Friday, April 29, 2016

Inconsiderately Overscheduled Nurse Wearies Blogger

I went back to the health center to have TB test #2 placed and was assisted again by the LVN with the daunting schedule. He inquired about my weekend and I about his—he and his girlfriend went to Renaissance Faire. Now I really feel exhausted. On top of all he does, how does he have time for either of those things? Apparently the latter is per the wishes of the former, but it’s worth it, because she is a great lady (in his words). She is Mary, Queen of Scots, and he is her second husband-to-be, so his position is a bit nebulous at the moment.

I got a call from my chaplaincy pal Sam, who has a friend who applied for the CPE program at just one place and got an interview—at Stanford! That’s impressive. Sam wondered if I would speak to her on the phone and give her any tips I could think of about preparing for her interview, which I was happy to do. We had a good talk, and afterward I sent her my written notes on this topic. It was nice to get a chance to help someone else after having been mentored myself so generously lately.

This aspiring chaplain, who is a Zen Buddhist, said she’s not interested in praying for people or doing rituals—why should she try to pretend something is there that isn’t there? I told her I sympathize. In the past, I decided more than once not to pursue chaplaincy for that precise reason: I didn’t want to become immersed in religion, even my own. But I now feel that I will be happy to learn to offer whatever will be most soothing to someone in distress. If someone wants me to pray to God on his or her behalf, I will be delighted to do that. We experimented with this in the Sati Center class. I was prayed for, briefly, by someone who was adamantly opposed to the whole thing and I was very surprised at how comforting it was. Also, in my limited experience as a volunteer chaplain, hardly anyone wants an explicitly religious conversation. Most people just want to talk.

The aspiring chaplain also asked about being able to provide love in a hospital. I’m sure she knows she can be loving in any context if she chooses, so I answered by telling her that I am an aversive type: I don’t naturally walk around radiating love, and therefore rely much more on my ability to be awake and present. I have often observed that when I am fully present, an appropriate kind and friendly response arises easily.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Gift to the Future Tsk Tsker

My 40-year friend has fallen prey to painful sciatica (right after getting a new job that involves a lot of travel), so we haven’t spoken, but when we do, I think we plan to have the same kind of conversation about being color-blind that we had about taxes: one in which the goal is to understand each other and to identify points of agreement, which won’t be hard to do since obviously her goal is to treat people fairly and with kindness. In fact, I’m starting to think maybe we’ve been more cautious than we needed to be and that it has eroded what could have been an easier connection—maybe we should have the exact same kinds of conversations about religion and politics. I will suggest it. Because we are so different and avoid so many topics, I have a constant low level of negative judgment burbling away which easily flares into active aversion, and makes me lose sight of her positive qualities, which are many. In fact, we have plenty of common ground.

I’m embarrassed that I so quickly assumed an angry, adversarial stance, though I felt a little better when I heard Dan Shapiro being interviewed on NPR. He is the author of a book called Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. I was already thinking that my friend and I needed to have a conversation in which mutual understanding would be the goal, and I felt bolstered and further inspired when I heard this author say that this is precisely what should be the aim. He also said it’s rare, or difficult, for people to take this approach, which made me feel a little better. I’m also embarrassed that I published here, verbatim, my self-righteous note to my friend (though I did refrain from publishing her reply verbatim, which was a conscious charitable act), but at least it will give me something to tsk tsk over in future years, maybe: goodness, what an idiot I was.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Unabashed Unpleasing Ululations

Last Saturday, F. and I saw Marguerite, about a rich music lover in France whose singing voice is execrable but who is humored in her aspirations due to her ability to make large financial contributions. Afterward, F. suggested taking one of the historical trolley cars up Market, which was really a treat, with a brisk, refreshing breeze coming in the window. At home, F. cooked us potatoes and eggs for dinner.

When he arrived the evening before, he made a hurtful remark on a topic he has specifically been advised to avoid. On the whole, I think he withstands many more critical remarks in this relationship than I do. Nonetheless, I told him it bothered me and he immediately became offended by my being “overly sensitive.” As in many prior cases, I was furious that he got to both make a mean remark and also somehow to be the injured party.

