About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

Out and Back: Coming Home

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Meadow Creek Trail, Lily Pad Lake toward Frisco, Colorado

When you hike, do you like loop trails or out-and-back trails better?

What metaphors for life can you make from hiking?

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Ptarmigan Trail, outbound, Silverthorne, Colorado

Out and Back

I used to think out and back trails would be boring.  What’s so great about getting to the end of a path and then going back the way you came?  Wouldn’t it be tedious and redundant?

But the more hikes I take, the more I realize how valuable it is to retrace my steps, especially on the trails with big elevation gain and diverse landscape.  The same path, going uphill and then downhill, heading north at daybreak then south at mid-day, is a vastly divergent experience.  It is a concrete, tangible exercise in perspective, if ever there were one.

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Ptarmigan Trail, looking toward trailhead from same point as above

Looping

On a loop trail, you get to decide at the outset the way you will go.  If you choose clockwise, you miss out on the counterclockwise experience—until next time, perhaps, when you get to choose it.  Or maybe you always go the same way?  That feels safe—you know what’s coming, perhaps?  But on any trail, especially in the high country, you just never know what you’ll encounter.  Time of day, time of year, recent events (wildfire, thunderstorm) all alter the path—you could actually never walk the same trail twice—whether it’s out and back (hereafter abbreviated “OAB”) or a loop.

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Meadow Creek Trail again

In life, do/can we ever really go back?  I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Heraclitus:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Whether you choose OAB or a loop, when you arrive at the trailhead again, is it the same as when you started?  Are you?  And regardless, why hike in the first place?  What does it do for you, what do you gain?  Why step out from where you live every day, all the time?

Here’s what insightful writers I’m reading lately have to say about it:

John Gardner, in Self-Renewal:  “As the years go by we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception.  We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the face of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world…  That is why travel is a vivid experience for most of us.  At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us.  Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience.”

John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara:  “Hegel said, ‘Das Bekannte überhaupt ist darum, weil es bekannt ist, nicht erkannt’–that is, ‘Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live, and, indeed, of those with whom we live. Friendships and relationships suffer immense numbing through the mechanism of familiarization. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.”

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West Overlook, Ridge Trail, Dillon, Colorado

When patients see me for their annual exams, I imagine it can feel tedious and redundant.  But it’s always fresh and interesting for me, because I haven’t seen or heard from them in a year.  And I’m continuously learning, so I often have new questions and queries to apply.  They may not think much of the past year, it goes by so fast; I get to be their fresh eyes, and lend them new lenses.  What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you since we last met?  What do you want to focus on this day we are together?  When you look back at your life a year from now, what do you want to see and say about it?  I feel like a ranger at the common trailhead of inifinite paths, checking in with my hikers as they loop and retrace their ways back to me, stopping to debrief before getting back on the road of living and growth, of evolution and development.

Mei lakeside July

Chicago, IL

Homecoming

I was born in Evanston, Illinois, when my dad was doing his PhD at Northwestern University.  We moved to Colorado when I was six, and for as long as I can remember, I have considered that state to be my true home.  I go back every chance I get; I savor it, relish it, drink it in with fervor.  When I return to Chicago, where I have lived for all but those 12 formative years before I came (back) to NU for college, it’s always with a gnawing reluctance, even a little resentment.  I never call it ‘coming home.’  Last night when I arrived at my house after a week in the Colorado Rockies, I did feel myself relax, ready to settle into life as usual.  But I still longed to be home for good—back in Colorado—my only real home.

That perspective changed today.

These last days I have thought deeply about my life path.  I’ve really only lived in these two places, these vastly different places.  Until this morning I thought of my OAB trailhead unequivocally as Littleton, Colorado, where I grew up.  My plan is still to go back for good someday.  But this morning on the way to church, as I crossed the intersection onto the NU campus, I felt at home.  We left our house late and drove through a thunderstorm to get there, and like a flash of lightning, I recalled when I came for my campus visit in the fall of my senior year of high school.  It had also rained cats and dogs that whole weekend.  But I’m pretty sure I wrote to friends at the time that it felt like coming home.  I was born here after all.  It is my dad’s and my alma mater.  I met my husband here during New Student Week my freshman year.  I’ve brought my kids here since they were born.  Our church here is my spiritual home, no question.

