Today’s retreat at St. Alphonsa’s in Manor, Texas was amazing. Beautiful church, warm hospitality, delicious food, and my CPE colleagues. I am filled with love and gratitude.
I’ve been both poetic and snarky about my summer as a hospital chaplain. There are some things about it that I will not miss at all. But for the most part, it has been an amazing experience for which I am deeply grateful. So, in no particular order, here are the things that have made my summer wonderful:
Did I say no particular order? That goes for the end of the list, but number one in all respects is my team! We are seven interns and one supervisor. Among us are many lifetimes of experience – a former federal judge, retired nurse, social worker – all focused on sitting with whoever needed a shoulder to lean on or an ear to listen. I learned from each and every one of them how to be a better pastor and a better person. We’ve been with each other through grief, struggle, frustration, joy, and relief. We had a lot of fun and every member of the team knows that a sense of humor is the number one survival skill in stressful jobs. A sense of humor and hot cookies (see below).
I am about to be a student again, and after that get on the lowest rung of the church ladder to start a new career. So pardon me if one of the things I will miss from this summer is the power trip of my badge. With this baby, I could swipe my way into three emergency rooms, gain access to the highly secure NICU, and, most important, get a 10% discount at the cafeteria – that’s 10% off every slice of pie and cake I had while on call. And 10% off hot cookies.
Nurses. Sure, I’m impressed with the doctors, clinical assistants and social workers I met this summer, but I was blown away by every single nurse with whom I worked. They all did more than attend to the health of their patients – I saw them cry with parents who lost a child, hold hands with dying patients, negotiate with families in conflict, and have conversations with premature babies. If a chaplain shows up unexpectedly in the middle of a crisis, you can bet it was a nurse who made the call. Even at the end of a 12-hour shift, these women and men can still keep their cool in an emergency and soothe a child visiting a sick parent.
I’m going to miss my patients and their families. In some units, patients are only there for a day or two, but in my units (antepartum and NICU) there are patients and families who have been in the hospital all summer long. I’ve gotten to know them and see them thru that strange mix of anxiety and hope that is part of high-risk pregnancies and birth. I “met” some babies before they were born. After I leave, they will still be working hard at what babies do – learning to eat, getting bigger and stronger. I won’t know how they are doing or when they go home, but I won’t be able to stop imagining it…All of them have blessed me tremendously.
Honestly, I have never worked in a place with so many polite and friendly people. Every single one of them will offer you directions if you look the slightest bit lost. Nurse, administrator, janitor – doesn’t matter. You cannot go down a hallway without smile after smile after “how are you today?” And if you choose to answer, they will stop and listen. It is contagious and I hope I stay infected.
Y’all, I may never be able to work anywhere ever again that does not have hot cookies at least once a week. Huge-as-your-face hot cookies. And co-workers who page you so that you don’t miss out on the yumminess.
I love the theological discussions that happen in seminary – in class and on the fly – but the discussions in CPE have been different. We weren’t talking about theological concepts in a vacuum, isolated from real life, we were living through applied theology. Where is God in the midst of suffering? How do you find hope in a trying situation? What resources help people cope with stress? Or…How can I be more “there” for other people? How do I better identify their needs? How can I stop trying to fix people and just be with them?
To my colleagues, my babies, the nurses, and the cookies: Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart.
On this, the occasion of my penultimate day of on call as a hospital chaplain, I am feeling reflective…and a little snarky about the whole experience. While this program has been mostly wonderful and transformative for me, there are some aspects of it that I will be more than happy to kiss goodbye.
The Sleep Room. One of the perks of staying overnight at the hospital is having a sleep room to, uh, sleep in. So, that’s good. It has a nice 8th floor view and a microwave. Yea! But I will not miss the bed at all. It looks harmless, those crisp white cotton sheets look comfy but they cover a block of granite. At least that is what it feels like at midnight. (I did bring my own pillow.) Sure, there are lots of other people who have overnight on call here, but they actually get paid. Which is what I’ll require in order to ever sleep on this bed again.
I will also not miss the sink in the sleep room. When you stand close enough to use it, the dispenser to the left automatically spits out a few inches of rough brown paper towel whether you need it or not. (I preferred using the rough cotton towels. Good for exfoliation.) I did appreciate the warning sign on the blow dryer – NOT FOR USE ON SKIN. Phew. I was just about to dry my hands with that thing.
My Pager. I don’t think I need to say too much about this one. Does anyone like them?