But instead of trying to achieve victory via verbal battle, or at least argue him to a draw over it, I thought about it for a bit and said I would like to have a conversation in which my goal was for him to understand why the remark hurt my feelings, and also for me to understand anything he felt I was not grasping. The conversation was brief and I felt that he did understand. I asked if there was anything he would like me to understand, and he said there wasn’t, though he seemed rather morose the rest of the evening and, for that matter, the whole next day.

However, that’s his problem. It has not proven in the past to be constructive to try to do anything to alter his moods (duh), let alone have an argument about why he has no right to be in a bad mood. I also reflected that I have never once seen either of my parents try to change the other’s mood. I’ve seen one of them take care not to further inflame a stressed or irritated spouse, but they really just let each other be for the most part. Can I be in a good mood even if F. is in a bad mood? Sure. So I did that. And it was also much better to seek understanding rather than to try to win an argument on Friday night, so I count the weekend as a success: I saw a good movie, I enjoyed a bracing breeze in a picturesque trolley car, I ate delicious potatoes and eggs, I went to Rainbow, I listened to On the Media, I did my cooking chores, I got a bunch of reading done.

I have finished Ron Chernow’s utterly splendid biography of George Washington. Something very sad happens at the end! (I won’t spoil it for you.) I have now started
Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton (upon which the highly popular musical was based), which promises to be equally good, and I’m reading a couple of the books I acquired for the chaplaincy course at the Sati Center. In most cases, we read only certain chapters, so I am now reading two particularly pertinent books in their entirety: The Arts of Contemplative Care, edited by Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller, and Buddhist Care for the Dying and Bereaved, edited by Jonathan S. Watts and Yoshiharu Tomatsu.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Loss of a Longtime Neighbor

Last Tuesday evening I went to Howie’s to see how the smell was coming, and found it had abated enough that I was able to be there the whole evening without distress; the other sangha member who had been particularly affected was also there and also said it seemed much better. It was really nice to see my meditation friends and Howie again. I will have to find some way of being there during CPE at least every two or three weeks, or maybe I can go for the meditation and leave during the break.

My father sent an email late last week with a link to the obituary of our longtime next door neighbor, an award-winning doctor and a pioneer in using ultrasound imaging to diagnose prostate cancer. His middle child of five and oldest son was a suitor of mine when we were seven; he made me a bracelet out of a pounded copper nail. I still have on my right arm two tiny round scars made by the teeth of an enraged gerbil that Fred, Jr., known as Feo, had tossed in the air. He was a smart and kind boy and this act, which infuriated but did not otherwise harm the gerbil, was uncharacteristic.

Feo’s father and my father and several other people ran 12 miles or so together on Sunday mornings for many years. My father writes, “Early on in our running togetherness, I was on the verge of stopping running because of knee pain. When I mentioned this to Fred, he told me to walk away from him while he observed. He told me my feet were over-pronating and recommended arch supports. I subsequently built up the arch supports to force my feet to tilt outward, thereby transforming the arch supports into varus wedges. Fred’s suggestion allowed me to run for decades with no more knee pain.”

My father went on: “Most of my other contact with Fred is fairly recent and occurred mostly at his office. Before I became his patient, somehow or other I mentioned my high PSA readings to him. He suggested that I leave the urologist I had been seeing and let him take care of me. I was hesitant, not wishing to offend the doctor I had been seeing. While I was still hesitating, he made an appointment for me to force the issue. I’m glad he did, since he was one of the world’s leading authorities on prostate cancer and gave me excellent care. The office visits usually ran a bit long due to our reminiscing about current and past neighborhood people and events. After my prostate cancer was diagnosed, Fred invited me to his home one day. After discussing my medical situation in great detail, we spent another hour talking about all kinds of things.”

My father once told me how outstanding Fred’s bedside manner was, how he took my father’s hand and looked into his eyes while offering words of support and encouragement: “He seemed to be genuinely concerned about my health, very warm and caring, far more than any other physician I have ever encountered. Fred’s wife told me that he delayed retirement for so long because he felt so much responsibility for his patients.” He was 84 when he retired, just one year ago.

