The Alabaster Woman

When life gets busy, the first thing I let go of is writing. It seems silly, since I know just how much writing means to me, just how much it fuels me and pulls me out of my head and into experience the here and now. The next thing I let go if my spiritual life. I still go to mass and pray before each meal and at bedtime, but I close off the part of me that always longs for more, that always longs to take the next step and really explore God.

But late at night, when I am finally in true silence, I feel a pull to write, and I feel a pull to listen. I think this might be one major way God communicates with me. And far too often, i pretend I am too physically or mentally exhausted to listen.

This week, now that my life is “in order” from a perfectionistic point of view (I finished my huge medical school exam, I got married and had an amazing honeymoon, and I moved apartments and got all organized), I find myself  feeling that pull again. In the silence, in the moments that are not packed full of academic efforts or social interactions,  I feel it.

So this morning I went to mass with a mission in mind. I wanted to get back on the same page with God again, ask for forgiveness for not going the extra mile (or extra five minutes a day) again, thank God for all these incredible gifts in my life that I often forget to appreciate again. It really does get old sometimes, for me, asking God to do what He (and/or She) has done for me so many times before. It really feels exhausting and embarrassing to have to go back to start over and over and over again. I think to myself, “Why do I always take two steps forward and one step back in my faith?” “Why can’t I be consistent,” and “Surely God has given me enough chances!”

Then I listen to the readings.

In the first reading, the prophet Nathan reminds the ever-sinful King David of all God has done for him:

Nathan said to David:
“Thus says the LORD God of Israel:
‘I anointed you king of Israel.
I rescued you from the hand of Saul.
I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own.
I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah.
And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more.
Why have you rejected the LORD and done evil in his sight?
You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword;
you took his wife as your own,
and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites.
Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house,
because you have looked down on me
and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’”

David has really been a jerk to God, again and again, despite the endless blessings God continues to give David in his life on earth (sounds familiar).

 Then David said to Nathan,
“I have sinned against the LORD.”
Nathan answered David:
“The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin:
you shall not die.”

And just like that, after David only utters one single sentence, God has already forgiven him.

A Psalm follows.The response is:

“Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.”

And then one of my favorite Gospel readings:

A Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,
and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city
who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee.
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,
she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself,
“If this man were a prophet,
he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him,
that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;
one owed five hundred day’s wages and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both.
Which of them will love him more?”
Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”
He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
“Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The others at table said to themselves,
“Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But he said to the woman,
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

This account from the book of Luke is about a woman who is dripping with sin, but Jesus forgives her instantly. This lady comes to Jesus, refusing to be too ashamed of her social status or her recurrent sinning or her poverty or her tears to ask for forgiveness.

And I realize, that in those moments when I hear God’s voice and decide not the answer, I don’t do it because I’m too tired. I do it because I’m ashamed and embarrassed and too annoyed with my inconsistencies. I refuse to listen because I feel guilty.

But, really, perhaps God would rather me weep at his feet and ask for forgiveness for the one hundredth time than pass him by.

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Fluff-Fluff: A reminder to be grateful

My most recent at St. Jude was not what I expected. I thought it would be completely routine and that my follow-up kidney function tests would be normal. Neither of those things were the case.

For starters, I was given big news from my oncologist. Because I have gone five years past the end of chemo with no relapses, I have been referred to another doctor at St. Jude- one who specializes in the care of long term survivors. For a cancer survivor, 5 years with no recurrence is incredibly promising, so this was great news. But it was so bittersweet. My doctor and I will still be in touch (he will be a big part of my wedding), but not having appointments with him will be a difficult transition. I am so lucky to have him in my life, and I am so lucky that I don’t need him to treat my cancer anymore.

Then the kidney news came back. Without being too scientific and medical (which is harder and harder to avoid these days), my GFR (glomerular filtration rate), which determines the rate at which the kidneys filter and clean the blood, is nearly half of what it was when I finished chemo in 2011. We don’t know the exact reasons for this, but the chemo made my kidneys more susceptible to injury, and combination of the antibiotics I took for a year after that and my chronic use of NSAIDs for the occasional headache likely contributed to the damage. It ls likely my kidneys are stable and won’t continue to change (we hope this is the case), but I will be seeing a nephrologist at Mayo (one of my teachers) regularly just to keep an eye on things.

As I so often do as a patient, I fell into the trap of feeling sorry for myself after getting this news. It is true that I am afraid- what if my kidneys keep declining- will I one day need a kidney transplant? It is possible. The biggest disappointment, though, was realizing that even though my cancer is really actually gone forever, I will continue to suffer the long term consequences of the drugs that cured me. I am infertile and have chronic constipation, and thought that was it. I thought i was in the clear. But now with the newly onset kidney issues, I realize that there very well may be problems that pop up in the  future in regards to my health and the drugs I received in the past.

