faith is real
but complicated.” Now he looks relieved:
“It’s hogwash even you don’t understand!”

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Better Late Than Never


As of 8:00 this evening, I have finally -- after only two years and three months -- completed the 400 volunteer hours that I would have done in seven months if I'd stayed in CPE.

Woo-hoo! Go, me! (I go very slowly, but I go.)

And tonight's shift was awesome, one of the ones where I'm in the zone and really feel as if I'm being used as an instrument of grace for patients. Those don't come along very often, so I need to treasure them when they do.

There will be more sonnets soon, I think.

In the meantime, you can imagine that exquisite creature on the right as me, eating a yummy snack from the meds room. Somebody brought in amazing homemade cookies tonight, and there were also See's Chocolates.

Solstice. Elephant. Living Room.


Happy Winter Solstice! After this, the days start getting longer. Hallelujah!

I tried working on more ED sonnets this morning: no go, although that may have something to do with the fact that I woke up at 4 a.m. I went to sleep at 9:30, so that's not quite as bad as it sounds, but I'm still really tired, and my brain's producing drivel.

Yesterday I got the car back and bought new chains, the cable kind that are supposedly much easier to use. Then I went to school, turned in grades, and read teaching evaluations.

That's always a nerve-wracking process. I've learned over the years that my impression of how a class is going won't necessarily bear any relation to the things the students say on evaluations. If they don't like you for any reason, this is where it usually comes out, and some classes, especially required ones like freshman comp, tend to produce worse evaluations than others. And student evaluations are counted in our own annual evaluations. The people who serve on the Personnel Committee (including me, this year) know all the factors that can affect evaluations, and try to take them into account, but reading the comments -- and knowing that colleagues will be reading them too -- can still be very distressing indeed.

And I have tenure; it's much worse for people who don't.

I'm delighted to report that the evaluations for both classes were better than I'd feared, although not uniformly glowing. I was especially happy with the freshman-comp evaluations, because the two other times I've taught that class, the evaluations were unanimously hideous (and very hurtful). This time, a healthy majority of the students actually seemed to enjoy the course. Hallelujah!

It's not politically correct to discuss this issue in the academy. We're all supposed to be wonderful teachers who either get uniformly glowing evaluations or are too mature to care about vengeful comments written by students. Teaching trauma is the elephant in the living room, the thing no one talks about too openly. But it's real. I have colleagues who've been so hurt by evaluations that they no longer read them at all; everybody else I know who talks about this at all acknowledges that they pick reading times carefully, often waiting until they'll be able to leave work right afterwards.

Because my two previous attempts at freshman-comp were such disasters, I went into this semester really terrified. I asked one colleague for help with my syllabus and asked another, a good friend, to observe my class. Those are things that professors at my level aren't supposed to have to do, but I did them anyway, and it looks like those efforts paid off (although, as with almost every course, there are certainly things I'd change about this class if I taught it again). Still, asking for help was hard. I'm somewhat embarrassed even to be sharing my joy that this set of evaluations was decent, because that means admitting that previous ones haven't been.

But I also have a very strong hunch that other people have gone through this too, and will be relieved to hear somebody else talking about it. Let's try to get the elephant out of the living room, shall we?

So anyway, after reading my decent evaluations, I levitated around the English office for a while, much to the bemusement of several colleagues, and then went swimming, which felt great.

I woke up at 4:00 anyway, and I'm hoping to get the hospital tonight. So an afternoon nap will definitely be in order!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The ED Sonnets: Room 1


Here I've begun to run into a narrative difficulty. In fiction, one doesn't tell everything: writers leave out the boring bits about how the protagonist got from the bed to the kitchen table, for instance. My original conception for this sonnet cycle was one poem per bed, but of course, not every visit is "meaningful." Some patients don't want to talk to me; some are asleep; and at any time, I'm liable to be swept out of the way by the arrival of medical folks, who are far more important (and very properly so) than I am. This is why many chaplains don't enjoy ED work. It's often pretty fragmentary, although of course there are also patients who've been in the department for hours, are bored or worried out of their minds, and desperately need to talk.

So, anyway, these three sonnets depict those kinds of visits. But are they too realistic, and therefore boring? Would I be better off summarizing the entire room in one poem? (The next set will be about deeper visits, but I'd be interested in hearing readers' thoughts on these.)

