Monday, June 21, 2010

Patty: My Fun-Loving High School Classmate

I recently received an email message from Patty, through our high school class email list. It was a delightful message, recounting how Patty had recently reconnected with another high school classmate and reminiscing about high school adventures. This post will reflect on Patty's message.

First, I will mention that Patty and I and many of our classmates attended not only high school but also Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, and the elementary grades at the same all-girls Catholic school. So we spent our childhood and adolescent years together.

After our most recent class reunion, one of our classmates very generously spent time putting together a class email list through which we share news. This classmate continues to maintain and update our class email list.

Patty recently sent an email message to the class through our email list. She told how she had recently reconnected with another classmate and updated us with that classmate's news. Then, Patty went on to reminisce about an adventure that she and this classmate had shared during high school. The two had doubled-dated on a Friday evening, stayed out all night, watched the sun rise at Cafe du Monde - and then Patty had had to show up at 8 a.m. on Saturday to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test for university admission)!

Patty had written about all this in such a delightful and funny way that I found myself laughing and laughing. That memory of partying all night and then dashing to the SAT for 8 a.m. is so exactly like Patty.

It is also so completely unlike me. As I read Patty's message, I realized with regret that I have no high school memories like that - not one. I never once did anything the least bit wild. I never once stayed out all night partying. I never even stayed UP all night for any reason!

I studied - all the time. I was always impeccably prepared for class, handed in impeccable homework, aced all my exams, and made impeccable grades. I spent my time being uptight, studious, and impeccable. When I took the SAT, I went to bed early the night before, got a good night's sleep, woke up in time for a good breakfast, and arrived early and well prepared at the SAT site.

As a result, I had high grades and high SAT scores. Patty had fun.

I was not at all close to Patty in high school. Sadly, I didn't see much to admire in Patty's approach to life. I was blind. I was also very authority-oriented - and those authorities gave lots of praise for high grades, not for fun.

Over the years, I think I've lightened up some. I now admire Patty - a lot. Patty knew what was important. Patty could say, as I couldn't, "To hell with grades and what the nuns say is important - tomorrow may be the SAT, but tonight it's time for fun!" I wish I had done this every once in a while.

I dare say that Patty's life has been far more fun-filled than mine has. And what does one want to look back upon at the end of one's life - a life-time of high grades or a life-time of fun? I so very much hope that Patty has kept her fun-loving spirit over the years. Her recent email message indicates that she has.

I can learn a lot from Patty. I wish I had been open to learning from her during our high school years. But I like to think that it's not too late. Now - every once in a while - I intend to give myself a Patty Day!

POST-SCRIPT: Another of our classmates read my response to Patty's email message and pointed out another side to the story. How is it that Patty was able to stay out all night during high school? Is it not odd that Patty's parents hadn't given their adolescent daughter a curfew? Yes, something is wrong here. While it's true that I should have had more fun during high school, it's also true that some adult should have been looking out far more closely for Patty.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Theme Party Based on Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

On Saturday, June 19, from 12 noon to 4 p.m., I gave a theme party based on the book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert. I was inspired to give this theme party by the fact that a movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert's book is coming out in mid-August - but I decided to have the party early, on Summer Solstice weekend. This post will describe the party. It will be a long post.

First, a word about Elizabeth Gilbert's book. Eat, Pray, Love is the result of Elizabeth Gilbert's re-grouping efforts during the year following her painful divorce. To facilitate her inner healing, Elizabeth decided to put herself into a completely different environment - in fact, three completely different environments. She spent four months eating in Italy, four months praying in India, and four months loving in Indonesia.

Now, here is how the party unfolded. We had eight participants:

Amina Rae
Karen Ashley (me)

We began the party by considering Elizabeth Gilbert's over-all goal in her travels. She had expressed this goal during an earlier trip to Indonesia, where she had met a Bali medicine man named Ketut Liyer. I read aloud Elizabeth's description of her interaction with Ketut on pages 26-27.

So when the old man asked me in person what I really wanted, I found other, truer words.

"I want to have a lasting experience of God," I told him. "Sometimes I feel like I understand the divinity of this world, but then I lose it because I get distracted by my petty desires and fears. I want to be with God all the time. But I don't want to be a monk, or give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God."

Ketut said he could answer my question with a picture. He showed me a sketch he'd drawn once during meditation. It was an androgynous human figure, standing up, hands clasped in prayer. But this figure had four legs, and no head. Where the head should have been, there was only a wild foliage of ferns and flowers. There was a small, smiling face drawn over the heart.

"To find the balance you want," Ketut spoke through his translator, "this is what you must become. You must keep your feet grounded so firmly on the earth that it's like you have four legs, instead of two. That way, you can stay in the world. But you must stop looking at the world through your head. You must look through your heart, instead. That way, you will know God."

And that is how Elizabeth focused her year, immersing herself both in worldly pleasures and in God, living in such a way that she both grounded herself firmly on earth and looked at the world through her heart.

Having absorbed this over-all goal, we then entered the three main segments of the party. For each segment, I had a special gift for each participant. The three segments unfolded in this order:



Our first segment was PRAY. For the PRAY segment, each participant received a prayer stone. These were simply stones that I had gathered on my morning neighborhood walks. I had blessed the stones and placed one at each participant's place. I also had extra stones in case anyone felt that a different stone was a better fit for him or her.

To begin the PRAY segment, we recalled that Elizabeth Gilbert had spent the second four months of her travel year in India, praying and meditating at a rural ashram. Meditation did not come easily for Elizabeth, but she persisted and eventually reaped the benefits. I read aloud Elizabeth's description of the purpose of meditation on page 207.