I always found him in a mood of extreme good cheer and had gotten into the habit of going to say hello to him and his wife each time I visited Ann Arbor, if they happened to be in their back yard. The last time I saw him, they were on their back deck. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon and he said with a big smile how much he was enjoying the beautiful day. That is a nice last memory.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Tuesday I went to one of the four VFMC campuses to receive some immunizations, to have blood drawn, and to have the first of two TB tests started. The young male nurse I saw told me that he works full time as an LVN (licensed vocational nurse), is going to school full time (to become a registered nurse), and also runs a business part time! Work is 40 hours a week, his business takes 30-40 hours a week, and school takes up about 20 hours a week. I said he must be one of those people who can get by on three hours of sleep and noted that he looked remarkably well rested. 

I asked about his self-care practices and he said he used to meditate regularly, but doesn’t have much time for that anymore. He said he tries to use his breaks to best advantage and that he is methodical in this regard: He has breakfast during his first break, takes a walk during lunch, and naps during his afternoon break, outside if possible or sitting up in a chair in the hospital. He said later that he actually gets five or so hours of sleep each night. I said he must be a wizard of time management, and he said that he doesn’t watch TV, though he did watch the debates between the Democratic presidential candidates.

We discussed the presidential election at some length, including internalized racism, one of my favorite topics these days, and I could see his mood beginning to sour as he talked about how Trump is appealing to his supporters’ worst natures. To give him a chance to talk about something that would put him in a better mood, I asked about his business, which is selling shoelaces, let us say. “On another topic, why shoelaces?” His face lit up and he told me what is unique about what he sells, and he explained why he has a business as well as a full-time job: he understands that money in this country is flowing inexorably to those who are already rich, that his employer feels no loyalty toward him whatsoever, that he may lose his job at any moment, and he is worried about having enough money. His business is a means of financial self-protection. Sad. But also very impressive, how energetically and determinedly he is implementing his plans. He was also extremely meticulous about his operations in my regard, showing me each tiny vial so I could be sure I was getting the right stuff. I couldn’t read those little letters or understand what they meant, but I appreciated the care he took here.

He left the room for a few minutes at one point, and suddenly I was flooded with a visceral memory of how it felt when I myself was a cancer patient sitting alone in a hospital room: scared, curious, uncertain, vulnerable. And this was just Stage 0 breast cancer, or DCIS.

When my LVN returned, I made a point of seeing his physical appearance: the freckles on his neck, the way his earlobes (or at least, his left earlobe) came to almost a slight point at the bottom, his reddish-brown hair. Seeing something and knowing one is seeing it is a fine way to be sure of being present.

I left my appointment feeling very inspired about working in a hospital one day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Walk and a Dog

F. and I had a pleasant, peaceful weekend—the third such weekend out of the last five, I think. Friday night we went to the soup kitchen’s quarterly open mic. One performer lectured people with unnecessary possessions: “You people who push around those shopping carts loaded with stuff, you need to look at that. Do you really have to have all that stuff?” That was daring, considering the audience, but no one seemed to take offense. On Saturday, F. went with friends who have a small child to Golden Gate Park and I took a long walk with my walking friend, stopping for lunch at Ananda Fuara. He’s also the director of the soup kitchen, and so we always run into a million people he knows. On Saturday, we saw a man with a darling little dog that I petted for some time while my friend and the dog’s owner chatted. The latter said that if people come up to the dog while he’s sitting on his father’s lap or on their backpack, the dog bites them, but if you wait for the dog to come to you, he’s as gentle as can be. He was a very cute dog and seemed entirely placid.

On Sunday, I shopped for groceries at Rainbow and did my weekly kitchen tasks while F. worked on art projects in my living room. We often spend Sunday this way. At Rainbow, I told my friend who works there as a cashier that I was obsessing about whether to work as a chaplain or not, though I know that thinking and more thinking is not the best way to make a decision. I know I’d do better just to remain in the unfolding present, as Howie advised the Tuesday night group not too long ago. I know that things are unfolding organically and lawfully and that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. My friend agreed that thinking is sorely limited as a decision-making tool. I put in a plug for gathering information, but she said that gathering information is just a way to pass the time while we wait to see what’s going to happen. I think she’s probably right.

