Monday, November 21, 2016

Gossiping Neighbor Causes Virulent Goodwill

I visited a patient who has dinner every single night (when she’s not in the hospital) with a group of women neighbors who have all lost their husbands. Each night, one of them cooks dinner and has the others over and does all the cleaning up, so that the others don’t have to do anything whatsoever. They enjoy each other’s company, and the next night, it’s someone else’s turn.

She said that when she lived in the house before the one she lives in now, her neighbors didn’t like each other, so she went around and said, fibbing, to each neighbor, “That person said something good about you,” and soon everyone liked each other. I was dazzled by her kind intentions and her community-building skills. I told her, “I don’t know if you feel better, but I certainly do.”

I also visited a patient who has demons in various parts of her body, which appears to be a very disagreeable experience. This was at the psychiatric institute. When I’m on call on a Sunday, which seems to be quite often, I typically get paged to go see a list of four or five psychiatric patients. I picture one patient saying, “I want to see the chaplain,” and every other patient within earshot saying, “Me, too! I want to see the chaplain, too!”

I’ve sometimes had a bad attitude about this phenomenon, which does not occur with medical patients, because they are one to a room in most cases. I feel grumpy about what could have been one visit turning into four visits (meaning that a proper lunch break is that much more elusive), and I have found myself thinking, “What’s the point? It’s not like I’m going to be able to do anything for them.” But then I realized it’s not like I can do anything for anyone else, either! (Picture a smiley face here.) Probably all I offer most patients is nothing more than a friendly presence and the willingness to listen, and I can offer the exact same to psychiatric patients.

Nonetheless, on call yesterday, when I got a request to go see four psychiatric patients, I felt resistant at first—again?!—but what could I do? I tromped over there and found that the first person didn’t want to get out of bed. One down! The second person was the one with demons, and we had quite a long and interesting talk. At the end, I offered to pray for the spirit of Jesus to be with her, but she asked what denomination I am, and when I told her I’m Buddhist, she said we’d better skip that, because messing around with Buddhism in the past has caused her to have hallucinations. She encouraged me to think about accepting Jesus Christ as my savior. I thanked her for the advice, saying, “You never know what will happen.”

Then a thought suddenly came to her: “How old are you?” I told her I’m 54, and her face lit up, and she said, “I knew it! I had a feeling you were younger than me. That means you’re my little sister and I’m your big sister and I have to take care of you!”

The next patient proved to be very endearing, and the last of the four was facing her first holidays after the death of a beloved parent. She said she felt better just being able to talk about her parent and her feelings. Instead of it being some sort of chore to make these visits, I left feeling rather joyful.

Two A.M. Code Blue

A week ago Saturday I was woken up during the night for the first time while on call at the hospital; there was a Code Blue at 2 a.m. These can take up to two hours to be resolved, but this one took only about 30 minutes, so that was lucky for me and presumably for the patient. That was maybe my eighth or ninth on-call shift. I remember telling a fellow student after my second on-call shift that I hadn’t been woken up during either night. “Get out!”, he shrieked, reflecting that this was unheard of. I apparently am the luckiest person in the entire universe to go so long without being paged in the wee hours. On call a couple of days ago, I received a Code Blue page at about 3:30 a.m., but when I arrived at the ICU, it had been canceled. I was back in the sleeping room 14 minutes after the pager had first gone off.

One of my peers has a patient who has a horrible wound that has refused to heal. He has explained her situation as one of being held together with Saran Wrap. There are instructions in her room saying not to try to turn her on her side, for fear the wound will rip open even farther. He also warned us lately that she is starting to decompose and that the smell is not good. This made me a little reluctant to visit, but I found that the smell was not at all overpowering; plus, the nurses continually have peppermint oil on a piece of gauze in the room, which makes a big difference, though now the smell of peppermint anywhere can bring to mind a rotting human being. In general, I’m noticing other wisps of scent here and there outside the hospital that strongly recall unpleasant scents inside the hospital.