Sean, my Yogic Irish dairy farmer, explained it to me this way: "Imagine that the universe is a great spinning engine," he said. "You want to stay near the core of the thing - right in the hub of the wheel - not out at the edges where all the wild whirling takes place, where you can get frayed and crazy. So stop looking for answers in the world. Just keep coming back to that center and you'll always find peace."

This is what we do in meditation: we spend time at the quiet and still center of the wheel, away from the frenzy of the edges of life. We renew and refresh ourselves there. We stop doing, and for a time we just be. We don't try to accomplish anything - certainly we don't try to accomplish "being free from distractions" or "reaching nirvana." We let happen whatever happens.

Since our group consisted of people with a regular meditation practice as well as people who felt uncomfortable with the idea of meditation, I decided to provide some tangible ways to focus one's attention. I suggested these possibilities:

  • Noticing one's thoughts
  • Experiencing one's breath
  • Repeating slowly a word or mantra
  • Floating on the music of "Lotus Reflection," the piece I played softly on Eric Berglund's CD Harp of the Healing Waters
  • Gazing at a mandala, provided to each person
  • Feeling the tactile sensation of a prayer stone, also provided
  • Allowing an orange slice, also provided, to melt slowly in one's mouth

I then ascertained that everyone was comfortable and ready, and I put on the CD Harp of the Healing Waters by Eric Berglund. Our meditation time lasted for the duration of Eric Berglund's piece "Lotus Reflection" - about twelve minutes.

We didn't discuss the meditation, but simply moved to the next segment of the party.


For this segment, each participant received an ear of corn to symbolize EAT.

To begin the EAT segment, we recalled that Elizabeth Gilbert had spent the first four months of her travel year eating in Italy. As Elizabeth thought about what she wanted to do during those first four months, she realized that all she wanted was to eat delicious Italian food and to speak the beautiful Italian language. Eating Italian food and speaking Italian gave her immense pleasure. Elizabeth based herself in Rome but also traveled throughout Italy - to Bologna, Florence, Naples, Sardinia, Sicily, and Venice - eating and speaking Italian.

I read aloud Elizabeth's description of a perfect meal on page 64.

I walked home to my apartment and soft-boiled a pair of fresh brown eggs for my lunch. I peeled the eggs and arranged them on a plate beside the seven stalks of the asparagus (which were so slim and snappy they didn't need to be cooked at all). I put some olives on the plate, too, and the four knobs of goat cheese I'd picked up yesterday from the formaggeria down the street, and two slices of pink, oily salmon. For dessert - a lovely peach which the woman at the market had given to me for free and which was still warm from the Roman sunlight. For the longest time I couldn't even touch this food because it was such a masterpiece of lunch, a true expression of the art of making something out of nothing. Finally, when I had fully absorbed the prettiness of my meal, I went and sat in a patch of sunbeam on my clean wooden floor and ate every bite of it, with my fingers, while reading my daily newspaper article in Italian. Happiness inhabited my every molecule.

I then served this lunch menu:

  • Spinach-cheese-egg casserole
  • Turkey meat loaf
  • Salad - lettuce, spinach, squash, tomato
  • Cornbread
  • Cheese - brie, pepper boursin, lowfat cheddar - with crackers
  • Fruit - apples, oranges, cherries (cherries provided by Amina Rae)
  • Dark chocolate squares
  • Iced tea - peach, blueberry
  • Mango lemonade (provided by Amina Rae)

I think I can say that I fulfilled my promise of a delicious lunch!

During lunch, between the main meal and the dessert, I asked everyone to write down on a piece of paper (to be folded and placed in a bowl) his or her idea of New Orleans' word. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks about the idea that every city has a word that characterizes it. The city's word encapsulates what is constantly occupying the mind of every person in that city. If you don't jive with a city's word, you won't feel comfortable living there, though you may enjoy visiting. Below are several cities with the word that Elizabeth Gilbert believes characterizes each.

ROME . . . . . . . . . . . . . . SEX
VATICAN . . . . . . . . . . . POWER
NAPLES . . . . . . . . . . . . FIGHT
NEW YORK . . . . . . . . . ACHIEVE

Below are the suggestions we came up with for New Orleans' word. (Three people gave two suggestions each. Five people gave one suggestion each.)

EAT (3)


Each participant received a very special gift for the LOVE segment - a beautiful EAT, PRAY, LOVE mandala created especially for us by my artist friend Annie. Annie's mandala embodies the essence of EAT, PRAY, LOVE in visual form. The mandala is on the front of a card, and inside the card is the quote from pages 26-27 of Eat, Pray, Love about Elizabeth Gilbert's desire to immerse herself both in worldly pleasures and in God, along with Ketut's reply that Elizabeth would need to live by both grounding herself firmly on earth and looking at the world through her heart.

Besides the EAT-PRAY-LOVE mandala and its accompanying quote from Elizabeth Gilbert's book, I also displayed six additional mandalas by Annie on my living room walls during our party. Their titles are below.

Blueberry Dreaming
Merry Mardi Gras
Owl in Pine
Pachyderm Pentagon
Ten-Foot Buddha

Truly, Annie was present with us in spirit! Annie and her husband have been living in Virginia since Hurricane Katrina, but Annie's heart remains in New Orleans.

To begin the LOVE segment of our party, we recalled that Elizabeth Gilbert had spent her final four months loving in Indonesia, specifically in Bali. Elizabeth had come to Bali to learn about balance and love. There she met the man who has now become her husband.