There's also a technical issue. I struggled for quite a while with the final couplet for the second poem. I like the one I finally came up, partly because of the pun in the last line, but that means that both the first and second poems end with that "doubt/out" rhyme. Does this mean fixing? Should I change one of them? Or, instead, should I revise the third poem to end that way too, since "out" is more or less the theme of this room?

Thanks in advance for your feedback!

*

Bed 1.1

Right now I feel less holy than a head
of cabbage. It’s too early for a break --
I’ve only seen three patients -- so instead
I’ll choose an easy room (I hope) to make
this stretch less draining. Ah, one-one’s asleep;
that worked out well. He’s middle-aged and gaunt,
cheeks sunken, forehead bloody, clothes a heap
beside the bed. He twitches. Spirits haunt
his dreams: distilled, I think. Oblivious
to wailing from next door, he snores in peace,
hands pillowing his cheek. I’m envious.
I practice seeing Christ in him, release
my anger at the mom, note mocking doubt.
So easy to be loving when they’re out.

*

Bed 1.2

Next door, a baby howls. His parents -- young
and anxious -- hover, cuddle, whisper rhymes
and lullabies. “He’s gorgeous, with the lungs
of champions,” I say. They laugh. “Each time
he’s sick, we get so scared! We hate to bring
him here, but with this fever . . .Tylenol’s
no good. The doctors want to do this thing --
a spinal tap?” The baby caterwauls
so loudly I can hardly hear them. Then
a doctor, nurse and EMT arrive:
time for the test. “I’ll come and visit when
they’re done,” I say. The baby will survive
this better than his parents, I’ve no doubt.
They haven’t heard. The doctor’s in; I’m out.

*

Bed 1.3

“Hello! Aren’t you a sweetheart to come by!”
She’s sitting up and beaming, ankle propped
on pillows. “I sure hope that little guy
will be all right.” (Have curtains ever stopped
the slightest sound? Is HIPAA unaware
that cotton’s not concrete?) “That foot looks sore,”
I say. She nods. “I tumbled down the stairs.
The puppy tripped me. Now we’re waiting for
the films. They think I might need surgery.”
“That’s awful! Did the pup apologize?”
She chortles. “Duke’s a big old baby, see,
a Newfoundland who doesn’t know his size.
My son’s home walking him -- oh, here’s my nurse!
Thanks, Susan: pray this evening gets no worse!”

Technical Difficulty


I've added a sidebar section for the ED Sonnets. This will be a long, ongoing project, and folks have responded well, so I figured it might be helpful to have all the links in one place. But Blogger puts the most recent link on top, so the list's reverse-chronological rather than chronological.

Does anyone know how to fix this? The only two sort options are alphabetical and reverse-alphabetical, which won't work for these, and I can't get into the HTML to fix it by hand. This is one way in which the old Blogger was much more convenient!

For the moment, I've added a clunky description to the sidebar itself. But if anyone has an actual fix, please let me know.

Why We Don't Decorate for the Holidays


The kitties do enjoy romping among the wrapping paper and ribbons, though. And boxes! Boxes are kitty heaven! So it's not as if we won't be giving them opportunities for mayhem.

On another holiday note, if you're a Battlestar Galactica fan, here's the funniest YouTube ever. (If you aren't a BSG fan, you won't get it.)

I'm supposed to get my car back around noon today. Keep your fingers crossed! It turns out that I did need a new wheel -- I could have told them that, just from how the car was driving -- but they threw in a free oil change. I'd been teasing the garage lady about how she should give me a free oil change, but I didn't think she'd actually do it. That was really nice of her.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Two More ED Sonnets


Here are the next two. There are many moments in any given shift that have no obvious connection with faith or spirituality at all, and this pair of sonnets describes two visits like that. The faith connection comes in my own struggle to be loving and nonjudgmental (which, as here, often doesn't work).

For anyone just coming in, the first four poems are here.

*

Hall Bed 5

I’m on it; this one’s mine. They’re in the hall,
which means the rooms are full. As I approach
I hear the mother hissing, “After all
I’ve done for you!” A fine time for reproach.
“I wish I’d never had you!” Charming, Mom.
Her suit drips wealth. The daughter smiles at me,
chides gently, “Mom, that’s mean.” Is she this calm
at home? And where the hell’s security?
I introduce myself. “Ma’am, you’re upset,
but this won’t help. Perhaps you need to go
and cool off in the waiting room?” I get
a glare, crossed arms. “I won’t!” She quiets, though.
The girl, wrists bleeding, says, “It’s nice of you
to visit.” Who’s the saner of these two?

