Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Grand Rounds, and Not Enough Snow

This week's Grand Rounds is up! I'm delighted to be included, and equally delighted that my friend Inez's hilarious and harrowing post Mammosity is included too. Welcome back to the blogosphere, Inez!

In less happy news, today has not been declared a snow day, much to my and Gary's disappointment. We got a lot of snow last night, and we were both hoping that it would continue well into this morning: I didn't want to have to drive to work in the snow, and Gary didn't want to have to shovel the driveway. But alas, this morning's clear as the proverbial bell, and UNR's open.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Heeeeere's Harley!

Sir Harlequin informed me this morning that it isn't at all fair for Bali and Figaro to be featured on the blog so often when he's hardly had any portraits posted at all. After all, he is the senior cat in the household, with the thickest and most beautiful fur. He's the cat who rescues the other cats from closets and the garage, and who rescues me from the shower (by racing around the bathroom yowling) and from naps (by prancing on my ribcage until I wake up, because humans who are sleeping during the day can't perform their true calling of feeding cats).

So here's Harley, also known as Harley the Hilarious and Harley the Handsome. And if you think he has a lot of fur here, you should see his belly. The white fur underneath is longer than the black fur on top; my mother always says that he looks like his stuffing is coming out. Also, when he grooms himself, he looks like he's pulling taffy with his tongue, an effect you can see a little bit in these pictures.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Gospel According to Milton

My first semester of graduate school, nine years before I began attending church, I took a Milton course for which I wrote a paper on Paradise Regained. This is Milton's version of Christ's temptation in the desert. I really enjoyed writing the paper, and my conclusion was that Christ refuses the devil's temptations not just to back the right party, but because a world in which all problems are solved by miracle leaves room neither for human agency nor for salvation. If all stones became bread, there would be no need for people to feed their hungry neighbors; if everyone agreed on the same priorities, there would be no need for people to work towards the Kingdom of God; if angels stepped in to save Jesus in every peril, neither the crucifixion nor Easter would ever have happened. Shortcuts short-circuit God's work, which unfolds in God's own time.

As someone who didn't yet consider herself a Christian, I didn't use those exact words, but that was the gist of it. The professor, a deeply humane and devout Jew, wrote, "This is a great sermon, but only a so-so essay." I didn't get a very good grade on the paper.

At the time, I was devastated. I thought the professor was sneering at me. Now I realize that the essay was indeed essentially shaped like a homily, and that the professor's comment was a matter-of-fact observation about genre (and a prescient one, since I began preaching ten years later). As a religious man, he wasn't putting down sermons; they simply weren't appropriate for a graduate seminar.

Today's Gospel, Luke 4:1-13, is the passage on which Milton wrote his four-book exegesis:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I woke up this morning, late, to snow and cranky sinuses, and seriously considered staying home from church. I decided to go partly because I wanted to hear what the homilist would say about the Gospel.

We had a family service today: kids present for the entire time, rather than coming in from Sunday school just in time for communion. That means a children's homily, which are notoriously difficult to do. (I've never done one, because I wasn't very in sync with kids even when I was one myself.) I was very curious to hear how our preacher, a seminarian specializing in youth ministry, would handle it.

She gave a nice children's homily, but it wasn't on the temptation. It was on the Parable of the Sower.

I have to admit that my mind wandered, because I didn't want to think about the Parable of the Sower. I wanted to think about the Temptation in the Desert. So I sat in my pew and pondered how I'd try to present this Gospel to children.

I think I'd tell some story about a time when I was a kid and an adult refused to do something for me, so I'd learn to do it myself. There was the time I'd climbed up on a high rock and was afraid to climb down, but my babysitter kept saying, "You got up there, and you can get down," and finally I did. There were all the times when my mother patiently gave me pointers on how to do homework that looked impossible, but made me do it myself instead of doing it for me. There were the times when my parents insisted that I learn to swim without a raft, learn to ride a bike without training wheels, learn to cross the street by myself. What seemed to me at the time like cruelty, like a mean refusal to help me be more comfortable, was really love: they knew I could do those things under my own power, and they wanted me to know it too.

So I'd tell one of those stories, and then I'd probably ask the kids if they had stories like that. (This is always the part that takes a while!) And then I'd explain that Jesus was doing the same thing, refusing the devil's temptation to do for us what we can learn to do for ourselves. Jesus, like his Father, was being a good parent.

And then I might give them some bread, and ask them to find someone in the congregation to feed.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bali Behind Bars

Cats, as we all know, love warm places, especially various kinds of vents. This means that our cats have always loved to snooze on top of Gary's stereo receiver, thereby depositing lots of fur on and inside the equipment. A while ago, we hit on the stratagem of putting an upside-down wire mesh "in" basket on top of the receiver to keep the cats from being able to sleep there comfortably. However, Bali's still small enough to squeeze underneath the basket, and today Gary took two pictures of him.

Here's the one that's in focus, but where Bali's eyes are closed:

And here's the one that's out of focus, but where Bali's eyes are open. (Quoth Gary, "It's not blurry; it's art!")

Bali's latest eccentricity is a fondness for unusual vegetables. Gary was cooking with white beans the other night, and Bali acted very interested, so Gary gave him a couple. Bali ate them. Of course, cats in the wild eat little animals who have vegetable matter in their stomachs, so they do need veggie roughage in their diets.

I have no idea, though, how to explain the passion that all of my mother's cats have had for jelly roll. We had one Siamese who, if she was on the second floor, would begin yowling the minute the jelly roll, ensconced in a bag of groceries, came in the front door. She wouldn't let up until we gave her some.

Gary and I don't eat jelly roll, so we don't know if our own cats like the stuff too.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Gala Day! And Buttons.

Today's mail brought all kinds of great stuff: my new scrubs, two new pashmina-and-silk shawls I ordered on sale (one black, one red), and my contributor's copies of The Fate of Mice. Yippee! I now have actual books!

I'm in the process of making some interesting plans for next week. On Monday, I'll be getting together for coffee with the medical-humanities person at the UNR med school, who's interested in hearing about my volunteer work. She read my blog entry on Charon, whose visit she was instrumental in hosting, and enjoyed it.

On Friday, I'll be doing a video interview podcast at the UNR bookstore to promote FoM. One of my students will be one of the interviewers, so it should be fun, if slightly nerve-wracking. I'll post a link here when the podcast is up.

I have a lot of stuff to do between those two events, in addition to the usual teaching. It's going to be a busy week!

In the meantime, I just ironed out a misunderstanding with a dear friend whose buttons got pushed by some of the chaplaincy material on the blog. She had a hideous experience with a hospital chaplain when she was in her twenties, and sent me sharply worded e-mail about how a chaplain's help would be the last thing she'd want if she were ill or waiting for bad news. The initial e-mail didn't mention her own history, though, so I thought she was criticizing me personally. That pushed my buttons, not only for the obvious reasons but because I've had two long-term friendships implode at roughly this time of year. Both of those disasters were sparked by e-mail misunderstandings, and both culminated with the erstwhile friends telling me exactly what they'd thought of me -- not much, in either case -- for many years beforehand. Both were situations where people I loved a lot wound up delivering very hurtful laundry lists of everything they thought was wrong with me.