This patient has been in the hospital for months and in the ICU for weeks, and apparently her family has refused to let her be transitioned to comfort care. My peer said it’s one of the worst situations of human suffering he’s ever seen. When I first began visiting her, letting her go seemed like the only decent thing to do, but then she began to communicate by writing on a piece of paper, making steady eye contact and smiling, and then I felt the opposite way, that it should be out of the question to stop curative treatment. How can you do that to someone who is obviously fully alive? Not to mention that the patient had not expressed the wish to die.

I have been somewhat dismayed to learn that, ultimately, this is at the care team’s discretion. You can fill out an advance directive saying you want every last thing done forever, but if your doctors determine that you are never ever going to recover, they can decide not to make further interventions and transition you to comfort care. However, I think that many doctors want to follow the wishes of patients and their families, and also don’t want to fail, which is how they may see death, and we all know that they do very often provide treatment they know will be futile.

I have visited this patient several times. A week or so ago, smiling, she wrote to me, “Glad you came.” She wanted to hear “Jesus story.” What I’m able to share about that is pretty limited, but she was able to communicate what reading from the Bible she would like to hear, so I read that aloud. Later in the visit, she wrote, “I dying never never go home again.” I asked, “Is that what you believe is happening?” She nodded. As gently as I could, I said something like, “I believe you are right about that.” Then I asked, “Are you at peace with that?” She moved her hands as if to say, “Sort of.” “Is your husband at peace with that?” She shook her head no. I asked if she felt worried, and she again shook her head no.

Somewhere along in here, I learned that her family did not want her to know of her poor prognosis! That seems like a pretty big decision to make for another human being, especially one who still has some means of communicating with others.

The day she wrote that note about never going home again, I carefully charted everything she had expressed, along with the particular Bible passage she had wanted to hear; I wrote the latter on a piece of paper that I left in her room, for good measure. In the few days after that, her family finally agreed to a do-not-resuscitate order. She has been declining very rapidly since then, judging by her appearance. I went three or four days in a row to see her and found her asleep every time. Nearly every one of my peers has visited this patient, she has been in the hospital so long. I have treasured those moments when I can strongly feel our human connection, and I think we will all feel a pang after she is gone.


On the Friday after the election, I had dinner with a friend who said she was feeling afraid and that she’s considering going back to using her maiden name, which sounds like a name that would belong to a European American. Her married name belongs to her husband, who is dead and whom she is still actively mourning. To think of her feeling forced to abandon his name made me feel very sad. This is someone who was born in this country and has lived all her life here. She talked about feeling anguished for one of her university students, a Latina who left class in tears. After dinner, we were going to go to La Boheme for tea, but I decided to invite her to my place instead. I’m not really set up for entertaining and rarely have anyone over, but it seemed like a good moment to make a gesture of drawing closer.

In the ensuing days, I found myself feeling anxious, partly due to Trump’s giving the Breitbart guy a fancy job and partly due to reading about Paul Ryan being on track to get rid of Medicare. On one of those worried days, I made my next mammogram appointment. Will it be so easy next year? I also had to do my annual benefits enrollment, since I will continue on my ex-company’s payroll until the end of January, and felt a pang when I saw my former salary. My situation is more precarious now. I am lucky to live in California, where we have a robust state health insurance exchange.

I also felt briefly enraged at Kellyanne Conway for saying it’s up to Obama and Hillary Clinton to get people to stop protesting against Trump. Obama and Clinton aren’t the ones who have gone around for months spewing hateful rhetoric. It’s up to Trump to signal that no one need be afraid of him, and not only is he not doing that, so far he’s making it clear that people are very right to be worried. We now have young people committing suicide out of fear that they or their family members will be deported.

I can’t wrap my head around women voting for a person who brags about grabbing women by the genitals. I have no doubt that he did that, that every woman who has accused Trump of assault is telling the simple truth, and that there are probably dozens more such women. I can’t understand Latin Americans voting for someone who has characterized their people as rapists. 