*

Room 8

The doctor comes; I leave. A patient waves
me down across the hall. “Why can’t you throw
her out? I wouldn’t want a dog to go
through that! Poor kid! The way that mom behaves,
she shouldn’t have a child! The woman’s nuts!”
So much for HIPAA. “Listen, I agree,
but I don’t have that much authority;
I’m just a volunteer.” I gently shut
the door. “That’s hard to hear when you’re in pain
yourself. I’m sorry.” “Oh, I’m fine. It’s just
a boil. I hope the girl will be all right.”
“I hope so too,” I say, but don’t explain
the three-day psych hold, which in this case must
seem like vacation. Was the cutting flight?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Grand Rounds. Car. Change of Course.


There's a terrific, Charlie-Brown-Christmas themed Grand Rounds over at Nurse Ratched's Place. I'm delighted to be included!

In less happy news, today my car was towed to the garage, which reports that although the wheel and tire are fine, I need a new axle and two other parts: a control arm and some kind of link, I believe (I've misplaced my notes). The estimated bill comes to just under $1,000, which -- conveniently enough -- is my collision deductible. Gack. Merry Christmas! Oh well. At least AAA towed me for free, since the car really was damaged. Also, the tow-truck guy was very nice: talked about working eight extra hours on Saturday because of all the pile-ups (there was at least one fatality) and then admired the cats, which is a surefire way to get in good around here. His sister lives on a ranch and has forty-eight cats: all spayed and neutered, all named. Her ranch doesn't have rats, mice, or snakes. Go, cats!

Extremely faithful readers may remember that I was scheduled to teach a graduate seminar on "Fantasy and Trauma" this spring. Alas, only one person enrolled, so the class has been canceled. I'm disappointed, but I'll be teaching a section of "Women and Literature" instead, and that should be fun. I've decided to focus on liminality, on women navigating barriers and boundaries -- cultural, economic, psychological, medical -- in six non-fiction texts:

Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge
Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Alexa Albert, Brothel
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

The Didion's the only one I haven't read yet. Since the book's about her sudden, devastating widowhood (and her daughter's illness, which turned out to be terminal), it may be very heavy sledding as the last book in the course. So I may either change the order or substitute another text. But for now, this seems workable.

Meanwhile, I drafted two new ED sonnets today, but I want to smooth them out a bit before I post them. That will probably happen sometime tomorrow. I've been very gratified by the positive comments I've gotten. Thanks, everybody!

The First Four ED Sonnets


I wrote sonnets yesterday when I probably should have been doing other things (like answering e-mail: sorry about that, Lee!). Gary likes these and thinks I should post them. They're pretty rough, but Gary said, "Well, that's part of the point, right?" I told him that sonnets were small bottles in which to hold big moments, and he said, "That's well put. You should post that description on your blog." So I have.

Rereading these, I realize that they may not sound very pious or spiritual or however a chaplain's "supposed" to sound. There's a definite accent that many (not all) chaplains seem to acquire -- inhumanly calm, serenely faithful, slightly otherworldly -- but I've never been able to pick it up.

Oh well.

*

Signing In

First stop’s the chaplain’s office, a small space
with sink and closet, sign-in book, and shelves
piled high with treats for patients, and ourselves:
tissues and crayons (vehicles of grace),
ten kinds of prayer cards, plastic rosaries –-
in Easter colors, made by volunteers --
a stack of Bibles. This is where my fears
begin each week, the panicky unease
about what’s waiting for me. Never mind.
I’ll find out when I get there. Here’s the slip
of paper that will purchase a small snack
if, later, I need sugar to unwind,
kill time, or celebrate. And now the trip
downstairs. Breathe. In four hours, I’ll be back.

*

Emergency Trauma Family Consult Room

This hallway leading to Emergency
goes on forever, free (this time of night)
of patients, but I look ahead and see
an open door -- that room -- the spill of light,
and now I hear soft sobbing, step inside,
say, “I’m the chaplain; can I help you?” “Yes,
you can, dear.” Resolute and dignified,
she tells me that the doctors cannot guess
her husband’s outcome, if he’ll even live.
“It’s bad,” she says. I know. This room is where
we send them when it’s bad. “I’ll check, and give
you any news I learn,” I promise her.
We pray and hug. She’s tear-wracked and adrift.
This is the worst way to begin a shift.