I read aloud a long passage from pages 327-328. Here Elizabeth describes how, two years previously, when she was beginning the most painful throes of her divorce, she had engaged in a silent personal retreat on the Indonesian island of Gili Meno. On the ninth day of her retreat, Elizabeth decided to accept everything she had previously found unacceptable about herself - every sorrow, every anger, even every shame. She reviewed her entire life - re-experiencing each instance of sorrow, then each instance of anger, and finally each instance of shame. She opened her heart to each one, saying, "It's OK. I love you. I accept you. Come into my heart now. It's over." And she would feel each instance of sorrow, anger, or shame enter her heart and would feel herself embrace it with love.

Elizabeth saw that, after accepting all her sorrow, anger, and shame into her heart, her heart was not nearly full but could easily have taken in more, and she realized that this is the way God loves us. She also knew that her sorrow, anger, and shame would rear their heads again and that she would have to renew her love for them many times - but she also knew that she could and would do this. One powerful way that Elizabeth did this was through writing. Here is what she says.

I found an empty notebook, opened it up to the first page - and only then did I open my mouth and speak those words into the air, letting them free. I let those words break my silence and then I allowed my pencil to document their colossal statement onto the page:

"I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you."

Those were the first words I ever wrote in that private notebook of mine, which I would carry with me from that moment forth, turning back to it many times over the next two years, always asking for help - and always finding it, even when I was most deadly sad or afraid. And that notebook, steeped through with that promise of love, was quite simply the only reason I survived the next years of my life.

For the LOVE segment of our party, we engaged in a philosophical discussion on this question: WHAT IS LOVE? Our discussion was facilitated by David, who also holds free weekly philosophy cafes in New Orleans coffeehouses as part of his educational work as founder and director of the New Orleans Lyceum. David is a philosopher, psychologist, and artist.

For our philosophical discussion, we drew upon ideas presented in The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis and in The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, as well as our own ideas.

I won't attempt to cover our entire discussion, but will mention one interesting area. David and Merry were largely the two who hashed this out in our discussion - and here is where I wind up, having listened to them. I see two ways of looking at love: love based on object and love based on subject. This distinction is also made by Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving.

Love based on object depends on the object of love. This kind of love springs from attraction - to a family member, to a friend, to a spouse or lover, to an animal. We enjoy being with that person, we seek out that person's company, we share intimately with that person, we want to give that person joy. We can do this with only a limited number of people. We normally don't do it with people whom it is our job to serve - our students, clients, patients, parishioners.

Love based on subject depends on our stance in life. We adopt a loving stance to whomever we are interacting with at the moment. We take a loving attitude and exhibit loving behavior toward that other person. We can do this with people whom we invite closely into our lives as well as with people with whom we have a bounded relationship of student/teacher, client/provider, patient/doctor, or priest/parishioner. We can do this with people whom we will see only once and never again, such as an attendant on an airplane on a clerk in a check-out line. With the clerk, for instance, our loving behavior may consist solely of giving a smile and exchanging some light but friendly words. Some people may prefer not to use the word "love" for this, but perhaps a word like "kindness" or "compassion." We adopt an attitude of kindness or compassion in our dealings with others.

So - we are kind, compassionate (loving, if you will) to all - to our intimate friends, to our acquaintances, to those we deal with professionally, to those we encounter only once. This depends on us, on the stance we take in life. We develop close relationships with only a few people. This depends on the other, on sensing an affinity with a particular other.

Three participants had to leave a bit early: Barbara, Elaine, and Merry. The rest of us - Amina Rae, Carmen, David, Ellen, and I - stayed for about another hour and continued our discussion. In this part of the discussion, the importance of authenticity and honesty struck me. Two ways that people get into trouble in their relationships are in imposing unspoken expectations on the other for how they want to be loved and in not accepting the other's way of showing love. For example, rather than a wife getting angry and saying accusingly to her husband, "You don't love me - you don't listen to me when I'm upset - you just jump in and erase the problem with a solution," the wife might calmly and respectfully explain that, when she is upset, she often simply wants a listening ear and a validation of her feelings. The husband may be very willing to provide this once he knows his wife's wishes. Also, rather than rejecting the way a husband offers love through problem solving, the wife might learn to hear this as an expression of love and to appreciate it. After all, thinking through possible solutions to a problem is useful, and someone who takes the time and effort to do this is showing love.

I am very happy to have given this theme party - and I intend to give more such parties on other themes!

Hospital Experience #20: Gifts from the Hospital

This is the twentieth and final (for the time being) in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This twentieth post will reflect on the gifts I have received from the entire experience. Rather than go into close detail with every gift I received, I will look at five broad and rich areas.

COMPASSION. Living through and writing about this hospital experience has helped me grow in compassion. I was easily able to have compassion for myself and for my doctor and medical team as we all struggled through my panic in the procedure room. I was able to reach the beginnings of compassion for Nurse Dreadful by writing about our encounter from her perspective. I even found that I was able to take an infant step in compassion for people who hurt or kill others in rage, by writing about the similarities between rage and panic and using my panic to help me stand in the shoes of someone in a rage.

Here is what I intend:

  • To use writing to build compassion for myself and others
  • To follow through with compassion in my thoughts, words, and actions

AUTHENTICITY. Living through and writing about this hospital experience has shown me the importance of being authentic with myself and with others: taking responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behaviors, needs, and desires, and being honest about them with myself and with others as appropriate. My writing has also shown me concrete ways to do this, particularly in working through my panic in the procedure room, my encounter with Nurse Dreadful, and my own responsibility for the behaviors that have led to my weight gain and high blood pressure. Through writing, I have experienced the relief and joy of simply telling the truth as well as of seeing how to recognize and express my needs and desires in a straightforward and respectful way.