So when I got my friend's e-mail last night, my first thought was, Oh, s***, here we go again. But after a few more rounds of e-mail and a phone conversation this morning, all is well. Once my friend told me about her chaplain-from-hell experience, I had a much better sense of where she was coming from; once I told her about my imploding-friendships experience, she had a much better idea of where I was coming from. She hadn't intended to hurt my feelings and was upset that she'd done so -- and agreed that the original comments were "harsh" -- and I was inordinately relieved that she hasn't, in fact, secretly loathed me for many moons (that appears to be what was going on with the other two people, although I'll probably never know for sure).

Whew! Hey, this communication stuff's really a godsend, when it actually works.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Change of Shift, and Rita Charon

The new Change of Shift is up over at Protect the Airway, and I'm delighted to be included. AC has done a splendid job with this edition, which is clearly organized and provides an excellent sense of what each post's about.

I just have to kvetch, though: does anybody else hate black blog backgrounds? For me, it makes the text very difficult to read, and my middle-aged eyes have enough trouble already!

And for our next topic: Rita Charon and Narrative Medicine.

Charon's a family practitioner in Manhattan, serving mostly poor patients, who runs the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia (the only one of its kind in the country). This program teaches medical students to be better listeners to patient stories, and to use writing as a way to reflect on their practice and form closer bonds with patients. Charon's also a literary critic and scholar with a PhD in English Lit from Columbia; impressive lady!

On Tuesday, she gave a series of talks at UNR. I was only able to attend one, but it was excellent. Charon's an eloquent and compelling speaker; listening to her, you can tell that she must be a wonderful teacher and doctor.

What struck me most about her talk was her description of how she takes patient histories. The traditional way of doing this is to ask about history of the current illness or condition and then about broader medical history, followed by a review of systems. While Charon gets to all of that in the course of a first visit, it's not where she starts.

She starts, she says, with two sentences; she's trained herself not to say more than that. "I'll be your doctor, and that means that I have to know as much about you as I can. Please tell me what you think it's most important for me to know about you." (I may have the precise wording of that wrong, but that's the gist of it.) While the patient talks, Charon just listens; it took her a while to train herself not to write notes. ("At the beginning, I literally had to sit on my hands.") She said that patients will start all over the place: with family history, with what's happening at home right now, with their fears about their current condition.

She told us how moved many patients are by being asked to do this. One man started crying, because Charon was the first doctor who'd ever asked him what he thought was important.

While the patients are changing for the physical examination, Charon will type up as close to a verbatim transcript of what they said as she can remember. At the end of the visit, she'll give them the transcript and say, "Is this everything?" Sometimes she'll have forgotten something, and sometimes the patients will read the report and say, "Well, we left something out, and we should put it in." Charon told her audience: "You can imagine the things that get left out at first. The traumas, the stillbirths, the losses, the abuse."

Charon gives the patient a copy of this document to take home, as well as putting it in the chart. Her patients get copies of everything that goes in their chart; she encourages what she calls a "co-authored record of care."

Charon's patients must love her. I've certainly never had a doctor take my history that way, and I've had some excellent doctors (as well as some lousy ones). Obviously there are some specialties, like emergency medicine, where this approach would be impractical for time reasons. But I think the state of American medicine would be vastly improved if more physicians listened to their patients' priorities.

And hearing Charon has made me rethink how I introduce myself to hospital patients. I usually say, "I'm a volunteer chaplain, and I visit everyone in the ER to see if anyone needs to talk or would like a prayer." Many patients hear this, correctly, as an invitation to tell their stories, but some patients still seem to view chaplains as people who talk at them. (One recent patient responded to my little intro by glaring and snarling, "I wouldn't call you if I were dying!")

So I think I'm going to try a slightly different intro, something along the lines of, "I'm here to listen to anything you want you tell me." I won't have time to write down what I hear and show it to the patient, but in my work, reflecting what I've heard in how I pray with that patient (if the patient requests a prayer) often serves the same function. A well-worded prayer lets people know that they really have been heard.

At last night's Ash Wednesday service at church, we sang a Taize chant that reinforced the theological importance of listening:

O, Lord hear my prayer,
O Lord hear my prayer;
when I call, answer me.

O, Lord hear my prayer,
O Lord hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.

When people pray, they want a sense that they're praying to someone, that a living entity has heard them. The same is true when they talk to chaplains, or doctors.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Into the Dark

Here's my Ash Wednesday homily. After debating the meaning of the song lyrics with Gary and revising my first draft to include the possibility of suicide, I ran the text by my two parish priests to make sure I wasn't committing any theological or pastoral blunders. To my great relief, both of them like the homily very much and don't think it's too morbid. I hope the congregation will agree!

Here are the Scripture passages, not that I talk about them a lot.

And to start off on a slightly lighter note, here's my favorite Ash Wednesday story. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor Books, converted to Catholicism a few years ago. The first year he observed Lent, he went to Ash Wednesday services before work to receive the imposition of ashes. Walking down the hallway at Tor afterwards, he was stopped by another Tor editor (who shall remain nameless), who gawked and said incredulously, "Patrick! Don't tell me those are ashes on your forehead!"

Patrick, never one to miss an opportunity for a snappy comeback, answered, "No, it was a tragic photocopier accident."

May all of you have a holy Lent!

* * *

There’s a song I’ve been hearing a lot on the radio recently. Sung by the unfortunately-named band Death Cab for Cutie, it’s a love song, called I’ll Follow You Into the Dark. (Note to blog readers: there's an audio file of the song on the band's homepage, which will play automatically if you go there.) The singer -- or, at least, the character he is singing about -- promises his lover that when she dies, he’ll follow her, no matter what happens. “If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks,” he tells her, “then I’ll follow you into the dark.”

My husband and I have been having a running argument about these lyrics. Gary thinks they’re about a suicide pact, but -- maybe because the music is quiet, thoughtful, and acoustic -- I’ve never heard them that way. I think the words are a statement of faith, an expression of belief that love survives death. The singer tells us that he was driven away from Catholic school by a nun who taught that “fear is the heart of love.” Rejecting that idea, he sings instead about love that conquers fear, and pledges his devotion to the one he loves.

I thought of this song a few weeks ago, when I read the news story, one many of you probably also saw, about the 5,000 year old skeletons found locked in an embrace in Italy. Although one might see a Romeo-and-Juliet style-suicide pact here, too, the archaeologists who discovered the skeletons were deeply moved by the obvious love between these two ancient people. Anthropologist Luca Bondioli says that there are “other prehistoric burials in which the dead hold hands or have other contact.” These discoveries, according to Bondioli, prove that people’s relationships with each other, and with death, haven’t changed that much in the past five millenia. For all that time, we’ve been vowing to follow our loved ones into the dark.

Today, Ash Wednesday, begins the forty days of Lent. We mark Ash Wednesday, and are marked by it, in a somber reminder of our own mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We know that Lent will end with the glorious sunrise of Easter, when love will conquer death forever, when our “light shall break forth like the dawn,” and our “gloom be like the noonday.” But we also know that the road to Easter leads through deep shadow, the utter darkness and desolation of Good Friday. There is no resurrection without death. On Ash Wednesday, we promise to follow Jesus -- whom we love, and who loves us -- into the dark. Lent is the annual process of preparing for his death, and for our own.

