In Praise of Curiosity

@astatum

"Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." ~ Mary Oliver

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It Might Have Been Otherwise

Lately, I have been frustrated by the apparent "fact" that, save for very few details, most of my life has very little "margin". I wake up, I exercise (if I haven't overslept), I walk and feed the dog, I shower and dress, and then I take the bus to work. My commute, though the trip is only about thirty miles, is almost an hour and a half due to traffic and the overall inadequacy / inefficiency of the public transit in my area. Once I arrive at work (doing a job I love, by the way), my days are often filled with meetings, groups, and the needs of others. When the work day is over, I hop on the bus for the long commute. The return trip is sometimes two hours if traffic is especially bad. And then I'm home with the family. Dinner must be made, the kids must be bathed, the clutter must be cleared. By the time I'm done with all this, it's 9:30 or 10:30 or 11:00 and I'm exhausted.

I shared these frustrations with my wife last night saying, "I just wish I had more margin in my days. More space for calm and quiet and reflection." Her response, which I am trying to take to heart, was, "Maybe we just have to cultivate little pockets of silence and stillnell throughout the day. Of course, ever the pessimist, I scoffed and thought, "In what world is that possible?"

And, as is almost always the case, my catastrophizing and frustration subsided and I felt "normal" again. I get it, this is the job. This is parenthood. This is often what "life" looks like for a lot of people. I suppose the "pain point" for me is that for long stretches I don't have a lot of choices in terms of how I spend my time. And, let's be honest, I haven't had any real "time away" from work or the day-to-day demands of life for months. I probably need a massage. And a nap. And a vacation. And I know that eventually, these things will come. For many people, however, these moments of respite come even less frequently than they do for me. For most people in the world, life is just hard.

As I said, eventually I calmed down. I had a cup of tea. I had a nice conversation with my wife. I slept pretty well. And then I got up this morning to do it all again.

I got to work earlier than usual and had a cup of coffee and some delicious "overnight oats" with chia seeds, dark chocoloate, bananas, and almond milk. I ate slowly and sipped my coffee. And as I rested a bit before jumping into my busy day, I felt real gratitude for the life I get to live. I felt thankful for my wife, and my kids, and my dog, and my messy house. It really is amazing what a few hours of sleep and a shower can do for the human psyche.

After a nice "sit down", I joined the rest of the chaplains for our "morning report" where we discuss how the night was for the on-call chaplain and make plans for how to tackle the day's spiritual care needs. And then, the off-going on-call chaplain who had not slept all night expressed overwhelming gratitude for the work he had just stayed up all night doing and for the people seated at the table with him. And, before offering a blessing the coming day, he shared this poem.
Otherwise

by Jane Kenyon 1947 - 1995

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

It really is funny how life works out sometimes. I go through long stretches of exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed. I struggle with chronic anxiety and depression. And then, just like that, light breaks through and new perspectives become possible. Yes, yesterday was really hard. Yes, many of my days are planned out for me before they even start. And yes, though I love and cherish my family, being a dad to four small people can be really exhausting. But, as Kenyon wisely points out, it might have been otherwise. Some tragedy might have befallen me or someone I love. My health might have failed. I might have lost my job. On balance, though life is often one struggle after another, my days are filled to the brim with good things. With people, and good food, and music, and - if I am able to stop for a moment - wonder and beauty. Some days, it's hard to stop and take it all in. But I am beginning to find that creating "sacred spaces" in my day isn't just a luxury to pursue when I've got some "time away". No, making time to experience beauty, joy, wonder, and silence is an essential survival strategy. So here's to staying truly "alive". Because, one day, it will be otherwise.

Finding Life

“The Glory of God is the human person fully alive.” ~ St. Irenaeus of Lyons

What brings you to life? For me, it’s a pretty short list:
  • Spending time with my family and my dog outdoors.
  • Jazz music (mostly Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis)
  • A good cup of hot tea (usually, Earl Grey or Irish Breakfast)
  • The poetry of Mary Oliver or Billy Collins

It’s one of those questions that those of us who spend our time taking care of others can so easily neglect. But tending to the care of our souls is an essential aspect of what distinguishes humans from every other species. We need times in which we become mindful of the inner realities of life and attend to the needs that arise there. Mary Oliver is a poet who has done much to remind me of this need. In her poem, Instructions for Living a Life, she zeroes in on one of the practices that has become essential for me to remind myself of what’s important. She writes,

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

So I ask again: What makes you come to life when you’re beginning to unravel? Identify the things that bring you not only solace but which excite you and cause you to be delightfully astonished. And then share those things with others.

This week, as you care for those around you, may you take some time to take care of yourself and tend your own soul. Amen.

A Day in the Life of a Hospital Chaplain

I serve as a "Clinical Chaplain" in the context of inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse treatment units. Practically speaking, this means I spend most of my days with individuals of all ages (from very young children to very old adults) who face the daily realities of mental illness. It's a pretty challenge and unique job and, honestly, I love it. On an almost weekly basis, when I introduce myself to others and the conversation eventually tuns to what I "do for a living", my response typically elicits perplexed stares or exclamations of "Oh, God! That sounds hard!" So I thought I would offer a glimpse into what I actually do every day. Here's a day in the life of a psychiatric chaplain:

5:30 am - Wake, exercise, walk the dog, pray, read, and get ready for the day. I typically read the texts for morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer and a poem or short story before I leave the house.