At the same time, I feel sad for those who truly believe Trump is going to bring their coal or steel jobs back—who for some reason think that a billionaire who, as far as anyone can tell, has never lifted a finger to assist anyone outside his own family, is going to make everything all right for them again. Even if he were willing to expend effort to do this, it can’t be done. It’s beyond Trump’s power to make it 1955 again, where everyone in the neighborhood and at work is white and where a blue-collar job is sufficient to support of a family of four, where men are in charge and women stay home and cook and keep their mouths shut.

The Trance of Thought

To follow up on my last post, my peer said she would indeed like to talk. We did that and easily worked everything out. I have also been thinking about what I wrote, in rather harsh (to myself) terms, about often feeling angry with or judgmental of others. Clinical pastoral education affords much opportunity to examine personal and interpersonal dynamics, and one thing that is coming nicely into focus is the automaticity of my negative first response to many things. It’s not unusual for me to dislike people in the first three seconds of knowing them (though this actually does seem to have shifted quite a bit; maybe this is more a historical observation), and many sensory inputs initially strike me as unfavorable. I think this tendency is probably hard-wired and I have probably spent way too much energy trying to change it.

However, there is a huge opportunity in all the seconds that come after the first three seconds. It’s in those seconds that I reiterate and re-reiterate to myself my first opinion and think of the things I’ll say / write / post in sharing that opinion, but also in those ensuing seconds that I have the opportunity to notice the initial, automatic thought as just a thought and not spin endless yarns about the matter to myself and perhaps others. Buddhist teacher Yvonne Ginsberg, subbing for Howie one night, said “The ‘awakening’ that the Buddha referred to is the awakening from the trance of thought.”

Over and over I see it these days: Ah, there’s my knee-jerk reaction. And there’s the story I’d like to indulge about it, but I’m not going to. Accordingly, I am feeling noticeably more tranquil.

My group at work lately presented our final self-evaluations for unit one, which seems to have gone extremely fast and is now over. We spent five and a half hours in a small conference room together going over our finals, one after the other, and it was rather grueling. What one peer shared aroused resentment in me, which quickly expanded to flow over the whole group, reawakening my sense of estrangement from the others.

By the following day, I was having my first and only real meltdown of this unit of CPE, though I didn’t get as far as deciding to quit. Come to think of it, it was very similar to what has often happened for me toward the end of a meditation retreat. Fortunately, Jodie had some time in her schedule, and I spent 20 minutes with her sharing all my gripes, which she gently pointed out weren’t necessarily objectively true: “Ah, is that how you see that?”

I spoke about a peer who is extremely energetic, presenting to groups of staff and initiating new forms of care. I told Jodie that I don’t so much feel competitive with this peer as defeated by her. I’m sure that if there is one chaplain job in all of San Francisco next fall, she’ll get it. But Jodie pointed out how this peer’s hospital units are fundamentally different from mine, and said, “She has a lot to learn,” which did make me feel better. I was also grumbling about the particular assessment model we’re supposed to follow, and of this, Jodie flatly said, “I don’t do that.”

After talking to her, I could clearly see my choice between persisting with negative views and taking constructive action, as well as the different results likely to be obtained, and I decided to do the latter. I don’t want to feel apart from my colleagues. I need them, and they need me. Jodie and Anita took us out for a nice lunch that day, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and in the afternoon, all 14 of us students and two of our supervisors had a party to celebrate the end of the unit.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Not Like the Others

The next morning (which was the morning after the election), I went to talk to the staff chaplain who had said there is nothing we can fix, and he reiterated that. He said he sees things the way I do. I said that, ironically, right after thinking about how I don’t believe in herding patients along, I had been extremely directive with the mother of the very sick baby. I described the visit and the chaplain said that he might have done precisely the same thing—if he’s only going to see someone once or twice, and there is an obvious way to relieve suffering, he will do what he thinks is best. I felt affirmed all around.

On Thursday, we had group, and right at the end, I shared that I had been feeling separate from the others because of my different idea of what chaplaincy is. I added that I had talked to one of the staff chaplains at the other campus and that he had said he sees it the way I do, which of course was a not-so-subtle way of saying, “I’m right and the rest of you are wrong (and also stupid).”