That process requires us to reorder our priorities; to decide what is most important to us; to discern where our hearts, and our treasures, truly lie. Whatever Lenten disciplines we embrace during these forty days, they should heighten our love of life and of the people in our lives. That is, I think, the point of Jesus’ repeated warnings against public display of good works in the Gospel. What we do during Lent should be done not to impress strangers, but to honor God, the source of everything we have, and our ultimate promise that love will indeed conquer death.

Dying people rarely care what strangers think of them: they face the urgent task of completing unfinished business while they still can. Everything non-essential falls away. Lent reminds us that everyone is dying. These forty days invite us to ponder what is truly essential, and what isn’t. I’ve read that there are “five last things” that dying people need to hear, and to say:

“Forgive me."

"I forgive you."

"Thank you."

"I love you."


Saying those things now, or at least the first four of them, might be an appropriate Lenten discipline for all of us.

If loving one another even unto death has been a human trait for the last five thousand years, so has fear of the dark. Very few people face sudden darkness, much less dying, without being afraid. We fear what we don’t know, and we fear the loss of what we do know. But ours is a theology that is much more about love than about fear. Our faith promises that when we are afraid, we will be comforted. The God we worship and serve, the God who took human form to love and serve and save us, will follow us into the dark.

Most of you know that I volunteer as a hospital chaplain. Several years ago, I spoke to a patient whose fear had literally landed him in the emergency room. He was at the hospital to rule out a heart attack, but he told me that his chest pain and shortness of breath were probably caused by an anxiety disorder. One of the things that got him through his panic attacks, he said, was the memory of a profound encounter with God he’d had when he was a little boy.

When he was eight or so, he’d been playing softball. Running across the field, he had a vision. It only lasted a few seconds, but he had never forgotten it. “I was running to first base,” he said, “and suddenly everything was transformed. I felt love radiating from the grass, the trees, the sky, the sun: everything was love. And I felt God running with me, just behind my right shoulder. I was as certain of God’s presence as I am of yours right now.

“But then something happened, and there was a gaping hole in front of me: a rectangle, like a grave. It was deep and dark, and I was afraid of it. But I stood on the edge and looked down into it, and I felt that same love blasting up at me from the darkness. If the love had been wind, it would have knocked me off my feet. And I heard God’s voice, just behind my right shoulder, saying, ‘Don’t be afraid of the darkness. There’s love there, too.’”

As we follow Jesus into the darkness of Lent -- as we face his death and our own -- let us remember that he never asks us to go anywhere he has not gone himself. No matter how dark some of the places may be where Jesus has gone, we can be secure in our faith that there is love there, too: the love that will transform the darkness of Lent into the light of Easter, revealing the empty tomb.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Academy Grand Rounds! And other stuff!

This week's Grand Rounds is up, with an Oscar theme. I didn't make it in this week: pfui! But as I tell all my writing students, we have to get used to rejection; and this way, I'll appreciate the next time I get in even more.

I've been submitting to Grand Rounds since, I think, August, and there have only been two weeks when I've submitted something and haven't gotten in. So really, that's a pretty good record! Certainly better than my print publishing record, since like nearly all writers, I collected the proverbial shoebox of rejection slips before I actually sold something. In fiction, that is; actually, the first two poems I sent to SF magazines sold right away, but SF poetry is such an esoteric little field that this probably says more about the scarcity of material than about my own skill.

Speaking of poetry, this past week I got up the courage to tell my supervisor at the hospital -- my erstwhile CPE supervisor, and one of our staff chaplains -- about the ED Sonnets. He was very supportive: pleased that I'm writing about the work, and less concerned about privacy issues than I feared he'd be (although if I ever get a complete manuscript together, I'll run it past the Community Relations guy at the hospital to make sure I'm not likely to step on any toes). At the end of the conversation, which happened up in his office before I went down to the ED to start my shift, he even said, "Go down there and get material for your blog!" Which is very definitely how I try to avoid thinking about the hospital work, but never mind. Viewing everything that happens to us as potential material is one of the more vampiric habits writers can fall into.

Meanwhile, the ScrubQuest saga seems to have attracted unusual reader interest. Who knew? Maybe the TV show Scrubs needs a spinoff series about the lives of the characters' scrub shirts?

Anyway, my friend Inez from Iowa -- former star student, mom of the adorable Rickie-dog, and writer and professor extraordinaire -- sent me the following fabulous suggestion about what to do with my old, faded Magic Shirt:
I think you should keep all your scrub shirts as they wear out and have a quilt made in a few years. You can use it for decor, but also cuddle up under it when you need a psychic hug -- or lend it to friends who need one, etc. Plus, good excuse to keep in newish scrubs before they wear to threads.

Think of like, old fashioned patchwork quilts; it will become a record of your ministry -- "oh, I was wearing that shirt when x happened."
So is that a great idea, or what? Especially since I love quilts but have neither the patience nor the skill to make them myself. One of my most prized possessions is a beautiful little wall quilt, hand-dyed and hand-sewn, that a student's mother gave me to thank me for helping her daughter out when she was sick. Someday I'll post a picture of that. If the house were on fire, that quilt's one of the things I'd grab before I fled.

That and my computer. And Gary. And the cats.

Hmmmm. I think I need more arms!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Clergy Night

Last night's hospital shift was very busy. My final census was 97, which is a record. Obviously, those don't all represent substantial conversations, just people to whom I made myself available: the pastoral-care department needs to keep statistics, like everyone else. But it was still a tiring shift.

In one of those statistically improbable patterns that seem to happen so often in the ED, where we'll have a run of patients with the same complaint or the same background, four of the patients I spoke to last night were retired clergy.

I've written here before about my struggles with status issues in the hospital, and also about my difficulties around ordination. All of this guarantees that talking to patients who are ordained clergy tends to throw me into an acute state of impostor syndrome, especially when said clergy are fellow Episcopalians.

In my most awkward encounter, several months ago, both the patient and his wife were Episcopal priests -- and personal acquaintances. The wife had helped interview me for ordination. She was also a chaplain with several units of CPE who had made it quite clear that she didn't think I should drop the program. I prayed with them, but the entire time (and I'm sure I'm wrong about this, since she certainly had more important things on her mind) I felt like she was watching me with the wincing forbearance of an adult waiting for a child to finish sawing her way through a really painful violin recital.

And then there was the Lutheran pastor, with her mother in the ED, who seemed to consider it her duty to convince me to quit my job and attend seminary to become a priest. This happened back when I was still actively in process for the diaconate; I kept trying to explain that deacons are a full and equal order and that I didn't want to go to seminary, thank you, but this very determined lady was on a mission from God. She wasn't about to listen to my trivial objections about, oh, having to keep working so I could pay my mortgage.

One of my best visits, on the other hand, was with a patient being watched by several corrections-department guards, who told me shyly that he was a chaplain in the prison. He was delighted to have me pray with him, and we blessed each other's work and talked about prison ministry. I don't think he was ordained; in any case, there was no question of either of us pulling rank. We were both doing work we loved, and we respected each other.

Last night's clergy were a mixed bag. The first was a retired Episcopal priest from another diocese, whose wife peered at me and demanded, "Where are you from? Are you from a seminary?" No, ma'am. I'm sure she didn't intend the question to make me feel defensive, but it did anyway.

The second and third patients beamed at me and were very happy to have me there; I suspect it helped that neither of them were from my denomination, and wouldn't have had the vocabulary to question my qualifications even if they'd been inclined to.