*

Room 2

The code room’s chaos, even if contained,
a sea of feet beneath the curtain drawn
for privacy. The staff stay calm. They’re trained
for this. (At least here: I remember one
nurse on another floor who said, “I can’t
deal with the drama. Codes just aren’t my thing.”)
I wait and watch outside, bide time -- don’t want
to be a pest -- pray for encouraging
news for the wife, if any’s to be had.
And here’s the doc, a nice one, purposeful
but kind. “What news?” She grimaces. It’s bad,
I think, but then she says, “He’s critical,
but stable. Vitals good.” “Good! May I tell
his wife?” “Of course.” For now, we’ve side-stepped hell.

*

Nursing Station

The wife’s incredibly relieved. I muse
on how this place destroys all everyday
proportion, old perspectives swept away,
“he’s on a ventilator” better news
than “nothing worked,” both fates you’d never choose.
The choices here are grim, the least delay
of death a gift. The wife says, “No, don’t stay;
so many others need you.” That’s a ruse
we often hear, polite dismissal, but
she means it. Late, I sign the ED board
in marker: “Chaplain: Susan, 5 to 9.”
The charge nurse says, “We’ve got a kid who cut
herself. The mom’s got problems too.” “Oh, Lord,”
a medic groans. I’m on it; this one’s mine.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Several Updates


Saint Tim just drove me to my car, and then followed me home to make sure I'd be okay. I got home safely, but the car's wobbling horribly, even at 20 mph -- and making dismal moaning and screeching sounds, rather like a very unhappy ED patient -- so I'm not taking it anywhere else today. I'll do my utmost to have it towed tomorrow, so I don't have to drive to the garage.

Thank you, Saint Tim.

In happier news, Jill from Tachyon e-mailed me yesterday to report that The Fate of Mice will go to the printer on Monday. This means that finished books should be available in late January, right on schedule. Jill's also sent out review copies. She said that Publisher's Weekly had already requested a copy, which she called "an auspicious sign." PW gave The Necessary Beggar a starred review, so we hope they'll like the story collection, too.

And in less formal writing news, writing my ED Christmas Sonnet was so much fun that I've decided to try a bunch of others. I'd love to write a sonnet cycle describing a complete volunteer shift, with one poem per bed (and others for other places where I spend time, like the chapel and the ED waiting room). This is probably overly ambitious, so we'll see how far I get, but I had fun thinking about it. I also enjoyed giving myself a refresher course in different sonnet forms -- Elizabethan, several varieties of Petrarchan, Spenserian -- so the poems won't become too repetitious.

I started writing sonnets when I was fourteen or fifteen, for a high school English class, but have been away from them for years (although I've taught the form to writing students). They're a lot of fun, my version of crossword puzzles or Sudoku.

Of course, I already have too much to do. But hey, everybody needs a hobby.

And on that note, back to internet Christmas shopping!

A Little Too Much Adventure


It snowed here yesterday. As I left the house at 3:00 for my gym workout, the snow was just starting: a very fine snow that wasn't sticking yet. But when I left the gym at 5:00, there was an inch or two of accumulation, and the snow was very slick: the Special Slidey Snow, as Gary called it later.

I've only been driving for nine years, and I don't have much experience with snow. Our old Honda needed chains once, up in the mountains; the Ford I drive now has never needed them, although I dutifully keep the old chains in the trunk. On the road last night, I immediately started sliding -- there was no traction, and of course nothing had been plowed or salted yet -- and that made me apprehensive about the three miles home, all uphill, on a street that's notoriously bad in snow.

I drove very, very slowly (as all the other cars were doing, too) and managed to get onto the main road from which our street branches off. I was fishtailing the entire time.

Then I lost control of the car completely, and crunched into a curb. Luckily, I was only going ten or fifteen mph, and didn't crunch into another car or a person. I managed to pull away from the curb and continue up the street, but the traction wasn't getting any better, and I was really shaken from hitting the curb. And there was a lot of traffic: it was rush hour, and people were just coming home from Christmas shopping.

