Pulse: Dance in Three Movements

Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine is a weekly online, edited newsletter dedicated to, “Revealing the personal side of health care through stories, poems and images.” Each Friday, Pulse editors Paul Gross and Diane Guernsey feature a new story about the human side of the medicine.

Pulse aims to tell the story of health care through the personal experiences of those who live it–patients, health professionals, students and caregivers. At a time when medicine is often criticized for being cold and oblivious, Pulse highlights the human and vulnerable face of medicine in order to promote the humanistic practice of medicine and encourage advocacy for a compassionate system of health care for all.

This week’s feature story in Pulse is by…me! Not only is it a thrill to have had my work selected, the opportunity to work with an editor was very rewarding. You can enjoy my story here.

It’s a great little publication. I encourage you to subscribe on the Pulse website (pulsevoices.org). Subscriptions are free, and you can unsubscribe at any time if you decide you no longer want to receive the weekly email.

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On breaks, not breaking

It was never my intention to take a break of nearly three weeks from writing here, but it appears that is what I have done. And although I never made a formal commitment to myself (or you) to write according to any particular schedule, I caught myself getting increasingly bothered by the fact that I wasn’t writing. Until yesterday.

I was catching up on some reading at work yesterday, and I came by chance upon two articles. Each article by itself was mildly interesting, but the juxtaposition of the two was what really fascinated me.

The first article was all about things employers can do to “remove distractions” in the workplace, and was full of what I presumed were supposed to be outrageous examples of the things employees do at work that are “unproductive.” Things like looking at Facebook, or (horror of horrors) talking to their co-workers. In one instance (and we were, I presume, supposed to be shocked by this) a group of employees had brought a pet bird into the workplace and were “wasting time” caring for it.

The second article was about mental health and reducing work place stress. One of the key strategies this article identified for having a healthy work life was, of course, taking regular breaks.

The contradiction between these two articles is nothing new. If you scan all the articles relating to human resource issues in the workplace in any given week, I predict there will always be at least one article on time wasting, and at least one article on the importance of taking breaks.

I am irked by the subtle classist undertone that that I perceive when I read these articles. Typically it is the high paying, overstressed manager/professional who is being urged to take breaks, while at the same time it is the rank-and-file employees having their access to the internet curtailed so they won’t waste company time taking the occasional five minute respite from their duties. As though somehow our differing levels of authority mean that our brains and bodies work differently. As though some of us need breaks more than others. As though some of us should have more rights than others to take those breaks in the time and manner that is most healthy for us.

People work most efficiently and effectively when they take breaks. Period. We need to take breaks, even from the things we love. I have never understood the people who don’t take all of the holiday time to which they are entitled. (Whenever people complain to me that they don’t know when they can possibly use all their vacation days, I suggest they donate their unused vacation days to me. There is, apparently, some sort of HR policy that prevents them from taking me up on this generous offer. But hey, it can’t hurt to try!)

So yeah, I took a break. And it won’t be the last. Because when it comes right down to it, breaks are what keep us from breaking.

 

 

 

 

Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

This was my first post to be Fresh Pressed. I hope you have enjoyed my summer re-runs. Stay tuned for a new post in a day or two!

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Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

back

Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”

Have a… Day

It’s complicated.

And by “it” I mean families. Which is why I find the whole notion of “Mothers’ Day” and “Fathers’ Day” problematic.

For some families, it’s an unnecessary guilt trip. I have a good relationship with my mother. Likewise I know that, through all our differences, my kids love me. It irks me that on one particular calendar day we are somehow expected to go through a set of motions to prove all that. For one of  my daughters, Mothers’ Day falls at a point in her school year that is outrageously busy. I try that to make it clear that I personally have no expectations surrounding this date, but at the same time I am not immune to thinking that, regardless of the fact that I do things with my mother on a regular basis, I must organize some so sort of joint activity on this particular day, regardless of whether doing so fits with everything else that is going on in our collective lives.

For other families, it’s a slap in the face. Today is Fathers’ Day. My own father died in 1990. I know children who are estranged from their father for a variety of complicated reasons. I know children and fathers who would like to spend the day together but are prevented from doing so by equally complicated reasons. For any family that is going through any number of crises, these days serve only to pour salt into already gaping wounds. And that’s not even talking about those situations where a parent is, or has been, genuinely abusive.

It’s all about the marketing. At my most cynical, I see both days as elaborate marketing gimmicks. If you make a living off of flowers, neckties, or Sunday Brunch, clearly you have a vested interest in these celebrations. And it hurts my head to even think about the number of trees that are felled to produce the rows upon rows of greeting cards, oozing with generic saccharine messages of parent adoration. Messages that, for most families, don’t even begin to capture the complexities of parent-child relationships.

And yet I know that there are good things that come of these arbitrary days. Somewhere the ubiquitous marketing will prompt someone to pick up a phone and call a parent with whom they have not communicated in a long time. Somewhere a small child will gain a new sense of confidence and agency from mastering the toaster in the process of producing a celebratory breakfast-in-bed. In spite of my cynicism, I still have a collection of plaster disks embedded with little handprints tucked away in a box of priceless keepsakes. I am, as evidenced by my previous post, generally a great advocate of the importance of annual rituals and remembrances in our lives.