The fourth patient also wasn't from my denomination. He was 100 years old and had worked in ordained ministry for sixty years before retiring at age 90. No one was with him in the hospital. I sat next to his bed, and we had a long talk about his work and his family and the changes he's seen over the last century. He remembers when people used horses instead of cars; his first car, a Chevrolet, cost $750. "You've gone from seeing people ride horses to seeing a man walk on the moon," I told him, and he smiled and laughed, and we pondered what amazing things will happen in the next hundred years, finally agreeing that we probably can't even imagine them.

He'd been a missionary, a church pastor, and -- for ten years -- a hospital chaplain in another state. "I think my work is what's kept me alive so long," he told me simply. It was obvious that he loved what he did and that he loved people, and grieved whatever divided them from each other and from God. And when he talked to me about my own work, he made me feel as if we were equals, even though he's more than twice my age and has more experience in ministry than I'll ever have. He'd tell me some story and then say, "You know what that's like from the work you do." He used his own experience to affirm mine, instead of discounting it.

I want to be like him when I grow up: especially if I ever am ordained, but even if I'm not.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Good Stuff (or: Whales for Lent)

Yesterday I got e-mail from the fabulous Maggie, who has evidently been following my scrubs saga with great interest (perhaps more than it deserves?). She's a quilter, and she told me that on her trips to various fabric stores, she's going to look for the magic-shirt fabric. If she finds it, she offered me to make me a scrub shirt -- she has a pattern for scrubs -- which I won't have to pay for, even. "I love the story of the magic scrub top and I want to see it keep going!"

How completely and utterly cool and kind and generous is that?

Of course I said yes. How could I not say yes? Thank you, Maggie! And I hope you find the fabric!

Good hunting! (Looking for fabric's more fun than looking for Cylons, yes?)

This morning I got e-mail from my friend Pamela K. Taylor, a progressive Muslim who's been on several of the "Religious Left" panels I've moderated at WisCon. The Washington Post has selected her as one of their "On Faith" panelists, so she's now writing a weekly column for them. You can find the first one here. I don't know nearly as much as I should about Islam, so I always welcome the chance to learn more. Congratulations, Pamela!

And last night, I finished a draft of my Ash Wednesday homily (which, of course, I'll be posting here on Wednesday). Writing the homily, I finally stumbled on a useful way to think about Lent, which I've always considered an unpleasant season of gloom and guilt-tripping. Last night, pondering Ash Wednesday's reminders of mortality, I realized that what Lent's really doing is calling us to live as thoughtfully and intentionally as people do when they know they're dying: to strip down to the essentials, to figure out what's really important and what can be let go. It's like that "What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?" question, except that Lent asks us, "What would you do if you knew you were going to die in forty days?"

And the answer is surely some combination of "Give up the nonessentials, to have more energy for what's important," and "Have fun in ways you've always wanted to." Which means that our Spring Break Maui trip isn't anti-Lenten at all. If I knew I were going to die in forty days, I'd definitely squeeze in a trip to Maui to watch whales.

Friday, February 16, 2007

And two more!

Oh, dear. I just ordered two more scrub tops, partly because these are the 100% cotton I've been looking for.

As you can see, these are in put-your-eye-out colors. It's been very grey here today, and I suspect I'm jonesing for brightness, even with my lightbox. I wear them with black slacks, and with a black turtleneck underneath in the winter; I guess the tops are my version of garish vestments. I shouldn't have let myself shop for them until spring -- rather like not going into a supermarket when you're hungry -- except that the magic shirt wouldn't have held out that long. But I at least shouldn't have shopped for them until the sun was out.

Really, this is kind of pathetic. I spend four hours a week max at the hospital: why do I need four scrub tops? One for each week of the month? Well, at least these should last a while, right? Now I just hope they fit! (Although I can return them if they don't.)

My rationale for wearing the magic shirt every single time was that people would learn to recognize it, easing some of the who-are-you-again? thing that happens when medical staff only see you for ten seconds a week. I guess the same general notion will hold now. "Oh, the chaplain? She's the one you can't approach without sunglasses, because her scrub tops will vaporize your corneas."

Kind of like the transfiguration. Only different.

Well, the bright colors should help cheer up patients, just like the magic shirt did. And really, that's most of the point (although I'm careful to maintain the black background, so I'll look at least semi-somber if I have to spend time with grieving families).


As I've mentioned here before, Gary tried to get me another magic shirt for Christmas, only to learn that the pattern had been discontinued. I've been doggedly wearing the old one, even though one seam is slightly frayed, but when I got home from the hospital last week, Gary shook his head and said, "That shirt's really faded. You need to get a new one."

So I embarked on an online shopping expedition for a new scrub top.

Gary and I do as much of our shopping online as possible; it's easier and much less stressful than venturing out to stores, and online merchants often have a greater selection than physical stores do. But my early efforts to find new scrubs -- and I browsed nearly every online uniform store -- were incredibly frustrating. I'd find a pattern I liked, only to learn that it wasn't available in my size or that it only came in polyester, rather than my preferred cotton.

This morning, worn down, I finally ordered two tops from Amazon. They're both poly-cotton, and I don't like either of the patterns as well as I like the magic shirt, but they'll do for the moment. I'll find another magic shirt when the time is right. I'm looking for something else with a celestial theme; I found a lovely one with suns and moons, but the color scheme I liked only came in extra-large.

Of course, now that I've ordered these two, a new magic shirt will probably pop up right away. That's how these things generally work. But it can't hurt to have a few backups, right? I haven't been slimed by a patient yet -- and that's not too likely, since I'm a chaplain rather than a medical person -- but it could always happen.

I don't know what I'll do with the old, faded magic shirt. If I were better at sewing, I'd make it into a pillow or a quilt. Maybe I'll cut out a little square and frame it.

Rest in peace, magic shirt. You served me well.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Graceful Aging (or: Use What Works)

I've had back problems for at least twelve years now. I don't have a slipped disk or anything like that, but I've known for a long time that my back tends to spasm under certain conditions, especially if I don't exercise regularly. (This is one reason I'm so faithful about going to the gym.) Among other things, I've known for many years that any weight I'm carrying needs to be centered and close to my body, rather than hanging off one shoulder. This means that my ideal luggage items are backpacks and waistpacks.

But, well, backpacks and waistpacks aren't very fashionable or professional looking, so I kept trying to find alternatives. I've had several lovely leather bags that were supposed to work as backpacks, but didn't really, because the straps were too thin and cut into my shoulders (and leather's heavy!). Last year, I'd gone back to using a shoulderbag, and when my back spasmed terribly in April -- keeping me housebound on muscle relaxants for three days -- it was because I'd been carrying too much weight on one side. Anyone who thinks academics are desk potatoes hasn't thought about how much heavy lifting we do toting books and papers around.

The spasm last April is also why I now always wear Keen sandals, with warm socks in cold weather, unless it's actually raining or snowing (when I wear clunky Gore-Tex boots). Even a low heel makes my back very unhappy, and my feet need a lot of support from a shoe that will stay on securely. Keens are just the ticket. They're also incredibly comfortable. And if they bear more than a passing resemblance to the awful orthopedic shoes my grandmother used to wear, the ones I swore I'd never be caught dead in, that's okay. Keens are currently all the rage among hardy outdoor types, so they make me look less like a desk potato, rather than more.