We were late today, arriving toward the end of the homily, in the chapel across the street, as ours is being renovated.  From the back, I first saw the silhouette.  Then I heard the voice.  Then I listened to the words—always words of connection, truth, service, and love.  I was overcome with emotion when I realized: It was Father Ken, director of our church from my sophomore year until I first became a mom.  He led my RCIA class for confirmation.  He nurtured my early adult development as only a pastor could, and has known me through inspiration as well as struggle.  I have only seen him rarely since he left, and missed his calming, comforting presence. Seeing him and hearing his homily today made it suddenly crystal clear to me: This, Chicago and my life here, are also my home, wholly and without question.

I can claim and love both—the places, the people, the cultures, the memories.  The mountains and also the lake; where my parents made their life and also where my kids are growing up.  Colorado is not the same now as when I left in 1991.  Chicago is not the same today as it will be when I finally return to Colorado.  Which is the Out and which is the Back?  Doesn’t matter.  Finally, after all this time feeling conflicted and divided, I really am home.

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Dillon Reservoir, Dillon, Colorado

The Loving and Entwined Life

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“Love and friendship dissolve the rigidities of the isolated self, force new perspectives, alter judgments and keep in working order the emotional substratum on which all profound comprehension of human affairs must rest.”

John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963

 

How often do you take a breath, take a moment, and reflect on the deep, thick connections that hold you up?

I say over and again that our relationships kill us or save us.  But it’s not merely relationships that save us, it’s connection.  I named this blog honestly!  John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “We need more resonant words to mirror this than the tired word relationship.  Phrases like ‘an ancient circle closes’ or ‘an ancient belonging awakens and discovers itself’ help to bring out the deeper meaning and mystery of encounter…  Two people who are really awakened inhabit the one circle of belonging.  They have awakened a more ancient force around them that will hold them together and mind them.”

Friends really do take you further.

This past week I finished listening to David Brooks’s latest book, The Second Mountain.  I highly recommend it.  He makes a critical and compassionate assessment of the current state of society, what he refers to as a severely torn social fabric.  We are dangerously, existentially disconnected.

David Blankenhorn and Bill Doherty, co-founders of Better Angels, see the same, and seek specifically to address our perilous political polarization.  Last Saturday I attended their workshop to help us depolarize from within our own political tribes.  The goal of the organization and each workshop is to depolarize, not to convert. The method is communication to connect, not to convince.  Both Brooks and Better Angels seek to strengthen our most meaningful ties to one another.  In Brooks’s words, about his new organization, Weave: “The Weaver movement is repairing our country’s social fabric, which is badly frayed by distrust, division and exclusion. People are quietly working across America to end loneliness and isolation and weave inclusive communities. Join us in shifting our culture from hyper-individualism that is all about personal success, to relationalism that puts relationships at the center of our lives.”

*****

On Tuesday I returned to my desk after a productive and gratifying work meeting, to read that Toni Morrison had died.  I was overcome with sadness, which surprised me.  I have never read any of her acclaimed novels.  I was not a follower, per se.  But I felt a loss as if I had known her personally.  I think it’s because she had a profound influence on one of the most important aspects of my life, early in my kids’ lives, with just a single verbal expression.

“When your child walks in the room, does your face light up?”

Morrison told Oprah in 2000:

“When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up.  You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart…because when they walked in the room, I was glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see.”

It’s so small and simple, and yet it alters the entire encounter, every time.  More and more I understand in my limbic brain, the part of the mind where we humans make meaning and where our decisions and actions originate, that it is how we are with people that matters, far more than what we say or what we do.  The majority of communication is non-verbal.  Morrison’s description of a parent’s facial expression, and the profound effect it has on a child, applies to all relationships and connections, or disconnections, for that matter.  It was not until she died that I realized how far her influence really reached in my life.  And it felt suddenly, unexpectedly, too late to thank her for it.

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So whose face lights up when they see you?

Whose presence awakens you and invites you to ‘inhabit the one circle of belonging’?