Lots of families will have brunches and barbeques and other sorts of joyful gatherings today in honour of Fathers’ Day. But here’s the crux for me: maybe those families happily celebrating the day didn’t need the greeting card manufacturers to tell them they should do it today. Maybe the rituals and remembrances about something as personal as family relationships should be just that: personal. Maybe if you are able to celebrate Fathers’ or Mothers’ day uncritically and unambiguously you don’t really need an official day to celebrate the role a particular parent plays in your life, because you celebrate that on a routine basis. If that’s the case, then the only purpose these days serve, aside from the obvious economic purpose, is to make us feel bad when our lives are not, at this precise moment, living up to the expectations placed on us by these secular “holy days.”

Have a happy Fathers’ Day…

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day.

Have the day you need to have. Today. Now. In whatever uniquely complicated family situation you find yourself. No neckties required. You don’t even have to be happy if doing so would violate the truth your family is living at this moment. Give yourself permission to just have a day.

Remembering my tomorrows

It starts at the moment of birth–a date on the calendar is claimed as your own, and year after year the anniversary of that date holds a particular significance for you. As time goes by, you collect other anniversaries. First date. Graduation. Wedding. The death of a loved one. Some anniversaries you share with other, but others are more personal.

Tomorrow is one of my personal anniversaries. Fifteen years ago I started feeling sick. What seemed at first like a bad flu turned out to be the start of a downward spiral that would have provided enough medical drama for a whole season of House M.D.

Turns out, sometimes it is Lupus. Or at least some sort of mysterious and difficult to diagnose autoimmune condition that behaves like Lupus.

June 11th is the first of a whole cycle of anniversaries that I walk through every year in memory of my own personal journey to the underworld and back– from the day my kidneys failed and I was moved to Intensive Care, to the day I came home, to the day I finally set foot back at the office.

There are lots of reasons one might want to forget such events. It would be easy to view these anniversaries as a morbid re-playing of the worst experience of my life. But that’s not why I relive these moments.

These anniversaries matter to me. Perhaps my Anglican upbringing instilled in me a keen sense of yearly rituals of remembrance. These anniversaries form my own personal liturgical cycle. Marking these dates represents both a physical and a spiritual reminder that every day is a gift– that I am here today, but very nearly wasn’t– that it is possible to leave the office one afternoon and drop off the face of the earth for months– that life must be lived in the present, because anything can happen.

These anniversaries matter because they are not just about remembering a nasty past. They are about all the tomorrows I can never take for granted.

 

 

Finding my way in

I don’t often remember my dreams, but I recall this one in vivid detail, even though I dreamed it nearly fifteen years ago.

I am walking through my house examining the contents of each room. I am moving from room to room at a slow, easy pace. Kitchen. Living room. Bedroom. I turn a corner in the hallway  and find myself in a room I have never seen. It dawns on me that the hallway doesn’t actually turn a corner there, but there it is, and here I am in this room. It’s a spacious room, furnished ornately with plush sofas and complicated woodwork. The décor is dominated by various shades of green that evoke the sense of being surrounded by woods and grass, even though I am clearly indoors. I walk around  the perimeter of the room and acclimate myself to my surroundings. Reaching the far side, I find myself wandering through another doorway into another room. This room in turn leads to a third. Each room is successively smaller and more cluttered. The third room is a chaotic jumble of crates and boxes. I don’t know what’s in any of them.

I am excited by the discovery of these rooms. I feel an overwhelming sense of potential. I am keen to “move into” these rooms– to integrate them with the rest of my home. I want to open up the boxes and see what’s in them. And I  really want to rearrange the furniture.

Only recently did it occur to me to investigate dream interpretations about the appearance of new rooms in a familiar home. I can’t say that I’ve done exhaustive research, but I like what I’ve found.

Apparently a house in a dream is typically seen as representative of the psyche, and the discovery of new rooms is indicative that the dreamer is becoming conversant with new facets of his or her personality.

I’ve actually dreamed variations on this dream several times throughout my life. I don’t recall the other instances as vividly as the one I’ve described here, nor do I recall what was happening in my life when I dreamed those other dreams. But the “new rooms” dream that I do recall came at a time in my life when I had just come though a  prolonged physical and psychological trauma of life-changing proportions.

So the dream interpretation resonates. When I dreamed these rooms, I was indeed discovering spaces in my psyche of which I had previously been unaware. I was rearranging my mental furniture, and unpacking some mysterious new boxes. Someone who has known me all my life said of me at the time, “It was like she was a different person.”

I remember when I woke up after that dream feeling a deep disappointment to realize that the extra rooms were not real. I really had been looking forward to living in those new spaces.

It took a long time for me to understand that that’s exactly what I did.

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This was a riff on today’s Daily Prompt: “An extra room has magically been added to your home overnight. The catch: if you add more than three items to it, it disappears. Hiow do you use it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On deck…

Today’s Daily Prompt: Theoretically, summer will return to the polar-vortex-battered Northern Hemisphere. What are you looking forward to doing this summer?

The faintest breeze blows cool off the almost-still lake, while the mid-morning sun is already heating up the deck. Fresh coffee burns my lips while the butter melts into crisp cinnamon toast. The quiet is punctuated by the morning songs of bright birds and unseen insects. A jumping fish sends concentric ripples across the lake as a loon breaks the surface and glides placidly along the shoreline.

Everything else disappears. The stresses, the worries, the frustrations. Gone. Melted in the hot sun. Dissolved in the cool water. Washed away by one perfect cup of coffee in one of the earth’s perfect places.

coffee on the deck