A few weeks ago, I finally accepted the fact that comfort and health are more important than fashion and looking professional. So I bought a lightweight nylon backpack to serve as my teaching briefcase, and a waistpack to be my purse. This means that when I walk from my car to my office, I look like I'm setting off on a Himalayan trek rather than a stroll across a college campus. But hey, I have tenure now. I can look as dorky as I want.

I've also gotten to the point in life where I'm on five different oral medications (two antidepressants, eye vitamins to stave off macular degeneration, glucosamine for arthritis, and calcium), all of which have to be taken at different times. I have pill bottles scattered around the house, with locations chosen by where I am at each time of the day. Evening meds are on the bedroom vanity where I brush my teeth before going to bed. Morning meds are on the desk in my study, where I drink coffee and read e-mail after waking up.

In theory, that's a good system. But there's one problem. Sometimes I'll be brushing my teeth or drinking my morning coffee, and I can't remember if I've taken my meds yet. Because my antidepressant doses are so small, and because these are also meds that take a while either to build up in the bloodstream or to wear off, I usually figure that missing a dose, or taking an extra one, isn't a big deal.

Last night, I couldn't remember if I'd taken my nortriptyline. So I took one, and then thought, "Did I just take a second one? Well, no biggie. It's a small dose."

But one of the side-effects of nortriptyline can be nightmares, and boy, did I have nightmares last night! I woke up at about 4 a.m., shaking from a long, involved, all-too-realistic series of nightmares that included plausible conversations with friends and all kinds of colorful detail. I finally managed to get back to sleep, only to plunge right back into the same nightmare sequence; it was like I'd paused a DVD and then hit play again. When I woke up again at 8:30, Harley-the-rescue-cat, who never stays still for a cuddle unless I'm upset, was next to me in bed, cuddling against my side.

I knew the nightmares were just dreams, but they'd gone on for so long, and felt so real, that it took me a long time to shake them off. Gary had to keep hugging me and reassuring me that none of that stuff had actually happened.

So after work today, I went to the supermarket and bought two of those pill organizers, the ones that have a separate compartment for each day of the week so you can tell if you've taken that day's pill or not. I think of these as things Old Folks use (and I found the photo on a site called "Products for Seniors"). But if the organizers will keep me from having those nightmares again, I'm all for them!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Moi? Traditional?

Elliot at Claw of the Conciliator has listed me as one of the latest members of the Christian speculative-fiction tradition. I'm proud to be included in this group, which includes an impressive list of forbears. But I'm also amused by the idea of being part of a literary tradition, although I suppose everybody's part of some tradition. At any rate, being included in the same list as Philip K. Dick -- who evidently identified as Episcopalian, which I hadn't known -- and Connie Willis is just fine with me.

Okay, Elliot, here's a question for you, and a fun bit of bio-trivia: plenty of SF/F writers identify as Christian and write about faith in various forms, but how many have been converted partly by the process of writing SF/F?

As I've said here several times before, reading Lewis and Tolkien when I was a kid probably got me started on the road to Christianity. Writing my doctoral dissertation, which for several years had me steeped in 19th-century Christian feminism (Stowe et. al.), inched me further along that road. But one of the really important moments in my conversion process came when, in 1994, I wrote "GI Jesus" while under the influence of a 103-degree fever. That novella's the final story in The Fate of Mice, and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Writing it kicked my faith journey into much higher gear than it had been in before. (Some Christians who've read it have been deeply offended by it; others love it.)

I'd be really curious to know if other SF/F writers relatively new to faith have had similar experiences.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Another Glowing Review!

The Fate of Mice just got an overwhelmingly positive review from Carole Ann Moleti at Tangent Online. It turns out that Moleti's a nurse-midwife: how fitting is that?

The review contains some startling readings of a few stories, especially "The Old World," which I wrote as a realio-trulio utopian tale, albeit an ironic one. But that's always going to happen; writers can't control how readers interpret their work, and inevitably someone says something that leaves us scratching our heads.

There are also a few factual errors. For instance: "Going After Bobo" is set in Reno, not Vegas.

Ahem. Repeat after me, children: Reno is not Vegas. Reno is not Vegas. Reno is not Vegas. Write that out one hundred times until you've learned it. If your hand cramps and you need a break, go study the map.

I've e-mailed Moleti about this (although the main point of the note was to thank her for the review). Nevadans truly are touchy on this point.

However, since she has nothing negative to say about any of the stories, I'm extremely happy!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Valentine's Day at Grand Rounds

Jenni of Chronic Babe has done a sweet job on this week's Grand Rounds, with a theme of Valentine's Day treats. I'm delighted to be included and look forward to reading the other posts.

I haven't even had time to read my regular blogroll today, though! I had a couple of meetings at work, and then went swimming, and then we took Balthazar to the vet for his first shots. He behaved like a champ -- he was very calm in the doctor's office -- and she says he seems really healthy. Hurrah!

My car, on the other hand, is still in the shop, and I can't get it back until late tomorrow. So I'm still driving the rental, although I'm more comfortable with it now.

Last night's hospital shift was very busy (my census was 83, which is close to my highest-ever count of 89), but there were no codes, thank goodness. It was one of the nights when patients seemed to be glad I was there, and that's always a good feeling. One of my most touching visits was with a patient who's in very bad shape and going into a pretty risky clinical trial, but whose faith puts mine to shame. If I were in this patient's place, I suspect I'd be doing my best Job imitation, cursing God from my dungheap. Serenity would be in very short supply, but this patient radiated it.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Burgers in the Alley

Like all ERs, the one where I volunteer has its share of frequent fliers: patients who come in repeatedly, either because they have chronic medical conditions or because they have no insurance and use the ER for primary care. Staff members get to know these patients; they're fond of some, and roll their eyes whenever others show up.

In the winter, we see an increase in the number of homeless patients, some of whom are frequent fliers anyway. I once saw a group of EMTs, after hearing a radio description of a homeless patient being brought in by ambulance, taking bets on the patient's identity. They thought they'd recognized him just from the paramedic's description of his complaints. And sure enough, when he arrived, he was the person they'd been expecting, and they greeted him warmly (if in somewhat amused tones).

Some staff grumble that homeless patients come to the hospital in the winter just to have a warm place to stay the night, and maybe some food. Even if that's true, it seems to me that if you're homeless in two feet of snow -- especially if all the shelters in town are full -- a warm bed may be as essential to your survival as breathing treatments or cardiac drugs are for other patients. Homeless patients, it seems to me, come to the ER because they want to stay alive, which (after all) is why most of the other patients are there, too. At the same time, I'm sympathetic to staff frustrations over limited resources, and to the unpleasantness of dealing with patients who often have very ripe odors, sometimes combined with bad manners.

Several years ago, a young tech who was heading off either to nursing or med school (I forget which) told me a wonderful story about her relationship with a homeless frequent flier. One evening after dark, she left the hospital to buy dinner for her co-workers. Coming back with a huge bag of hamburgers, she took a shortcut through an alley between two buildings, only to find her way blocked by a very scary homeless man who demanded, “Where are you going with all that food?”

The tech was terrified, convinced that she was about to be mugged for her hamburgers. But then another homeless man, someone she recognized from the ER, popped out of the shadows and made the first man back down. “You leave her alone!” said her rescuer. “She works at the hospital, and she was nice to me when I was there!”

She made it back to the hospital safely. I didn't ask if she'd given her rescuer a hamburger, but I hope she did.