Now I must digress to say, briefly, that a few days ago I had an unpleasant interaction with a peer I had formerly felt close to, in which I felt she was needling me relentlessly. (She seemed to be practicing a type of passive-aggressive humor that I myself practice at times. It is charming in myself and perfectly intolerable in others.) I have felt angry at her ever since. We had been riding Muni together after work pretty often, but the last couple of days, I have been avoiding her. On one of those days, I said I needed to go to the bathroom and she said she’d be happy to wait—unless I’d rather be alone. “Yes, I might do some reading on the train,” I mumbled, and she walked off alone.

Thursday evening I was mulling over these two adverse interpersonal events, with my peer and with my entire group. I felt worried that one of my supervisors would scold the staff chaplain for inserting himself into the supervisory process and then he’d be mad at me for my big mouth, and even if that doesn’t happen, the whole session was being videotaped, and the director of Spiritual Care Services will potentially see it.

Furthermore, what is wrong with me? I believe that we co-create our reality because our views and beliefs color everything we perceive. In effect, we never see anything other than the inside of our own heads, and it is not uncommon for me to see people who seem to merit my judgment, my scorn, my disdain, my contempt, my anger. It is also very easy for me to decide to withdraw from a person or a relationship, in the micro or macro sense. I am likely to be the person sitting apart from a group reading a book. I am the person who decides to give up on a 40-year friendship because my friend says she is “colorblind.”

I brooded about this all evening. I called my peer and left a message saying I’d like to talk to her next week about the dynamics between us the past few days, though if she isn’t interested in doing this, then we won’t.

Why, why, why am I like this? I asked myself. I can’t afford to see my own therapist and she might or might not be helpful with this kind of inquiry, anyway, but I can go see TWMC’s therapists for free. I made a note to do this, and then I realized that I was being exceedingly harsh with myself, beating myself for hours. Would it actually be helpful to know why I have these tendencies, if that is a question that can even be answered? Maybe so, maybe not.

I then changed the focus of my ruminations:

Why do I judge others and decide they are wrong and bad? Because it protects me in some way.

What is the result of this behavior? Disconnection from others.

What will it take to change this behavior? I will have to be aware of when it is happening, remember that I don’t like the results, and I will have to tolerate whatever emotional experience it is that I’m trying to flee from. I think if I pay close enough attention, it will become obvious what it is that happens and why.

It is my tendency to identify all the ways I’m different from others, and to think difference equals wrongness, but these are just habits, and I can become more aware of them. I hope my peer will want to talk next week, and as for my group, I plan to have the conscious intention to look for ways we are alike and for what’s good about them, which is so many things. I also will try to remind myself that there are probably a million effective ways to be a chaplain, and that if they’re doing something that really isn’t helpful, they’ll learn that sooner or later.

One of my peers bumped into a CPE student from last year who said that the first unit is easy and that it gets way harder in the second unit. “What happens in unit two?” we asked our supervisors with trepidation. They told us that’s when we dive into interpersonal dynamics and self-awareness, which sounds like fun to me, and it also sounds like, in my case, it might be coming just in the nick of time.

World’s Worst Chaplain

My subgroup of CPE students consists of five people, plus our two supervisors, Jodie and Anita (not their real names, of course). Often, in discussing verbatims, I have been dismayed by what seems an inappropriate, too-ambitious or even arrogant agenda for a patient visit. For instance, deciding that a patient needs to reconcile with a certain relative, even though the patient hasn’t said a single word about wanting to do this. In the case of this particular verbatim, Jodie gently pointed out that a patient whose time is short may or may not want to allocate his energy in this way.

Earlier this week, I was riding the shuttle over to the other campus for my on-call shift and musing about how a peer of mine often proceeds in a way I would not dream of—also, come to think of it, that one, that one, and that one! It suddenly dawned on me that I’m the only person in my group who rarely thinks a patient needs to do this or that. I have certainly felt judgmental about this, since of course I think the way I do it is the right way, and on this day, I felt like the odd woman out: one of these things is not like the others. Also, if the job is to go around trying to get patients to do this or that, maybe it’s not the job for me.