Here is what I intend:

  • To use writing to build authenticity
  • To follow through with authenticity in my thoughts, words and actions

JOY IN FRIENDS. Living through and writing about this hospital experience has given me a far deeper appreciation of, love for, and joy in my friends. I examined the ins and outs of every large and small instance of support and found that each gift of support meant a great deal to me: phone calls, emails, prayers, thoughts, information, visits, offers of assistance, rendering of assistance, vigil keeping, readiness for an unlikely but potential emergency.

Friends, family members, church members, and acquaintances came through for me in all those ways. I deeply appreciate each one. Every expression of support meant so much.

Here is what I intend:

  • To let my friends know how much I appreciate them
  • To reach out to my friends and acquaintances with support in times of their sorrows and joys, now that I have so recently experienced how much this means
  • To become more connected and involved at church, which I am motivated to do because the church was there for me

JOY IN LIFE. Living through and writing about this hospital experience has increased my appreciation of, love for, and joy in life. I have glimpsed the possibility of turning away from a stance of "Life is not worth it: it is not worth the overwhelming pain one must endure to get to the snippets of joy" to a stance of "Life IS worth it: although life will be both painful and joyful, life will ultimately absorb pain into joy." By freezing up inside, resisting the pain, and growing bitter about hurts from my past, I have allowed the pain to absorb any joy in life. Writing about my hospital experience has revealed a new approach of opening up inside, accepting the pain, working through it in writing, and experiencing the joy of growth and insight - a joy that absorbs the pain.

Here is what I intend:

  • To work toward and reach a point where I can say that my life has been worth it, that joy absorbs the pain of the emotional abuse I suffered during childhood and adolescence with a rageful father, an alcoholic mother, and a Catholic Church that terrified me with a wrathful God and the fires of hell. It occurs to me that I can accept that joy in potential now, even though I may not yet feel it.
  • To find ways to enjoy life - daily

JOY IN WRITING. Living through and writing about this hospital experience has increased my appreciation of, love for, and joy in writing - for all the above reasons and more. Writing is a natural way of expression and growth for me. It is a large part of my life purpose - that is why it gives me such joy.

Here is what I intend:

  • To keep on writing, to keep on blogging

Hospital Experience #19: Riches of Writing

This is the nineteenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This nineteenth post will reflect on the riches I have received through writing about this hospital experience.

I have already written about the ways that writing enriches my life in my post of December 23, 2009, titled "Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God: More Thoughts on Writing and Words." After reading Frank Schaeffer's book Patience With God, particularly what Frank says therein about writing and words, I felt inspired me to make my own list of the many ways that writing enriches me, and I did so in that earlier post. In this current post, I will use that list to examine how the same riches of writing apply to my blogging about my recent hospital experience.

KEEPING MEMORIES. These blog posts hold my memories about the hospital experience. I can return to these posts time and time again to remember.

Writing often also helps me access memories. In other words, if I start writing about something I remember vaguely, I often find that the act of writing brings up more and more detail. Writing also brings to mind entire memories that I had forgotten. I did not experience this in blogging about my hospital experience, probably because the memories are still so fresh, but I want to mention it.

LIVING MY LIFE TWICE. This is a wonderful benefit of writing. I can live my life twice. I live it first as lived experience. Then I live it again by writing about it. The writing causes me to delve deeply into my experience, to mine its richness, to live my life more fully.

This is certainly true of my hospital experience. I lived through it as the events unfolded in the hospital. Then I lived it a second time, far more deeply, through my writing.

I want to know what I think or feel about something, a sure way to find out is to write about it. The very act of writing freely about a subject pulls up my thoughts and feelings and spills them onto the page or screen.

With my hospital experience, I took the time to articulate my thoughts and feelings and to organize them into a coherent piece of writing. Working with this inner material clarifies it.

In addition, my thoughts and feelings are no long roiling about vaguely and namelessly inside me. I have named them and placed them outside myself - on a page or screen - where I can stand back and look at them. This also makes my thoughts and feelings clearer to me.

I am aware, too, that any piece of writing is a snapshot of my thoughts and feelings at a particular moment in time, so I need to hold them loosely, realizing that my thoughts and feelings may evolve and that I can clarify that evolution with additional writing. If I look back on my hospital experience a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, I may be writing about different thoughts and feelings.

PUTTING MY EXPERIENCE OUTSIDE MYSELF. Writing takes my experience outside of myself and puts it onto the page or screen, where I can look at it more objectively. I can "see" my experience more clearly on the page or screen than I can when it remains locked within me.

This allows me to be calmer about troubling aspects of my experience. Just the fact that I can look at the experience in written form, outside myself, makes any inner turmoil far less intense, including how I now view my panic in the procedure room, my encounter with Nurse Dreadful, and the post-procedure bleeding incident.

name and articulate something, to put it into words, makes it real. Unnamed experience is often vague.

For example, as a result of writing, my panic in the procedure room is much more real to me. It is not some vague and nameless terror. I see the physiological manifestations of the panic and the inner feeling state that went with them. I have named all this, making the experience real and concrete. As a result, I am better prepared to speak about my panic potential with my doctor and to let my doctor know what I'll need in any future such situations.

Likewise, having written about my clash with Nurse Dreadful, the dynamics of the clash are real to me. What happened is not some vague unpleasantness but a specific interaction with distinct moves of words, facial expression, and body language. Here, too, as a result, I am better prepared to handle such potential clashes very differently in the future.

The many ways I was supported by my friends are more real to me through my writing. I haven't just vaguely received lots of great support, but the specific gifts of each friend are distinct and real to me.