If this incident hadn't really happened, it would sound like a fable, wouldn't it? Something by Aesop, with people instead of animals? And, of course, the moral would be: Sometimes good deeds really are rewarded.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Two New Cat Pix

I haven't been able to satisfy the Balthazar fan club lately, because he won't stay still long enough for me to get anything even remotely in focus. But today I managed to snap an only slightly out-of-focus picture of Bali and Figaro on my rocking chair.

However, I have to say that Figaro's the most photogenic beast in the entire household. Just look at this handsome mug!

In other news, I picked up my rental car today. It's a bizarre vehicle called a Dodge Caliber, sort of like a mini-SUV. I don't like it. It's too big, and the windows are too small, so I have trouble seeing the other cars around me and also have trouble figuring out where the edges of the car are. I'll be very happy when I can return it to the rental agency and get my little Ford back!

However, the Caliber will allow me to get to church, to the assisted-living service, and to the hospital tomorrow, and to several meetings at work on Monday. And these are Good Things.

#*&!@* Car!

Remember my car accident in December? The one that occurred at fifteen miles per hour but still left me with a $1,000 repair bill? Well, it turns out that they missed something.

Yesterday the car started making very unhappy noises when I braked. I drove it to the garage yesterday afternoon, but told them that I absolutely needed the car back today. Tomorrow's church, a nursing-home service, and the hospital, and the beginning of next week is all-meetings-and-teaching all the time. I thought I might need new brake pads, or something.

Turns out that the accident bent the hub very, very slightly. They missed it the first time. That bent the rotor and damaged some other stuff. So I'm looking at another $600+ bill, and because one of the parts can only come from Ford -- which is one of two dealerships in town that's closed today -- the repairs won't be done until late Monday.

And I can't be without a car for the next two days; I just can't. So I'll have to rent one. Which is more money.


This is beyond frustrating. We have the money (although I'd rather spend it on other things), and if I had more energy, I suppose I could tell the garage that they should have caught the damage the first time and try to fight the bill. But I'm not inclined to do that. It's human error, and I make mistakes too, and life's too short to pick battles when there are other alternatives.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Carnival of Hope: Volume 1, Number 6

Welcome to the February Carnival of Hope! I want to thank everyone who submitted a post this month, even if I didn't use it.

Next month's CoH will be posted on Friday, March 9; the submission deadline is Thursday, March 8 at 5 PM PST. It's hard to believe that Daylight Savings Time will begin the following Sunday! This month, I didn't have a theme, and got more submissions than usual, so the March carnival will also be theme-less. Just send me your best posts, please! You can use the Blog Carnival submission form or write directly to me at SusanPal (at) aol (dot) com. Please include the permalink for the post and a two or three line description.

CoH is being posted later than usual this month because I've been so busy at work. I also didn't have time to do anything fun like come up with photos for each post, the way I did last month. For health reasons, I've been making exercise a priority lately, which means that I've been spending an hour or two a day at the gym and have fallen behind on a lot of other things.

Last night, my husband and I came home after a concert, and even though I knew I should work on this edition, I was so tired that I had to go to bed. So I agree fully with Tiel Aisha Ansari's witty poem Thank God for Sleep. Tiel's a talented poet, and I encourage you to read more widely on her blog, Knocking From Inside. And while we're on the subject of poetry, Rays of Sunlite praises Rumi's work, a perennial source of hope for many people, in Children of One Faith.

Many of our posts this month celebrate how other people inspire us. That process begins, if we're lucky, in our families, as Karen Shanley reminds us in her gorgeous Painting the Air, a deeply moving and beautifully written post honoring her father. Josh Bickford shares another wonderful family story in his lovely tribute to his mother.

Sometimes it's difficult for us to realize how interdependent we are with all people, even if they aren't relatives. Karen Lynch shares her experience of learning to ask for help -- and being gratified by the results -- in Open Up to the Love of the Universe. This isn't an easy realization to come to, however. Although 12-Step programs have saved countless lives, many people balk at admitting that they're powerless over their problems. Isabella Mori wrestles with this process, and discovers that hope is the flip side of powerlessness, in the first step.

Even when we've accepted our interdependence with other people, however, life in community can be profoundly aggravating and stressful, especially for those in leadership positions. Clergy, who have infamously high rates of burnout, know this better than anyone. For at least some ministers, though, the rewards are worth it, as PT Pastor tells us in his post about why he serves a congregation.

Even two people can form a community, and sometimes, even someone we haven't seen for years can help us rediscover old priorities and act on them -- especially if that person has maintained faith in us and continued hoping for our success in projects we've abandoned. Craig Harper tells such a story in Where did the Dreamer Go?

We don't have to meet people in person to inspire them. Writing crosses miles, erasing distance and providing powerful catalysts for change. Laura Young wrote an article that had a profound effect on a woman named Sue Weiland in what turned out to be the last moments of Sue's life. When Sue's family contacted Laura to let her know how important her words had been, a relationship was born out of tragedy. Laura shares the outcome of this story in her post about meeting Sue's family.

Sue Weiland's loved ones have become activists as a result of her murder, using their own loss to help others. On a slightly lighter note, Leonard Alexander tells us about Kim Evans, who decided that she didn't want her disability anymore and auctioned it off on Ebay to raise money for research. Many of us would love to be able to give our medical problems away -- but although no one would choose any kind of illness, it sometimes has unexpected benefits, as Lee Long reminds us in her post describing hopeful news about depression.

Often, there's no apparent upside to illness. Patients can still find sources of hope and comfort, though. In my work as a volunteer hospital chaplain, I've discovered that many patients are sustained in part by their love for their pets.

While we learn ways to cope with the illnesses that cause such pain and loss in our lives, all of us would rather see cures for these conditions. A cure for cancer remains a perennial hope, the Holy Grail of much medical research. Chris Johnson describes one promising discovery in Cheap Cure for Cancer? I have to admit that I'm always skeptical of such claims, so I was glad that Chris linked to a Daily Kos blog post criticizing this research, and cautioning us against false hope.

Some people know from a very early age that their purpose in life is to help find a cure for cancer. For most of us, though, figuring out why we're here is a bit more complicated. Moses E. Miles III defines our purpose in life as our ministry, whether we're religious or not. In a two-part post, here and here, Miles tells us how he recovered from adversity and found his own purpose. He also links to a post by Steve Pavlina decribing how to discover your life purpose in about twenty minutes. As regular readers of this blog know, I'm very skeptical of such claims, but this one actually makes sense to me. (And I was amused by the subtitle of Steve's blog: "Personal Development for Smart People.")

Our life purposes don't have to involve huge changes; in fact, they usually start small. Mallory learns this when she resolves to take Baby Steps to Changing the World. (This page takes a while to load, at least on my browser, so please be patient.) When we're ready for slightly bigger steps, we can begin practicing the discipline of trying to understand, empathize with, and respect all points of view in any given conflict, which is surely one of the necessary prerequisites for peace (as elusive a goal as a cure for cancer). D.A.N. illustrates this process in his post about respecting everyone touched by war.

And since changing the world almost always involves letting go of old values and flying in the face of received wisdom, it's worth remembering that the labels and numbers other people attach to us aren't always important. Matthew Paulson shares one example of unconventional wisdom in I Have a Credit Score of Zero . . . And I Love It!.