No, it’s not fair.

But then remembered that nothing is. Or ever was. Or ever will be. It’s not fair that I got cancer, but it’s also not fair that I survived mine. And it’s not fair that mine was in my leg, when many children have cancer in much more devastating places.

While at St. Jude this trip, I saw a little girl in the hallway, walking along with some incoordination and carrying a giant panda bear stuffed animal that was about her size. The panda had a blanket wrapped around it and gauze wrapped around its arm, as if it too had given blood that day. I cannot see a child without wanting to speak to him or her- that is my curse (or my gift). I stopped walking and said, “Does your panda have a blankey? I have a blanket too!” (this is not a lie).

The little girl stared at me blankly through her thick glasses, assessing me. I assumed she was not in the mood to make friends and began to walk away. Then I heard her talk:

“His name is Fluff-Fluff,” she said. I turned around and she had followed me down the hall. I spent the next fifteen minutes talking to this 5-year-old, whom I learned was named Emalinn. Her mother told us that she had a recurrent optic glioma (a brain tumor interfering with her optic nerve and causing her to have vision loss). She was receiving radiation, but she had already received chemo before. I told them I was in medical school to be a doctor, and Emalinn said she wanted to be a zookeeper and save baby animals. She melted our hearts. As we say our goodbyes, Emalinn whispered in her mother’s ear. Her mom said she had requested a “play-date” with me.

I feel so lucky, so blessed, and so grateful to have met Emalinn. She reminded me just how minor my cancer-related deficits are. And she reminded me that joy is ours for the taking no matter how hard life gets.

I have decided not to live in fear of kidney failure, just as I do not live in fear of relapse. We are only given today, no matter who we are.

What Inspires Me (letting go of control in favor of the abstract)

It is interesting to me that the things I find most beautiful and most inspiring in life are the things that are the most abstract.

Especially because I have a type A personality, and I am always spending most of my energy trying to be a good student and a good Christian who looks good.

Lately, as I spend every free hour of my time preparing for the hardest exam of my career (the USMLE Step 1 board exam tests everything I have learned in medical school over the last 2 years), I find myself taking breaks where I search for inspiration. Here’s what I keep coming back to: pieces of abstract art with strange quotes by Brian Andreas.

Not only do I love the bizarre drawings with asymmetrical and obscure-looking people, but I love the quotes, with their simplistic yet ringing truths. It struck me this morning, as I woke to look at these again, just how much my soul longs for abstract truth rather than the rigid structure and rules I tend to live by.

Get up as early as possible every day. Go to the gym every day. Never skip a day of class. Mark as many things off the checklist as possible. Study, study, study. Go to mass on Sundays. Avoid “bad” foods. Stay below a certain weight. Always wear makeup (maybe that’s the South talking…). Don’t watch too much trashy television because it’s better to fill your time reading classics. Try to blog on a schedule (thanks Aunt Maggie, for reminding me that the point of writing is NOT to stick to a schedule). Always aim for self improvement.

While I know that these rules have gotten me where I am today in my career, I am beginning to realize they are all manifestations of self criticism and a pathological need to control myself in every way possible. Though I may be very good at doing this, that doesn’t make it the right thing for me.

I think this art speaks to me for two main reasons: first, the abstract and imperfect nature of the drawings. The people are lumpy-bumpy and asymmetric, with misshapen appendages and flamboyant outfits. They are different colors and shapes and sizes and often anatomically incorrect. Sometimes they look more like animals than people. But they don’t apologize for looking unlike supermodels. They don’t even apologize for looking unlike what we deem that humans “should” look like. They are just people, and they are different but they are also filled with color and variety and striking beauty. It’s almost like they represent how we saw the world when we were children-when we were innocent and pure. Everything was strange and beautiful, and no one looked wrong. It was all the way it was supposed to be.

The second thing I am drawn to in this art is the nature of the quotes. Some of them are slightly comical and some more serious. Some are very simplistic and literal, while others are a little deeper and metaphorical. But they all convey some type of truth that is very honest and real and human yet easily forgotten in this crazy world. And it seems that me that the underlying emphasis is on our need to give up rigid rules and the need to control and to fully live and deeply love. 

The other artist I am most inspired by, for several years now, is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan Catholic Priest whom I often quote. Every time I take the time to read his meditations or books, I am taken aback by his interpretation of Christ’s words and mission.