I then recalled a staff chaplain sharing with me what another staff chaplain had told her: “There is nothing we can fix, nothing whatsoever. All we can do is accompany patients.” When I got to the other campus, I shared my misgivings with one of my young fellow students and he said he is having the exact same thoughts. He mused about how we are being trained in a certain assessment model: to figure out where a patient fits in this view of things, and to apply the corresponding ameliorative measures. However, my peer said, people don’t come to the hospital because they have a spiritual problem. They come because they have a medical problem that they want the doctors and nurses to address. He also said he tends to lead with his head, and so he’s wondering if this is the right line of work for him.

I think this is a fine young man (and exceedingly bright), and though I was having the same feelings, I didn’t want to be the partial cause of his giving up on something he might find very rewarding, so I said that I also lead with my head, and sometimes I miss getting to use my brains more, as I got to do in my previous job, but I also am drawn strongly to this work, and I trust my capacity to do it, and I also trust his capacity to do it, if that’s his choice. “I trust your heart,” I told him.

That evening, as it happens, I met with a young mother with a gravely ill baby who feared that his illness was the punishment for a bad thing she had done. After all my mental huffing and puffing about not imposing our views on patients, I found myself strongly advocating for an adjustment to her view of God.

This is what I said, quoting from the verbatim I wrote about this visit; what’s in parentheses is what I was thinking:

“I’d like to think that God would say that every single person on this earth has done things they regret—I certainly have. That we all have done many things we regret—I have. We have all done things that have harmed ourselves and harmed others, and I’d like to think that God loves us and forgives us, if He was ever upset with us at all.” (I feel very uneasy sharing my own thoughts about God—who I don't even believe in—with this woman. I don’t want to push my ideas on her, but the alternative seems to be letting her persist in the idea that God, who is supposed to love her, has made her baby gravely ill, so I think this is the greater good at this moment.)

Later I said:

“Maybe it is true that God punishes us for things we have done and I know you are wondering why your baby is ill. But I’d like to think that God loves us completely, more than we can understand, and that he would not harm a baby to punish us. Your baby being ill may be part of a giant mystery that we can’t understand.” (Not my exact words, but something like that. The patient’s mother looks calmer.)

I go on to say:

“I can’t imagine what you're going through. You know, I think God already loves and forgives you. I think the person who needs to forgive you is you. I see your love and care for your baby, and I think you also need your own love and care.”

Patient: “You really think maybe I need to forgive myself?”

Me: “That’s really what I think. I’m sure you’ve asked God for forgiveness many times.”

“I have!”

“Maybe it’s time for you to give yourself your own forgiveness.”

The patient’s mother said she felt better, and she did look visibly relieved, and she was no longer crying. As I was leaving, it occurred to me that I had once done the same thing she did. I said, “You know, I once [did such-and-such] myself.”

“You did?” Her face lights up.

“Yes, I did,” I say with a smile, and we part beaming at each other.

I hope she thought later, “If a chaplain did the same thing, maybe it’s not that bad” and not “That must have been the world’s worst chaplain! Maybe I’d better talk to a priest.”

Further and Further Behind

It was comforting to me that Hillary got slightly more of the popular vote, but the thing that had the most profound effect on me the day after the election was a piece in the New York Times by Michael Lerner entitled “Stop Shaming Trump Supporters,” which I think explained very clearly what happened here, and included this, to me, comforting line: “The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans.” I sent it on to a group of friends, to my colleagues at work, and to a group of dharma buddies.

Later I saw something online about people in Silicon Valley likening Trump to Hitler and mulling over whether California should secede from the United States, and my reaction was one of rage—at the techies, who I picture saying, “I’m Google employee #3! I paid $10 million for my house! If things don’t go just the way I want, I’m leaving and I’m taking my state with me.” It seems to me that such people have nothing—absolutely nothing—to complain about. Had they been able to see the person collecting their trash and the person scrubbing their kitchen floor and had they actually cared about the lives of these people, this might not have happened.