Sharing a Computer with 5 People… We all needed it throughout the day to track our work or look up patient info. Sharing can either build or destroy community – thankfully my peers did the former. More on that in the next post.
…and tracking every minute of my day. I used to work mostly from home whenever I wanted. As long as the work got done, I was fine. All summer long I’ve been tracking my time down to the minute on two different databases. Not only where I was and what I was doing, but what kind of spiritual/emotional/psychosocial assessments I was making. One helpful tip I can pass on: spirituality doesn’t translate well to databases.
Beets. This seems like an odd one, but all summer the cafeteria has been pushing beets AND I AM SO OVER IT!!! I don’t like them and I don’t need anyone making cutesy displays and hawking free samples. No, no, no.
And finally, Military Time. If I never have to calculate what time it is on a 24-hour clock again…it’ll be too soon.
I’ve been reading some great books this summer and watching some great videos – all part of my chaplaincy training. (None of them are pictured above, but look at those titles!) The material and the discussions are changing the way I experience my encounters with just about everyone, not just patients, and also helping me develop skills to better listen and respond to people’s needs – spoken and unspoken. Check it out:
Wit – We watched the HBO movie adaptation of the play, featuring the incomparable Emma Thompson and the amazing Audra McDonald. This movie was a crash course in empathy in a medical setting. Heartbreaking.
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s project is to have us rethink the way we use language, thinking, and judgments. The four components of nonviolent communication are observations of what is actually happening, identifying the feelings present in the situation (and what real feelings are), articulating the needs connected to those feelings, and the actions we can take to address the real needs people have. It sounds simple, but it isn’t! Most of us have learned a totally different way to handle communication and conflict, and this book presents a totally new approach.
Extraordinary Leadership, by Roberta Gilbert. This book takes family systems theory and applies it contexts particular to clergy – but really the principles can apply to any organization. It is nearly impossible for me to boil the theory down here, but we’ve learned a lot about the anxiety that is present in all human interactions, the roles we all learn to play in our families of origin – and how those roles are recreated in other relationships (social, professional, etc.), and how leaders can help the organizations they serve navigate the chaos and emotional intensities that inevitably arise when people live, work, and worship together.
Brené Brown. No particular book, just her entire project! I am a big fan of Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability – and wholehearted living. But I always thought about it in terms of my own life – my particular sources of shame and vulnerability, the risks I am willing to take. Now, I am learning to think about these concepts as I meet, listen to, and minister to strangers.
And then there are the amazingly wise chaplains who have taught us from their own experience. Today, our whole group of chaplain interns gathered at the feet of a woman who opened the discussion with a quote from Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
It is true. At a hospital, almost everyone feels broken in one way or another; most people feel extraordinarily vulnerable and imperfect, hopeless and isolated. But there is light in their troubles, in their wounds, in their mortality. There is light in their relationships and anxieties, in the words and silences we share. Once in a while, sitting with people I’ve only just met, there is a glimpse of these rays of light shining thru the cracks. What seemed like utter brokenness becomes an occasion of grace and blessing. It is those moments that illuminate all the others, the occasions into which light yet to find its way.
Books and discussions help me identify the miracles that can happen when I truly listen, when I am utterly present with another person. But nothing replaces the experience of begin with another when the light gets thru the cracks in their life, when they experience hope in their desolation, when they know love while they are feeling most isolated. If I experienced nothing else this summer, this has been more than enough.
Another overnight on-call is coming up. Now that I am more than halfway thru my CPE internship, I am starting to wonder about myself the same things I wonder about patients:
- what is giving your life meaning now?
- gosh, you’re going thru a lot, what coping strategies do you have?
- do you ever consider a good metaphor for what you are going thru?
Okay, I don’t really ever wonder that last one about patients. But for myself…I’ve been wondering what my three-legged stool is for surviving this summer. You know, the three-legged (because that is how many it takes to hold something up) stool used to talk about investing, leadership, or even Anglican theology? A timeless metaphor.
What are the three essential things keeping Mary from falling over?
Those might sound a little snarky to you. How about something more serious:
But really, what it boils down to is this:
One of the blessings of being immersed in a completely new role (hospital chaplaincy) and unfamiliar situations (other people’s grief and loss) is that it allows me to see my own life in a new way. The frame of reference I used to have raising funds to address systemic issues is now replaced with work on a more personal level. When you stand with people in their times of crisis, you can see connections between their pain and your fears, between their comfort in memories and your unfolding story, between their response to extraordinary heartache and your everyday life.
