Nursing in the Cave (no pictures)

A 12-hour hospital shift can be an infinitely fertile experience for a student of humanity.

Take the alcoholic patient who ends up in the hospital after 2 hours in rehab because her liver is failing. Her shame and fear fill the room like a cold wind, her jaundiced eyes plead for understanding as her shrunken arms and swollen belly announce the years of self-destruction that she has yet fully to acknowledge. Alone with her nurse, she swings between heartbreaking bravado and unnerving stillness. When family members come to visit she lapses into tears, or shouting, or melodramatic embraces. This is a soul in chaos, body and mind at war, paralyzed between exhausted denial and intolerable hope. No one can fix this; it’s an existential struggle in which the outcome depends not on strength or intelligence but on whether the suffering creature in the trap will find the door in time, providing that it ever becomes clear where creature ends and trap begins

Medically the patient is stable; she’ll go back to rehab today. The nurse is only waiting for confirmation that her bed is still available. The phone rings, and the plan changes; the rehab facility can’t accept the patient back into their program until she is re-assessed by their nurse as a viable candidate, and their nurse won’t be available until tomorrow to perform the assessment. The doctor postpones the discharge, and the patient is informed that she’ll have to spend another night in the hospital before beginning her program.

This change of plan is too much for her. She’s already dressed, has called her family to pick her up, can’t bear the thought of another minute where she is. She springs to her feet, weeps, curses the hospital, the rehab staff and the moment of weakness in which she reached out for help. She threatens to leave and go to a bar. Her diatribe ricochets from how the rehab facility has betrayed her to how the hospital is trying to dissuade her from recovery. Her emotional pain is so real and so immediate that her body responds as if it were physical: grimacing, rocking back and forth, punching at the air.

This is where it really helps if the nurse has read Plato and can conjure up the mental picture of men cowering from shadows on the wall of a cave. Or the Bible, where Jesus himself believed that his own Father, the Almighty, had forsaken him. Or Shakespeare, where Lear is driven mad by his own despair and self-loathing. Because this patient, on this day, in this hour, is all of these, the paradigm of a person trapped by who she is, a tragic hero.

It is to that tragic hero that the nurse reaches out her hands. It is to the infinite sorrow that accompanies our capacity for joy, the darkness which swallows some of us up despite every advantage, every natural gift, every opportunity for happiness. And when the nurse reaches out in that spirit, when she is present to and humbled and awed by the magnitude of what stands before her, the patient reaches back and the connection is made.

Then the emotional spiral decelerates and the way to peace re-opens. The nurse can hold a hand, offer a tissue, speak the words of courage and empowerment that we are trained to speak. It doesn’t always work. There are abysses of misery that are too deep for any mind to encompass. But it worked today.

On Knitting

 

When I was 30 or so, my grandmother, who taught me to knit when I was little, entered a nursing home. To celebrate her, I re-taught myself to knit and made her a shawl which she wore or kept nearby until she died and it came back to me. Here it is:

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Since then, I’ve kept knitting through good times and bad, finding essential order and elegance in each slow transformation of colored string into fabric with its own form and character. I read books about knitting, like these:

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I cruise the Internet for patterns, like this one (remember my daughter’s shawl? Here’s the pattern chart for it:

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And how it looks so far:)

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and I talk about knitting with other knitters every chance I get.

It’s the perfect hobby for a mathematically-minded introvert who gets cold easily.

I don’t think of myself as artistic at all. I can’t even draw a recognizable stick figure, some days. I am much more of an observer than a creator, “a terrific audience,” as my father would say, and that suits me fine. But something about knitting brings out the creative spark, and that’s where I get a glimpse of what being an artist might be about, as the new thing takes shape first in my mind and then in my hands.  Take the “Smitten,” the hand warmer for unabashed lovers, here both plain and modeled by myself and my spiffy new husband:

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Knitting is a slow art, at least for me. It takes time to understand how the pattern “works,” why a particular arrangement of stitches or shaping technique affects the project as it does. Knitting is all about geometry and ratios and such, and nothing beats the “Eureka!” moments when the math comes together and it all makes sense. Life doesn’t have nearly enough of those, I find, so I hold tight to them when I’m knitting.

Knitting, like any handwork, I suppose, allows the mind to be active and alert without getting sucked too far into itself. I tend to worry unnecessarily about things I can’t control, and knitting helps me avoid that spiral–unlike, say, lying in bed where my mind can race to panic with no checks or balances. With needles in hand, I can only pay so much attention to my thoughts and emotions, I have to step back and let them ebb and flow without engaging. It’s my version of Zen and other meditation practices that focus on detaching from the inner landscape and simply observing without judgment. The result is often a feeling of emotional calm and balance, with occasional deepening of awareness or insight. Knitting allows me to sidestep the shrill, accusatory voice in my head that says traditional meditation is “wasted time,” because it’s not productive. At the end of knitting there is something beautiful, useful and likely to give great pleasure to the recipient. This one is being saved for my future granddaughter(s), by their future Mommy, who wore it until she finally got too big:

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Knitting has no end. There will never be time to knit every project that catches my eye, or to learn every technique, or to track down every gorgeous yarn. There will always be better, faster, more creative knitters than I am, and always new things to learn from them. As long as I can physically hold the needles, there will be intellectual stimulation galore and the satisfaction of making something lovely out of sticks and string. At the same time, I’m connected by infinite miles of cosmic yarn to all the knitters before me, men and women who kept themselves and their families warm in winter, brightly decorated in poverty, and alive to art and beauty through the mastery of the craft.

