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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Meaning making

Finding meaning in traumatic past events is clinically understood to be a healing movement toward wellness. It is always a marvelous, amazing moment to hear a patient tell me that cancer or other diagnosis, an accident, a personal tragedy, or other horrendous event was the ‘best thing that could have happened to me.’  Stories of lives being turned around, of meaning being made out of the ashes of disaster … these are the stuff of miracles. Fingerprints of the Redeemer on a life, a family, a community.

For that is how I see these moments: through the lens of an understanding of the significance of the Incarnation on the world. When ‘God became flesh and dwelt among us,’ the miraculous work of redemption ignited, and time, like Aslan’s table, ‘worked backwards’ yet transformed to living gold. Redemption: the greening of our parched histories of trauma, tragedy, and sheer nastiness is a reflection of this act of love.
Why is it, though, that it is so much easier to see the fingerprint of redemption on our personal worlds when we have undergone a horrific experience? Why do we resist seeing the ongoing work of redemption in the routine, the mundane of our lives?
You know what I mean when I speak of the mundane. Those everyday moments of our 24/7 that stitched together make up 99% of our lives. Those moments of cleaning the bathtub, making lunches, doing the dishes, writing (or listening to) classroom lectures, paying bills, seeing the tenth diabetic patient that day, triple checking medications for the nth time, listening to the student with an issue …
Why is it so hard to see the Redeemer in the commonplace of life?
Perhaps because the Redeemer is only needed for the extraordinary? Set aside for the ‘spiritual’ events of life when we are primed and God is ready? I cannot accept that, given the nature of the incarnation, which touched earth along with spirit. No, I think that this disconnect lies is in our concept of the mundane, which by definition excludes the idea of eternity and profundity. Times of prayer and worship have become for us disconnected from the everyday. Worship means for us to be lifted above the everyday. However,  I think that Brother Lawrence and St Francis (among so many others) had it right.

In The Practice of the Presence of God, “Brother Lawrence felt it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action, as by prayer in its season. His own prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine Love. When the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might. Thus he passed his life in continual joy. Yet he hoped that God would give him somewhat to suffer when he grew stronger.”

Similarly, St Francis saw Christ in all he met. For Francis, there was no distinction between the holy and the earthly—or perhaps more correctly, he saw through the earthly to the Incarnated Christ, the Redeemer. Bodies of clay and the blessed body of Christ became one and the same: the leper was greeted by Francis with a holy kiss. Birds, the sun and moon, received words of encouragement and thanksgiving by virtue of their transformation by the Incarnate Christ.

I pray that I learn to practice this eternity-altered visioning in my mundane: to greet Christ in every visage of my students, of patients, residents and research participants. To welcome the eternal in the interruptions of life, in the earth-shattering personal events, and in the daily humdrum routine of everyday. And, to share an encouraging glance and kind word to all of creation and in doing so, to honor the ongoing redeeming work of the Incarnate Christ.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Being sick ...

I always think that it is good for nurses and other health care providers to experience pain, illness, physical weakness, despair. Humans have a remarkable ability to forget what existing in these states feels like; how eternal, solid, and all-encompassing pain, illness, and despair appear to be when you are in the crucible. Well, like most things that are ‘good for us,’ we would rather accept them in theory rather than in practice …

Last week found me recovering from a visitation of what would appear to have been H1N1. For a few days there, I found myself isolated in a crucible of fever, pain and flu. A very few days compared to the chronic illness crucible that so many others find themselves living within.

Your thinking changes when you are caught within that crucible, no matter how short term it is, for when you are in the crucible, time stands still.

Little things you take for granted: quick leaps of energy to do simple acts of life; appetite; flashes of fun, desire, laughter, all are moved beyond your current reality. Prayer takes on a different, more grim, dimension. Priorities change. People become more—and less—important. ‘To do’ lists lose their power over you, as do the powers and principles that rule the world: bill paying and moving money become an insignificant, easily forgotten chore. Water. Water is precious as is the ability to drink it and to keep it down. Food is simplified. A simple soup tolerated by a fickle GI system is appreciated like sushi is celebrated during times of reckless health. Silence is beyond precious. Air. Coughing fits, ‘bubble and squeak’ lungs, thickened airways impart moments of dis-ease and near anxiety; fatigue related to air hunger as coughing takes over the night.

I must admit, I am no hero when I am ill. This time was no different. I did not want to ‘live in the present moment.’

I prayed for the uncomfortable present moment to be gone and the blissful healthy future to emerge, shattering the crucible with joy, zest and normalcy. I wanted to feel good by virtue of feeling healthy. Still, I do want to honor the lessons of illness and have these memories fuel gratitude and thanksgiving as I move back to health and routine.

What are these lessons? I do think the shift in priorities that occurs while in the crucible is a lesson worth keeping. Finding joy in simple things. Laughing at the ‘less than hero’ within myself … all good lessons!