My colleague Mike recently used a moving image to describe a moment when family members were gathered around a dying loved one. They said their goodbyes by “covering him in a warm blanket of words.” I imagined their words holding precious memories of the past, and also being part of the narrative of their family going forward, keeping the lost one wrapped together with them. Words allowed them to express themselves individually and also to articulate the bond that held them together.
This image has stuck with me for days. It speaks to more than just one family’s pain or even of grief. Words connect us to one another, they carry memories and bear emotion. While touches and looks have immediacy, words can connect people through time and across distances. They can bind entire cultures…or individual families. And so, the image of this family’s warm blanket of words connects their particular experience to any of us when we use words or allow them to land on our shoulders.
As a writer, the idea of words being a warm blanket is inspiring and a little scary. I want my words to comfort…or carry the emotion I intend. But once words leave your mouth or pen or keyboard, you can’t really control how others take them in. I hope when I tuck my daughter in at night my words are a warm blanket for her. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that no matter how warm my words seem to me, they probably grate on the ears of my teenage son. I know the stories I tell my children about their deceased grandparents keep those forebears enfolded in our family. If that is how my words can touch people I know – how might my words (or yours) be felt by others? People you don’t ever see or know? Words can have a life of their own.
Even on a summer night, it is nice to imagine thoughts, memories, and emotions enveloping you. Wrapping you in relationship. Holding you in community. Like a warm blanket.
I’ve observed the 4th of July in a lot of places – different states, even different countries – but I’ve never spent the holiday at the hospital. It is quiet here; a skeleton staff is holding things together while most of their colleagues are off for the day (and night). Even the coffee shop is closed.
I’ve got my keys (access to 4 hospitals) and my badge (so I can swipe my way into the Emergency Rooms). The hallways are unusually quiet, but in each room there is a pulse. It might be the pulse of a heartbeat, or a pulse of hope…perhaps both. But it is there.
Most years, I celebrate Independence Day with fireworks – a boisterous community observance. But today it seems more appropriate to send out a hug to those who are waiting and watching and wanting something more personal to celebrate.
I’ve heard about the difference between joy and happiness, but this summer, I am learning it personally.
Happiness comes from outside yourself – good fortune, wealth, life running smoothly. But this summer I am with people who are in the midst of crises and lives that have hit rough spots. None of them are happy about it, but some of them do have joy. It can be almost tangible, the sense they exude of peace and contentment, even when they are suffering.
Joy comes from within, it is part of a person’s essence. Both theologians and psychologists describe this capacity that people have (or don’t) to rise above tough times, to be resilient, to find meaning in their circumstances.
I cannot give anyone joy – although perhaps I can give them happiness from time to time – but I hope I can help them honor, discover, or recover the joy within them. I know that they do it for me. Sometimes watching joy sustain a person in pain touches a place of joy in me and reminds me to nurture this inner resource.
The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.
In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.
In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.
As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.
Sometimes you hope for a quiet Sunday and…nope. I suppose that is to be expected. At the hospital, things are changing for people all the time. When I arrived this morning, there were messages of impending demise and patient angst. The operative words have been comfort care and “we just want what’s best for her/him.” Even when those are the sentiments, it can be hard to know exactly what is comforting and what is best.
This summer, I am learning to sit with people through the anxiety, the unknowing, and the pain. Compassion literally means to suffer with – and that is what I am doing much of the time, sitting with patients and their families as they consider hard choices and try to make meaning from what is happening to them and around them. (It is, in fact what the families are doing together for each other – being compassionate.) What we learn in chaplaincy is that we can’t make people’s problems go away, but we can be with them. And sometimes presence is not only enough, it is best.
It is hard when things don’t go as planned. When a father takes a turn for the worse, when a sibling takes her own health for granted, when a neighbor has a terrible accident. You can see it in the eyes sometimes, this feeling that life is changing course but no one has been given the new map yet.
For me, it is a job. I get to go home at the end of the day. (Or in this case, tomorrow morning). But these patients and families are teaching me patience. They are teaching me how to wait and and be present. (Didn’t I recently say I was impatient with my patients? Shame on me!) It is inspiring to see people stop their busy-ness and just BE with each other – a light in the darkness, as it were. They are anxious, they crave information, they want to know what to do. But what they do is wait with their loved one. Being there for one another in the waiting is the one thing no one else can give them.