Trump’s election is an invitation for us to consider them. I’m not saying he will do the slightest thing to improve their lives; I’m sure he won’t. Plus he’ll probably get us into a nuclear war in his first six months in office. But I think the reason he won is that a lot of people are despairing and angry, and rightly so. As I studied the weary face of the person making my burrito that day, I suddenly felt perfectly fine about my new president. I imagine he’ll actually end up being impeached—how could he not?—and we’ll end up with Mike Pence, which is OK with me, given the alternative.

I may be wrong about all of this. Maybe it’s simply that we do still have enough bigoted, selfish white people in America for this to have happened.

Several people said they also liked Lerner’s essay; one of my colleagues sent it on to a bunch of people. However, one of my dharma buddies wrote that she disagreed entirely. She felt that the message could be boiled down to one of shaming people who speak up about racism. Her note was clear and respectful and calm. I replied in the same spirit, and will think over all that she wrote.

This is one part of Lerner’s essay that particularly got to me: “The upper 20 percent of income earners, many of them quite liberal and rightly committed to the defense of minorities and immigrants, also believe in the economic meritocracy and their own right to have so much more than those who are less fortunate. So while they may be progressive on issues of discrimination against the obvious victims of racism and sexism, they are blind to their own class privilege and to the hidden injuries of class that are internalized by much of the country as self-blame.” I confess that one thing I thought after Trump was elected was, “Well, I’ve saved up a lot of money. I’ll be all right.”

I got a response from another close friend (not Chantal, my 40-year friend) who started her longish note by saying, “I voted for Donald J. Trump.” She went on to say that she used to make such-and-such hourly wage, and now she makes less, while things cost more. She said, “I am falling further and further behind.” She pointed out the condescension in my email (I said at the top that Lerner’s essay was comforting to me because I had been thinking that the country was half full of “stupid, hateful people”) and she finished by saying that she doesn’t dare tell her colleagues how she voted.

“I sit at work and listen to people talk to each other about how stupid I must be. They are so smug talking about how people voted against their interests when they are in the exact same economic boat as I am. Talk about voting against your interests—Hillary never gave a s**t about my co-workers. She would have been elected to do Wall Street's bidding.”

I felt sad after I read this note. And there you have it. I was condescending, and I was assuming way too much about the views of others. (How could anyone possibly not think what I think!?)

Favorite Pumpkin

Needing the closet space back, I’ve finally been going through a stack of Carlos’s papers and saving the things that made me smile, like a poem dated Halloween, 1992. He couldn’t decide whether to call it “Pumpkin Song” or “Favorite Pumpkin,” and the first stanza is:

I’m my favorite pumpkin
Pumpkin pumpkin
I’m my favorite pumpkin
Look at me (orange me)

The very last thing I put my hands on, this morning, was a love note from the woman he was involved with off and on for 25 years and never really got over. She was out of commission when he was dying, but he did get to see her a time or two in his final months. That relationship was the source of some anguish in ours, as you might imagine, but it seemed fitting that this beautifully calligraphed card—she did all the calligraphy on the Women’s Building in San Francisco—closed my document review project. I decided to save it.

I had a great weekend a week ago. I took a walk with my walking friend, during which we went into the SPCA to look at kittens. I also met F. for a burrito, and we had a very lovely time together. I was going to say that he unaccountably has become very pleasant again lately, but I think I can actually account for it. He does not grasp the concept of “I statements” and can only express angry feelings via accusations. I know what’s underneath, but it’s still unpleasant to be addressed in an overtly blaming manner. He also routinely brings up offenses that occurred long ago, including two things in particular that he brings up over and over and over. In vain have I suggested that we focus our efforts on the present, and to no avail have I apologized for the one of those two things that I believe I was indeed at fault for. But lately it dawned on me in a new way how genuinely painful both of those things must have been for him. Finally, I felt that on an emotional level, and I expressed that to him, and ever since then, things have been much better. Go figure.