So I pulled over, put on my hazards, and called AAA on my cellphone. (I'm very ambivalent about cellphones, but boy, they're sure useful in emergencies!) It was 5:15. While I waited to be connected to AAA, I watched a truck rear-end an SUV in front of me. When the AAA guy finally came on the line, I told him, "I either need to be towed the two miles to my house, or have someone come help me put chains on. I've never done that by myself, and the one time I did it with help was seven years ago. Do you guys do that?" I felt like an idiot -- I could just imagine the AAA guy thinking scornfully, Stupid female driver! -- but I just didn't feel safe driving.

"That's not technically a roadside emergency," the AAA guy said. "We'd have to charge you. We're getting hundreds of calls right now, and if we sent a truck, it might not get there until 9:00. And if it's not safe for you to drive in this, it's not safe for us, either."

You have trucks with chains, I thought. I'm in a tiny Ford. But I didn't say that. I said, "Please put in the call, and if I can get help from someone else, I'll call you back to cancel it."

I was starting to get cold, and I didn't have enough warm clothing with me, because I'd thought I was only doing the tiny drive to the gym and back. (The moral of this story is: Always keep emergency supplies in the car!) I called Gary, who doesn't drive -- and has thus never had the terrifying experience of losing control of a car -- and thought my predicament was very funny. "You're stuck in two inches of snow two miles away? Why don't you just leave the car there and walk home?"

At that point, I got a little hysterical. "I'm not going to leave the car here, because this isn't a safe place. The car could be hit! I'm not going to walk home, uphill on a windy road, because I'm not wearing the right shoes for snow hiking, and because I could be hit. Other cars are losing control, too. Can you please call Katharine and see if she can come help me with the chains?"

Katharine's the friend we go to Maui with. She lives nearby. She has an SUV. She's from Vermont, and knows about snow. I felt horrible about calling her out in bad conditions, but trusted her to say no if she thought it was too dangerous or inconvenient.

I sat in the car, hazards flashing, and waited. Cars passed me. Nobody stopped to offer help, probably because they didn't want to lose their own momentum in the snow, and maybe also because these days, everybody trusts everybody else to have a cellphone and to have called for help. (And in fairness, I wasn't outside trying to flag anybody down.) I got colder. I was ashamed of myself for being a bad driver, for not having brought a hat or gloves, for bothering a friend. I started having lurid fantasies about AAA arriving at 9:00 and finding me dead of hypothermia in my tiny Ford on the side of a main road.

Then headlights pulled in behind me. Katharine had arrived with her son Tim. "He's a great driver," Katharine said, "and he knows all about snow. So he'll drive your car. Do you want to drive with him, or with me?"

"With you," I told her, and she and Tim laughed.

I apologized for bothering them, and they both pooh-poohed me. "This is what friends and neighbors are for," Tim said. "We're from Vermont. Helping people in bad weather is what you do." I gave him my keys and climbed into Katharine's toasty SUV.

Tim managed to drive the car onto a level side street; we followed him. Then he stopped, got out, and came over to talk to me. "Your right front wheel has a really bad wobble. I'll put the chains on, and then we'll see how it drives."

I got out. I'd looked at the car after I crunched into the curb and hadn't seen any damage, but when I looked this time, sure enough: the right front hubcap was badly dented. Tim tried unsuccessfully to put the chains on. I thought chains were one size fits all, but it turns out that the old chains from the Honda don't fit the Ford. Great.

Meanwhile, AAA had called me back to see what was happening. I told them to cancel the call, that we were going to have to leave my car on a side street, but that my friends would drive me home. "Listen," the AAA guy said, "just be glad you're okay, and that this didn't happen on the highway." Amen to that!

Tim pulled my car over to the curb, and we all got into Katharine's SUV, Tim driving. He started heading cautiously up my street, the hilly one with the curves. Half a mile from my house, we found the road blocked by a city bus that had spun out across both lanes. When I saw that, I started to feel better about losing control of my car. Maybe the problem really was the snow, and not my driving.

Tim took a detour around the bus. Past it, we found a snarl of other vehicles scattered in the middle of the road. "Oh boy," Tim said. "I'm not going to try to get through that. It's too dangerous. Susan, why don't you come to my house for dinner?"

So I did. On the way there, we watched a car do a 360-degree spinout, and I started feeling much better about my own mishap. At Tim's house, I chatted with his wife Maura and played with their adorable toddler Pippa. We ate spaghetti, salad, mashed potatoes. I drank hot tea. We talked about contingencies: "If we can't get you home later," Katharine said, "you can spend the night at my house." (She's within walking distance of Tim's.) "We'll sit in front of the fire and tell stories. It will be fun."