Keep well!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Putting away the pool

A very exciting thing happened to us this summer. 
Just as the TV weatherperson gave her prediction that we were heading into a heat wave, my mom called to discuss Vincent’s birthday. As we chatted about the impending heat wave and I explained why our older house’s electric panel could not handle an air conditioner, my mom had a brainwave: “You should buy a pool,” she said. “They are on sale right now. It would be perfect for Vincent’s birthday!”

I did not need any sort of arm-twisting or other form of coercion—especially as she wanted to join in the purchase of this gift. As kids, we had grown up with a succession of pools, each one taller and broader, but all the same wonderful round cool summer playground. We all took ‘pool chore’ turns: hosing out the filter and skimming leaves with a homemade net made out of a wire hanger and my mother’s old nylon stockings. Only the oldest kid was allowed to put the chlorine tablets into the floating dispenser. The youngest kid was left with the job of miserably turning the filter panels while they were being squirted out. We all loved skimming leaves—we got to go out in our little blue boat and chase down rogue leaves with the nylon stocking skimmer.

All those memories fueled me. Throughout that morning, the idea of a pool for Vincent’s birthday grew and grew until by afternoon it became unbearably sweet. We headed to Zellers, sales flyer in hand. “All gone,” we were told by the one salesperson we tracked down. We turned the nose of our car toward Wal-Mart. In Sporting Goods, we found a small crowd of hopeful families clustered around one salesperson who was on the phone. “Pool?” we asked the crowd. “She’s calling the warehouse now,” answered a mom in a tense whisper. Two other moms glanced over and nodded briefly in nervous anticipation. The salesperson hung up the phone. “They’re looking,” she said in the waiting silence. “Someone thinks that there were a few pools that didn’t get sent out. They will call me back in twenty minutes or so.” We watched as the crowd of moms scattered slightly, still hovering around the swimming pool aisle, glancing at each other as if to measure the competition. Visions of beach balls, floating lounges, and blow-up swans flickered in their eyes.

A rumor began to spread among the moms. “Canadian Tire,” we heard. “Canadian Tire had pools yesterday … lots of pools …” The phone rang and we all watched as the salesperson answered. Just as her face began to register the faintest disappointment, we were out the door and headed toward Canadian Tire. “Go,” Vincent said with urgency, as he slowed in front of the doors of Canadian Tire, “Go!” I jumped out of the car and didn’t lose time looking behind me. Through the doors I plunged and was greeted by the sweetest sight. Boxes of pools smack in the middle of the main aisle. Sweeter still was the orange ‘on sale’ sign above the pools. I attached myself to one of the boxes and waited for Vincent to park the car and catch up to me.

“It’s awfully big,” he said doubtfully, when I had moved enough for him to read the pool dimensions on the box. “It’s all they have left,” I responded. It was enough. He flagged down a salesperson who brought a dolly. The box just fit into our hatchback with the seats down. We had to use our John Deer lawn mower and cart to get the box from the car into the backyard.

I had that pool set up in two hours. Two days after filling it, the township declared an official heatwave and imposed outside water restrictions. Isn’t God’s timing wonderful?  :-) Of course it is trivial seeing our filled pool as a ‘God thing’, but you have NO IDEA how hot our old timer flat roof house gets! It is truly how we felt!

We enjoyed the pool all summer long and I thanked God (and my mom) for it at every opportunity. The girls (our Dalmatians) loved it too. Although we weren’t about to let them shred the liner with their enthusiastic thrashing, so outlawed them from being inside the pool, they loved running around the cool perimeter of it. I think it acted as sort of an outside air conditioner for them. Gabe, our Siamese cat, lay down alongside it as well, moving with the shade as the sun climbed each day.

But now it is Fall, and we emptied the pool yesterday. Today is ‘pack the pool away’ day. Very much a bittersweet kind of thing. It signals the end of summer fun, but we will get a good-sized portion of our backyard back. Although I suspect it will look as though aliens visited us (ie., the round crop circle where the pool killed the grass). We can dream about the excitement of a new summer, and the fun of setting up the pool again.

In my ongoing determination to learn to live in the present, I am seeking to see even the chores of the day as a discipline, an exercise in understanding contentment and gratitude in the present moment

As I do this, I recall earlier concerns: if I become focused on the present, won’t I lose the learning power of remembering the past, or the visioning of the future? Instead, I note, as I dry the liner and place each plastic clip in the zip lock bag, that through gratitude, I revisit moments in the past and am thankful for them, and am accepting of, and able to, appreciate the Fall moment of putting away. I notice a holistic connecting with the season, the objects in my hand, and the sense of the gift of this moment, past moments and future glimpses of potential moments of joy. An overarching contentment in spite of cold fingers in the Fall breeze and stiffness in my aging ‘nurses’ back.

G. K. Chesterton said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

I think what I am learning in this discipline of living in the present moment, is to say grace before and as I teach classes, write, listen to my research participants, chop pears—and put away the pool. 

Enjoy your Fall moments!