Today, I read:

Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians are a tour de force on the pure meaning of grace and the serious limitations of morality and religion to lead you to God. “Cursed be the law,” Paul even says (Galatians 3:13). No wonder he has been called a “moral anarchist” by people who are still seeking any well-disguised path of “self-realization.” But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, “The law says, but I say!” (Matthew 5:21-45). Both Jesus and Paul knew that rules and requirements were just to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).

“If you keep the law, the law will keep you,” we students were told on the first day in the seminary. As earnest young men anxious to succeed, we replied, “Yes, Father!” We knew how to survive in any closed system. I’m afraid we spent so much time in that world that it became the whole agenda. Canon Law was quoted much more often to us than the Sermon on the Mount before the reforms of Vatican II, and now the young priests are being taught in much the same way as I was. A strong emphasis on law and order makes for a sane boarding school, or an organized anything, for that matter. I really get that. It probably made it much easier for the professors to get a good night’s sleep with one hundred twenty young men next door. But it isn’t anywhere close to the Gospel. The Gospel was not made to help organizations run smoothly. The full Gospel actually creates necessary dilemmas for the soul much more than resolving the organizational problems of institutions. Fortunately, the Gospel is also a profound remedy for any need to rebel or be an iconoclast.

We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong. We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it (John 3:30). If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.

How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, “while he was yet a sinner” as he puts it (Romans 5:8). Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others.

We seem to think God will love us if we change. Paul clearly knows that God loves us so we can change. The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what loving people do for one another—offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental; it has real power. In general, you need a judicious combination of safety and necessary conflict to keep moving forward in life.

Paul has fallen in love with a God who has loved him “for nothing.” For the rest of his life, Paul is happy to give God all the credit and he stops trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This creates a very different kind of person, someone who is utterly free. Paul knows that “the gift far outweighed the fall” (Romans 5:15) and he lives inside the gift all his remaining days. He never looks back to law or religion for his self-validation, but becomes the ultimate reformer of all self-serving religion, not just Judaism and Christianity. At least Judaism has been honest about its dislike of Paul. Christians have pretended we love him while overwhelmingly ignoring his revolutionary and life changing insights.

I can’t really say this any better than Richard Rohr did. I can only say that I am now realizing the message here about our ideas and obsession with laws and rules and the truth that is found in love and acceptance is the same message that is in the artwork I have been looking at….maybe the world or God or my own heart is trying to tell me something.

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To Write or Not To Write

I was catching up with a very special friend from college this evening when she asked me something that I can’t stop thinking about. “Do you still blog?”

I was disappointed to reply to her that I do not. And then I wondered why.

My reasons? Medical school is busy. Writing takes time. And one reason that shouldn’t matter but really does: I’m not sure anyone reads my blogs (except family and a couple really sweet people who also blog, including my friend Chip’s mom, who actually is a lot like me).

While my motivation for writing has never stemmed primarily from the feedback I get from readers, my thought that blogging is no different from journaling leads me to journal rather than blog.

So, here’s an experiment: If you did or would like to read my blogs (content: spiritual, emotional, meaning-of-life-ish), then comment on this entry. If I know people are listening, then I will definitely start posting again.

If not, then I’ll stick to journaling 🙂

 

Returning to Write

It’s 11:30 PM on a Wednesday night. I am a second year medical student. I was in class from 8 AM to 5 PM and studied the rest of the day because I am beginning to prepare for my life-defining STEP 1 board exams. I have a final exam this Friday. I need to be up at 6 AM tomorrow.

I do not have time for this.

But isn’t that what I’ve been telling myself for the last five months? Isn’t that the reason the last blog entry I posted was in August of 2015? It’s not even 2015 now.

I have written this many times before, and I will do so again:  I need to write. Perhaps I don’t need to write to survive, or even to do well in medical school, or enjoy a wonderful holiday season with family and my soulmate. Perhaps I don’t even need to write (at least not in this capacity) to be successful in my career or “change the world.”

But I do need to write to be completely me.

As I push into the late hours of the night, ignoring the voice in my head that tells me to go to bed so that I can get up early enough to go to the gym before class tomorrow, I feel it again. Maybe it is just relief from writer’s block, or euphoria at the end of a long day of being productive (at least by medical student standards). But, being me, I prefer to label it as something much bigger.

I receive a daily email from Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Catholic priest whose writings never fail to inspire me. Yesterday, Fr. Rohr wrote about love and divine intimacy.  He wrote,”Fullness in a person cannot permit love because there are no openings, no handles, no give-and-take, and no deep hunger.”

We need love-from other humans and from the Divine- because we are incomplete. Or maybe we are incomplete so that we will depend on love. Either way, the message is clear: we need divine intimacy. As humans, we crave God. I believe that we all search for God and find God in different places. Call me a heretic, but I also happen to believe that many of these places are correct, even if they are not religious by common standards.