After dinner, we watched a bit of The Fellowship of the Ring (one of my favorite movies of all time, although the trek up Caradhras was a bit too reminiscent of what had just happened to me). At 8:45, we got into the SUV again. This time, there was hardly anyone on the road, and Tim got me home safely, although we passed another car that had spun out in the middle of a traffic circle. Its hazards were on, and the driver was standing next to it. Tim, bless him, rolled down his window. "Are you okay? Do you need help?" The driver said he was fine, and we drove the remaining block to my house without incident.

This morning, it's sunny. I called Tim about an hour ago; he said that Maura had slid trying to get out of their driveway, but that in a few hours, when the snow has melted, it should be safe to try to rescue my car and get it back to the house. My garage is closed today, so I can't take it straight there.

So I'm probably going to be stuck at home today: no church, no swimming, no hospital. Darn! (And today would have been the shift when I finally, after more than two years, racked up the 400 volunteer hours I'd have done in seven months if I'd stuck with CPE.) But I'm not going to drive a damaged car. We'll see what happens tomorrow: I'll call my garage and see if they or AAA can tow it. The garage is six miles away along two major streets, so I'd be nervous about driving the car, although I'll try that, with hazards on, if they think I should.

This morning's paper had a story about the storm: there were lots of accidents last night, although luckily no one was hurt. I certainly wasn't the only one having trouble, though.

So I have an enforced vacation day. Ugh! Well, I can do more internet Christmas shopping.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

ED Christmas Sonnet


The inn is on divert tonight, but still
they come on foot, and cannot be denied:
the homeless seeking shelter from the chill,
the frightened rich who won’t be satisfied
until the bloodwork’s negative for heart
attack. “That squeezing pressure on your chest’s
anxiety,” the doctor says, “but start
to exercise. Quit smoking. Stop and rest
when everything’s too much. Be not afraid.”
Next door, the terror’s palpable: a mass
found in the gut, bright images arrayed
on CT scans. “I thought the pain was gas,”
the patient says. His daughter weeps, forlorn.
And up in L&D, a child is born.

(If you liked this sonnet, here are some more.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Tickled Pink


Yesterday, I got e-mail from the founder of Grand Rounds, Dr. Nick Genes of Blogborygmi, asking if I'd like to host Grand Rounds sometime. He said they've never had a chaplain host.

This made me ridiculously happy, and I told him I'd love to, but not until next summer, when I have more time. Putting together Carnival of Hope just about does me in, and that's a third the size of Grand Rounds. I've been doggedly contributing to Grand Rounds for a couple of months now, but I haven't felt like a "real" medblogger -- more like a wannabe camp-follower -- so validation from the Father of Grand Rounds himself was lovely. Made my week, it did. (Astute readers of this blog will have discerned that I struggle just a little with Impostor Syndrome.) I just hope Dr. Genes wasn't too disgruntled that I put him off for six months.

In other news:

Grades are almost done. Yay!

Christmas shopping is started. Yay! (We're spending entirely too much this year, but never mind.)

We haven't yet spotted the perfect baby black female kitty to adopt, but when we do, she'll be ours.

We watched two more highly entertaining episodes of Rome tonight, including the one that introduces Cleopatra.

On a more ambivalent note, I haven't written in my blessings journal for several weeks now, and I'm well past the point where I can fill in the missing days. I've written a daily entry for almost ten years, so this is a little disconcerting, but I find that I'm not feeling the need now. I don't know if that's good or bad; I hope I've internalized the looking-for-blessings thing enough that I don't need to keep documenting it. Gary thinks the blog is serving pretty much the same purpose, and he may be right. (This entry is certainly doing that, anyway.)

And now to bed!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Carnival of Hope: Volume 1, Number 4


Welcome to the fourth Carnival of Hope! Before we get started, I'd like to look ahead for a moment to the January edition, which will be posted on Friday, January 12, with a theme of "new beginnings." The deadline for submissions is Thursday, January 11, at 5 PM PST. You can either use the BlogCarnival submission form or e-mail me directly at SusanPal (at) aol (dot) com.