ENTERING MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES. Writing opens a kaleidoscope of perspectives. I can explore how a situation appears to someone very different from myself by putting myself into his or her mind, so to speak, and writing from that place.

Among these blog posts are two where I look at the encounter with Nurse Dreadful from Nurse Dreadful's point of view, giving me a far broader perspective on what happened. This nurse came across to me as Nurse Dreadful - but is it not possible that I came across to her as Patient Dreadful? Writing from someone else's point of view is a wonderful way to stand in someone else's shoes and to build compassion.

PULLING UP INSIGHTS. Writing is a way to access my unconscious, to know consciously things that I didn't know I knew. As I write, I sometimes find myself pouring insights onto the page or screen, insights that I would not have accessed otherwise.

This is most evident in my two posts on Yvonne's gift of healing music, particularly the first of the two. I reached an amazing insight at the end of that post - an insight that came through writing. When I began writing that post, I had no idea that my writing would take me to this insight. The insight was present within me all along - but I was not conscious of it. The act of writing pulled that insight up into my awareness.

FINDING SOLUTIONS. If I write about a problem, I often find myself writing through to possible solutions. Those solutions come to me through the act of writing. In other words, I start writing without knowing how to solve the problem, and the writing itself pulls possible solutions up into my awareness.

With my hospital experience, I would say that writing has given me solutions to similar future situations. I now see better ways to be authentic, especially in stating my needs to my doctor concerning potential panic and in relating to a person who comes across unpleasantly.

HEALING. Writing heals. Because writing clarifies my thoughts and feelings, puts my experience outside of myself, makes my experience real to me, allows me to view an experience from multiple perspectives, pulls up insights, and finds solutions - because writing accomplishes all these things - writing heals.

Here are four specific ways that I have experienced healing through writing about my hospital experience:

  • Taking baby steps in compassion
  • Opening myself to receive love from others
  • Glimpsing that life is worth it
  • Becoming more authentic by telling the truth

and articulating my experience connects me with others. When a writer shares his or her writing, readers connect with the writer's experience and even connect more deeply with their own experience. Frank Schaeffer, the catalyst for my earlier post on the ways that writing enriches my life, is one of many writers who connect me to my own experience and help me to understand myself more deeply.

In blogging about my hospital experience, I have made my writing available to anyone who wants to read it on the Internet. I connect with people who read about my hospital experience - people I know and people I don't know - who will never tell me that they have read my posts. The connection is nonetheless made, even though I don't know about it. I also connect with people who read about my hospital experience and let me know that they have done so. In these cases, I am aware that a connection has been made. Most wonderful are those people who read about my hospital experience and respond with their own thoughts and feelings about my experience and/or with experiences of their own. They do this through the blog's comment function, through some other online channel such as email or a Facebook comment or message, by phone, or in person. I find this incredibly enriching.

These connections also help me to tell the truth. In blogging about my hospital experience, I tell the truth to myself, to those who read my blog posts anonymously, and to those who read my blog posts and respond. By connecting with others through blogging, my truth is told, heard, and even valued.

writing, I create. I produce a piece of written work. Creating is deeply satisfying and increases my joy.

Indeed, I do take joy in these hospital experience blog posts.

energizes me. Sometimes when I write, I feel actual currents of energy flowing through my body.

I have often felt this excitement and energy upon sitting down to write these hospital experience blog posts.

The act of writing causes me to study my subject closely. I look deeply into the person, place, object, experience, or idea that I am writing about. This close study opens my subject to me in greater fullness and glory and increases my appreciation for my subject. The more subjects I write about, the more I fall in love with my world.

In writing these hospital experience blog posts, I have fallen in love with the whole hospital experience, with my friends, with life's ability to absorb pain into joy, and even with the physiological and emotional state of panic and with Nurse Dreadful. I didn't enjoy the panic, but I have enjoyed analyzing it through writing and gaining an understanding of its different components. I didn't enjoy the encounter with Nurse Dreadful, but I have enjoyed examining the encounter from her perspective and analyzing the dynamics of our interaction through writing.

I would say that my blogging about my hospital experience has caused me to fall in love more deeply with more of my world.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hospital Experience #18: Karen Armstrong - Compassion and Pain

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This eighteenth post will reflect on my hospital experience in relation to what Karen Armstrong says about compassion and pain in her memoir The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, in which she describes her adjustment to life in the world after seven years as a Catholic nun.

In her study of world religions, Karen Armstrong finds that compassion is at the heart of all. Compassionate behavior is expressed in the Golden Rule: Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you. Karen prefers this ancient Jewish expression of the Golden Rule, asking us to refrain from what would cause others pain or discomfort.

How do we know what may cause pain or discomfort to another? Karen Armstrong says that we learn this by observing what causes pain or discomfort to us. Compassion means feeling with another, standing in another's shoes and feeling what it is like to be that person. Karen says that nothing teaches us better how another may feel than our own pain. When something happens that causes us pain, it is well to take careful note and to resolve never to cause such pain to another. This, Karen says, is how pain can be redeemed - by using it to build compassion. Otherwise, pain is wasted.

I found that, in the hospital, I wanted to be treated in a kind, caring, professional, and dignified manner. I experienced pain when Nurse Dreadful did not treat me in these ways. I experienced comfort when other nurses did. I am not a medical professional, so it is not likely that I will be called upon to treat hospital patients in kind, caring, professional, and dignified ways. However, I am a teacher - and my students would certainly appreciate being treated in kind, caring, professional, and dignified ways. They would appreciate seeing that I welcome them, that I am happy to see them, that I have the skills to teach them well, that I take their concerns and questions seriously, that I evaluate their work fairly, that I have time for them, that I am available to them, that I respect them and deeply value their contributions to the class.

