Memorial garden

After more shifts than usual last week doing hospital chaplaincy, I have a few days off. I woke to spring sunshine and went for a walk in Nelson Woods — the woodland that adjoins our house. Last year I began a memorial garden there. The space is where I lay rocks or pine cones or other natural objects in my own ritual to honor patients whose deaths have particularly affected me. When I do that, I also symbolically release them. I turn the burden of sorrow into the blessing of memory. 

Mind you, I no longer remember all the names except the most recent ones or the ones that really stand out. I do remember RB, who was my age, grew up in my Chicago neighborhood, and whose cousin I knew. That patient inspired me to begin this garden. Another stone is for R, who died in the pediatric emergency room on a night when I had to respond to three children’s deaths. 

Today I lay a snail shell I happened to find in the woods to memorialize a patient who died of Covid-19, the first such death I handled. Many will remember that person, who functioned in a large network of people. Now I am a part of that group who mourn their passing.

I have never forgotten John Donne’s famous reflection that “any man’s death diminishes me” since I first read Donne decades ago. He wrote that in 1624 after recovering from an illness that was affecting fellow Londoners. As a chaplain who regularly meets people at the end of their lives, as well as their families, I am regularly diminished. Yet I have also learned that I am not called to cry for every single person. The psychological skill of boundary-setting has been challenging for me, a lifelong bleeding-heart liberal, but life-saving. 

I can only read so many stories about people dying of Covid-19. I want those who have died to be mourned rightly by those with whose lives they are intertwined. But I also have my own business to attend to. In the hospital, I am called to another patient whenever the pager rings. 

Another poem I read at the same time I studied John Donne’s devotional thought was Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, written in 1938 as Europe was sliding into the global conflagration of WWII. Reflecting on the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the poet observes how in the face of a disaster — a boy falling from the sky — “dogs go on with their doggy life” and a ship at sea near the fallen figure “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

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We can mourn. We can remember. We can be diminished. We have somewhere to get to and are sailing, not always calmly, on.

Quaker query: How can I balance my diminishment with my need to sail on?

Ephemerals

When I walk on my wooded property, I keep my eyes downcast. These days I’m looking for signs of spring in the return of the ephemeral wildflowers that grow here. The ground is covered with leaf litter, and the garlic mustard is already beginning to show its persistent face here and everywhere else. But I have my eyes on spring prizes. 

The spring beauties are beginning to bloom. (I actually gasp with excitement when I find one.) Their small white petals have faint pink veins. Thousands of them are on the way; these are the first hardy arrivals. B057BA76-9E6C-48A0-BAC6-351EE6A186DBWe bought this wooded property almost 20 years ago because we saw woodland wildflowers, delicate spring beauties prominent among them.

I know from last spring where different species will appear, so I walk and look and find the foliage of Dutchman’s breeches. No flowers yet, just lacy foliage. I didn’t realize they were related to bleeding hearts, one of my favorite spring flowers that was an old faithful in the garden where we used to live. 

The more I look, the more I see. On a narrow path that last spring was a carpet of May-apples, I see elongated mottled leaves beginning to unfurl. Maybe white trout lilies? I’ll know in a few days. 

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There’s a book’s worth of lessons here: Gather ye wildflowers while ye may…The present moment is all we have…Hold things lightly…Beauty will save the world. 

I will continue studying.

Look closer

My home, where I am sheltering in place when I am not working at the hospital, is surrounded by woods. I have been looking for signs of spring, which is officially here. Tiny green things are emerging in the leaf litter. I have fond hopes to see a classic host of golden daffodils in the front woods, courtesy of a friend of mine who gave me a (free!) bucketful of daffodil bulbs. I planted those in October’s dark days last fall. Now I see their skinny foliage emerging — a daffodil sticking a limb out of the ground, wondering if it’s safe to come out yet.  

I am also monitoring the development of three witch hazel shrubs, which we planted because our landscaper told us we’d see flowers early. She was right. Its flowers are sneaking up on us, starting as inconspicuous reddish blossoms that pop into little yellow stars, clustering on slender stems. 

My woods also has a marshy spot. My husband constructed some little wooden footbridges to allow us to cross that area without getting soaked.It is a hot spot for early growth, literally.

DC263AEB-D4D9-413F-84DF-1591C6A8467D_1_201_aSkunk cabbages — which to my eyes look like mottled eggplants as they open — are awakening. They make their own heat, melting snow. 

Spring is offering many small signs of arrival. One of the things I learned as a volunteer at the Morton Arboretum working on the prairie there is that the more I look, the more I see. The truth of this never fails to surprise me. 

Quaker query: What are small hopeful signs I can see if I keep looking?

 

Are you comfortable?

These days I am sensitive to words that promote anxiety. My own fear alarm goes off every time I hear a news story about “alarming new developments” about the coronavirus. Hearing about “fears of a pandemic” makes me fearful, reading that “hospitals will be overwhelmed” overwhelms me. I am not counseling the sugarcoating of news, the passing on of platitudes,  or offering dismissive assessments of the magnitude of what we face. But emotion-laden words stir emotions. 