Now for the business before us! Because this is the darkest time of the year, celebrated with festivals of light in many cultural and spiritual traditions, the theme for this month's edition is "light in the darkness." And so, although I wanted to keep the CoH trademark of the periwinkle growing up through the sidewalk, it seems fitting to add another image.

As we ponder the candle flame dancing in the darkness, we may find ourselves thinking about different meanings and uses of light, as Nickie does in her post Shining Light on Hope. She reminds us that "the light of hope demands truth about our circumstances. When we truly hope, we acknowledge the things we don't like, but actively seek good things that will make something better." In this post, Nickie moves from a meditation on the novel Barabbas to a moving story about coming to terms with her own chronic pain. I hope Nickie won't mind my saying that the light imagery in this post is especially poignant because she's blind, and navigates her days through literal darkness.

Darkness and light take many forms other than the literal, though. There are fewer things that can more quickly plunge a family into darkness than a health crisis, especially before the holidays. This is when light-bearers are most welcome. Karen Lynch tells the story of the ultimate holiday gift in A Selfless Gift-Love goes round and round.

Regular readers of this blog know that a friend of mine has just been diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. His wife told me a wonderful story about help from an unexpected quarter, which I share in A Most Excellent Rickety Contrivance. And Barbra Sundquist shares her own heartening tale of corporate kindness in Compassion and Business: Not Mutually Exclusive.

In a season that has become pathologically over-commercialized, these stories drive home the truth of the bromide that "money can't buy happiness." It turns out that this cliche, like so many others, has a basis in fact: according to an article about Happiness Science in Alternet, "The only time people's subjective well-being rises as a result of cash is when the money takes them out of poverty." (My thanks to Will Shetterly for pointing me to this article.) And yet we all know that there's too much poverty in the world, as my friend Lee acknowledges when the top three items on her Perfect Christmas List are world peace, no more hunger, and no more poverty.

Daunting requests indeed! Really, it's so much easier to buy sweaters and iPods at the mall, isn't it? But even a very small donation, a mere dollar, can help end poverty and promote peace, as Greg Go reminds us in Micro-donations for Darfur. David E., likewise, urges us to do our part in ending hunger, and describes the inspiring organization Feed My Starving Children.

If you're like me, though, you already feel beseiged by requests for charitable donations at this time of year. The imploring letters from non-profit organizations, all with impeccably worthy goals, never seem to stop, do they? That's why it often makes sense to pick one cause, make it our own, and contribute not just money, but time, energy, and love. Bobbarama did just that when he volunteered to help out at the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk in San Diego in November. Be sure to read both of his posts about this moving event: Hitting the Road for a Good Cause, written before the Cancer Walk, and Zero to 60 in Three Days, written afterwards.

Sometimes the grace and humor needed to deal with a devastating medical condition are only visible to the patient's closest friends. Laura Young shares her love for her friend Michael, a quadriplegic, in Powerful Story of Survival: Thirty-one Years and Still Standing. And, just to remind us that humans aren't the only models of courage and persistence in the face of mortality, Linda Freedman offers a shining example of Inspiration in the form of an industrious spider. Don't miss the wonderful YouTube music video!

I tell Carnival of Hope contributors that I prefer personal stories, and I've already included more "impersonal" items in this edition than usual. But I'd like to share one more that really resonated for me. Last summer, I took a course on art and spirituality where we worked with various symbols and images. One of the ones that came up for me was a broken egg, and the phrase that arose when I thought about that image was, "If you feel broken, maybe something's hatching." I'd forgotten all about that moment in the class until I read the parable of The Cracked Pot, submitted by Praveen. For me, this story is a reminder that even at our most flawed, we can nourish others.

I'd like to end with another gem from Nickie, one she posted rather than writing herself. It's an Advent reflection, author unknown, from the "Daily Update" webpage of her college, The College of St. Catherine. Because I'm not sure how long the link to the quotation will be active, I'm posting the text. While this is especially meaningful to those of us from the Abrahamic faith traditions, I hope others will also find it moving:
With prophets Isaiah and Micah, we wait for the one who will bring the healing liberation of justice's peace. With John the Baptizer and Joseph, we wait for the one who will bring the healing liberation of forgiveness. With Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, we wait for the one who can bring forth the kingdom of healing liberation: ourselves. And while we wait for you, you wait for us.
May all of you have a blessed and light-filled holiday season, and may your waiting be rewarded!