I think that it is extremely helpful for professionals of all kinds to be in the position of those they serve - for medical professionals to be patients, for example, and for teachers to be students. This builds compassion. Medical professionals need to know what it feels like to be handled by strangers, and teachers need to know what it feels like to struggle with an unfamiliar subject. Language teachers need to know what it feels like to be confronted with a new language and culture, and writing teachers need to know what it feels like to be confronted with a writing assignment, a deadline, and a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

These are important lessons from the hospital and from Karen Armstrong - use pain to build compassion, and put yourself in the shoes of those you serve.

Hospital Experience #17: Telling the Truth

This is the seventeenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This seventeenth post will reflect on a special gift I have received from blogging about this hospital experience: the joy of telling the truth.

This post also connects with my posts on Frank Schaeffer, an author whom I would characterize as a courageous truth-teller. This post connects particularly with my post of August 27, 2009, titled "Frank Schaeffer's Memoir: Self-Disclosure," and with my post of December 26, 2009, titled "Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God: Problems of Integrity with Fundamentalism," especially the final paragraph. In these earlier posts, I marvel at some of the unflattering things Frank discloses about himself in his books and reflect on what might have motivated him to make these self-disclosures.

In this present post, I will examine my own self-disclosures in my hospital experience posts and reflect on how these self-disclosures have benefited me. I will use my above-mentioned earlier posts about Frank Schaeffer for deeper understanding about self-disclosure and truth-telling. It is not necessary to have read my earlier posts on Frank Schaeffer to understand this one.


Here is what I understand about Frank Schaeffer and his passion for truth telling. Frank grew up in a family who ran a fundamentalist Christian mission in Switzerland. Because his parents (Francis and Edith Schaeffer) were esteemed Christian teachers, anything that did not fit with their image as upright Christians had to be kept as a strict family secret, including Francis Schaeffer's depressions and rages and his verbal and physical abuse of Edith. The truth could not be told - it would harm the ministry.

As a young adult, Frank continued in his parents' footsteps and made a good living writing Christian fundamentalist books and speaking on the Christian fundamentalist circuit. As time went on, Frank became more and more uncomfortable with the message he was preaching - it just didn't mesh with reality. Yet Frank was unwilling to give up his comfortable living, and he feared that he didn't know how to support his family in any other way. This inner conflict made him irritable, and he took out his irritation on his wife and children. Eventually, Frank did leave Christian fundamentalism, joined the Greek Orthodox Church, and now makes his living as a secular writer. He has published eleven books (three of them co-authored), and a twelfth book is scheduled to come out in the spring of 2011.

In his memoir, Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, Frank makes some very unflattering self-disclosures. Specifically, he speaks of how he stayed on the Christian fundamentalist circuit for so long simply because of the good money, and he reveals details of his unloving behavior to his family, especially how he sometimes hit his daughter, Jessica, and pulled her hair in anger. At first, it was hard for me to understand how Frank could reveal such things about himself, things that now cause him shame and that he deeply regrets.

I began to understand Frank's self-disclosures better when I read his next book, Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism), where Frank specifically describes his spiritual evolution. In Patience With God, Frank describes the great inner tension produced by feeling trapped into having to proclaim publicly what his heart no longer believed - and his HUGE RELIEF when at last he stepped away from Christian fundamentalism and could finally TELL THE TRUTH. What a sheer, sheer relief it was - after so many years of keeping secrets - to simply tell the truth.


Like Frank, I grew up in a family with secrets. The biggest secret was that my mother was an alcoholic. Apparently, the sky would fall if anyone ever found out about this. It was a very strict secret. So secret was it, in fact, that my two youngest sisters, Maria and Janet, never did know about our mother's drinking problem until our other sister, Sandra, decided that she should tell them - when we were all well into adulthood. (Our mother had stopped drinking when I was sixteen, Sandra was twelve, Maria was eight, and Janet was seven. Our brothers, Michael and Danny, were fourteen and ten, respectively. Only the four eldest - myself, Michael, Sandra, and Danny - were old enough to understand what had been going on, although Danny later forgot that he had known this. After our mother stopped drinking, we never talked about it again - until many years later, as adults.)

So - secrets were the norm in my family. My father didn't even like us to have friends to spend the night. We did sometimes have friends to spend the night, but my father didn't much care for this. He didn't want anyone to know our family business. He once told me that he felt he couldn't run his home the way he wanted to when we had guests over. (My father wanted to run the home with tight control - we were all scared of him, including my mother. I am convinced that this is why she drank.)

One characteristic of adult children of alcoholics is that they have trouble telling the truth. While I don't think of myself as a liar, I do see situations where I find telling the truth difficult, situations where I feel tempted to beat around the bush or to project a better image of myself than is true - even though telling the truth would actually simplify things in many of these situations.


One area where I have had trouble telling the truth has been my over-indulgence in fatty and sugary foods over the last several years. I have tried to hide this, eating healthy foods and moderate amounts when with other people, but eating fatty and sugary foods and large amounts when alone. As a result, I gained a lot of weight, and I now have high blood pressure. The first step in confronting the problem has been to tell the truth - I have chosen to eat poorly and not to exercise, and this has led to weight gain and high blood pressure. Now I need to choose new eating and exercise behavior.

Somehow, it is a great relief to actually say this - to tell the truth. I have felt the joy of this relief in writing my hospital experience posts, especially "Hospital Experience #8: Personal Responsibility and Honesty." It feels good to spell out the truth about what has been going on with my eating and lack of exercise.

