Thursday, July 31, 2008

Belated Links

The Sacramento reading was great fun, although the photo makes me look like a rabid, snarling animal. That's not the photographer's fault, though. I very rarely photograph well.

Said photographer is Tim Kahl, who invited me and Ellen and wrote me a long, thoughtful e-mail afterwards. Thanks, Tim!

Also, here's this week's Grand Rounds, which has a great theme and in which I'm delighted to be included. Thanks, Edwin!

I came back from Sac with a really nasty cold, which is why I've been behind on blogging and many other things. I wasn't feeling well enough to go to the hospital today, which really disappointed me because I was looking forward to seeing our newly refurbished ER. But I didn't want to give anyone my germs, or get anyone else's, and I didn't think anyone would appreciate my coughing and sneezing all over them.

I have my new CPAP now. It's not, alas, smaller than the old one, at least not once the humidifier's added on. But it's very quiet, and I like it.

Good Coffee, Doing Good

Gary and I have become big fans of Blind Dog Coffee, a local company -- with the by-now-mandatory organic, fair-trade beans -- started by a Reno man who went blind in middle age from the delayed effects of treatment for childhood cancer. He donates a portion of each sale to Angel Kiss, which gives childhood cancer patients and their families "immediate assistance and support for any expense or need related to treatment," regardless of income.

And as if that weren't enough, the coffee's yummy.

Support a family business! Help kids in medical crisis! Get a really good caffeine buzz! What's not to like?

I learned about the company when I sat next to the founder's daughter on a plane flight. As it happened, she's a recent UNR grad who'd done an independent study with my friend Mary, whose office is next to mine, and I saw her again a few weeks later when she stopped by to say hi to Mary (and bring Mary some coffee she'd ordered). Small world!

Still Life With Paws

Monday, July 28, 2008

Reading Reminder!

For anyone in California, please remember that I'm reading tonight at the Sacramento Poetry Center, with the brilliant Ellen Klages. SPC's website says our reading was last Monday, but that's incorrect. It's tonight.

I hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

And the Bishop Said . . .

Dear Susan,

Thank you for your honest and gracious letter. I share your reservations about church as bureaucracy and I am sure others in the diocese do as well. But the main thing is that you have found your calling and are serving God wonderfully right now. I trust your discernment that ordination would only detract from your present ministry. Blessings. I look forward to serving with you in the future.



Wow. Is this guy a class act, or what? Like he doesn't have more important things to worry about right now, with Lambeth and so forth! He responded within three hours of getting my e-mail.

Yay! Sometimes church works the way we all want it to!


I just, finally, wrote and sent this letter. I think it's absolutely the right decision, but it's also hitting me harder than I expected; after all, I've been wrestling with this, in one way or another, for five years.

I felt a little shaky, cried a little bit, and got hugs from Gary. Now I'm eating lunch, and when I'm done, I'll go swimming.


To the Right Reverend Dan Edwards, the Commission on Ministry, and the Vestry, Clergy and People of St. Stephen’s:

I have decided to withdraw from the process of ordination to the diaconate. Instead, I wish to continue and deepen my lay ministries: preaching, hospital chaplaincy, and writing, especially as a healing discipline.

Many of you know that since I was called to ordination five years ago, I have had a number of struggles, both within and outside the church. These difficulties undermined my trust, not in God or Christ, but in diocesan personnel and procedures. I decided to forego ordination quite a while back, but although I made the choice for many good reasons (including a simple lack of time in my very busy life), I was also in a place of pain from which I felt it would be unwise to do anything irrevocable. We've all heard the acronym HALT, which instructs us not to make large decisions when we're Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Because I was in one or several of those states fairly continuously for several years, I held off on writing this letter.

I have now, I hope and pray, arrived in a healthier place. I have come to believe that God wants me to remain on my current path, doing the work I'm already doing. I believe that ordination would interfere with that work, rather than empowering it. I am blessed by my current ministries and don't want to stop any of them, although I recognize that God is already leading me along new paths, and will continue to do so. Let me emphasize that I have no intention of leaving St. Stephen’s, which has been a continuous source of healing and support for me even in the depths of my frustration with the larger institutional church.

I am relieved and grateful to be able to write this letter from a place of joy and abundance, rather than bitterness. I still have misgivings about certain aspects of Church as Bureaucracy, and I persevere in my hope that I and others can work to correct those situations. At the same time, however, I am deeply thankful to the many people in the church -- especially Bishop Dan and many friends at St. Stephen’s -- who have remained patient and compassionate with my sometimes tortured discernment process while continuing, quietly and lovingly, to affirm my gifts.

Thank you all, and may the Lord lead each of us in the paths of peace, wisdom, and justice.

Yours in Christ,

Susan Palwick

Friday, July 25, 2008

Score One for Narrative Medicine!

I recently got some nice news from my friend Marin Gillis, who's the Director of Medical Ethics and Humanities at our medical school, and who's been a steadfast champion both of narrative medicine and of my work with it. She was the person who asked me to teach a class on narrative medicine as part of the third-year Clinical Reasoning in Medicine course.

Some of the medical students are more than a little skeptical about this, for obvious reasons. They have gobs of hard science to learn, and they aren't getting enough sleep, and many of them are scientists by inclination as well as training. In this setting, narrative medicine, and other work in the humanities, often feels fluffy and extraneous. Although the students have always been polite to me and done the work I asked of them -- often very well -- there's also been some unspoken resistance. I could often sense the "this is bs" current in the room, although no one ever said it aloud. (I should add that this mindset isn't limited to medical students, and is often much stronger in freshman comp classes, where students can be much less polite about it!) But as a med school faculty member told me, "They'll get in five years, you know? When they're in actual practice, something's going to happen in a patient interaction, and they'll look back and say, 'Ooooh! That's why she wanted us to learn this!'"

For at least one student, it didn't take five years.

When I saw Marin last week, she told me that one of the medical students who'd been in the CRIM class told her a story about another student in the class, who'd been very resistant to the material. I'd given them a published case about a fourteen year old boy dying of cancer; I had the students write a letter from one of the people described in the case (the boy, one of his parents, one of his doctors, his beloved neighbor, the beloved neighbor's beloved dog, the girl in his class he wanted to kiss) to someone else on the list of characters. The students paired up and swapped letters; each then wrote a response to the other's letter. So if one student wrote from the boy to his doctor, the second wrote from the doctor to the boy.

This one student, evidently, thought the whole exercise was complete and utter hooey. Why were they spending time on this garbage? How was this ever going to be useful?

Two weeks later, he told his friend, something happened at the hospital, and he suddenly understood why it was important. He had the aha moment. "Ooooh! That's why she wanted us to learn this!"

I don't know what happened, although I'd love to know. Marin's trying to get the student to write me a note about it, but apparently he's too embarrassed. (Dear med student: If you're reading this, you don't need to be embarrassed. Believe me, I know the material can seem irrelevant at first! I'm just glad it didn't take you five years to change your mind.)

In any event, this is an invaluable affirmation of the work I've been doing. Marin and other med school faculty have been very positive all along, but the opinions that matter the most are those of the students.