I recently made a list of these people in my life.  It is gratifyingly long, and growing.  It started with my mom.  I’m embarrassed that I did not notice overtly before now, and my gratitude cannot be adequately expressed in words.  I imagine she got it from my grandmother, one of the people I have admired most in the entire world.  I have met the others, my Counsel of Wisdom, my pit crew, throughout my life, from age 12 to only a couple years ago.  They are my Kalyana-mitra, or “noble friend”s, as O’Donohue describes them:  They “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness.  No one can see his life totally.  As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see.  Therefore you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself.  Your Kalyana-mitra complements your vision in a kind and critical way.  Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”

In Self-Renewal, John Gardner takes this idea from the personal friendship to society:  “A tradition of vigorous criticism is essential to the renewal of a society.  A nation is not helped much by citizens whose love for their country leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism.  But neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured and strengthened and made to flourish.  Neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics make for the renewal of societies.”

David Brooks expresses the same in Second Mountain:  “Truth without love is harshness; love without truth is sentimentality.”  In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich suggests methods and exercises for engaging with our ‘loving critics,’ in service of improving honest and loving self-awareness, connection, and leadership.

Mesler book window

I have two goals this week on vacation:  Hike and read.

I brought Anam Cara by John O’Donohue, Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner, and What Moves at the Margins, a collection of Toni Morrison’s eloquent and important nonfiction writing.  Little did I know that the ideas in these books, read concurrently by cosmic accident (or more likely by divine inspiration), would weave in meaning with one another, as well as with my deepest and most meaningful life lessons to date.  How rewarding and awe-inspiring!

I pray today that my ‘soul’ and ‘noble friends’ know how much I appreciate their presence, guidance, support, and love; and that I may come even remotely close to serving them similarly.  May we all look to bless one another with our own souls every day.

Friends Take You Further

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Holy cow, friends!

This weekend marked the most ambitious cooking endeavor ever attempted in my kitchen!  I don’t know how I agreed to it, really…  I sat at our usual brunch with one of my oldest church friends, a fellow Chinese-American, and suddenly we had a plan to get a bunch of people together at my house to make potstickers, sticky rice bombs (zhong zi), ma tai soo, and stir fried bok choyat the same time.  [Insert Home Alone face here.]

My kids have severe seafood and egg allergies, and our fun new church friends don’t eat mammals, so we had to modify the recipes, each in different ways, and vigilantly avoid cross-contamination, all in an acutely crowded space.  We ended up doing ga li jiao (curry beef pastry) filling, but with chicken, in the ma tai soo instead of shrimp and pork.  I made separate chicken and pork potsticker fillings with dong gu mushrooms, napa cabbage, fresh ginger and garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  And for the rice bombs, the wrapping staff segregated pork-chicken-salted duck egg, egg-free, and pork-free versions, put to boil in separate pots for 3-4 hours.  We invited my sister and brother-in-law, and at the last minute my daughter’s preschool classmate and his mom, our dear friends for the past decade.  It was joyfully rè nào, as we say in Mandarin.

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My church friend did all of the grocery shopping and overnight prep of soaking glutinous rice, dried mushrooms and bamboo leaves, and meat marinating—both bird and mammal.  She brought her food scale, rolling pin, steaming pot, chef’s knife—basically most of her own kitchen—and drove an hour across town to my house.  Sister and BIL came bearing chocolate cake and soft drinks, and school friend mom brought her knife-wielding and rolling pin skills.  Husband weaved between us all, cleaning and washing—we ran the dishwasher twice.  Because that’s the thing about Chinese food—everything had to be rinsed, washed, soaked, seasoned, chopped, shredded, minced, mixed, kneaded, rolled, wrapped, arranged, fried, boiled, steamed, and baked!

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Is it any wonder that I experienced more than a little anxiety and possibly moderate panic at the prospect?  Not only am I the queen of shortcut cooking (I use store bought potsticker wrappers and pie crust rather than make my own dough—and most of the time I just buy ready-to-cook dumplings), but for some time now I have dubbed my house The Pigsty of Entropy for good reason…  One whole segment of counter space had not seen the light of day in over a year, buried under more and more Idon’tevenknowwhat.  Two nights ago I simply moved that pile to a paper box, to be organized later, and wiped the well-preserved Corian surface.  I had to leave the rest of the place as-is, counting on guests to focus their attention on the food more than their ridiculously cluttered surroundings.  My primary reassurance was that if the project failed, we could always order pizza.