And that's it for this month. I welcome your comments and feedback, and I hope you'll come back in March!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

We Got Your Blog Carnivals Right Here

The latest Change of Shift is up, hosted by the always-witty Mother Jones RN. I'm proud to be included.

Also, the Carnival of Hope deadline is 5:00 today: there's still time to send me last-minute posts! Last night I went through what I have so far, and CoH will be unusually large this month. I'm happy to have a lot of good material, but I have much less free time than usual to get it organized and posted. So it probably won't be posted tonight, and may even be posted very late tomorrow . . . and Saturday's not out of the question. The next few days are crammed full of meetings and social stuff, and when I'm not doing all that, I should be grading.

So please be patient with me! I promise that CoH will indeed be posted; I'm just not sure when.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Fun Fact

This morning I went to a meeting for volunteer chaplains at my hospital. Among other things, we learned that in 2005, volunteer chaplains visited 13,393 patients and family members in the hospital.

Go, us!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Grand Rounds, et cetera

This week's edition is up, hosted by Dr. Couz. I'm honored to be included! The theme this week is medical professionals as people, and how they handle the personal/professional boundary. The posts look fascinating, and I'm looking forward to having time to read them.

That won't happen today, though. I'll be heading off to the gym after breakfast -- I've discovered that a good workout in the morning makes the day go much more smoothly -- and then I teach both of my classes, and then I have two meetings with students, and then Gary's meeting me at work so we can grab a bite to eat before going to a concert on campus.

The next three weeks are going to be crammed with grading, writing deadlines (including my Ash Wednesday homily) and committee tasks at work. After March 1, I hope to have a bit of a breather. And during Spring Break, we'll be in Maui!

That's what's keeping me going right now. When I start panicking about everything I have to do, I think about whales. Also, amazing flowers of colors you've never seen on the mainland and never will see (at least not in the flesh), because they can't be brought here, because they harbor organisms that would decimate mainland crops.

Also, swimming under cold waterfalls and in the warm ocean. Ahhhhhhh!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Unexpected Reactions

Before I started volunteering at the hospital, I had theories about what would disturb me the most: seeing dead people, hearing people scream, bearing witness to tragic stories. I've done all of that now, and while none of it's my favorite part of the work, it's okay. I can handle it. Blood and other bodily fluids don't bother me; smells usually don't bother me; the occasional rude or nasty patient doesn't bother me. Granted, I sometimes think about all of those things after they've happened, sometimes for quite a while, but they don't throw me off balance. They're part of the natural order of things.

Last night, I saw a patient in end-stage liver disease whose skin was this exact shade of chartreuse. I've seen jaundice before, but I've never seen someone who literally had green skin. To say that it startled me would be an understatement.

I don't think my reaction showed. The patient was very nice, but feeling too sick to talk; later, I offered my services to family members, who said quietly, "No, we don't need a chaplain yet." (Last night's shift contained an unusually high percentage of people who believed that chaplains only show up for last rites . . . which, of course, I couldn't perform if I wanted to, since I'm not a Catholic priest. The last patient I visited became very agitated and said, "I don't need no chaplain! I'm not dying! I don't need no chaplain!" I tried to explain that I visit everyone, but the agitation continued, so I just left. I hate making people feel worse.)

I'm very sad for this patient and family; I've prayed for them. But I also can't get that skin color out of my head. It's just . . . wrong. It's not part of the natural order of things. Well, no: of course it's part of the natural order, or it wouldn't exist; but my instinctive reaction was a visceral horror I haven't felt in other situations.

There are undoubtedly deep insights to be gleaned here about racism, ostracism, and the stigma borne by people with visible skin conditions like leprosy. I haven't untangled all of that yet. But the incident has made me wonder if nurses and doctors ever have similar reactions, if -- despite everything they've seen and done -- some sights or sounds are so unexpected that they get through all the professional defenses and are burned into memory. And when that happens, how do medical caregivers deal with it, both in the moment and later on?

Sunday, February 04, 2007


February has traditionally been a time of epiphanies and celebrations for me, even before I started going to church and realized how neatly my personal experience matches the church season of Epiphany. February 20, for instance, is the anniversary of the day I was offered the job at UNR (in 1997), the day of my very unexpected and grace-filled first communion (some months before I was baptized, in 2000), and the day when we learned that my mother's lung-cancer surgery had been so successful that she needed neither chemo nor radiation (in 2004).

From late March to mid-April, on the other hand, I've consistently had a series of awful things happen: April is the cruellest month, and all that. So this three-month stretch has a kinda bipolar feel to it. But hey, we're still in February. I'm not going to borrow trouble.

Historical digression: When I was a kid, a friend of my mother's worked for an obscure record company, and one Christmas she gave us an album of Sydney Carter songs called Carols Round the Year. The album's so thoroughly out of print now that I can't even find used copies anywhere, but my mother and sister and I loved it and listened to it nonstop, even though we weren't religious.

This morning when I walked into church, the choir was rehearsing one of my favorite songs from that album, "Carol of the Universe." I'd completely forgotten about it for years, but the entire thing popped back into my head as soon as I heard the first line.

Every star shall sing a carol,
Every creature high or low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven
By whatever name you know.

Chorus, sung after each verse:
God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

When the king of all creation,
Had a cradle on the earth.
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth.

Who can tell what other cradle,
High above the Milky Way,
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day?

Who can count how many crosses,
Still to come or long ago,
Crucify the King of Heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
He will hallow for his own?
I will praise the son of Mary,
Brother of my blood and bone.

Every star and every planet,
Every creature high and low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven,
By whatever name you know.

Reading the lyrics now, I can certainly see why they appealed to a kid who loved science fiction! But the tune's lovely, too. When I heard it at church, I raced over to the choir and started singing with them -- even though I can't sing -- just because I was so excited to hear the song again. They were doing it as an offertory hymn, and the choir director very kindly offered to let me sing with them, but I decided not to inflict my non-voice on the rest of the congregation. I sang it in my car on the way home, though!

That was a splendid beginning to church, which continued to be excellent. Today we had a combined Eucharist and annual meeting, which actually worked out very well, with much better attendance than we've gotten when we have the annual meeting at night. Nominations were made for delegates to diocesan convention -- which is probably where we'll be electing our next bishop -- and I nominated myself, because I'd like to have a vote in that process. Last year I didn't go to diocesan convention because I was so utterly sick of church politics, but this morning I discovered that I want to go this year and want to be able to vote; and I'll be able to, because I was one of the people elected. (The three of us who'll be delegates all tied: are we trinitarian, or what?)

This morning's service included a wonderful homily about the importance of following God's call even when we don't feel worthy. Maybe that had something to do with my nominating myself for convention delegate. It almost certainly had something to do with the epiphany I had about halfway through the meeting . . . which is that I may be able to see a path to ordination after all, if I can be ordained to a very particular kind of diaconal ministry within the diocese. I don't want to be too specific about this yet, because it depends on a lot of variables (none under my control), and chances are high that nothing will come of it. But I mentioned it to four friends who know what a tough time I've had with the ordination issues -- including two of our parish priests -- and all of them were intrigued and supportive. What I want to do comes directly out of the struggles I've had over the past few years, which means that if it works (very big if, there), all the crud will have been transformed into something useful.

Wouldn't that be lovely?

I'm trying to be realistic about this and not get my hopes up, partly because what I want to do probably requires political skills I simply don't have. On the other hand, all things are possible with God -- and it's nice to feel as if ordination might even still be theoretically possible.