In other medical-humanities news, we'll be starting up the Literature & Medicine program in August, and Marin recently met with the staff of a care facility where there's strong interest in a writing and healing group. So I may be doing that work sooner than I expected. And we also have our first student in a narrative-medicine elective, and she may be able to get me invited to teach a narrative medicine or reflective writing session at the HEART elective in Santa Cruz next April.

I'm excited!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fluffy Goes to Boot Camp

Mom: Don't read this. You'll hate it.

Yesterday evening I went for my walk and got to pat any number of excellent dogs. On my way back to the house, I heard a horrible caterwauling, the sound of a cat in mortal terror. It was coming from an open garage across the street. I went to see what in the world was going on -- was the cat trapped under a car somehow? -- and saw a couple standing, smiling, in the garage. The wife, hugely pregnant, was holding the screaming cat.

"Are you trying to put your cat in a carrying case?" I asked, wondering why in the world anyone would try to do that with the garage door open.

"Oh, no," the woman said brightly, still smiling. "She's just scared of being outside."

"Ah," I said. We all stood there for a minute, as the cat continued her piteous wailing. Then I said, cautiously, "So, um, why is she outside?"

"Oh," the woman answered in that same cheery tone, "we're just trying to get her used to the garage, so she'll know it's safe."

With the garage door open? Huh?

"She hates going outside," the husband chimed in now, with that same Stepford affect. "She'll only go out on our balcony."

"Please don't let her out," I said, alarmed. "There are coyotes around here." Not to mention dogs and cars. "We lost one of our cats to a coyote. It isn't safe to let them out."

The couple nodded, looking suitably sympathetic, and then the woman held the cat up facing the street, and said, "See, sweetie? The cars are far away!" The cat didn't seem reassured by this (let me add that she was well fed and looked very healthy; she was just scared out of her furry little wits).

I stood there, staring at them, until finally the wife said, "Well, we'd better get inside now!"

Yes, please. And let the poor cat stay there!

What are these people thinking? Do they care about their cat's emotional and physical health? Do they even like their cat? Do they have a psychotic veterinarian who recommended traffic-desensitization therapy? Do they just enjoy tormenting animals? What the hay is going on here?

And is anyone else deeply worried about how they're going to raise their child?

Goodbye, Puppies

I deleted the Daily Puppy widget because it was triggering a security warning from Internet Explorer.

Dang. I miss the cute little puppy faces.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Knitting's Good for the Soul!

Image courtesy of Heartland Lace.

Today I received incontrovertible proof either that only good people knit, or that knitting makes people good. I suppose this is a point philosophers and scientists will be able to debate for centuries; I foresee many double-blind controlled studies published in refereed journals.

Several weeks ago, I ordered some new circular needles, small ones for lace knitting, from Knitpicks. To my dismay, one of the needles arrived broken. I know that they have a generous replacement policy, but I assumed I'd have to mail the broken needles back, and getting to the post office is always a chore for me. But today I bought some padded envelopes to do just that -- don't ask me what I was thinking, buying protected envelopes for broken needles -- and called Knitpicks' 800 number to get the correct address and find out what else they'd need from me.

"Have you already mailed the needles?" the sales rep asked me.

"No," I said, my heart sinking. Were they going to impose some arcane packaging requirement?

"Oh, good, because you don't need to. We'll just mail the new needles to you."

"Thank you!" I said. Have you ever heard of a company so trusting? Obviously, all knitters must be fabulously honest people! (Maybe I shouldn't even post this: I hope any Evil Knitters out there don't now try to take advantage of them.) The rep did check my order in the computer, so I couldn't have tried to score, say, eighty skeins of cashmere I'd never bought. And I suppose they keep track of these things, and would get suspicious if one person claimed large amounts of unusable merchandise. But I was still impressed.

So I'm most pleased. Also, the Dansko sales rep tells me that my blue clogs will be shipped out 8/29.

Way to win customer loyalty, guys!

Grand Rounds (x 2) Turns 200!

This week, six-time host GruntDoc brings us the 200th edition of Grand Rounds. Woo-hoo!

And I forgot to post a week to last week's edition, which came to us all the way from London.

Hurrah for Grand Rounds, and happy reading!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wonders of Technology

Today I saw my new pulmonologist, who gave me a prescription without another sleep test (yay!), but wants me to wear an oximeter on my finger tonight so she can make sure my oxygenation's okay. There's no reason to think it won't be; she's just being thorough, which I appreciate.

She faxed the new script over to the Durable-Medical-Equipment-Company-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless, who were actually much more responsive and helpful than usual, after I got past my twenty minutes on hold. Turns out that, as Ken told me in response to my last post, the new machines are much smaller: my new one should be about half the size of my old one, and the humidifier -- heated, this time -- will be integrated, which means that I'll also lose one hose, the external reservoir, and the plastic platform on which everything sits. That makes three fewer items to pack when I travel. I'm tremendously excited about this.

Early this evening, our doorbell rang, and we discovered a bright-eyed AT&T salesman (who looks twelve, but everyone under thirty looks twelve to me these days) standing on our doorstep. He'd come to try to sell us fiber-optic phone and internet service, and it worked. We'll also get a month of free TV; we plan to cancel after that, if I can pry Gary away from the screen. Our installation date is August 1.

A smaller CPAP! Faster and more reliable internet! Will wonders never cease?

We are a simple people, easily amused.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Yeah, I know, I've been quiet for a few days, but it's a good quiet. I've been busy.

Friday afternoon, I drove back to Reno, which turned out to be a bit of an ordeal. I left at 2:00, which would normally mean that I'd get home around 5:30. Instead, I got home at 7:15. Granted, half an hour of that was an extended rest/fuel/rehydration stop, but even so, it was a long trip. There was a lot of traffic, including many huge commercial trucks and private vehicles towing large boats or campers. Add seemingly endless roadwork, much of which had reduced the twisty-turny mountain roads to two narrow lanes with no shoulder. Stir in an accident or two. Like I said, slow going.

As a result, I was done in when I got home. It's been a good weekend, though. I've worked on the book, done reflective journal writing each morning, and (taking a leaf from Lee's book), cleaned out my closet and bureaus, with Gary's help. This resulted in seven boxes of clothing to be donated and several large trash bags of stuff to be thrown away. Tomorrow I'll finish tidying up the bedroom, and the day after that I'll tackle my study, a truly terrifying prospect. I also need to clear surfaces in my office at work, although that isn't quite as daunting.

It's also Doctor Week. Tomorrow I see the pulmonologist to get a prescription for a new CPAP (hopefully without having to go through sleep testing again). Tuesday's my annual pelvic -- fun, fun -- and Wednesday I see my GI guy to get the skinny on the precancerous polyp.

I'm glad I have insurance.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Sorrel's Heart" Podcast

Rick Kleffel has posted a podcast of my July 12 reading. (You may have to scroll down a bit to get there.) I won't say "enjoy," since this is certainly one of my darkest stories, but I hope you find the experience, um . . . interesting?

If you scroll down almost to the bottom of the page, you'll find another podcast with an interview Kleffel did with me. I haven't listened to either of these, since the sound of my own voice gives me the heebie-jeebies, but I hope the interview's coherent!