I did speak to a third chaplain over the weekend. This one works one day a week! I’m starting to wonder if there actually is such a thing as a full-time chaplain. This chaplain said something about training in grief counseling, so I said that one of my biggest questions about providing care is what you say to a parent whose baby has just died. What are the very first words you would say in that situation? The chaplain, who worked for several months in the neonatal intensive care unit and so must have encountered this more than once, said one can always gain more skills, but that “Stepping forward with your own heart is the most important thing.”

I do know there is such a thing as a full-time chaplain; several visited our class at the Sati Center. I think at this moment that I’d rather work in a hospital than for a hospice, which would mean getting the full certification, so if I do the yearlong CPE program starting in the fall, I might take the year after that off and focus on completing the education and then look for a hospital job. The third chaplain said she ended up taking an entire year off after completing CPE. She didn’t intend to, but that’s what ended up happening, and she said it ended up being an important opportunity to integrate that experience. She did some volunteering and went on retreats during that time.

First we’ll see if I survive the ten weeks of CPE that starts in June. As for education, two of the chaplains I’ve lately spoken with completed and spoke very highly of a low-residency program at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. This program would afford 48 of the necessary 72 units. My own meditation background would count for a few more, and I could do the rest at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley during that same year. The latter will also provide ordination as an interfaith minister upon completion of its program. Ordination and/or endorsement is required for certification, though I heard lately that one of those may no longer be required, maybe in recognition of the growing numbers of non-theistic aspiring chaplains, including Buddhists.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Kegels Opportunity

A year ago, at a Thomas House potluck, I explained to F. how I usually don’t eat dairy, and then ate about six pieces of pizza. On our walk home, F. teased me about this until I laughed so hard that I had what I call a Kegels failure, though it was too early in our relationship for me to announce this. Ah, how far we’ve come; you’re not going to be hearing the details here. Anyway, F. proposed that in a year, we eat pizza together—on April 7, 2016. Who would have thought we’d still be together on Pizza Day? But we were, and so on the Saturday two days later, we celebrated accordingly, preceded by going to see Miles Ahead, which was absolutely, completely fantastic. Don Cheadle wrote it, directed it, and stars in it. I expect to see him get two Oscars next year, for best director and best actor. (Also, hopefully Anthony Lane will be in prison for giving it a lukewarm review in The New Yorker.)

For pizza, we had planned to go to F.’s favorite place, Chico’s, on Sixth St., and then eat outdoors, but it was raining, so we came back to my apartment and ordered from Marcello’s instead. Then later we got into a fight, which we like to do on any sort of milestone or special occasion. As always, we got through it, though cool feelings lingered through Sunday.

Last Friday I went to see Demolition, which was worth seeing, particularly if you like Jake Gyllenhaal. Also, there was a wonderful-looking kid in it, Judah Lewis. It was about opening to the people around you and being true to yourself at any cost. Beforehand, I was thinking about the chaplain who told me about doing spiritual direction and I was thinking of calling her back to see what that consists of, or even scheduling a session for myself to find out firsthand. What problems would I tell her about? Maybe about feeling worried about CPE, or about emotions seeming oddly inaccessible lately. (She said that the schedule was the hardest part of CPE for her.) I could tell from just talking to her on the phone for 20 minutes or so that it would be wonderful to discuss my problems with her. One thing she said is that she doesn’t see the task as being to eradicate suffering: suffering is what happens. It’s how we meet it.

But then I realized that I should be able to figure out how to provide spiritual direction, since I’ve been learning about it for 25 years, and since I’ve received it from quite a number of teachers—Howie plus all the teachers I’ve interviewed with on retreats. How have these teachers been helpful? By being fully present, by listening kindly, by offering encouragement, by suggesting specific practices: nothing too exotic. When I provide spiritual direction to myself, what advice is most helpful? To notice what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling physically and emotionally always apply. Beyond that, it’s tinkering with specific approaches or actions that might be helpful in stimulating whatever seems needed: awareness, compassion, trust, faith, bravery.