Since I work as a chaplain and my husband is a nurse, we have lots of consultations at the dinner table, at least when our schedules at the hospital let us have dinner together. Right now he is putting in writing what he’s learned over 20 years of practice about what works with his patients. He is a pediatric nurse, so his patients are children, as well as their families. 

A few years back he took some training in hypnosis. One technique he explained to me that makes a lot of sense for my practice is the importance of how you say things. You can ask, for example, “Are you comfortable?” instead of “Are you in pain?” The two words “pain” and “comfort” suggest different things. By what we say, we can suggest different ways for a person to process their experience. (Yes, there is empirical evidence for this.) 

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Because I’m a writer as well as a chaplain, this makes eminent sense to me. Poetry works because it says something in a unique, imagination-grabbing way. Prayer and sermons have special rhythms and images. I am always amazed when rote prayers give comfort in times of distress. The words don’t even have to be new or original. 

When I talk to families as their loved ones are dying, I often talk about love. I tell them to surround this person with their love. I want love to be present in the air even as the patient’s breath fades. I recently worked with a critically ill Sikh patient whose adult child told me it was important that a recording of spiritual teachings play continuously in his room so that the patient would hear holy words as he departed from life. I asked the nurse to honor this request.

The Bible is one traditional source of words that provide strength and comfort: I will be with you always. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. From the Qur’an: God will bring a people whom He loves and who love him. These religious words have secular counterparts: Keep calm and carry on. 

So when I am working, I think before I speak. No, I don’t always pick the right words. But I find I often say what I need to hear as well as what I hope will be of service.

What do you want to hear? Are you comfortable? 

Today’s prayer: 

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”

George Fox

Handy term

Interbeing sounds like an abstract term, but I saw it in action at the grocery store yesterday. Interbeing is a concept at the heart of the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat’s Hanh’s teaching. It means that everything is interconnected and interdependent. Interconnection is a lot easier to see during a pandemic (the Greek root of “pandemic” means “all people,” so there’s a hint).  

For the first time ever, I used one of those sanitary wipes on the shopping cart I took. I kept my gloves on to touch certain things. What somebody else touches, I touch too. What somebody else needs, I do too. The shopping cart handle connects us. So does our need for extra nonperis image.pnghable goods. So do door handles of retail shops, and the handles on sinks in public bathrooms after we have washed our hands.

This could easily become an anxious list of what we literally hold in common. But I choose to think of it as a reminder of interdependence, common goods, and common good. Somebody else’s hands were on what I use. Somebody obviously made the goods I purchase. A lot of things in daily life are hands-on: made by hands (which often operate machines that make), taken up by hands. 

Interbeing is both simple and profound, one of those Zen koan things for these stay-at-home times. We’re all in this together. 

Calm presence.1

I work as a chaplain in two Chicago area hospitals. A good deal of my work involves meeting people in crisis. I have the responsibility of working with patients and their family members who arrive in emergency rooms because of health crises or trauma. Sometimes the patients are unconscious, in which case I am a companion to anxious family members waiting to see their loved ones. I can’t tell the people I meet everything will be all right — because sometimes that’s not true. But I can routinely be a calm presence, listening or praying or offering a cup of cold water or some basic instruction in deep breathing, depending on what they are open to.

In these days of coronavirus pandemic with much uncertainty and collective fear and anxiety, I find I need a calm presence myself. Since I know something about how to do that, and since another important practice within chaplaincy is self-care, I have decided to be my own calm presence. I am a health care professional, but I’m not the one on the team who is responsible for providing medical information. That’s someone else’s job. I know how to find information to become better informed and less fearful, since I used to work as a journalist. But that is not my job now. 

These days, I get paid to provide calm presence. I’m not sure why or how this works, but I know from experience that it helps to be calm in the presence of anxious people. Calm is contagious. 

One of the things that calms me down when I get stressed on the job — I see and hear hard and sad things, and I am called to attend when patients die — is to tell myself that I have what I need. It has become a simple statement of my faith: I have been given what I need. This too I know from experience. Because I am a Christian Quaker, I believe that God has provided this. That recognition prompts gratitude, which is also a nice, calming, all-purpose tonic. Depending on the situation I am working with, I may invite people to consider something along these lines. Chaplains sometimes talk about empowering patients, and I like to suggest to people who may feel like the applecart of their world has just been overturned that they are not helpless and can find inner resources. And, there is someone to help them begin to understand and adjust to this traumatic upheaval.

I don’t know how all this pandemic pandemonium will play out, but for me it’s good to remember that I can turn on a little inner light  — a central Quaker metaphor and tenet — to see more clearly and less fearfully. 

Today’s prayer: Be not afraid.

Dear Mr. President

Greetings on Martin Luther King Day. It’s a good day to reflect on the meaning of his world-changing work, and I would like to remind you of one of many biblical themes that encapsulated his desire to free the oppressed and bring about justice:

“Let justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.” Dr. King was quoting the Prophet Amos. (All of Amos 5-6 is worth reading. It is a lament for Israel’s sin.) The prophets of ancient Israel were outspoken in their defiance of unjust rulers; they spoke out on behalf of the voiceless and powerless. They warned the mighty of what would certainly come. They knew that the mighty and all who ignored basic justice would be swept away by the unstoppable cleansing flood of righteousness.

It will happen.