A Full Day

Today in class, we watched the absolutely amazing PBS documentary What I Want My Words to Do to You, about a writing group playwright Eve Ensler led inside the Bedford Hills maximum-security women's prison. The women's stories, and how they tell those stories, and how they reflect on how the outside world views their stories, are all incredibly moving. If you haven't seen this, order it from Amazon or Netflix and watch it. I plan to show part of it to both of my UNR classes this fall: since the DVD's 80 minutes and classes are 75, I won't be able to use quite the whole thing. Very frustrating!

This course has made me rethink my pedagogy, and I'm going to try a new approach in my writing workshop this fall. I think that will be good both for me and for my students, since I've been doing essentially the same thing for ten years now, and I've gotten a little stale.

I've been feeling pretty numb, hollow, and disconnected this week, though: as though I'm not catching on, as if everyone else in class is absorbing the material more easily than I am, and doing more valuable work. Today I whined about this a bit, and our teacher Sharon said (as I'd expected, since it's what I tell my own students), "Just keep writing, and you'll break through." This has happened to me in previous PSR summer courses where I indeed wound up having breakthroughs. The breakthrough usually happens right after I've allowed myself to be honest about my dissatisfaction with my experience in the course; and, sure enough, this week's epiphany came soon after class ended today.

One of the items I acquired in yesterday's shopping orgy was a small, inexpensive singing bowl. Sharon uses a chime to signal the end of writing exercises. I like that idea, and I love the sound of singing bowls, so I found a machine-made one that's easy for a westerner to play. It's a thoroughly fascinating object, despite or maybe because of its plainness.

Some classmates invited me to join them for lunch today. We planned to meet outside. While I was waiting for them, I was pondering Sharon's prompt for our journaling this evening. It's a line from May Sarton, "Now I become myself." I suddenly realized what I was becoming and how my hollowness can be a gift, and sat down and scribbled most of a sonnet, which I finished later in the afternoon (after a delightful lunch at Cafe Gratitude and an equally delightful ramble and conversation with my classmate Lydia, whom I convinced to buy a gorgeous Pashmina shawl). I don't think this works as a poem because there are too many abstract nouns, but as a piece of prose it communicates my epiphany well enough, so here it is:

Now I become myself, the singing bowl
whose emptiness makes music possible,
whose hollowness creates the ringing whole,
the notes we never hunger for until
we're lost in devastation, desolate
from terror, grief, betrayal. Harmony's
a childhood dream, we tell ourselves, and let
our bruised hopes rot, and celebrate. We're free.
Our heartbeats hammer in the empty space
left by illusion, caverns echoing
with every passing breeze, until we face
the friction of mortality, the thing
that circles the circumference of our soul
and rings it. We've become the singing bowl.

As I said, this phrasing is too abstract, but the idea's certainly one I can keep working with, and it's very helpful and comforting to me. For a few hours' effort, I'm pleased!

Meanwhile, I had a humbling cross-cultural encounter today. I went to say goodbye to A and told him about sand dollars (thanks for the info, BB!). He commented, "With inflation, they must need four or five of themselves to make a new one," which I thought was pretty funny. I gave him a bit of cash and said goodbye.

Walking back to the dorm, I said hi to J, who immediately called me over ("You get back here!") and started demanding that I give him money. I don't like being given orders, and in New York, I had a rule of never giving cash to people who tried to guilttrip me, so I told J I was low on cash. "You can go to a cash machine," he told me crossly, which turned me off further. I told him that no, I wasn't going to do that, and went to buy my supper at a burger place.

I ordered a lamb burger for myself, but the hamburgers were inexpensive, so I thought, what the hell, I'll get one for J. I did, and trudged back over to his corner holding the bag. "I don't like people demanding money from me," I told him, "but everybody has to eat. Here's a burger for you."

Yeah, I know: not too gracious! J crossed his arms and said, "Where's it from?" When I told him, he said, "I don't want it."

Mildly exasperated, I took the burger to A, who sympathized with me when I told him the story and promised me that he'd eat the burger, even though he needs to watch his weight. (He's hardly heavy, so I think that was a joke.) When I was walking past J again, though, he started reading me the riot act. "Did you ask me what I liked? Who are you to assume I like those burgers rather than something else? You didn't ask me. See, I thought you and I were going to get along, but I don't like you now. You're like a woman who stabbed me in the back once by telling me what I liked when I didn't like it. You even look like her."

"You're right," I told him. "Point taken."

The encounter wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was real, and both of us salvaged our pride. I didn't let myself be bullied, and he didn't let himself accept scornful charity. I admired his stance; he's right not to like me.

The takeaway lesson I get from this: I'm not obligated to let him coerce me into giving him money just because I'm a bleeding-heart liberal, and he's not obligated to accept handouts he doesn't want just because he's living on the streets. Each of us was interfering with the other's autonomy, and each of us very properly called the other out for doing so.

If he'd said "please," I'd probably have given him some cash. And if I'd said, "I won't give you money, but I'll buy you something to eat; what would you like?" he'd probably have accepted what I got for him. As it was, we were both angry and honest, which is better than being angry and guilty or beholden.

But I hope A enjoys the burger!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Doing My Part to Stimulate the Economy

Class is going well, although I'm finding that I already know a lot of the material. But that's okay: it never hurts to review!

Today I wound up going on a major shopping spree. Actually, it started yesterday, when my brand-new fancy pen ran out of ink the second day I had it. Annoyed, I called the store, where I was promised a free refill cartridge. So today I went down there, got the cartridge, and also bought an inexpensive pen case to protect the pen.

But then the trouble started, because I wandered into a little boutique across the street, thinking I'd only stay a minute or two. This is what I call a "Rich Lady" store, the kind of place where I always chortle at the prices and then leave. This particular place, though, does have very nice clothing of the kind I love and can rarely afford: simple flowing linen skirts in tastefully neutral colors, for instance. Why is simpler clothing more expensive than clothing with hideous gew-gaws all over it?

The boutique was having a sale. I decided to try on a few things, just for laughs. I was the only person in the store, so the owner started bringing me more things to try on, pieces that would match the things I'd already tried on.

I liked several of them a lot. And they were on sale.

So I wound up buying three skirts and two shirts. They'll be good for work, for conferences, and for David and Danny's wedding. Still, I spent a lot of money, especially since I'd already bought two t-shirts earlier today. (That's not to mention what I bought earlier this week.) Gary, who's used to calming me down after I spend money, responded to my contrite e-mail with a precise financial analysis proving that we're fine. Thank you, dear!

Meanwhile, I did indeed go to the beach yesterday, as planned, although I didn't stay long because it was quite chilly. I got some nice stuff for A, though: an unbroken sand dollar, a piece of driftglass, a shell, an interesting rock. Afterwards, I had an excellent dinner with David, Danny, and their friend, the Other David. They live in apartments with views of the ocean, of which I was extremely jealous, although they're in the foggy part of town, so it's actually not considered as desirable by many people as other neighborhoods.

