Thursday, September 13, 2018

Adobe


A couple of times at school, I have stayed in this building, in the little room on the second floor, which sleeps three.

(Click photo to enlarge.)

The Most Dangerous of All

Our ten days at school in mid-August were packed with interesting presentations and enriching activities. I stayed in a room with three of my fellow students. My bed was right next to the windows, which we left open every night. It was lovely to snuggle under the puffy comforter and feel the breeze on my face and hear the coyotes howling in the morning.

Next March, my cohort will receive the Zen precepts in the ceremony known as jukai. To prepare for this, we have to do several things by the end of this December: create a chart representing the traditional lineage of male ancestors, starting with the Buddha and ending with our own teacher (who will write my name at the very bottom before she returns this document to me during the ceremony); create a chart representing notable female ancestors; make an artwork or produce a piece of writing about those who have influenced our own spiritual paths; hand sew a rakusu (a small biblike traditional Japanese garment); and write a gloss about each of the precepts, along with the Three Refuges and the three Zen Peacemaker Tenets.

We were advised to try to complete the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ charts while we were at school in August. You are allowed some artistic license with the latter, but the former has to be just so, and involves drawing a long winding “bloodline.” (Traditionally, people had to draw this line in one stroke, but we were allowed to lift our red markers from the long scroll of rice paper as needed.) I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. one night and got both of them done. We also began sewing our rakusus, and here I must pause to appreciate our sewing instructor, someone who went through this two-year chaplaincy training several years ago. There are 23 people in my cohort, plus at least three people who will be joining us for jukai, which means one person is trying to assist people at 26 different stages of doing this sewing project, any number of whom are freaking out at any given moment, yet she never seemed at all flustered.

Working on our lineage charts and rakusus gave rise to joy, tears, quiet and not so quiet satisfaction, frustration, gratitude and many kind offerings of emotional support, encouragement, sympathy, and instruction from those farther along. It was a beautiful time of teamwork, group effort, and deepening relationships. Really, it was fun. Now that I’m working on my rakusu at home by myself, I am very grateful that my mother taught me how to sew. There are people doing this who have literally never threaded a needle before. There are people who don’t own an iron or ironing board.

For basting thread, I am using red thread that was in the very first sewing kit my mother ever bought me, when I was maybe eight years old. I am using scissors she gave me, and my sewing stuff now resides in a handsome round wicker basket that she made. Most of all, I am using the knowledge she imparted to me. We have an excellent online guide, yet inevitably, some things are assumed. For instance, I don’t think it explicitly says how to make a knot in a piece of thread. (We can email our sewing instructor if we get stuck, and she will also do a video phone call with us.)

During my week at school, my childhood home in Ann Arbor was sold, and the father of my very oldest friend died. One of our teachers is a famous Zen gardener who writes for Tricycle and other publications. (There will be a story about her time at school with us in the next issue.) In her corn kernel necklace, she afforded a fine example of a person evidently being exactly and delightfully herself. (“If this sounds woo-woo, deal with it.”) I can fall into thinking that being a chaplain requires a certain piety, or even at times a funereal manner, but am pretty sure that what is almost always most needed and welcome is authenticity, practiced in an ethical manner.

This teacher led us in building up a compost heap, preceded by a ritual in which we called upon the powers of the four directions. Those who wanted to could make a clay sculpture representing something they wished to let go of; these were placed on the compost heap before the final layer or two of stuff was added. While we were working on the compost heap, our teacher divided us into three groups for singing. The first group sang something like, “Rot, rot, rot, rot!” The second group sang a somewhat more complicated but still applicable phrase. To the third group, she said, “You’re the most dangerous of all!” Members of this group were instructed to shriek “Get down!” as the spirit moved them. We loved her.

My parents are avid gardeners who always had a compost heap in the yard of the home that was just sold. Getting to participate in making a compost heap helped with grieving the loss of that enchanted, quiet place, with its beautiful fruit trees, grapevine, flowers and vegetables.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Santa Fe Motel Parking Lot


(Click photo to enlarge.)

Hairdon’t

At the end of July, I had breakfast with one of my former Clinical Pastoral Education peers, who raved over my new very short hairdo. Others have also complimented it, but it hasn’t been a hit across the board. One young hospital patient called me a “dyke-looking bitch with goofy glasses.”

I’m starting to think that, in some ways, holding babies, which I do most weeks in the NICU at County Hospital, is harder than being a chaplain. I twice held a baby who was withdrawing from drugs. He has since left the hospital, and I found myself thinking about him, picturing him crying while his mother shoots up. The thought of this baby being unhappy caused me some moments of real anguish.

Early in August, I headed to school in Santa Fe two days early so I could spend some time with Mason, one of my two peers in my first unit of CPE. Landing in Albuquerque, I experienced the worst turbulence of my life, as evidenced by the fact that never before have I clutched the arm of the stranger sitting next to me and burst into tears. The plane was bucking and corkscrewing and lurching up and down. A flight attendant making an announcement over the PA broke off in the middle of a sentence and rushed down the aisle, holding onto both sides of the overhead luggage bins.

