18 July 2010

My On-Call Week Reflection Paper

What have I learned and seen during my week of being in the hospital for seven days in a row?

I've learned you don’t have to be a cantor to leaf through a hymnal and sing to a woman who’s used music to keep her going through twenty-some years of cancer treatment. I've learned you don’t have to be a fiery prayer giver to mean a lot to an elderly Baptist woman (a psalter and, more importantly, a warm hand will do). I've learned you don’t have to be a Rabbi (or even Jewish) to feel inescapably moved to sing the Shema to a scared and dying man alone in a too-quiet ICU room.

I’ve seen patients, families, and caregivers disagree vehemently about end-of-life care, sometimes selfishly and sometimes -lessly. I’ve seen paranoid and uncooperative patients who want to triangulate the hell out of you still needing and able to accept (in their own way) the care you offer. I’ve seen communities of faith and communities of a city block be the kind of lifeline that St. Paul and the Deuteronomist dreamed they could be. I’ve seen a patient who hadn’t spoken for a week (and who I assumed would never speak again) tell me how he likes to look out his window at the river. I’ve seen what a gift high-strength pain relievers are for people who live their lives in constant, excruciating pain.

A lot of these things I’d learned and seen before. Some I hope I’ll never encounter again. But I think the value of experiencing it all in so short a time was to see the enormity of what even a very inexperienced chaplain can do to help in just one week, albeit an unusually long one. For me, the great paradox of this job is that we can do so little and yet we accomplish so much. It seems algebraicly impossible. It’s the kind of heavenly math that—despite all the psychologizing and pastoral toolkits and mnemonic devices and hospital procedures and scholarly articles—reminds you that the Holy Spirit is very much at work here, somewhere.

17 July 2010

I Write (/Think) Like...

I recently plugged a couple graphs of my review of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (excluding quotations, of course) into the Web site I Write Like. The humorous and perhaps unsurprising result was that I apparently write like David Foster Wallace: http://iwl.me/s/d7939cdb

Granted, I've always written in a childishly DFW-esque way; that's part of why an old writing teacher of mine recommended him to me. But I also find that an author's style will sorta bleed over into my own style--and, more disturbingly, into my internal monologue--when I finish reading a book.

Is this a common experience? I'm wondering if this shows up in book reviews often. The only time I've noticed it, actually, is in other reviews of books by David Foster Wallace. I also wonder what will happen when I finish my current book, Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, which changes point of view (and therefore voice) every chapter. I'm preparing for a narratively schizophrenic couple of days in my head.

Thanks, Matt, for passing this tool along!

09 July 2010

Hundred-Word Highlights

Our official mid-unit evaluation day at CPE took place on Tuesday, which means my time in New York is more than halfway done. One of my late-emerging CPE learning goals is to be more concise when speaking and writing, so let me offer a few hundred-or-so-word highlights of my time here. Here's some of why I love CPE and New York in general.

The Radios

I do not lead with this item lightly. My off-hours life in the Upper West Side and West Harlem is blessed by the presence of countless people engaged in one of the few cheap recreational activities New York offers: sitting outside listening to boomboxes. Maybe I just miss my parents' backyard, where this activity comprises a fair chunk of my family's time together. Or maybe there's no better soundtrack to summer than Michael and Marvin (in Harlem) and endless salsa (on Columbus south of Morningside). Plus—in a New York moment I can't believe I've now experienced—one night I heard someone very appropriately rocking LL Cool J about a block from my house. I don't think I could live without it either, LL.

The Markets

Not that I missed grocery shopping all that much, but among my pining for Madison apartment life during a year in a suburban dorm room was the occasional desire to be back at Regent Market Co-op, picking up groceries on the walk home from St. Andrew's. Well let me tell you, RMC (unsurprisingly) can't hold a candle to the likes of New York markets like Fairway (“Like No Other Market,” indeed almost otherworldly) and the more modest Westside Market (still frickin' beautiful). New York markets have so much delicious food crammed into so little square-footage that I'm surprised none have collapsed into some sort of gastronomic black hole.

The Multi-faith Chaplaincy

My short list of complaints with Virginia Theological Seminary includes what one of my classmates calls “the orthodoxy wars.” Think of it as an omnipresent, just-below-the-surface tension that descends on practically any conversation of theological import. This is in many ways a good thing. It's the result of bringing together opinionated and highly intelligent Episcopalians and other Anglicans from across the theological and political spectra to teach and learn at a deliberately centrist institution. It can be fun and a tremendous learning experience. But it's also exhausting. I'm so grateful for this summer in the hospital, for the opportunity to recharge my spiritual batteries via an experience founded on the goodwill that results from people of different faiths coming together to do work that is, let's be honest, far more important than systematic theology.

The LGBT Pride

Check out Kristin's post and pictures for much better coverage. I would add that it was incredibly moving to hear the passion in the various parade-side emcees' voices as they gratefully announced the approach of the Diocese of New York's marchers (and float!). It's quite something to walk through the Village in the Pride parade and be thanked for being part of a church that (at least in some places) was welcoming LGBT folks back when practically no churches were. I also picked up a little New York gem: People say “Happy Pride” the same way they would greet each other on holidays (as in—to choose a not-at-all random example—“Happy Thanksgiving”). The whole thing was a tremendous experience that I felt really privileged to be a part of (including, unexpectedly, as a substitute acolyte at the St. Luke's Festive Choral Evensong that night).

The Prominent Judaism

As I've alluded to previously, only a couple of books have changed my life of faith more profoundly than Harvey Cox's Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year. Well, I've now shared a fair bit of common prayer with both the many Jewish patients I serve in the hospital and with my fellow CPE chaplain interns, three of the four of whom are Jewish. In fact, at 8:11 this evening, Kristin and I will help light Shabbat candles with the latter up near Jewish Theological Seminary. I can't overstate what a joy it has been to be a part of so many lunches of comparative-theological exploration, so much shared ministry (a touchy word in this context, but my colleagues have encouraged me to go with it), and so much mutual affection. (I'm also totally excited to live and work within the truly massive Manhattan Eruv. I can't really explain my strange fascination with this theologically rich enclosure.)

The Soccer

My past three weekends have revolved around multiple viewings of a sport I spent a lot of my life hating, and I couldn't be happier. Yes, perhaps the greatest highlight of all has been watching soccer in a wide assortment of Manhattan drinking establishments with a rabid Germany fan I happen to be quite fond of. While die Mannschaft can sadly do no better than third place and the Americans squandered a golden opportunity in a lopsided bracket, I'll count this year's Cup as a success because I'm now hooked on an exciting, beautiful, even sexy sport I've spent too long ignoring.