Anyway, so today I gave A his beach goodies. He seemed pleased by them, especially by the sand dollar; we had a relaxed chat and then I excused myself to go to dinner. On my way back from dinner, I ran into J, the other homeless guy who helped me find A yesterday. He was eating a meal that he said wasn't very good -- it didn't look very good, either -- and I asked if I could buy him something; he asked for money to get something from the grocery store. (I don't know if that's what he'll do with it or not, but I decided a long time ago that if I can afford to give and want to give, what the recipient does with the gift isn't my business.) Just then, though, J said, "Oh, look, here's your buddy!" and I turned around to find A.

My wallet contained twenties and ones. I often give A a $20, but I don't know J that well and didn't want to set a precedent. So I was going to give J my four ones, but with A there, I felt like I had to be fair. "Here's $2 for each of you," I said, but A handed his back.

"No, no, please help him. You're always helping me. Give it to him."

So I did. J looked worried, holding my $4, and said, "Can you afford this? I can give some of it back, really."

"No, no," I said. "That's fine. That's absolutely fine." (I was feeling guilty for being cheap after spending so much on myself!)

A smiled at me. "Thanks, Susan. Will I see you tomorrow?"

"Of course," I told him. Earlier, we'd both been wondering what kind of animal sand dollars are, and I'd told him I'd look it up tonight and get back to him tomorrow.

Meanwhile, J had been telling me how A watches out for him. A really is a very appealing and caring person, and I suspect those are even more valuable attributes on the street than they are in other places. When you depend on the kindness of strangers, and friends, being kind yourself is an essential part of building your survival network.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Again

I saw A again today, just a little while ago. He seemed much more relaxed, cheerful, and less anxious (and was correspondingly more coherent). I offered to buy him a saucepan and some bottled water to wash with, but he said he already has those things. He also has a cellphone, which someone gave him so his doctor would be able to reach him about the eye surgery he had recently. He gave me the number and asked me to call him sometime; I think that will be easier than sending packages, which I never manage to do.

Several years ago, I used a rock I'd found at Ocean Beach to weigh down a note I left for A. When I saw him last night, he said he'd lost the rock. Since I'm going to the beach later this afternoon, today I told him that I'll bring him another rock, and he laughed and thanked me. He likes rocks -- something else, along with science fiction, that we have in common -- and he keeps a lovely quartz crystal and what looks like a piece of obsidian in his pocket. Several times, he's pulled out the quartz crystal so I can hold it.

Oh, and Inez, today he told me that he started (but didn't finish) an undergrad degree at Bowling Green!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Finding A

I enjoyed the first day of class, where we talked about writing process and did some exercises. Afterwards, I went downtown, bought lunch, and did some decadent shopping: an opal-and-silver hamsa pendant, a fancy new pen, and a set of three small journals for the reflective writing required by the class. Then I came back to my room and did my homework, reading an essay about research into writing and healing and then writing about my own metaphors for writing, which involve fire and water.

I still hadn't seen A, so on my way to dinner, I made a concerted effort to find him. I asked the shopkeeper on the corner where A usually hangs out; the merchant said, "Oh, he's around the corner now," and gestured at the street one block over. On my way there, I saw someone I thought was A, but it turned out to be another homeless man, who introduced himself as J, shook my hand, and told me where to find A, about a block away. "He's there all the time. At night the Spanish ladies come and talk to him and bring him food."

I checked the spot: no A. I retraced my steps and ducked into a takeout place to buy dinner. J poked his head inside and said, "Hey, Susan, he just went up to the burger place!"

"Thanks," I said, and when I'd gotten my food, I canvassed the block again, and finally found A exactly where J had said he'd be.

He was clearly delighted to see me: his whole face lit up, and he wanted to know where I'd been. The last time I saw him (last summer), I gave him a copy of my story collection, and he'd read it and had opinions about the stories. "I loved Rodney! He's a great little mouse! But the one about the heart -- that was too much. That's a weird story."

"Well, I'm weird," I said. (It's good he wasn't at the SF in SF reading!)

He laughed, shaking his head. He was holding four packages of hot dogs someone had given him, and he had a hibachi set up in an alley, where he was grilling franks and chicken breasts. He's clearly not starving, at least not this week.

In other respects, though, he's deteriorated. More teeth are missing, and for the first time since I've met him, he seemed clearly mentally ill: talking about being under siege by the Taliban, for instance, or getting very agitated about landlords and how they'd have to pay him to live in an apartment, and repeating the same set of statements over and over, like a refrain. He'd given me a shy hug when he saw me at first, and then apologized for being dirty, but when I said it was okay, he gave me more shy hugs. He was clinging to my presence so desperately that I got a little nervous (which made me feel guilty, of course); I told him that I had to go eat my own dinner, but that I had a box of books for him -- Gary packed it up for me before I left: thanks, Gar! -- and that I'd bring it by tomorrow. He enjoys reading and also sells books on the street, and a lot of people in this student-rich area give him books.

He was clearly crestfallen when I started leaving, and kept yelling comments after me to try to get me to stay. I decided to drop by with the books tonight, partly because I won't be around much tomorrow; after class, I'm going into the city to walk on the beach and then have dinner with David, Danny and a friend of theirs. "I'll come back," I promised A, and he said, "You always do. You always come back."

On my way back to the dorm, I ran into several of my classmates having a picnic outside. They invited me to join them, so I did. It was very pleasant, but talk about cultural whiplash! Chatting with these well-dressed women, who were sharing stories of expensive restaurants and international travel, couldn't have been more different from talking to A.

After dinner, I drove by A's hangout and gave him the box of books. His face lit up again when he saw me. It was getting dark, and he and another homeless guy had been sharing the food on the hibachi. I didn't feel entirely safe in the alley, even though I was in clear view of a well-traveled sidewalk, so I told A that I had to get back to my dorm to do my homework, but that I'd see him tomorrow.

His face fell, and he clutched my hand. "Please stay! Please stay!"

"A, I can't. But I'll come see you tomorrow, okay? I promise."

He stood looking forlornly after me as I drove away. I felt wretched, but I was glad to be leaving.

Yeah, I know. It's my own fault. If you make friends with chronically homeless mentally ill people, you're going to get your heart broken. A few weeks ago, one of my favorite ER nurses gave me a long lecture about how I'm too tenderhearted, how I can't get so emotionally involved with hardcore homeless patients. I told her that being tenderhearted is my job, and that if I couldn't handle it, I'd have burned out by now. She'd have had a fit if she'd seen me tonight. This is harder than the ER, because it lacks the safety, structure, and automatic boundaries of an institutional setting.

I keep reminding myself that there are reasons A's been out there for fifteen or thirty years (he's told me both). This isn't something I can fix. He's remained in as good shape as he has, I suspect, largely because he's been so coherent for so long, and is so good at enlisting help and support from the people around him. He's dialed into social services -- he's gotten eye surgery from the county -- so I'm sure he's been in various rehab programs. They clearly haven't worked out, though, and given the change in his manner, enlisting help may be harder now.

Please pray for him, and for me as I interact with him this week. I've given him books and some cash; I'm sure I'll give him more cash and some food before I leave on Friday. He told me that what he really needs is soap, a washcloth and hot water. I can manage the soap, but not the hot water. Maybe I'll bring him soap and hope that someone manages the hot water. Or baby wipes, or that cleansing gel? Does anybody have any great ideas about how to help someone get clean without a reliable water source?