I was one hundred percent positive I was within a minute or two of the end of my life, and accordingly had a word with my deceased grandmother, whom I expected to see in person imminently. I asked if it is safe to die and she again assured me that it is (as she does just before I board any plane). I put my cell phone in my jacket pocket, so my family might have a chance of identifying my body, and considered how I would like to spend my final 30 seconds. It was immediately obvious that human connection is most important, so I said to the fellow next to me, who was clutching the seat in front of him, “If we crash, can I hold your hand?”

He said, “Yes.” Then, in what sounded like an afterthought, “Hope we don’t.” We did not, and that evening, Mason and his brother and I had dinner at a pizza place recommended by one of the Sandia shuttle drivers.

The next day—a blisteringly hot one—I had breakfast in the grand dining room at La Fonda and then Mason and his brother and I saw the oldest house in the country (from the 1600s), and the oldest chapel, which is next door. We saw a church that was the first Gothic structure built west of the Mississippi, and we went to the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and to the state capitol, which is full of art. We drove out to Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese spa and restaurant, just to have a look at it.

We had lunch at Souper!Salad! and that evening I had dinner at Tomasita’s with four of my fellow chaplaincy students and two of our teachers.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Fog Plus Wildfire Smoke


Note the little stripe of more or less blue sky at the horizon.

(Click photo to enlarge.)

Letting Go of Technique

My boss recently hired two additional per diem chaplains, bringing the total to four. We learned that we would also have four CPE students starting in September (though it turned out that one of them later thought better of this, so we actually have three). She did a reorganization such that several people will work only during the day and never be on call. The CPE students will handle most of the on-call duties during the work week, and the plan was that we four per diems would duke it out for the remaining evening and weekend on-call hours; we would not have the possibility of working weekday shifts.

It took a while for this to sink in, but I finally realized that I would be going from working once or twice a week to potentially working as little as twice a month. I also am no longer assigned to certain units, where I have come to know staff members and long-term patients, but will go to different units on different days. Further, since all of our team meetings are on weekdays, I realized I would probably never see the rest of my group again. Three simultaneous losses: of money, of connection with my team, and of connection with my units. Also, if I was only going to work night shifts, while I’m all in favor of being paid for sleeping, that wouldn’t be much time with patients.

If my boss hadn’t made it clear that she thinks I’m doing a good job and would like me to apply for a job with more hours per week once I’m done with school, I would have been really upset about all of this, sure that she was trying to get rid of me. But since she has made her favorable opinion clear, I decided to continue to do my best, with a good attitude. Things seem to change often in this line of work, so I figured this would not be the situation for very long, and if I really didn’t have enough patient care hours, I could always add a second day at County Hospital.

And then about two minutes later, my boss offered me a steady day of work each week, and then we lost the fourth CPE student, so I will work a second day of the week now and then, plus some nights. So there definitely was no reason to be concerned, and I even came around to thinking it will be fine to go from hospital to hospital. It will be an opportunity to meet a lot of staff members currently unknown to me and to become familiar with a lot of different units.

One thing that happens very regularly is having a great conversation with a patient and thinking, “Now I’ve got it!” Whatever seemed to “work” with that patient, I then try in the next visit—and invariably find that it doesn’t have the same effect at all.

When I speak with patients, I frequently leave plenty of silence, which often results in their saying things not directly elicited by me, sometimes very important things. With a patient one recent day at the county hospital, I was mentally counting to five after he finished speaking, then ten, then fifteen. I realized a quality of stubbornness had arisen in me, even a mild aggression: I am going to sit here without speaking until this person says something! And then it occurred to me for the first time that maybe the reason a patient speaks during a period of unusual silence—a period far longer than would occur in a social conversation—is not that he feels invited or free to do so by the lovely, calm silence, but because he feels anxious!

With mild chagrin, I realized that deliberately leaving a certain amount of silence, while often effective, is a technique. When I say it is effective, I mean that it results in the patient doing something I think he should do, but how do I know that’s really what would be beneficial? Employing this procedure is also about reducing my own anxiety, because, having decided in advance what to do, I don’t have to experience confusion or unease.

Now that I have realized this, I intend to hold my toolkit of techniques much more loosely and to remember the council guideline (we often do council at school) of speaking spontaneously. A healing conversation cannot be forced, but arises from the relationship co-created by myself and the patient, which in turn depends on my willingness to risk authenticity and vulnerability (practiced in an ethical manner). I will try to practice the kind of patience that allows for intuition to arise, and that gives a feeling of aliveness and spaciousness, rather than steely determination. Can I trust my innate wisdom and good heart? Can I trust that the whole universe is permeated with benevolence and regularly offers delightful surprises, including intuitions that arise at just at the right moment?

One Friday evening, Tom, Ann Marie and I saw the second half of Angels in America at Berkeley Rep. Carlos’s niece was again playing the role of the angel. I had to beg Tom not to leave during the first intermission, and really beg him not to leave during the second. I didn’t want to find myself walking alone at 16th and Mission after midnight.