As I found myself compelled to write tonight, unable to sleep because something or someOne was tugged at my heart, I remembered the words of Father Rohr. And as I began to write, I felt myself caving in, opening up, breaking into pieces. I became vulnerable, like a flower that gets rained on or a puppy that opens its eyes for the first time. I felt my rough edges begin to be filed away. It felt like I’d found water in a desert.

When I write, I am able to reflect and remember and savor and wonder and imagine and relish in my gratitude for what is and what is to come. I am able to dream and hope and pray and beg and grieve and let go. I am able to emphasize moments in my life that are worth emphasizing and forget those worth forgetting. I am able to breathe and become the closest I’ve gotten to meditation. I feel accepted and cleansed and forgiven and embraced. I feel one again. How can this not be a form of divine intimacy?

I’m not implying that my words are sacred or even worth reading, but I do know that the process of writing them, for me, is a process that allows me to connect my intellect with my soul. And, somehow, this process always brings me back to God.

I will not make a resolution to write every day, for it should not be yet another task to check off my long to-do list. But I will allow myself to bask in the peace that writing gives me more often.

 

Skip the Tantrums

I was not born with a positive attitude. My mother informs me that I cried continuously during the first two years of my life. After that, I began throwing tantrums when the opportunity arose. My earliest memory might actually be one of these tantrums, which always included the same few steps:

  1. Life didn’t go my way.
  2. This greatly disappointed me .
  3. Disappointment turned to overwhelming emotion.
  4. I handled the situation by screaming until I vomited.

As I grew older, the things that upset me changed. Life not “going my way” became synonymous with me not reaching the lofty goals I set for myself. And #4 changed from vomit-inducing screams to fits of sobbing and, later, to pouting.

When I was three and four, this would happen whenever I couldn’t read all the words in my Ameila Bedelia books (remember those?). My mom would tell me that I was doing great and encourage me to keep reading, but I would have my fit and then begin the entire book from the beginning as a method of self-punishment. I still do not know where I got the idea to punish myself, because I was never even spanked as a child.

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When I was in kindergarten, I began learning to write words and sentences. My teacher held a parent-teacher conference with my mother to inform her that I would “fall out of my chair and cry on the floor” every time one of my backwards letters had to be corrected. I’m not sure where this idea came from…

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When I was six, I decided it was time to teach my baby sister to read. She was one. She was uncooperative. I decided to try harder. My mom had to tell me that I was not allowed to give Flynn reading lessons until she was “old enough.” I was heartbroken; all I wanted was to make her a child prodigy. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.

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After winning the school-wide spelling bee in both 4th and 5th grade, I got second place in 6th grade. I proceeded to sit on the sidelines of a kickball game and mourn for the entire afternoon of PE class. It felt like my life was falling to pieces.

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While these stories might be cute (especially with the added picture), the sad truth of the matter is, I never fully grew out of this pattern. The things that triggered my disappointment in the world and in myself evolved over time, as well as my method of self-expression and ability to keep my pouting in private. But my tendency to be overly-sensitive about life’s disappointments (and my inability to be perfect) remained.

During my year of chemo, I learned to let go of the little things and focus on the big picture. Fighting for your life will do that for you. But I shamefully admit that after over four years out of treatment and back in “the real world,” many of my habits have returned. I am often overly-emotional, I tend to catastrophize, and I strive for perfection in myself and in the world around me.

Though I currently have no real problems to worry about, what helped me see the happier side of things when I was in chemo may help me (or all of us) now: gratitude. And maybe, if I focus on what I am grateful for over time (like my amazing future husband and wonderful family and countless opportunities), it will be easier to skip the tantrums.

Hunger

This morning, the Homily at mass spoke to me.

The speaker was a bishop from out of town, visiting on his vacation. The Gospel reading was from the book of John, a story in which Jesus, once again, referred to Himself and his teachings as bread for which we hunger. It reminded me of how often we, as people, hunger for God and try to satisfy ourselves with other things.

Whether it’s money or fame or attention or academic prowess or body image or substance abuse, people try to so hard to quench the very human craving for something more–something better. And all the while, what we truly need is there beside us, free of charge, waiting for us to notice it. All the while, what we truly crave, we have already been given long, long ago.

I want to be more aware of my tendency to satisfy myself with replacements for the ultimate satisfaction. Being thin, shopping, publications, recognition–none of these are worth my efforts in the end. Isn’t strange that the thing we truly need the most in life–God–is the only thing in life that is completely free and ours for the taking?