Full Moon Baptism

If Austin were a religion, swimming in Barton Springs Pool would be its baptism – and there is nothing that will make you feel more fully Austin-ized that taking that leap during the full moon. If you happen to do it after the setting sun has raised temps into triple digits, all the better.

Tonight, my daughter and I made the trek to the spiritual center of Austin, passing games of ultimate frisbee and zorb ball soccer (if you haven’t seen that…google it, but make sure you are sitting down). We were there for the cool, clear water that bubbles up through the limestone. We were there to hang out with hundreds of people of all ages and bathing suit styles (or not). We were there to howl.

Shortly after sunset, when the full moon rises, everyone at the pool begins to howl like wolves. Simultaneously stunning and hilarious, it is deeply weird, which is why it is so perfectly emblematic of my city. If you are lucky, a couple of our famous bats will fly overhead. After about an hour of swimming and howling, Austin has been tattooed on your soul. You’re in for good. And unlike other forms of baptism, this one can been repeated as often as you like.

What I am learning

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.

Call the Chaplain!

One of the things I am learning is that you can never tell who wants to talk to a chaplain. Or why. When I started CPE, I assumed that most people who wanted to talk to me would have religious reasons (even if they were subtle). And although I was prepared and happy to talk to people with different faiths or no faith at all, I assumed they probably would not want to talk to me.

This is emphatically not the case! The reasons people want to talk to me are varied and I’d say that at least half the conversations I have are not only not about faith, they are with people who have no religious preference or no faith at all. What they do have is a need to talk and for someone to listen. When you are in the hospital, you will almost always be inundated with information and procedures that are stressful and worrying. Plenty of people will talk to you about the facts – but who will let you talk about what it all means? What if your best friends and closest family are also worried and don’t know how to help you process what is going on?

What I’ve done more than anything all summer long is listen. Almost no one asks me to come pray with them; if we pray it is an extension of the listening. I’ve heard the biography of an illness from beginning to end, as well as the names and stories of each and every child/grandchild. People have told me about their marriages, professions, food preferences, legal problems, and the absolute boredom of being stuck in bed. I’ve been included in discussions of everything from the sacred (helping families plan funerals) to the mundane (the history of the California gold rush). All of it is holy ground.

So now, I am no longer surprised at what people will bring to me. And you shouldn’t be either. You can tell me anything!

Fashion Explosion

Y’all!!! There has been a fashion explosion at Maryology! This is exciting to the extent that you take “fashion” with a grain of salt.

As an antidote to my work this summer, I decided I needed to get a little crafty – use a totally different side of my brain. So I made a skirt using a pattern I found here. It is a very easy pattern, which is why it took me almost two years to make the skirt. (That’s how long ago I announced to friends I was definitely making it.) And now I have a skirt that I can wear with boots – which means I have almost everything it takes to front an Austin band.

Next, I needed a new computer bag. One with wheels because I carry almost everything I own with me – and my old bag was breaking my back and shoulders.

A red leather computer bag. I need to fly somewhere just so I can stroll this baby through an airport. Maybe I can hang out in front of a conference room and pretend to be at a meeting of people with important-looking computer bags.

3-Legged Stool of Survival

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:


Mountains in my mind

At about this point every summer of my life, I start dreaming of getting away from the hot Texas sun and my hectic job for a place that is cooler and calmer. And for almost every summer of my life, that place has been the North Carolina mountains. As a child, moving from city to city following my father’s medical education and career, the family ties in the Blue Ridge helped me feel connected to people and a place. When I am there, I sense the spiritual power of community, rest, and the renewable baptism of jumping in an ice cold lake.

Hike around Kanuga Lake

My mother came to visit me in Texas earlier this summer, and during her stay she asked some of us where we’d want to travel if we could go anywhere in the world. I searched my mind, but North Carolina was the only place I wanted to be. It is so full of good memories and has played such a huge role in making me who I am. It is family, tradition, creativity, love, connection, and blessing. It is one place that will always be home to me.

This summer, I am not able to make that annual pilgrimage. I’ll be working until the last week before school starts and won’t get the chance to dash off for a peek of those beautiful peaks or a walk through a tunnel of trees or a late night on a back porch full of friends.

For now, those mountains will have to be in my dreams. And they are.

Warm Words

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.

Lil Sis

Happy birthday to my little sister – who is definitely more relaxed than I am about most things. Probably wiser. But not taller. I don’t care what you say.

A different sort of holiday

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.