Last Sunday, Tom and F. and I went to Berkeley to have lunch at Au Coquelet and then to Berkeley Rep (thank you, Ann!) to see It Can’t Happen Here, based on the Sinclair Lewis novel. It has striking parallels with our situation, at the time, of having a demagogue running for president. Back then, we were positive Hillary was going to win and that we had nothing to worry about. Ah, how foolish and innocent we were five days ago.

On election night, I was on call at the other campus. I saw several patients, but skipped the normal rounding and went periodically to the office to see how the election was coming. I watched with shock as Trump neared and then secured victory. I read what Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times about America perhaps being a failed state. I dreamed of someone attacking me with a pair of scissors.

In the morning, however, hearing Hillary say “I still believe in America” in her concession speech made me cry. I still believe in America, too. Or, at any rate, I was made in America and I’m staying in America, as Jessica Alba’s character says in the last episode of Dark Angel. Running the morning meeting that day, I started by acknowledging that not everyone in the room necessarily had the same views as mine. There were only two students there besides me, both very young, one African American and one European American, and our views actually were the same, but I don’t like to assume. I said, “If one of you voted for Trump, I’m still honored to have you as my colleague.”

I said that on the morning of election day, my mother and I had agreed on the phone that not only did we want Hillary to win, we wanted her to stomp Trump. I really wanted him to get his comeuppance. I was looking forward to never hearing his bloviating voice again. (I didn’t go into quite so much detail in the morning meeting.)

The results of the election, I said, were therefore shocking and disturbing, though I was glad to see that the popular vote was split pretty much 50-50. I said that at bedtime the night before, I noticed that things were exactly the same as on any other night: I put my warm socks on, I pulled the covers up. Trump’s election had not changed any of that in the slightest, and I reflected that I’m just as free to live from my values in Trump’s America as I was in Obama’s America. (Though I might be out of luck one of these days when it comes to health insurance.)

I ended by recounting what Steve Armstrong said at the end of a retreat I went on at Spirit Rock. He talked about being caught up in a terrible disaster, perhaps a catastrophic flood. With the waters rising around us, who would we want to see walking in our direction? He said we can be sure that the flood, in one form or another, is coming, and we can be the person we would want to see coming toward us.

After the morning meeting, whoever runs it send out an email to all the students, staff and faculty saying who is on call at each campus and other helpful information for the day. At the top of my note, I wrote this: “Remembering this morning that I can proceed from my highest values no matter who is president and that I can (try to) be the person I would want to see walking toward me on the worst day of my life: calm, kind, present.”

Sarah, the manager of Spiritual Care Services, did a reply-all that started this way: “Thank you, Bugwalk, and beautifully put. Your words inspire me to share that this morning I too recommit myself to acting from and being grounded in my highest values, including humility and resilience, and embodying powerful love and inclusion in all the ways I possibly can.”

The SCS director’s subsequent reply-all included this: “I too am proud to be associated with such centered, clear-minded, and big-hearted people as yourselves.”

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Spartan Gravitas

I was on call again at the other campus this past week and need to amend what I said about there being 11 sources of light in the sleeping room even after the main light is turned off. Actually, there are 16 of them, four of which blink. I brought along a sleep mask I discovered in a drawer at home which proved to be too uncomfortable to sleep in, but the lights didn’t keep me up the way they did the first time around. I dreamed I was sleeping on a city sidewalk when an enormous metal thing the size of a house fell out of the heavens and landed next to me, missing my head by inches, and I dreamed I was all alone on a city street in a torrential downpour.

But, backing up, I arrived at noon for a couple of didactic sessions followed by a department meeting, at which we learned that, for the first time in however long, TWMC is probably going to offer an extended unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) starting in January; final confirmation still pending. This means a part-time schedule (16 hours a week, I believe). We students were extra-excited to hear this because it means some of our on-call shifts would disappear.

My group also learned that Jodie would be the supervisor for these new students, and Anita would then be the sole supervisor for our group. Anita is a brand-new supervisor and it did cross my mind that it might be good to have a more experienced supervisor, but if Anita is qualified to supervise, then she’s qualified to supervise, and I do like her.

