The Iris Plans service invited my parents and me to be a featured story on their website. My mom, who passed away earlier this week, would say that the service played a small, but meaningful role in helping her transition go exactly as she would have wanted. To read more about her life – one spent in healthcare, as a Registered Nurse, herself – read more: https://guengerich.wordpress.com/doneta-june-guengerich/
And, I may return to blog in the future.
But for now, I’m going on hiatus.
Occasionally you may see a post that highlights a particular project or initiative I’m taken with at the moment. Somewhat in the spirit of what twitter calls a “pinned” tweet.
But, for the most part, I’ve decided to limit the majority of my online writing to LinkedIn.
Thank you WordPress for hosting my blog for free all of these years. I will be forever grateful!
It used to be, when I chose and checked out a book, that I felt an obligation to read the whole thing. Probably a common trait among many boomers, whose parents were children of the great depression and, thus, felt compelled to finish anything given to them, whether a serving of luke-warm peas or a library book.
But, as an adult, I began to exercise discretion and began making quicker judgments about likes and dislikes in my book selections. Now, I’ll quit a book 10 pages in, 100 pages in…occasionally, when I simply grow tired of the subject, 3 or 4 days after the initial infatuation that moved me to check it out.
Perhaps this is why, when I find a book and author that I really enjoy, I latch onto their words that much more ravenously. This is the case, this year, with the writer Annie Dillard. Her book – For The Time Being – was a joy to read. Here are four excerpts, vividly described, which I hope will give you a glimpse of what the book offers. Enjoy!
You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
Kazantzakis says that when he was young he had a canary and a globe. When he freed the canary, it would perch on the globe and sing. All his life, wandering the earth, he felt as though he had a canary on top of his head, singing.
Certain Indians used to carve long grooves along the wooden shafts of the arrows. They called the grooves “lightning marks,” because they resembled the curved fissure lightning slices down the trunks of trees.
The function of lightning marks is this: If the arrow fails to kill the game, blood from a deep wound will channel along the lightning mark, streak down the arrow shaft, and spatter to the ground, laying a trail dripped on broad leaves, on stones, that the barefoot and trembling archer can follow into whatever deep or rare wilderness it leads.
I am the arrow shaft, carved along my length by unexpected lights and gashes from the very sky, and this book is the straying trail of blood.
But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.
It is that simple. What you see is what you get.
Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about 30 percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me.
Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it really is.”
I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air this weekend. It is a great book; one worth owning, so you can refer back to it at moments of need.
I dog-eared several pages of my library copy, which I’ll share below. But, first, I want to mention to other books that are favorites by doctors.
First is The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks.
He writes about their conditions with a combination of curiosity, wonder, and compassion. Ever the detective, he describes how each situation presented its unique challenge for diagnosing and often, though not always, treating.
Next is How We Die, by Sherwin Nuland. Using a series of stories as the set up for each chapter, Dr. Nuland describes the variety of ways that people die, from old age, to infectious disease, to massive trauma, by way of accident or intent (e.g., homicide and suicide), and other causes of death.
In each case, he transitions from a vivid, personal accounting of death from the perspective of the patient, to a scientific, clinical description of the chemical, biological, and physical forces that combine to bring about the end of life, from whatever triggering event(s) occurred.
But, far from cold-hearted, the book is an honest, comforting accounting of a subject that is too often avoided, even though it is a universality that every human being shares — from the richest to the poorest of us.
So, I recommend these three books to you, providing a trilogy of insight on humanity and death.
In closing, some of my favorite passages from When Breath Becomes Air.
[For brain surgery patients], “the question is not simply whether to live or die, but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability – or your mother’s – to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? …What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
= = =
“In that first year (of medical residency), I would glimpse my share of death…At moments, the weight of it all became palpable. It was in the air, the stress and misery. Normally, you breathed it in, without noticing it. But some days, like a humid, muggy day, it had a suffocating weight of its own. Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital: trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down.”
= = =
“Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity towards death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you….Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
= = =
That message is simple.
When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”
Not long ago, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me.
If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. Chances are, you won’t truly understand it. But, hopefully, it will leave a mark on your memory, that causes you to remember singular images and phrases, as I did.
I won’t say much about it, other than to say the narrative device is that of a father’s extended letter to his son.
What I will mention is the depiction of the Dream that Coates writes about, as a central construct of the book. There are people (the “Dreamers”) who live their lives in total unquestioned, unthinking immersion in the Dream.
Shortly after I read the book, I had a dream inspired by the book. I dreamed that I awoke one morning to find that every black person was white and every white person was black.
As a newly transformed black man, living in Austin, you can imagine the scene I encountered going to work that day. Overnight, downtown Austin was transformed into a city that much more resembled downtown Atlanta or Memphis.
More remarkable was how I was treated, in my dream. All of a sudden, I felt an attitude that was colder, less helpful, more suspicious towards me. People took a slightly wider berth walking by me on the street.
Servers seemed a little slower to ask me for my order or if I needed help at the store. Was I just imagining it, or was this overnight change in how I felt real?
And then, I began to think about who I was…nothing about me had changed — I was the same person in every way — except that my skin was now black. My skin pigment was darker >> that was it!
Yet, as my dream leaped ahead (as REM-sleep dreams are wont to do), I began to experience discrimination, from the petty (name calling) to the significant, like being denied job interviews, passed over for leadership roles, getting fewer financial and VIP privileges than my white peers.
And, as I looked ahead – and backwards – I saw the accumulation of this discrimination across generations of my family. From the non-violent injustice of exclusion from schools, communities, and social groups, to the violence of confrontation, struggle, and crime.
Often, the violence was wrought by the desperate and those lost of hope of the same color skin as their closest neighbors, because they were nearest and easiest to rob.
And, the whole picture seemed so ridiculous to me. It seemed such a preposterous thing — that the color of one’s skin was the thing that triggered this generations-long, no, this millennia-long dividing of the powerful and the powerless.
It made no sense; there was no justification. Logic yes, in a perverse way, as a contest to get and keep power. But justice — as represented by life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the promise that all people are created equal — no.
And, in my dream, I finally began to develop a new awareness of the profound, unholy, and completely immoral unfairness of it all. This new, internal knowledge of what others deemed my “place” in life, and that of my family’s, was totally, comprehensively unacceptable.
I awoke and shared my dream with Rebecca. And, I thought about the Dream. And, I thought about members of my family who live in the Dream — both the black and white members of my family.
They are Larry, Lindsey, Shani, Logan, Harper, Ryan, Lori, Maya, and more!
They are smart, talented, strong, beautiful, funny, hard-working, loyal, trustworthy, silly and fun!
I love them and am thankful to be in the same family together.
I know that no amount of dreaming on my part, nor clearing away the real life miasma of the Dream that Coates writes of, can ever help me fully comprehend a life of fundamental unfairness.
Of being born the wrong color…or the wrong caste, tribe, gender, nationality — or any other irrational, inequitable “wrong” that absolutely lacks any connection to the true, the holy, the righteous.
So, I’ll leave you with this one question. Ask yourself: “Who is my family?”