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In the end, though, the gathering was a raging success.  A bright summer sun shone through the big windows from the west.  Everyone arrived happy and ready to participate.  And we had very reasonable expectations for the outcome—namely that taste and company mattered ‘way more than presentation (but it all looked pretty good!).  Conversation topics ranged widely and laughter punctuated questions about ingredients and procedures.  I found the vegetable chopping rhythmic and satisfying, and I even developed a double-fisted-chopstick mixing method that could rival any Kitchen Aid—someone just had to hold the bowl for me.  We planned the order of activities such that the three main courses would be ready to eat at the same time—and then we feasted with “Crazy Rich Asians” playing in the background.

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The oblong ma tai soo were made in a pig mold, but bloated beyond recognition in the oven.

* * * * *

What would you never have done if your friend had not invited (instigated) you?  How do your friends’ confidence and experience hold you up when you try something new?  How can we nudge and support our own friends to step out of their comfort zones?  Besides cooking, what other skills can we love our friends into acquiring?

I already anticipate our next audacious culinary event—menu suggestions, please?

As I look around at all the people in my life, my myriad meaningful and thick connections, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility.  This weekend filled my belly and my heart.  Thank you, my dear friends and family.

 

70 Years Married

 

 

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Dear Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful,

Hello and hugs to you both!  How are you feeling?

I received a message from Wonderful Son this weekend, and it made my day!  He said you have settled in a place where you are both happy and getting the care you need.  You live near Wonderful Daughter, whom you see often, and everybody is happy and doing well.  I’m so glad!

More importantly, Son said the family will celebrate your 70th wedding anniversary soon!  He invited me to contribute a short video selfie to the well wishes.  Wow, what an honor.  I only got to serve as your primary care doctor a couple of years before you moved.  In that time I had the privilege of witnessing not just each of you as my patients, but you both as a couple, and your Wonderful family.  Please allow me to share my observations?  Here is my experience of you:

Ease.  Whenever I saw you two together, there was a peace and ease about your dynamic.  Patterns of relation were established long ago, and it worked.  I witnessed friction at times, but it was transient.  The vibe of our encounters was never agitated; it always felt to me that I had stepped respectfully into your well-oiled routine, and I tried my best to not disrupt it.

Patience.  Nobody rushed anybody when we were together.  Questions were answered, sometimes right away, sometimes after a while.  But you always gave each other the time and space to get where we were all going.

True Acceptance.  The Gottmans tell us that about 2/3 of marital problems are unsolvable.  This fall I will have been married half my life, 23 years.  This summer I think I may finally understand in my limbic brain, possibly, how to be in a marriage—something to do with really accepting the other person for who he is, like really, honestly, and wholeheartedly.  It was clear soon after meeting you both that you had figured this out long ago.  If I can get to 70 years, maybe I don’t have to feel bad that it took me 23+.

Devotion.  Medically, it has not been all lollipops and rainbows these few years, for either of you.  But whatever was happening for one of you, the other was right there, attending, caring, waiting, loving.  What more could any of us ask for?  And the Wonderful Children learned from your example; knowing them and seeing their devotion to you, their loving parents, inspires me deeply.

Learning, Growth, Adaptation.  Even at your age, there were things you did not know or understand.  Your bodies betrayed you in some ways we could not have predicted, and in others that you may have anticipated but were still a challenge to accept.  With the help of the medical team and your Wonderful Children, you have both managed to adapt to successive new normals with grace.

Loyalty and Commitment.  In it together.  That’s how you two roll.  I know it’s not easy, and we have discussed the challenges.  But you stick with each other through thick and thin, I’ve seen it.  You set the bar for the rest of us.

Love.  I think you, Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful, show us what true love lives like.  After 70 years I imagine you have some colorful stories to tell, some that belie all of the idealistic descriptions I write here.  But that is the point, no?  If we stick with it and do The Work, all of us hope to be rewarded with that deep, peaceful, reliable, and resonant love that transcends even what we innocently and earnestly vowed to each other at the altar.

Science, technology, and social convention have evolved beyond anyone’s imagination, and the pace only accelerates.  But the lifelong human need for love and belonging will never change.  Thank you for showing us how it’s done in a marriage.  Congratulations!

Sincerely, Cathy

Agency and Emergence

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When do you push forward, and when do you step back?