When I came back to my dorm, one of my classmates had her door open. I stopped in and talked to her about it for a while, but I felt like I was starting to sound crazy myself. So I thought, "Well, I'll blog about it."

There will be further updates later this week, I'm sure. Thank you for listening!

Happy Birthday, Dad!

My father is eighty-six years old today. This photo was taken last summer, when he spent a week with me and Gary.

Happy Birthday, Dad! I love you bunches!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Berkeley Bliss

I'm having a grand time, as I usually do here.

The fun started with my trip into the city on BART last night. I love public transit, because you see everything and everybody, all crowded together (like the ER, but healthier). There I was, knitting, and next to me was a guy covered in tattoos who had his bicycle with him, and across the car were an elderly couple in black-tie formalwear -- she had a corsage on her wrist -- and cattycorner to me were three lively women who sounded Jamaican, and various of us were trying to help a tourist family who weren't sure where they needed to get off the train. BART always presents a kaleidoscope of skin colors and a medley of languages. It's just delightful.

Dinner before the reading was a lot of fun; we wound up talking about emergency medicine, of all things. One of the dinner guests is engaged to an ER doc, and Jay Lake is getting over some serious medical issues and has done more than his share of ER time. He's brilliant, by the way; I intend to read his books, and recommend that all of you do the same.

I enjoyed the reading; I'd planned to read something fairly light (or as light as I get, which isn't very), but our MC, Terry Bisson, semi-goaded me into reading a complete short story rather than excerpts, so I decided to read "Sorrel's Heart," which is certainly one of my darkest tales. Several people in the audience responded very enthusiastically (one man, an eighth-grade teacher, wants to include the story in his Holocaust curriculum, which blew my mind just a bit), but there was a notable lack of comment from other people. Oh well. It was an experiment, and it may not have worked, but I'm glad I tried it anyway, even though two of the folks in the audience were my college roommate Ellen and her mom, Sonia. Ellen tends to avoid anything dark or graphic, and I'd warned her about the story beforehand, but I hope she wasn't too green around the gills. I couldn't see her face from where I was sitting; I did have a good view of Sonia, who was staring at me with a Good lord, I thought I knew this woman! expression. They had to leave right after I finished, and I haven't gotten feedback from them.

Jay read a story almost as dark as mine, but funnier, which I think the audience found a welcome relief.

After the readings, we took a short break before the Q&A session. A tall, bald man walked up to me, grinning, and handed me a chocolate bar, and I recognized another old friend from college! David had been in a local SF bookstore, seen a flyer for the event, spotted my name, and decided to come. We were both members of the college science-fiction club, and we shared a house one summer with a group of other friends.

David also has the distinction of being the first gay person I ever met, or at least the first one who talked about it. When we were catching up, he told me that he and his partner of thirteen years are getting married on August 23. God bless California for legalizing same-sex marriage! He invited me and Gary to the wedding, and we're planning to attend even though the logistics are complicated; I'm preaching the next day, and school starts the day after that. Because of tight timing, we'll have to fly instead of driving. Still, I wouldn't miss it, especially since other college friends will be there.

David and I talked through the whole break, so I didn't even have a chance to get up from my chair before the Q&A session. But that was fine! The Q&A was lively, but I felt a bit disjointed, and -- as at WisCon -- I think I was coming across less well than I might have because I was being more personal than analytical. (Oh well.) Terry asked us to talk about our writing processes, and both he and Jay responded with disbelief when I explained that I'm a formalist and that I plan out projects according to length, not plot. (My outlines consist of knowing how many pages each chapter will be and who'll be narrating it, in what voice and tense, rather than dealing explicitly with which character does what.) "Oh, come on," Terry said. "Nobody does that. You don't really do that. You're making that up."

But I do do it, and is it really so strange? Is it any different than a poet knowing that each line in a sonnet has ten syllables, or than a journalist knowing how many column inches need to be filled?

Jay, meanwhile, talked about how he'd trained himself to increase his "span of control," the amount of story he can keep in his head at any one time: he's increased that from about 2,000 words to about 20,000, which I found as mind-boggling as he and Terry seemed to find my method.

The moral of this story is: use what works!

Terry had planned to give me a lift back to Berkeley, but David offered to do it instead. We're going to have dinner sometime this week. He wanted to stop for coffee or dessert, but the coffee place near the PSR campus was closed, and I was too tired to schlep all over Berkeley. So we'll see each other in a few days.

I slept late this morning. I had a leisurely breakfast in my room (I'd brought power bars and a coffee maker) and then walked around town and did some desultory shopping: a t-shirt on Telegraph Avenue, groceries at Andronico's. The find that delighted me came at the Elephant Pharmacy, which was selling inexpensive rock-and-metal sculptures that look like bodies with heads: very stark and primal. Remember back when I said I wanted to knit a depression doll? Well, I think this sculpture is my depression doll -- she's certainly heavy and misshapen enough! -- but I'm going to knit her a miniature prayer shawl. I also bought a lavendar-scented candle, so now I have a small shrine on my desk. I don't have my camera with me, but I'll post a photo of the sculpture when I get back home.

One of the things I'd forgotten about Berkeley is how many dogs there are: both the PSR and UC campuses are prime dog-walking spots, and last night David and I saw a lovely young cat on the PSR campus, so I'm getting my critter fix.

Tonight I went to a local restaurant for dinner and wound up eating with two women who'll be in my class (I'd met one of them earlier, as she was getting off the airport shuttle). So that was fun.

And now to bed, so I'll be rested for class tomorrow!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Back in Berkeley

I made record time -- three hours and twenty minutes, and that was with a gas/rest stop -- and was delighted to be in a cooler, less smoky climate. Driving across the mountains, the smoke was horrendous, and I was really worried, but Berkeley seems to be clear.

I'm in a nice dorm room with a view of trees (and of the Bay, I think, at least in the right light), and with its own sink, which is always handy. There's also a comfy chair for reading and knitting. In about an hour, I'll head into the city for tonight's reading, but I'm going to try to write a little first, since I didn't yesterday.

When I was out picking up lunch and sundries (soap, paper towels, a street map of SF), I went by A's corner and didn't see him, which always worries me. But I'll probably see him later in the week; I hope so, anyway! If he hasn't shown up in a few days, I'll ask the shopkeepers on that block, who all know him.

One bit of annoyance was that my bad knee -- or my worse knee, since they're both a bit iffy -- was really killing me when I was walking back to the dorm. But that's probably because I've done more swimming than walking lately; I'm not going to worry about it unless it persists and/or gets worse.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading Reminder!

Tomorrow night I'll be reading in San Francisco with the illustrious Jay Lake. You can find details here. If you live in the Bay Area, please come!

Our Bishop is a Mensch

I just got back from the meeting with Bishop Dan, which went better than I could have dared hope. He was extremely receptive, empathetic, and affirming, and it was a huge relief to get the sordid church saga, in detail, off my chest.

At the end of the story, he said, "It's a wonder and a glory that you're still in the church" (other people have said the same thing), and later, he thanked me for staying.

