Friday, November 22, 2019


(Click photos to enlarge.)

Shiki Shiki

In August, I went to Santa Fe for a chaplaincy intensive at school, one of two required each year, and the final one of the two-year program. I went a couple of days early so I could see friends. I spent a day with my Episcopalian priest friend and his mother and nephew. We had lunch at a diner, went to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, and had sushi for dinner. The next day, my friend M. and I had breakfast at the Counter Culture Café and then went next door to the rock shop, where she bought me a lovely larimar pendant, to remind me of school and of Santa Fe. It will also remind me of M., a tremendously kind and gentle soul.

The chaplaincy intensive, besides being wonderful because it was a reunion of my splendid cohort, was the most powerful yet, with mini-courses on power and privilege, and eco chaplaincy. A Native American man led a prayer circle on a very hot, sunny day; we stood outdoors for about an hour at high noon. No one keeled over, though a person or two had to kneel. Then we did an exercise where we broke into small groups, and had to put cards labeled with various events into what we thought (often incorrectly) was the proper chronological order. Several of the events were ghastly, like Native Americans being invited to a celebration and deliberately fed strychnine.

The final evening, we had “cultural sharing”: a talent show, with many dazzling skills on display. There were several very accomplished musicians in the room. My cohort is huge on group projects, so we had prepared extensively for this. We were the final act, which began with one of us going up front to invite the audience to participate in the gentle movement exercises she claimed we had been doing together each evening. She invited the rest of our cohort to join her up front, to help demonstrate.

Her movements became slightly more animated and then all of a sudden Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” came over the PA—pre-arranged with the sound guy—and it became a wild dance party; everyone in the audience stood up to dance, too. (The official video for this song is delightful.) I saw Roshi dancing in the back.

But wait, there was more! One of us who happened to have the entire Heart Sutra memorized in Japanese rapped it while one of us beatboxed and the rest of us did our best to impersonate hip hop-style dancers, with intermittent synchronized movements we had rehearsed; we all waved our hands in the same way along with “shiki shiki.”

I believe I can accurately say we brought down the house. Afterward, a bit of icing on the cake, a student in the cohort after mine said I was her favorite dancer. Someone said there was going to be an after-party at one of the dorms. My peer the rap artist and I went over there and danced for an hour with maybe 15 other people.

It was a memorable evening, and I think the burst of joy at end of the talent show was welcome, because it had been a very heavy week, due to the curriculum and there was also a suicide, the spouse of a beloved staff member. Roshi led us in an impromptu memorial service, which was very somber and also comforting, doing this ritual together.

Back at home, the participants of the street retreat I had signed up for had a Zoom meeting to go over logistics. We were reminded that we were not to shower for five days before the retreat began. I asked if that included not brushing our teeth, and one of the leaders said it was up to me. He said he has done it both ways. (I did comply with the requirement not to bathe for five days prior, but decided that, since I’m paying a small fortune to a team of tooth-related professionals to keep them in my head, it didn’t make sense to take a break from dental hygiene.)

At County Hospital, I visited a young woman patient who had attempted suicide by drinking Drano—it is just never a good idea to drink Drano; it will not kill you, but there will not be one single day in the rest of your life when you will be able to forget that you did this—and also an older woman, diagnosed with mental health issues 60 years ago, who was worried about her SRO housing disappearing while she was in the hospital. This I only found out after about 20 minutes of conversation. After I left her room, I went to the nursing station and spoke with a social worker who advised me to call the patient’s case manager, because she did not have a social worker assigned. As I went off to do this, the social worker said, “Good luck.” Uh oh.

I did leave a detailed message for the case manager, whose outgoing message advised that he was actually a utilization manager, which sounded even less promising, and I asked the patient’s nurse to ask her doctor to request a social work consult. This is a new thing. It used to be that a given social worker was responsible for the patients in a certain area, but now a patient evidently only gets a social worker if a doctor requests it. But when does a doctor ever have 20 minutes to sit around chatting with a patient until her fears emerge?

Finally, I went back to the patient’s room and coached her: “If it were me, every time the nurse came in to check on me, I would say, ‘I’m worried about this, and I’m worried about that.’ I would express my worries, concisely, over and over, until I got the feeling someone was going to do something. Does that make sense?” The patient said it did, and that was all I could do.

I went back to the chaplain office and literally wept over these two patients, remembering the older woman’s incredibly sweet smile.

I was very surprised and relieved later that day to get a voice mail from the utilization manager saying he had gotten my message about such-and-such patient having such-and-such concerns, which he accurately stated, and he said he had passed all of this on to the social worker.

Monday, November 11, 2019

New Boss

When I was at school in Santa Fe in March, I submitted a proposal for a thesis based on my final project—learning about palliative care chaplaincy via volunteering at County Hospital—which was immediately approved: “Start writing,” said our congenial thesis mentor. Somehow, four months passed during which I could find only two days suitable for this activity, though good headway was made on both of those days. Finally, in mid-July, I spent a whole day rereading what I had written to date and sifting through the remainder of my raw material. By the time I figured I’d done enough work that I could responsibly return to goofing off, I had 44 pages of 60 drafted.

In October, I temporarily canceled the weekly sabbath and took a few days off from County Hospital so I could try to wrap up this project, which is a description of what I have experienced and learned at County Hospital, a review of academic literature on palliative care and spiritual care, and an examination of what from my Buddhist practice seems to be most helpful in this work, including things I have learned in the chaplaincy program in Santa Fe.