How do you decide, or is it decided for you?

How does this reciprocal rhythm oscillate and dance in your life?

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Modern western culture tells individuals and organizations alike: Grow! Move! Push! –Or die!  Competition and scarcity dominate the collective psyche, if not consciously then subconsciously, no question.  Even on vacation we are pressured to do something socially noteworthy, lest we have nothing to report upon return.  There is a palpable, frenetic, explicit and implicit drive—to keep driving.  I’m not complaining, necessarily.  Growth, innovation, evolution, improvement, advancement, development—I pursue these with as much fervor as anyone.  It has served me well!  My whole life the hard work (and a lot of luck) has paid off in spades, in school, work, and now leadership in multiple realms.  I have accomplished as much as I could have imagined at this age, and I’m just getting started!  How exciting and rewarding, living a life of audacious acceleration, of claiming agency, of “Yes, AND!”

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Tara Donovan, Chicago IL July 2019

Yet, lately I feel another energy emerging.  It came on unexpectedly, and I welcome it like my oldest friend.

I only realized it as I wrote about ‘Aunt Rachel,’ Dr. Rachel Remen, last month.  “I am called to slow down, to be still, more than I have been (have allowed?), for a very long time,” I wrote, quite spontaneously.  Those words forelighted a month of ‘settling and recharging… awareness and fulfillment,’ as I wrote to my friend, when I realized what was happening.  This meta-awareness always fills me with awe and gratitude, as if the cosmos lets me in on a secret, conspiring to prepare me for what lies ahead. Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings reminds me of the importance of human connection at the deepest level.  Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert makes me confident and brave to create, to make things to share, like this blog or a new oral presentation.  The Art of Possibility helps me dig deep, in a different way every time I reread it, for fundamental relational skills when I need them the most.

The week I wrote about Aunt Rachel, Maria Popova’s post on friendship as rendered by Kahlil Gibran crossed my email inbox.  The Prophet was one of my favorite books in high school.  I found it moving, inspiring, and reassuring, like a lovingly personal counselor, in those emotionally tumultuous adolescent times.  Popova’s post brought that comfort back, similar to how Remen’s book did in recent weeks.  I felt compelled to follow her sequential links to writings by Seneca, CS Lewis, David Whyte, and John O’Donohue, all on friendship.  She quotes Seneca, the stoic: “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself…”  Something within me was deeply moved, activated to seek more.

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Tara Donovan, Chicago, IL, July 2019

How fascinating, what is with this fresh call on my attention?  I’m not sure, but I trust it fully, and have embraced it.  I found To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a book of the most eloquent blessings, and Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte.  Both books quench my thirst for beautiful language that articulates the deep longing for meaning and connection, with myself as well as with others.  They call to me.

Between caring for patients, leading work teams, proposing new projects, LOH training, speaking engagements, wife-ing, parenting and friending, life could hardly be more challenging or fulfilling (I should also call my parents more often!).  I see every meeting, every letter, every message as a chance to show up all in, fully present, at my best.  To be my Best Self in all realms, I push myself to learn, practice, and excel, to exercise my agency in service of relationships and connection.  So sometimes the universe approaches me lovingly, jogging alongside, inviting me to slow down.  Take a break, he says, enjoy the view.  Soak it in.  Relish how far you’ve come, what you’ve built thus far.  Breathe deep, stretch out.  Rest a while.  What do you see, she asks, how does it feel? What have you learned, they say, what can you synthesize and integrate, before you march on with resolve and conviction once again, in the direction of your biggest dreams?

The word pairs below emerged, with a little nudging, over the past week.  I see them not as dichotomies, not at all in conflict.  Rather, they are each separate and inextricable sides of the same multifaceted polyhedron of life, necessary counterbalances for a healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful existence.  I started wearing my Yin-Yang ring in January.  It is meant to remind me that opposites are more often complementary than oppositional.  Our society values agency over emergence.  We endorse doing ahead of holding.  But practicing emergence is by no means passive, weak, or unproductive.  It is active, enthusiastic participation in the dance of life, the reciprocal movement of ebb and flow.  Childbirth and heartbeat are quintessential examples of the balance of Agency and Emergence, giving and receiving, contracting and relaxing.

What other word pairs would you add?

