Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Kitchen Table Wisdom

Until we stop ourselves, or, more often, have been stopped, we hope to put certain of life's events "behind us" and get on with our living.  After we stop we see that certain of life's issues will be with us for as long as we live. We will pass through them again and again, each time with a new story, each time with a greater understanding, until they become indistinguishable from our blessings and our wisdom.  It's the way life teaches us to live.


As a physician, I was trained to deal with uncertainty as aggressively as I dealt with disease itself. The unknown was the enemy. Within this worldview, having a question feels like an emergency; it means that something is out of control and needs to be made known as rapidly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible. But death has taken me to the edge of certainty, to the place of questions.

After years of trading mystery for mastery, it was hard and even frightening to stop offering myself reasonable explanations for some of the things that I observed and that others told me, and simply take them as they are. "I don't know" had long been a statement of shame, of personal and professional failing. In all of my training I do not recall hearing it said aloud even once. 

But as I listened to more and more people with life-threatening illnesses tell their stories, not knowing simply became a matter of integrity. Things happened. And the explanations I offered myself became increasingly hollow, like a child whistling in the dark. The truth was that very often I didn't know and couldn't explain, and finally, weighed down by the many, many instances of the mysterious which are such an integral part of illness and healing, I surrendered. It was a moment of awakening. 

For the first time, I became curious about the things I had been unwilling to see before, more sensitive to inconsistencies I had glibly explained or successfully ignored, more willing to ask people questions and draw them out about stories I would have otherwise dismissed. What I have found in the end was that the life I had defended as a doctor as precious was also Holy. I no longer feel that life is ordinary. Everyday life is filled with mystery. The things we know are only a small part of the things we cannot know but can only glimpse. Yet even the smallest of glimpses can sustain us.

Mystery seems to have the power to comfort, to offer hope, and to lend meaning in times of loss and pain. In surprising ways it is the mysterious that strengthens us at such times. I used to try to offer people certainty in times that were not at all certain and could not be made certain. I now just offer my companionship and share my sense of mystery, of the possible, of wonder. After twenty years of working with people with cancer, I find it possible to neither doubt nor accept the unprovable but simply to remain open and wait.

I accept that I may never know where truth lies in such matters. The most important questions don't seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.” 

― Rachel Naomi RemenKitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

            Quotes by Rachel Naomi Remen

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On Eagle's Wings

If only Julie could believe this power as she is in the midst of despair.

Friday, May 15, 2015

On the Watch

A reflection on the almond tree:

Elizabeth wrote a thoughtful comment on the previous post about God being on the watch.  He is. Looking into the Old Testament verse in Jeremiah 1: 11-12, indulge me in this. This link gave me pause.
It is amazing to see beautiful almond trees blossoming all over Israel every winter. They are the first tree to blossom and yet the last to bear fruit. 
The almond tree is associated with one of the earliest prophecies of a young Jeremiah. “Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I am watching to perform My word.’”
God is on the watch, taking care of us all, if we only pause to see the wonderment of His goodness.

Also from the referenced link:
The Hebrew word for almond, shaked, is also translated “to watch”. By seeing the almond branch, God assured Jeremiah that He is watching over His word to bring it to pass, no matter the passage of time.

The picture of the two chairs with the sunlight coming down on them was one of the last dozen or so Jack had sent me from the vantage point of his front step, looking out onto their lawn.  Now there is only one person left on earth to occupy that pair of chairs, and Julie is setting her mark on the world in her unique way from her bed, if not her wheelchair.

Things are going well.  Julie is getting through the anger stage of grief, although it will still flare up occasionally when she is especially stressed, trying to heal physically and emotionally. Only a few days ago she told me that she had Stage IV breast cancer, diagnosed in 2012.  She had originally told me the oncologist had diagnosed her as "Stage III plus."  Her pressure wounds have shown no improvement, but as far as we know, she is in remission from cancer.

None of us knows the timing of our demise.  Henri Nouwen's meditation today was apt. 
How we leave others depends largely on how we prepare ourselves for death.  When we can die with grateful hearts, grateful to God and our families and friends, our deaths can become sources of life for others.
- Henri J. M. Nouwen  
Jack certainly left a source of life for all of us.  I can only hope to do as well.