I taught my teenaged daughter to knit and she is now accomplished enough only to need me as an occasional consultant on her projects. She, in turn, taught a dear friend from Japan to knit, and now serves as her knitting mentor, overturning language and cultural barriers to establish that connection over their shared craft. My grandmother would be very, very proud.

Slow-Cooked Black Bean/Sweet Potato Stew

I went off my normal vegan routine for a week and went to Annapolis to get married.  Oh, did I feast!  Softshell crabs, curried chicken salad, perfectly rare roast lamb, decadent deli sandwiches, crab and Provolone omelets and something called Crab Eggs Benedict, which looked like this but tasted even better.

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The final hurrah of the trip was a second visit to the Café Normandie (that served the lamb), where we split a grilled artichoke stuffed with—you guessed it—crab, and I had sea bass for the first time, served over sautéed spinach with toasted pine nuts.  Like this:

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So then I drove from Annapolis back to Ohio and it was time to get back into the groove of real food, the kind that sounds good, tastes good and best of all makes me feel  good.  Eased into it with a plate of roasted cabbage, a banana and a whole-wheat tortilla for lunch.  And while I ate it, I was smelling this, my newest experiment into comfort food:

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Slow-Cooked Black Bean and Sweet Potato Stew (feeds 8-ish, depending on starvation levels and if there are any teenagers in the house)

Soak 3 cups of dry black beans overnight (I have super-hard water so I boil them for 2 minutes before soaking overnight and add a generous pinch of baking soda to the soaking water).

In the morning, drain beans and pop them into the slow cooker.  Add two large sweet potatoes, chopped into half-bite-size chunks or so, and two onions chopped a bit smaller than that.  Add a lot of chopped garlic.  I put in around a quarter-cup, but I cheat and use the kind that comes in a jar.  Any garlic is better than none, so chop until just before it stops being fun if you’re chopping by hand.  Festoon the pile with a tablespoon or even more of each of these:  chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin and Italian seasoning.  I put in about 2 teaspoons of Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce for heat, but you can use hot sauce, cayenne or red pepper flakes, whatever floats your boat. Add 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and some black pepper to taste.  You can always salt it more after it’s cooked for a while.  Cover with enough water to allow all the ingredients to move freely, and cook on Low for 8-10 hours.  If you start late, cook it on High until it starts to boil and then turn it back.  At which point it will look much like this:

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Italian seasoning, you say? In a dish overflowing with Southwestern sensibilities?  The ingredients in my enormous but cheap plastic container are oregano, thyme, marjoram, rosemary and sage.  What I really wanted was oregano (but I was out), so I substitututed this and it was yummy.  And the heresy only gets worse.  After the beans are fully tender, add a cup of drinkable red wine and a can of Ro-tel  or other canned tomatoes with chiles.  The theory behind adding acidic ingredients last is that it helps the beans soften in the hard water.  Chemically-minded readers will immediately associate this with the pinch of baking soda added during soaking.  Bingo!

This soup benefits from an occasional stir during cooking, if you happen to be home; the stirring helps some of the sweet potato chunks fall apart and thicken the soup.  But it really does just fine left to its own devices.  A well-placed couple of strokes with a potato masher (possibly an immersion blender although I’ve never tested it) will have the same effect.  Like this:

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Make sure to taste for salt before serving, and if you’ve left out tomatoes or wine, consider a splash of vinegar or lime juice to brighten the flavors. This soup, like all its beany relatives, will improve in flavor for several days after making it, so make sure to get maximum mileage out of the leftovers!

Welcome to Far and Wee

Life just keeps getting more interesting. And to me, that means it’s getting better. Sure, it may all collapse under its own weight one of these days, but that’s part of the deal; nothing lasts forever nor, in my opinion, should it.

I’m at least halfway through my life now, and it has been quite a ride so far. Four marriages, two beautiful children, homes across the country, friends as far as the eye can see. Never a dull moment, for sure. But that’s what keeps it interesting. And interesting, my friends, is the name of the game.

Take this blog. It’s named after a poem about Spring, by e.e. cummings, that goes like this:

in Just-
spring      when the world is mud-
Iuscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far      and      wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and

it’s
Spring
and

the

goat-footed

balloonMan           whistles
far
and
wee

–Chansons Innocentes: 1 (1920)

As a little child hearing that poem read aloud every Spring, I learned that life is playful and musical and mysterious and maybe just a little crazy. And it stuck. So this blog is my whistle in Spring, in honor of balloonmen everywhere, and most especially the one who read me that poem so many times.

Pictures? Sure. Here’s me getting married the last and final time, only a few days ago.

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And here’s the shawl I’m knitting for my daughter who heads off to college in September, and the sweater I made for my 15-year old son who’s off at boarding school.

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And the soup and bread that are my staff of life.

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And here are Uther the dog (welcoming you with a sock) and Alcibiades the cat.

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That pretty much sums it up. Except for the being a nurse and a bit of a radical leftist and a Quaker and a big believer in community and eating plants and being content with what is.

I hope you come back and see me, and I hope I have something interesting to offer you every time you do. Please comment freely; you may be the one to open my eyes to something I never realized before!