I think that tension is produced in our bodies when we don't tell the truth. We may not be conscious of this tension, but it is there, affecting our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. When we tell the truth, we release the tension and experience the joy of being able to relax more deeply than perhaps we ever have. I believe that this is what happened to Frank Schaeffer, and it is one reason that, as he says, he began to treat his family far better when he started to tell the truth. Telling the truth allowed Frank to relax, and a relaxed husband and father is a kinder husband and father.

Also, we expend energy to hide the truth, and this is tiring - even though we may not be conscious of the toll this is taking on us. When we tell the truth at last, all that energy is freed for creative purposes. Frank Schaeffer experienced a great burst of creativity when he began to tell the truth. He took up again the painting that he had loved but abandoned as a young man, and he started writing novels.

Writing these blog posts on my hospital experience and delving into the truth has given me an inkling of the relaxation, energy release, and joy of truth telling. This blog allows me to tell the truth to myself as well as to anyone who reads the blog - the blog is, after all, available to everyone on the Internet! I especially thank those who have read the blog, particularly those who have told me that they have read it. This lets me know that my truth-telling has been heard. Thank you! Some have even responded with comments through the blog's comment function, by email, by phone, or in person - sometimes sharing experiences of their own. This lets me know that my truth-telling has been heard and valued. Thank you!

I want to end with a word of caution, mostly to myself. I do know that truth-telling can be over-done. The truth-telling in this blog gives me joy, which indicates to me that I am ready to make these particular self-disclosures. There are other self-disclosures that I am not ready to make - these should stay in my personal journal, not for sharing. I may never be ready to make certain self-disclosures to anyone but myself. Even Frank Schaeffer, courageous truth-teller that he is, says that there are some things about himself that he chooses not to disclose. This is as it should be.

I also feel quite sure that there are some self-disclosures that I am not ready to make even to myself. Of course, I don't know what these are, since I haven't yet disclosed them to myself.

What I want to do is to continue telling the truth to myself and, as appropriate, to others. (Certainly, truth telling should never be used as a club to hurt someone else - most of the time, we don't need to tell others the truth about themselves but the truth about our own selves.) I also want to encourage others in their own truth telling through supportive listening, as others have done for me. Truth telling can be a great joy. It is even more joyful to share that joy!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hospital Experience # 16: Trust

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This sixteenth post will examine my difficulty in trusting doctors.

A patient has symptoms and goes to the doctor. The doctor examines the patient, diagnoses the problem, prescribes treatment, instructs the patient in how to follow the treatment, and sends the patient on his or her way - hoping that the patient will follow through.

The thing is - this doesn't happen in a vacuum. The doctor's voice is not the only voice that the patient hears - not at all. The patient goes home and talks with his or her friends about their experience with similar conditions, with doctors, with medication, with hospitals. The patient looks up his or her condition and the doctor's prescribed treatment on the Internet and reads all the side effects of the prescribed medication that the doctor failed to mention. The patient reads articles and books with titles like these:

  • How to Survive Your Hospital Stay
  • How to Manage Your Managed Care Plan - Don't Let It Manage You
  • How Hospitals Are Dangerous to Your Health
  • How Doctors May Not Have Your Best Interests at Heart
  • How Big Pharmaceutical Companies Are Poisoning You
  • How Some Primary Care Physicians Are Secretly Demons with Invisible Horns and a Tail - Is Yours?

In other words, patients hear and read lots of information that inspires distrust of doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical drugs, and the whole medical system. I have certainly taken in my share of this, and it has made me doctor-averse, hospital-averse, and medication-averse. It is difficult for me to trust doctors.

Here are some friends' and acquaintances' experiences.

  • A friend's twenty-year-old daughter broke her leg, had it set and placed in a cast, and wore the cast for the required number of weeks. While simply having the cast removed, the daughter died because of complications with her asthma.
  • A friend had surgery to remove a bunion and wound up with a pulmonary embolism and a week in Intensive Care.
  • A friend's father got a terrible staph infection during surgery as a result of the surgeon's carelessness.
  • A friend of my father's came out of surgery with a terrible burn on her chest because a member of the surgical team had laid a scalding instrument upon her - mistaking her, I suppose, for a table.
  • A friend was told that she HAD to have a test with a minimum amount of a substance that she is allergic to because, the hospital insisted, there is no possible other way to perform this test. What the hospital meant is that there is no possible other way to perform this test AT THAT HOSPITAL. Other ways are available elsewhere, but the hospital was not going to tell my friend that.
  • An acquaintance's husband committed suicide immediately after a hospital stay as a result of being administered a drug that caused serious depression.

In addition to the above, I know that the following things happen in hospitals.

  • Surgical implements are left inside patients' bodies when the patient is sewn up.
  • Patients are left with varying degrees of paralysis as a result of surgical slips.
  • Patients experience anaesthesia awareness, even to the degree of the anaesthesia not working at all, causing the patient to feel the excruciating pain of the entire surgery. Since surgical patients are administered a paralyzing agent, they are unable to signal in any way that they are aware and experiencing unbearable pain.
  • Patients are given the wrong medication or the wrong dose of the correct medication.
  • The anaesthesia has unexpected effects, including brain damage, unbearably loud tinnitus (ringing, or should I say roaring, in the ear), horrible rash, excruciating headache, loss of proprioception (one's sense of being in one's body), loss of sense of balance.
  • Patients continue to experience inexplicable post-surgical pain for several years after surgery. I read about this in an article on organ donors - the healthy patients who are donating an organ to save someone's life - the patients who are supposed to recuperate smoothly and quickly.
  • Patients are accidentally operated on with non-sterile surgical implements.