6:15 am - Depart for the office. I sometimes take the bus from Raleigh and other times I drive to the hospital. Either way, my commute usually takes about an hour and I like to get to work before most of my colleagues so I can get a jump on some of the administrative aspects of the day. If I take the bus, I'll spend some time reading or listening to a podcast. Sometimes I'll meditate using the "Calm" or "Buddify" apps.

7:30 am - Arrive at the office and process emails, pages, etc. This is my way of "easing into" the day and I like that it's typically calm and quiet.

8:00 am - Morning spiritual care team "huddle" to see how the overnight on-call shift went and discuss any pertinent info about the coming day.

8:30 am - Finish processing emails and plan spirituality groups (more on that later).

9:30 am - By this time (ideally) I am usually out the door and headed onto the patient care units. Depending on the day, I will attend treatment team meetings, lead spirituality groups, or attend to one-to-one patient visitation. I try to visit a minimum of five patients each day and leave space for patient requests, meetings, groups, etc. This is the point in the day when things start to get really interesting. As I mentioned above, I serve inpatient psychiatric units, which sounds complicated - and honestly, it is. What it means in practice is that all of my patients are hospitalized for concerns related to mental illness and substance abuse. Each day I encounter people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, addiction, and a number of other diverse concerns. What is the same for nearly all of them is that each of them feels some connection to "spirituality". I come from a Christian background but not all of my patients do. Though my theology is pretty orthodox (I affirm the historic ecumenical creeds, for instance, and attend a rather traditional Baptist church), my work is not evangelistic in nature. My job is to offer spiritual care and emotional support to patients and this often means simply connecting them to resources for practicing their own, pre-existent spiritual practices. For Muslim patients, I will provide a Qur'an and a prayer rug. For Mormon patients, I provide a copy of the the Book of Mormon. For Catholic patients, I ensure their name is on the Catholic patient census so that they can be visited by a priest or recieve communion from a lay eucharistic minister. For all patients as well I provide opportunities for them to explore and grapple with the realities of mental illness and how their faith or spiritual practice intersects with that and informs their day-to-day life. During this time, I may also lead spirituality groups which provide a community setting for discussing the realities of mental illness, substance abuse, and the ways that spirituality can aid in the recovery and coping process. This is not a "devotional" group although we do often have deep conversations about faith and related topics such as prayer, worship, etc. This is really an open forum for exploring spirituality and, I find, it helps patients to understand the differences between their own beliefs and practices and those of others.

12:00 pm - By noon, I have typically visited two to three patients and led a spirituality group with between five and fifteen patients. This time also includes writing chart notes documenting each of these visits and consulting with the "care team" regarding details relevant to patients' treatment or advocating for patients' religious practices in the treatment context. At around noon, I try to take a walk around the hospital and get outdoors for about thirty minutes. I use this time get some much-needed sun and clear my head. My patients often carry with them stories of complex trauma and, honestly, hearing and attending to these experiences can be a little draining - no matter how much I might enjoy the work, it's still exhausting. Around 12:30 I'll have lunch with some colleagues or with the child treatment unit (typically on Tuesdays).

1:00 pm - This time is usually reserved for meetings, planning, catching up on charting, and consultation with colleagues.

2:00 pm - I'm only 3/4 time at this point which, despite the lower pay scale, has its benefits. Namely, I'm out of the office most days by 2:00pm. My bus departs at 2:30 so I usually read, reflect, or journal about my day to clear my head and be ready to be present when I get home. At 2:30 I catch the bus and am usually home by 3:30 to pick up the kids, head home, and start dinner.

That's what "a day in the life" of this psychiatric chaplain looks like. The work is often difficult and involves offering spiritual care, counsel, and emotional support to patients facing the challenges of mental illness, substance abuse, and trauma. It's hard but also very rewarding and, honestly, I don't think there is anywhere else I'd rather serve.

Blessings,

A.T.

On Kindness

May 3, 2018

noun - kind·ness \ ˈkīn(d)-nəs \

What is kindness? How do we know it when we see it? And why is it important?

The most obvious answer is that kindness is general "niceness" and "courteousness". When someone gives their seat up on the bus to someone who obviously has difficulty standing, we recognize this as a kind act. When a person chooses to remain silent rather than correct another person and embarrass them publicly, we might say that the person is being kind.
But there is a deeper meaning to this rather common phrase.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written a beautiful poem which might be considered an essential primer on kindness:

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

To truly know kindness, we must first know desolation, loss, fear, and - most essential - abandonment. Kindness, far from being mere niceness or social courtesy, is the state of noticing - seeing - another human soul and reaching out beyond the self and into their lives. Kindness is the messy act of fearlessly entering the story of another and putting our own lives at risk for the sake of their future flourishing. Kindness is a quality we can only embody after being alive in the world having been unexpectedly rescued from the depths of despair. And, given the sheer breadth of our own despair and malaise in this cut-throat and competitive world, kindness, it would seem, is our best and only way forward.

So let us be kind to one another this day and every day thereafter.