He'll support whatever I decide to do in terms of ordination. He did say that ordaining all the best laypeople -- which seems to be the current approach -- isn't what "ministry of the laity" is supposed to mean: ministry of the laity means that laypeople minister, as I'm doing now. "If you were ordained a deacon, you'd be preaching as a deacon, not as a licensed lay preacher, and that removes the value and power of laypeople in the pulpit." He also said, "it's true that being ordained opens some doors, but for every door that opens, five close."

I shared the comment of a CPE classmate who said, "Susan, your ministry is writing," and Bishop Dan pointed out that the best Christian writers weren't ordained.

It sounds from what I've said here as if he's discouraging me, but I didn't get that sense at all: rather, I felt as if he was following my lead and reinforcing my own ideas.

So I think I'm pretty clear on where I'm going, or not going; but for the moment, I'm just relieved that he was so sympathetic, and that he didn't -- for a change -- start defending the people who behaved less than admirably, even though we both know that they had reasons for acting as they did.


Now I have to run errands like a crazy woman, since I'm leaving town tomorrow for my PSR course.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fashion Plate, and Other Matters

Figaro curled up on my couch yesterday, half on top of one of my knitting bags, which is green and white. The green matched his eyes beautifully, so I took some photos. The matching color didn't show as well as I wanted it to, though.

That first shot's the best for the color match, but this is better of Figgy, since he's wearing his usual hyperalert expression. In the first photo, he looks half asleep.

I'm glad to report that knitting, writing and reading are all going well, and that I swam for an hour yesterday. Unfortunately, it's been impossible for me to walk outside -- although Gary's gamely continued hiking -- because our air quality is so horrible from the California fires. People with respiratory problems are really having a tough time of it. Things aren't as bad here as they must be in California, though.

With all my inside time, I'm looking forward to reading the latest Change of Shift, the nursing blog carnival -- hosted by the ever-energetic Kim -- which begins its third year of life with this edition. Congratulations, Kim! You're an inspiration to us all!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dansko, I Am Yours Forever!

LeAnne McComsey, an Associate Brand Manager for Dansko, left a comment on my previous post, assuring me that they're still producing the Narrow Pro and asking me to e-mail her.

So I did, with details about the store where I got the incorrect information, and what the manager there told me.

She wrote back to thank me, and said that she'll be sending me a free pair of blueberry narrow pro clogs! Yowsa!

Do these people rock, or what? Quite aside from the fact that the clogs are a) insanely comfortable and b) the absolute best air travel shoes, because you can get in and out of them so easily at security, but they also support your feet when you're trotting for miles to make your connection. Oh, and the company's wonderfully socially conscious. They give their staffers paid time off to volunteer, and then match the paid time with monetary donations to the charity.

You go, Dansko! I am your willing slave for life!

And just for the record, I always wear my Danskos during my volunteer shifts at the hospital (where lots of the medical folks wear them, too).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Tight Squeeze

While that family in Atlanta was trying to sell their house to give half the money to poor people in Ghana, I was buying new shoes. A second pair of Dankso Narrow Professional clogs, to be precise, this time in brown. The salesman told me that the company has decided to stop making narrow clogs, so I'm glad I got them, even if it was an extravagance.

Harley's glad, too. You can see how much he's enjoying the box.

And yet, they can never stand their cat carriers. Why is this? Next time, he's going to the vet in a Dansko shoebox.

Oh, and speaking of animals, you may have noticed that I've added a sidebar widget for The Daily Puppy. The Daily Kitten, unfortunately, doesn't seem to offer this service; neither does The Daily Coyote.

Grand Rounds, Meet Seinfeld

This week's edition is up, with a Seinfeld theme. I'm delighted to be included.

Happy reading!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Best. News story. Ever.

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (Matthew 19:21)

I don't know this family's religious beliefs, but whatever they believe in, I'm AMENing it. Way to live the Gospel!

They put me to shame. But then, they put just about everybody I've ever heard of to shame, with the possible exception of St. Francis.


Let's pray that the house sells, and that they get what it's worth.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

God's Country

Here's the homily I preached this morning, on a day when several parishioners had asked our priest for lots of patriotic content and when all the hymns we sang were patriotic songs. This kind of thing makes me very uncomfortable, for reasons I hope the homily itself makes clear, so I decided to try to be the gentle loyal opposition. It seemed to have worked pretty well. Many people really loved the homily; one man wanted to talk to me about immigration issues, which resulted in a long, thoughtful conversation, but I don't think anyone will be leaving the parish in outrage. Thanks be to God!

Here are the readings, the relevant ones being Genesis and Matthew.


When I was growing up, my grandparents had a live-in housekeeper named Helen. She was from Greece: a tiny woman, probably no more than four feet tall, but absolutely indomitable. Every day she cleaned my grandparents’ house in suburban New Jersey; several days a week, she then walked from their house into Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge, to clean house for people who lived in the city. It’s over four miles from my grandparents’ house to the New York side of the bridge, and probably several more to the neighborhoods where Helen’s clients lived. She never complained about the distance. She could have taken a bus or gotten a ride, but she wanted to walk.

At some point, Helen decided to become an American citizen. My grandfather taught her to read English and coached her on the answers to the citizenship test. She was very proud the day she passed it, and all of us were proud of her. My most vivid memory of her, though, dates from 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. Helen was walking across the bridge just as the tall ships -- historic wooden sailing ships with huge, graceful sails -- passed underneath. She stopped and gawked, amazed. Later, with tears in her voice, she told us how beautiful they were, how exciting it had been to watch them.

I think of Helen every Fourth of July. I don’t know what brought her to this country; after my grandfather died, she moved back to Greece. But she reminds me of everyone who has come to this country from somewhere else, and of the hard work and sacrifice these immigrants -- including many of our own ancestors -- have happily accepted to make a life here.

I think of her, and of all those other immigrants, when I read this morning’s Scripture passages, too. The reading from Genesis reminds us of the bonds that defy borders; Abraham, living in Canaan but homesick, sends his servant back to his ancestral lands to find a wife for his son. Rebekeh and her maids leave a great deal behind to settle in a new land when she marries Isaac. And Jesus’ famous words in the Gospels remind me of Helen cheerfully walking miles to work.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Living in the United States placed certain yokes upon Helen, as it does upon all immigrants: distance from home and loved ones, struggles with a new language and culture, the need to find work that often takes grueling, unpleasant forms. Helen, at least, seemed to find that yoke easy, that burden light.

For me, Jesus’ words echo another promise, one we often remember on July 4:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This is, as I’m sure most of you know, the most famous section of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France to the United States. We’re currently in the middle of a rather fierce national debate about how best to keep that particular promise, about which huddled masses should be allowed entrance. This state of affairs is nothing new. Waves of immigrants have always come here, and periodically, the people already in residence have felt swamped by those waves, and have panicked.

It’s easy to welcome and love a diminutive and plucky Greek housekeeper, especially when she’s dutifully following the rules we’ve set up for how to be accepted into this country. Huddled masses of wretched refuse are more of a challenge, both emotionally and in practical terms, and especially when they’re too desperate, because of poverty or oppression, to follow our rules.