At 4:15 p.m., I took my pager, the two on-call pagers and the on-call phone, had dinner in the cafeteria (a salmon burger and two orders of about the best French fries I’ve ever had), and then it was non-stop work until about 10 p.m. I visited a lot of people, including a young boy who may have cancer, another intubated in the ICU, a deranged woman in adult acute care, and twins born prematurely. One is doing fine; the other is struggling.

I arrived at one of the five intensive care nurseries just after a nurse had called a baby’s family to advise them to rush to the hospital if they wanted to say goodbye to him. He was a darling boy, several months’ old, who looked perfectly healthy asleep in his little crib. He was wearing a tiny shirt with a colorful decoration on it. The sight of that small cheerful garment made me cry, as I reflected that it was the last thing he would ever wear. I dried my eyes and blew my nose and re-gelled my hands, and then I stroked the baby’s head—he opened his eyes once or twice—and put one of my fingers in his tiny hand for him to hold, and I spoke softly to him, telling him that everything was all right, that he was safe and loved, that there was nothing to fear.

When his family arrived, I introduced myself and continued on my rounds. I visited patients, all children except for the deranged woman, until about 10 p.m. and then did charting until about 11. I noticed that one of my youngest colleagues has a gift for wonderful chart notes. I plan to study them for my own edification. I’m sorry to say that another of my young colleagues recorded in a chart note that a mother was still thinking about whether to “pull the plug” on her baby.

I got a solid eight hours of sleep or so and was awakened at 7 a.m. by a Code White, the same as a Code Blue but where the subject is a baby or child. The patient’s mother turned out not to want company, so I came back to the sleeping room and did ten minutes of metta meditation for the baby whose head I had stroked. I amended the phrases I normally use; I used these:

May you be happy and contented.
May you be safe and protected.
May your transition be peaceful and joyful.
May you die with ease of well-being.

As the on-call person, I was in charge of running the morning meeting, which begins with an interfaith reflection. I described my evening briefly and spoke about how it’s dawning on me more and more how essential it is for chaplains to be able to grieve, along with helping others to mourn their losses. I talked about the profound effect Stephen Jenkinson’s book Die Wise has had on me, how, as he says, most people who get a terrible diagnosis want More Time, but this is the More Time right now, it seems to me, and I talked about remembering to invite grief to have a seat at the table.

I led the group in metta meditation using the phrases above, and concluded by reading Sapphire’s poem “California Dreamin’,” which is heartbreakingly sad; I choked up while reading it. One of my peers asked to see Sapphire’s book and one of the staff chaplains came up and said a lot of nice things to me, about how beautifully I’d held the space. I told him he had made my day, and he said, “You made mine.”

Several of my peers came to ask about their young patients and thanked me for seeing them the night before. I felt such a lovely bond with them as we spoke. These are remarkable people. I feel so lucky that they are my co-workers. Two of them are going to North Dakota next week to join the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I had been thinking that working
as a chaplain with children, seeing so many children die, would be way too hard, but now I understand how people do this. The children are so precious and so cute and so vulnerable that the hearts of those who care for them break, and that, paradoxically, is what makes it possible. The danger is if your heart doesn’t break. I could really feel, during that on-call shift, a powerful mix of combined energies—sorrow, awe, tenderness—and how they were washing through me, back and forth, like waves coming in and going out. So, letting your heart break and also having someone to tell.

The staff chaplain who said all the nice things took the trouble to send this note to my supervisor:

I told Sarah [the manager of the Spiritual Care Department] that I wanted you to know what a fine reflection Bugwalk offered this morning. Upon learning of the death of a little boy she tended to last evening, Bugwalk offered him, and us, a metta meditation that was perfectly somber and light. She created quite the sacred space with spartan gravitas. 

I met this child and his mother once, perhaps two months ago. But Bugwalk’s earnest presence tapped my own grief immediately. She has a gift for public prayer.