As I think about the above occurrences, I realize that they are rare. The trouble is - they do happen. If a particular disaster has .01 percent chance of happening - and you fall into that extremely rare .01 percent - then that particular disaster happens to you 100 percent. You don't get just .01 percent of the effect - you get 100 percent of the effect. If the surgeon slips while operating on your body, the rest of your life is 100 percent affected by paralysis. There is no .01 percent effect.

In addition to the incidents and occurrences mentioned above, I have read articles, newsletters, and books that lay out thoughtful reasons not to trust the medical field. For example, I receive Dr. Julian Whitaker's monthly Health and Healing newsletter. Dr. Whitaker is a medical doctor who practices what he calls wellness medicine, using both traditional and alternative treatments. Dr. Whitaker warns against many practices of traditional medicine, including treating high blood pressure with medication.

But sometimes I don't know any viable options, such as when I felt my heart beating in my throat in March. As far as I could see, the option available to me - besides doing nothing - was to go to the emergency room. I did. And then followed doctor appointments, heart monitoring, a diagnosis of high blood pressure, prescription of a blood-pressure-lowering diuretic, a diagnosis of supraventricular tachycardia, the cardiac catheter ablation procedure which in the end could not ablate the arrhythmia, prescription of a low-dose heartbeat-regulating medication. Clearly, I have decided to go with a medical regimen in addition to my own new health habits.

The problem has been that I have sought medical help while holding a distrust of doctors and medicine and even feeling angry that I need help and don't seem to have any other place to turn that feels trustworthy. So I have been communicating to doctors this message: "Please help me - I don't trust you."

Doctors, of course, sense this distrust. I'll have to say that the doctors I am currently seeing have been wonderful about this unspoken undercurrent in my attitude. They treat me pleasantly and provide serious explanations of why they recommend what they do.

I think that I need to decide to cooperate with them - to be open, to express my concerns, to ask my questions, to know that I have every right to make my own decisions about what treatment to follow, and to communicate without an underlying distrust and hostility but with amiability and courtesy.

Hospital Experience #15: Janet and Richard - Preparedness

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This fifteenth post will reflect on the willingness of my sister Janet and her husband, Richard, to handle my affairs in case of my death or incapacitation.

One wonderful thing that came out of this hospital experience for me is that I now have a will, a living will, a medical power of attorney document, and a personal statement of my wishes on life and death issues. The reason I can have these documents is that generous people have agreed to take on responsible roles in the case of my death or incapacitation. My sister Janet and her husband, Richard, are co-executors of my will, and Richard is my medical power of attorney person. It gives me wonderful peace of mind to know that this has been taken care of.

These are serious responsibilities, and I thank Janet and Richard for accepting them. Janet and Richard have also kept me in their thoughts and prayers, encouraged me up to and through hospital day, and listened deeply to me.

Hospital Experience #14: David - Intention

This is the fourteenth in a series of posts on a recent experience at Ochsner Hospital - having a cardiac catheter ablation procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia. These posts describe and reflect on various aspects of the hospital experience. This fourteenth post will reflect on David's generous helpfulness.

David was especially helpful to me in these areas. He kept me in his thoughts and prayers. He offered me encouragement all the way up through hospital day. He listened deeply to me. He maintained a very positive attitude. He set aside an entire day and night to pick me up from the hospital on the day after the procedure and to keep an eye on me during my first day and night back home. As things fell out, this last wasn't needed because the ablation part of the procedure was not performed - the source of my arrhythmia turned out to be located in a place that made it non-ablatable. Since the ablation was not performed, I didn't need to stay overnight in the hospital for monitoring but was taken home the same day by Merry and was fine on my own.

Although David did not go through the physical actions of picking me up from the hospital or staying with me for a day and a night, I still consider this to be something that he did for me - because of his intention. David fully intended to do those things and had set aside an entire day and night to do them. As far as intention is concerned, David DID those things for me. None of us ever considered that there would be an unexpected change in plan at the last minute when my arrhythmia turned out to be non-ablatable.

This makes me think of a story that I've heard a number of times in different contexts, so it's likely to be an urban legend - nonetheless, it does make an important point. The story (or urban legend) opens with a little boy whose blood is a perfect match for his sister, who needs a blood transfusion to save her life. When asked if he is willing to give blood for his sister, the little boy remains silent for a time and then nods. Accordingly, blood is taken from him, after which he seems unusually withdrawn. When asked how he is doing, the little boy replies that he is wondering when he will start to die.

It turns out that the little boy thought that removing his blood to give to his sister meant that he would lose all his blood and die. When asked to give blood, the little boy thought of his love for his sister and decided that, yes, he was willing to die for her to live. In intention, this little boy had not just given blood - he had given his life for his sister.

When a person fully intends to do something for a friend, makes all the preparations for doing it, and sets aside the time to do it - but then is prevented at the last minute from doing it - I would say that this person has DONE the planned helpful action for the friend.

Not only did David provide this practical assistance in intention, but it was also clear that he was looking forward to doing so. David let me know that he was actually anticipating the pleasure of picking me up at the hospital and then spending twenty-four hours with me. He was enjoying the thought of talking with me, preparing food for me, or working quietly on his own projects at my place while I slept or rested - whatever was needed. This was an important part of David's gift - knowing that he would enjoy the giving.

In addition, David was especially helpful with his positive attitude. He kept reminding me that a good way to approach hospital day was to relax, think of the wealth of knowledge and skill of my doctor and medical team, and put myself into their competent hands, realizing that they know what they are doing and will take care of me. In this way, David helped me to remain calm in the weeks and days leading up to hospital day.

Besides this, David's depth of listening and sharing has been immeasurably helpful to me in processing thoughts, feelings, and insights about the hospital experience.