Following the rules takes time. It also takes time for huddled masses to become actual people to us, for a wave of strangers to become known, loved friends and family. It’s hard to remember at first that the frightening, teeming mass is a group of individuals, and that each one has a story, often involving great hardship.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” Jesus -- friend of sinners, tax collectors, lepers and Samaritans -- didn’t limit his hospitality, didn’t set quotas, build walls or police borders. He welcomed everyone, even when he was overwhelmed by crowds or seized upon by people too desperate to follow instructions. It’s easy to respond that this is all well and good for the Son of God. We’re mere mortals with limited resources. As Christians, though, we’re called to follow Jesus’ example, to do seemingly impossible things with loaves and fishes.

We’re also called to remember that whatever nation we claim as home, we are also, by virtue of baptism, citizens of God’s country. That country is much larger than the United States: indeed, larger than any nation on Earth, larger than all nations on Earth. In that country, all who are hungry are fed, and all who are homeless find lodging. God’s country is the place of freedom, peace and justice that humans yearn for, and that so many humans have moved to new earthly countries, including the United States, trying to find.

As Christians, we live in two countries at once, and there may be times when we have to choose between them. Jesus told us that we cannot serve two masters. If the cross and the flag are in conflict, which will we choose? If our elected officials are not doing what Jesus would do, how will we call them to account? Is our earthly country, like God’s, a place of freedom, peace and justice? Does it offer those things to everyone? If not, how can we reach out to those who are being shortchanged, and how can we act in love to change the systems that are shortchanging them?

Some of you know that, through an odd and unexpected series of events, I began taking communion several months before I was baptized. I talked to Sherry and Rick about the situation, and they decided that I should continue receiving until my scheduled baptism. At the time, I was on an internet listserv for Episcopalians, and I told the story there. Most of the people on the list were supportive, but one -- a retired priest -- was furious and horrified. I had no right to take communion, he told me. Communion without baptism was just cheap grace. People like me were destroying the church!

People like me? I asked him. Where are these teeming masses of people trying to break down the doors of the church to take illegal communion? We should have such problems: most Episcopal churches are struggling with declining membership! But if your parish was besieged by people desperate to take premature communion, would you really send them away? Wouldn’t you even think about letting them in, instead? What would Jesus do?

The debate over open communion is similar to, although considerably less urgent than, the debate about immigration. In both cases, I think we need to ask ourselves why the newcomers in question have arrived at our doorstep. Is Susan trying to make a mockery of Christ and the church, or is she seeking a closer relationship with God and a chance to do God’s work? Is Helen trying to sponge off American wealth, or is she happy to walk seven miles each way to clean other people’s toilets?

What oppression is the person standing in front of us trying to escape? What freedom is the person standing in front of us trying to find? When we separate that terrifying, teeming mass into individuals and ask each individual for his or her story, what do we hear? What would Jesus do if he heard the same story?


Saturday, July 05, 2008

Holy Man

Every week when I arrive in the ED for my volunteer shift, I ask the case manager if there are any patients I should see first. This week, the case manager said, "Yes. Go see Room X." (We all refer to patients by room number: this is partly for privacy and partly for convenience, since patients come and go but rooms remain the same.)

Room X, it turned out, was inhabited by a man with several mental illnesses, and off his meds, who was a missing person from another state. Our local police had found him wandering in the middle of the street and had brought him to the hospital. His family had been called with the happy news that he'd been located. "He might like to talk to you," the case manager said.

I went into the room. Patient X was an imposing person, sitting on a stool and neatly drying off his feet, which he'd been washing in a bucket of water. I introduced myself, and he graciously invited me to sit down. He asked me about my volunteer work. Did I enjoy it? (Yes, very much.) How long had I been doing it? (Three and a half years.) Did I intend to keep doing it? (Yes, as long as I could walk; when I couldn't walk any more, I'd volunteer from a wheelchair. That made him laugh.)

He was much more interested in talking about me than in talking about himself, although I did learn that he has a cat, being cared for by his daughter. When I asked if he'd like to pray, he said yes. When I asked what he wanted to pray for, he pursed his lips for a minute and then said, "Well, we should pray for world peace, of course. And for direction for you and all ministers. And for love between all people."

Usually, patients close their eyes while I pray, holding their hand. This time, Patient X took both of my hands and said, "You go ahead, dear. If you falter, I'll jump in."

I prayed for his wishes, and managed not to falter. He held my hands the whole time, sometimes stroking my wrists, his eyes on my face. When I was done, he started his own prayer, which was much more fluent than mine had been. He stroked my hands and arms now, according to some pattern of his own. "Don't worry; I won't rape you." I must have looked nervous.

When he'd finished his prayer, he kissed my hands, kissed my head, made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and blessed me to go out and keep doing my work with other patients.

There were, to be sure, some things he said that I had trouble following, but that was more because his voice kept sinking into a mutter than because his words were nonsensical or incoherent. He clearly believed that he possessed a great deal of power and understood a great number of hidden things, and I suspect that his doctors and loved ones would call these beliefs delusional. And certainly the way he arrived at our hospital wasn't an indication of ideal functioning.

Still, I felt genuine power in that room, and the presence of the sacred. If he believes he's Jesus, nothing in my brief encounter with him would make me disagree.

The second patient I visited was a very elderly woman. As I sat next to her bed, chatting, she said, "I get such a good vibe from you! You're such a loving person!"

"Thank you," I said, but I had a feeling that the vibe was from the blessing I'd just gotten.

The rest of the shift went very well. I did good work with several other psych patients; one had thrown a chair at a doctor before I got there, and one wound up being thrown out of the hospital for disruptive behavior, but when I was with them, we got along fine. I kept wondering how much the blessing had shaped my interactions with those patients.

If nothing else, it was a wonderful way to begin a shift, calming and centering. But it was also a poignant reminder that those we help sometimes see themselves as the helpers, and that they can indeed help us if we let them.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Third and the Fourth

Happy Fourth of July, everybody! I'm happy to report that I've now finished the redraft of Chapter Three, although the book's shifting on me enough that I know I'm going to have to rerevise earlier sections, too. But I think that's a good sign. It means I'm figuring things out.

Gary hasn't read it yet. I hope he finds it coherent!

Tonight we're going to a party given by one of my students. She lives close to one of Reno's prime fireworks sites, and also has Abyssinian cats. I've been hearing about her critters for several years now, so I can't wait to meet them!

Speaking of writing, today I finished reading the DeSalvo book about writing and healing. That, in conjunction with an e-mail conversation with my bishop (with whom I'm meeting next Friday to discuss the shape of my calling), has made me realize that at some point, I'm going to have to write out the full version of the church fiasco that happened several years ago . . . or my full version, anyway, which isn't even remotely the same as anyone else's. I don't think I'll show this document to anyone, not least because it would make all kinds of people angry in ways that would be more destructive than helpful, but I need to get the mess -- and my still-volatile-entirely-too-long-after-the-fact feelings about it -- out of my head and onto paper in more detail than I've done.

Ugh. Can't I just undergo an exorcism instead? Maybe I'll ask Bishop Dan if that's one of the sacraments he performs.