A couple of weeks before our mid-November deadline, my small group of students had its monthly meeting and I mentioned that I had written about various academic papers, but was worried that some of them were kind of old, and wondered if I should go find more, and more recent, papers. The mentor for my small group (different from our thesis mentor) advised just sending in what I had and letting the committee tell me what else is needed. That excellent advice turned six or eight planned work days into six or eight vacation days. Feedback will be coming in December, and then we have several weeks to make revisions.

Back in July (sorry for the zigzagging), I did a sleep study to see if sleep apnea was the cause of needing so much sleep. Evidently not, because I have only mild sleep apnea, and don’t need to use a CPAP machine.

Also in July, the new boss at my paying job started, taking over from the interim director. I was pleased to find that I really liked her (and still like her, nearly four months later). Normally, I automatically dislike anyone whose name is “New Boss,” and have been laid off in the past by at least one such person, so I was relieved. My new boss was formerly a physician, and also taught bioethics at a very prestigious university. She is smart, friendly, organized, warm, and obviously grounded in her own spiritual practices.

At the end of July, I went to Seattle for a lovely and relaxing weekend with my cousin and her family. Lisa, David and I went on a boat tour of Seattle’s locks system, which was fun, and that evening we all had dinner at my cousin’s.

Early in August, I walked over to Publico for a fish and chips burrito with my friend who has been diagnosed with dementia. Each time I said something about directions, he immediately asked a question about it:

“We’re turning right here.”

“We’re turning right?”

“We’re going to go straight after we cross the street.”

“We’re going straight?”

I’m sorry to say that I began to feel annoyed, but after I got home, I realized that my friend genuinely had no idea where we were going and that his questions likely masked an anxiety that is creeping up as he feels less and less oriented. We’d been going to Publico monthly for a few months, but that was not sufficient for him to remember anything about it.

I decided not to invite him to Publico again, and instead to ask if he’d like to have tea at a café near his house where he has been going for decades, and that when it got to the point that he couldn’t find that place, I would invite myself over to have a cup of tea in his living room. The following month, I suggested meeting at the café, and he said that sounded good, and we met there.

The very next month, I made the same offer, and he said, “Where’s that?” This café is on the very street where he lives, so I guess it is time to move on to just inviting myself over to sit in his living room.

Friday, November 08, 2019

I Didn’t Freak

As I was leaving work early in July—after I was already on my bike and rolling down the street—I got a page requesting a visit for a patient right away, plus one later that evening, after she delivered her baby. I felt a little disgruntled at this order and pre-order of services: two after-hours visits for the same patient? How did she know she needed two? I turned back toward the hospital and went to see the patient. The nurse thanked me for coming, and said, “We’ll be paging the on-call chaplain later on.”

I said, “That will be me, because I’m on call all night. We are available during the night for emergencies.” I was hinting that being paged to offer prayers welcoming a well baby into the world would not be a good enough reason for me to be awoken from a hopefully sound sleep and to have to get dressed and return to the hospital.

The nurse said, “OK. We’ll page the on-call chaplain, then.”

I said, “That will be me, because I’m on call all night.”

After another loop or two of the same exchange, I asked the nurse if I could speak to her privately, and learned that the patient was going to be delivering a pre-term baby who was not expected to live. The two requests now made sense. The patient herself was quite young, and told me she was worried she would “bleed out” and die during delivery. I pulled the nurse aside again to ask if this worry was well founded. It was.

The patient told me that she did not want to see her baby, but did want him baptized if he was born alive. I agreed to baptize the baby if he was born alive, and I offered prayers for the well-being of the patient. I was now eager to be of service to this frightened young woman and told the nurse to be sure to page me later.

That happened after midnight. Back at the hospital, I found the patient in a relaxed mood. She had delivered the baby, already dead, and had asked for him to be brought to her; she had changed her mind about not seeing him. Per her worry that she would die during delivery, I expressed joy at seeing her, and she said, “I didn’t freak, because of your prayer.” That was a hugely gratifying chaplain moment.

I was not worried about seeing the pre-term child, because I have seen many pre-term children. However, when this one was brought back into the room, I realized this was something I had never seen before. The baby was perfectly formed, maybe 12 inches from head to toe, and black-red in color, which I learned is just the color babies are at that pre-birth age. The sight was disturbing. I felt a little weak in the knees and had to sit down for a moment.

I explained the Catholic church’s view of baptism, and offered the ritual as a naming ceremony rather than a sacrament. The baby’s weeping grandmother held the baby. By the time I was asked if I would like to hold the baby, I was happy to do that.

A few days later, I saw Kiss My Aztec at Berkeley Rep, which I had expected to be full of cheesy humor and/or annoyingly educational, but it was really wonderful—very funny, and with a refreshingly abrasive female lead.

When I visited my family in the summer, I shared the exciting news that I had bought a pressure cooker, and was dismayed when skilled questioning elicited the fact that I had bought a “jiggle top.” I know (now) that even a modern jiggle top has more safety features than the jiggle tops of yore, but decided that I would return this embarrassing item and get a second-generation pressure cooker.

One day during my visit I looked through my mother’s cookbooks to see if she had a pressure cooker cookbook, and indeed she did, by a woman who has written several of them. In early July, I went to Novato to see Carol-Joy. We had breakfast at Toast and dinner at a Thai restaurant. In between, we saw The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Carol-Joy mentioned that the community where she lives has begun hosting regular evenings where people can share for 15 or 20 minutes about themselves, a fun way for neighbors to get to know each other better. She mentioned a recent speaker, a well-educated food writer with a PhD. I screamed the name of the author whose book Mom has, and sure enough, it was her. She lives three doors from Carol-Joy! Carol-Joy told her about this coincidence, and she told Carol-Joy, “Next time Bugwalk visits, come on over!”