And yes, there's still that thorny vow of obedience, which would remain a decidedly nontrivial issue even if everything else worked out. But all four people I spoke to today immediately suggested that I schedule an appointment with our interim bishop to talk about the idea. So we'll see.

In the meantime, I keep humming the Sydney Carter song!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Common Countries

I just finished reading Charles Barber's Songs from the Black Chair, the book I mentioned in yesterday's post. It's a lovely memoir about Barber's OCD, and how his own history of mental illness has informed his work with mentally ill social-service clients in New York City. At one point in the book, he describes how tempted he was to tell many of his clients -- especially a man named Michael Jasny, to whom he felt particularly close -- about his psychiatric diagnosis. He ultimately chose not to, partly because he didn't want his supervisors to know about his history. He recognized, however, that his own illness was what made him good at his work:
I responded to my clients, and they responded to me. I may have some natural abilities in reaching clients, but at the very heart of my rapport was my own experience with obsessive compulsive disorder. While I never revealed the diagnosis to the clients, and am thankful I did not, it informed everything I did with them and allowed me to understand their craziness. I related to their madness -- I could see how someone as rational and intelligent as Michael Jasny could be completely taken over by an irrational universe. I had lived in their country. (138)
This passage struck me for several reasons. One was that I responded to the metaphor of the common country; as I've said here before, I find travel metaphors more fitting in many medical situations than the far more prevalent military ones. Barber's description also resonated for me because my favorite patients at the hospital are very often depressed or alcoholic, if not both; both conditions run in my family, and as I've shared here very freely, I have depression myself. (I'm not alcoholic, but only because I don't drink; I don't drink because I probably would be alcoholic if I did). Like Barber, I relate well to certain patients because I've lived in their country.

But the passage also made me uneasy; I self-disclose quite freely with a number of patients (always being careful to make sure that the visit is still about them, not about me), and Barber's reluctance to do so made me wonder if my own practice is somehow wrong or harmful.

I offer small pieces of my own history to patients when I sense that self-disclosure will make them feel less isolated and ashamed. Several times, when female patients around my age have said, "I have depression and anxiety," I've answered, "Yeah, I do too." In all of these cases that I can remember, the response has been a wide-eyed smile and a semi-incredulous, "You do? Really?" In all cases, the patients seemed happy that I'd told them. I suspect that patients find it helpful to see someone who's functioning with the same condition they have, and who's willing to talk about it instead of being ashamed of it. Establishing common citizenship may be especially important because I'm a volunteer chaplain, an ambassador from a God many people fear will only love them if they're flawless. Knowing that the chaplain isn't flawless either (as if!) may make patients feel more comfortable with God. (These are very old ideas in Christian pastoral-care circles, going back to Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer.)

At least, that's what I hope is going on.

When I talk to alcoholics who've despaired of ever being able to stop drinking, I often tell them the story of how my mother got sober; they've always seemed moved by the story, and often newly hopeful. When I talk to people facing gallbladder surgery, I often say, "Oh, I felt so much better after I had mine out!" When I talk to cancer patients, I sometimes share very small snippets of my mother's experience with breast cancer and lung cancer. In general, when I talk to patients with chronic invisible illness, I try to empathize with how difficult that situation is, even though most of the time, I don't tell them I have depression.

In all of these cases, patients have seemed to appreciate the empathy, and often the assurance that happy endings are possible. My job, after all, is to help proclaim Good News, in all its forms. I'd never questioned this specific form of proclaiming Good News until I read Barber's book.

Granted, there are some significant differences between us. When Barber had this particular job, he didn't want his bosses to know about his own history. I'm comfortable with people knowing mine: partly because depression's not as stigmatized as it once was, and partly because any stigma that remains will only go away if people who have the condition talk about it. Barber also had much longer continuing relationships with his clients than I do with most of the patients I see (a few frequent fliers excepted); that might have made him feel a greater need for personal boundaries.

And I suspect that the protocols for paid social-service providers are different than they are for hospital volunteers. Of his impulse to share his history with Michael Jasny, Barber says:
It would have been extraneous: it was my understanding, and his, that I was there to do a job, not to be his friend or intimate, and playing with those roles might have confused him. (137)
This makes sense for Barber. But I'm a volunteer chaplain, and that means that my job is (at least in many instances) to be a friend, if only for a few minutes.

And, of course, Barber has now openly and lucidly shared his history with the world, by writing his book.

Perhaps I'm rationalizing in all this, and I'd be interested in hearing different perspectives. But after pondering the subject, I still think my own self-disclosures have been appropriate and helpful. For me, it all comes down to the Great Commandment of the Golden Rule. If I were in an emergency room, dealing with an exhausting and stigmatized condition, I'd be grateful for a visit from someone willing to say, "I've lived in that country."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Narrative Medicine

Yesterday, going through the mound of fliers in my mailbox at work, I discovered that Rita Charon -- who's both an internist and a literary scholar, and who pioneered a clinical approach called Narrative Medicine -- will be speaking at UNR on February 20. Narrative Medicine teaches clinicians to be more careful and empathetic listeners of patient stories, and encourages them to write about their encounters with patients as a way of making sense of clinical practice.

I'd heard vaguely of NM before yesterday; a new staff chaplain at our hospital had mentioned that narrative's all the rage in CPE now, and I'd come across the term on various medblogs. But yesterday's the first time I fully realized that there's an established field of study that unites my interests. I'm always looking for ways to feel more integrated, and this looks like a promising one!

Most of the work I've seen on literature and medicine has been about studying how medicine's represented in literature. NM uses literary theory and techniques with actual patients, in the trenches, to help people heal. I've often commented that preaching is a kind of applied literary criticism, because preachers use literary tools both to make sense of very old stories and to help the congregation make sense of how to use those stories in their own lives. NM applies theory the same way. (If anyone out there still thinks an English degree is useless, you're wrong!)

So I'm very jazzed about this, although I now face the daunting task of bringing myself up to speed in the field. As someone trained in literary criticism who spends four hours a week listening to patient stories, I suspect I already intuitively know a lot of what's out there, but seeing the ideas codified will help, and I'll undoubtedly learn new and helpful techniques. I definitely need to read Charon's Narrative Medicine. The UNR library doesn't have it, but I'm sure I can get it on interlibrary loan.

In the meantime, Google has turned up several gems, including a book by Charles Barber called Songs from the Black Chair. Barber writes both about his own history with mental illness and about his work with mentally ill homeless men. UNR did have that book; I started reading it last night, and I'm loving it. And this morning, to my delight, I discovered a paper by Katherine Murray called Tell Me What Happened: A look at the use of narrative in crisis, about narrative in emergency pastoral care. How perfect is that?

Among other things, this discovery has renewed my commitment to finishing the ED Sonnets; I suspect that's going to be part of my Lenten discipline this year. I've been so busy at work for the past two weeks that I haven't even had time to think about writing poetry, but I do want to get back to it.

But first: grading! And class prep for next week!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Carnival of Hope Reminder

The deadline for the Februrary Carnival of Hope is one week from today -- Thursday, February 8 -- at 5:00 PM PST. Please either use the Blog Carnival submission form or e-mail me directly: SusanPal (at) aol (dot) com. Please use "Carnival of Hope" in the subject line of your e-mail, and send me the permalink to the article, along with a two or three line description.