(If you're tuning in late, here's a very vague outline of the matter.)

Or maybe I'll save this project for after retirement, given my copious spare time right now.

All this reminds me of the responses to an essay I wrote in grad school, which was very critical of certain elements of graduate education -- at least at Yale -- and which I still haven't published. I did show it to my dissertation workshop group, which consisted of my advisor plus several other students writing dissertations. They all liked it (even my advisor, I think), but were alarmed at the prospect of my trying to publish it.

"Maybe after you get a job," one of the other students said, sounding worried.

Another student shook her head. "No, after you get tenure."

My advisor looked up from her copy of the manuscript. "Posthumously," she said.

At this point, I suspect the answer is "never," not least because I hope the piece is dated. But I'm still glad I wrote it!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Readings (One Tonight!)

I've been remiss about announcing this, but I'll be giving a short -- five minutes, time for about two pages -- reading tonight as part of the summer science-fiction event at Sundance Bookstore here in Reno.

More substantial readings, although they're not in Reno:

On July 12 at 7:00 PM, I'll be reading with Jay Lake as part of Tachyon's SF in SF series. Details on the website.

On July 28 I'll be reading with Ellen Klages at the Sacramento Poetry Center -- I think, although their website indicates that their Monday reading series is at a bookstore, so maybe it's there. I'm a little foggy on the details, obviously, and I don't have a time, either. Stay tuned for more details!

Happy Adoption Day, Harley!

Nine years ago today, my mother and I brought Harley home from the animal shelter. He was a tiny, adorable kitten then, just eight weeks old. Now he's a gigundo-fluffmuffin-of-doom, as you can see from this photo. He's also, as you can tell from this photo, much better groomed than I am, although in my defense, this was taken when I was still in my robe and only halfway through my morning coffee. Yeah, that was just a few minutes ago, but hey: it's summer.

(I just talked to my Dad on the phone, and when he asked me what I was up to and I told him, he said, "You're working too hard! This is supposed to be your vacation!" S'okay. I'm relaxing too.)

Harley is also known as The Beast With No Eyes, because they so rarely come out in pictures. This isn't a great shot, but I like it anyway. Zen Fluffmuffin Contemplates Own Paws.

Happy Adoption Day, Harley. We're very glad you're part of our family!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Ten years ago today, Gary and I moved into our house. We're very happy here and plan never, ever, ever to move. Not ever. Because that would mean packing up about eighty thousand books, not to mention all the CDs and DVDs, and oh yeah, clothing. We just aren't up to it, even if we didn't love both our house and its location, which we do. We bought and refinanced at good times, so the house will be paid off -- on a fixed-rate mortgage, thank God -- in fewer than fifteen years. We were very lucky, and we're very grateful.

Today's an even more important anniversary for me. Nineteen years ago today, on July 1, 1989, I married myself. (Does that make me a polygamist? Hmmmm . . . .)

Yeah, I know, it sounds silly. I thought so too, even at the time. But it's a good story.

Nineteen years ago, I was unhappily single and living in a decaying tenement apartment (where a friend still lives) in Manhattan's East Village. I had a soul-numbing corporate-writing job that I hated, partly because almost everyone there seemed to be from another planet. They all enjoyed wearing three-piece gray suits. Most of them spoke, and expected me to produce, content-free prose. And none of them liked animals. When I was upset because a friend's cat had died, I got a lecture from one of my coworkers. "I like people, Susan, not pets."

"I like both," I told him.

You can guess how well I fit in there.

The job was loathsome, but it paid well enough for me to afford my own decaying tenement apartment, and I couldn't figure out what else to do. (The one non-loathsome thing about the job was that it was only four days a week, which gave me welcome time to write.)

Meanwhile, I was reeling from a string of brief relationships ranging from the pleasant-but-unworkable to the infuriating. I was starting to doubt that I'd ever find Mr. Right, or even Mr. Half-A-Chance.

Like every other self-respecting twenty-something living in Manhattan, I was in therapy. (The otherwise-loathsome job also provided health insurance, something I was very wary of giving up.) My therapist kept pushing me to go to some wacko New Age weekend therapy workshop for women, and she was being unusually persistent, so I said, fine, I'd go. I didn't have anything else to do that weekend. It wasn't like I was dating anybody.

The workshop was unexpectedly powerful, and more or less threw me for a loop. I'll spare you most of the details; the important thing for this story is that the workshop leader urged us, after we'd gone home on Sunday, to find or make some symbol that we were creating a new life for ourselves.

I like jewelry, and I lived near St. Mark's Place, which sold a lot of inexpensive silver. So I decided to buy myself a ring.

That was Sunday night, when I was too tired to go out and shop. But over the next few days, the idea morphed. Eventually, I decided that the ring was going to be my promise that I'd take care of myself as well as I'd care for a spouse or anyone else I loved. It would be my promise to honor myself and my own best interests.

In other words, I was going to marry myself, even if I never found anyone else to marry.

I wrote a self-marriage certificate, which I still have. I went out and bought the $15 ring, one of those silver ones with the three interlocking bands. I planned flowers and music. I didn't have the courage to invite any actual humans to this bizarre event, so I decided that my stuffed animals would be my witnesses.

I told my therapist about my plan, expecting her to roll her eyes or look embarrassed. Instead, she squealed. "Ooooh! What are you wearing?"

"Clothing," I said.

The big morning of July 1 arrived. I went out to buy flowers from one of the Korean corner delis. But it was about a hundred and ten out, and all the corner-deli flowers looked like they'd been shriveled by an atomic blast. So I went into an actual air-conditioned florist's shop, where an old man with a German accent helped me pick out flowers.

I was very specific. I wanted white roses and blue irises. He had lovely irises, but the roses were a bit past their prime, so he brought some new ones out for me. When I'd chosen all the blossoms, he said, "What's the occasion?"

I winced. Oh, I'm marrying myself today. Reception at Bellevue immediately following the ceremony. "Oh, uh, well, I just decided to do something nice for myself."

I thought it sounded lame, but the merchant's face split into a grin. "Ah! You're just like my wife! When she wants something nice, she doesn't wait for me to give it to her! She buys it for herself!" Whereupon he grabbed a pink carnation and stuck it in with the irises and roses. "This is from me!"

"Thank you!" I said. Someone had given me a wedding present after all.

I went home with the flowers. The ceremony went off without a hitch. None of the stuffed animals behaved badly, and I didn't panic and leave myself at the altar.

And that was that. No lie, though: that ceremony was a huge turning point in my life. The day after the ceremony, I started a regime of regular exercise. My eating habits improved. A month after the ceremony, after years of avoiding grad school, I decided to apply to PhD programs in English, with the goal of becoming an English professor. A few months after that, I met Gary. Somewhere in there, I resumed work on the writing project that would eventually become Flying in Place, my first novel.

I still wear the ring, on my right ring finger with several others. Every July 1, I remind myself what it means. My life now couldn't possibly be more different than it was nineteen years ago, and the promises I made to myself, in front of the flowers and the stuffed animals, were the first step in that transformation.

Grand Rounds, With Fireworks

This week's edition is up, with a timely Fourth of July theme. Enjoy!