I commit to fully inhabiting, savoring this deliberate time and open space, however long it lasts.  Energy will shift again, as it always does.  I have the next self-improvement books and task lists in queue.  I’ll get on the blocks again, ready for the starting gun, soon enough.  But for now, I breathe deeply and look around in appreciation and learning.

 

   Agency                           Emergence

Control                             Relation

        Action                          Observation

Power                        Capacity

Acceleration                          Momentum

      Focus                         Zoom Out

Contraction                       Relaxation

Tightening                      Stretching

Exhale (blow)                     Inhale (smell)

  Intention                        Possibility

  Strength                        Elasticity

Telling                        Asking

             Make this happen                         What’s trying to happen?

            Tap the system                       Watch it spin a while

               Grip                        Hold loosely

Drive                      Ride

Take up space                          Hold space

Yang                     Yin

  Heartbeat

  Childbirth

The exhibit where I took the art photos:  https://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/tara-donovan-fieldwork/

Our 5 Fundamental Needs

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To Feel:

 

Seen

Look what I can do

This is how I can contribute

See me achieve

 

Heard

Hear my concerns

Take me into account

 

Understood

Validate me

Normalize my feelings

Say you can relate

 

Accepted

Tell me I belong

 

Loved

Participate in the Messy with me

Commit to sticking with me through the hard shit

Let me be my whole self with you

Be your whole self with me

 

Children by parents

Patients by doctors

Students by teachers

Workers by managers

The led by their leaders

Spouses

Friends

 

What if?

 

 

Good Doctor and Good Mom

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What do you sacrifice in pursuit of your dreams?

What does your calling cost you?

What are the returns on your investments?

* * * * *

Last week I mentioned Dierks Bentley’s, “Woman, Amen”, a song I love.  After listening to it for many days on repeat this past week, I decided to tour his nine albums this weekend.  His songs vary in topic and form, and at the same time he has a consistent style and vibe.  I like it.  Yesterday I heard his song, “Damn These Dreams”:

Now honey I know you miss me, I feel it when you kiss me

Trust me when I say every goodbye hurts

Well damn these dreams

Playin’ my heart just like a guitar string

Pullin’ me away from you and everything I really need

Well damn these dreams

Chasing that same old whiskey melody

All up and down these Nashville streets

It’s hard to look true love in the eye and leave

Damn these dreams

 

Instantly I remembered two other songs with similar themes:

 

Goodbye Again”, by John Denver:

Other voices beckon me, and for a little while

It’s goodbye again, I’m sorry to be leaving you

Goodbye again, as if you didn’t know

It’s goodbye again

Have to go and see some friends of mine

Some that I don’t know

Some who aren’t familiar with my name

It’s something that’s inside of me

Not hard to understand

It’s anyone who’ll listen to me sing

…Lying by your side’s the greatest peace I’ve ever known

But it’s goodbye again…

 

And “I Play the Road”, by Zach Brown Band:

…She says daddy where to you go

When you leave me all these nights

With a suitcase and guitar in your hand

Kissing me and mom goodbye with a tear and a smile

Where do you go? 

Daddy where do you go?

I play the road

And the highway is our song

And every city’s like the same three chords

Been helping us along when the story’s told

And the crowd is done and gone

Shaking off the miles and trying to make it home

…Mile after mile… 

Baby, I’m comin’ home

Years ago, I think it was either Dana Carvey or Martin Short who said something like one can only tolerate the life of a comedian because s/he simply cannot do anything else—they must do comedy.  If anyone can find the reference, please share!

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As it is in music and comedy, so it is in medicine.  For many of us, we simply must do it; we have no existential choice.  These songs describe well our pain and conflict when we take call or have to work on weekends, or miss the kids’ school and sports events, and spend hours at home on the medical record or answering pages.

I recently read an article, “A Good Doctor or a Good Mom, Never Both”.  Early in this physician mom writer’s career, an elder colleague told her, “’You can be a good doctor, and you can be a good mother, but you can never be both at the same time.’”  The author disagrees, saying it’s either/or, never both, ever.  At once hearing Bentley’s song, I felt a moment of panic, mortified that I’m destroying my family for my job.  Am I totally selfish for choosing this career, and are my priorities so distorted that I so often put work before my family?  Have I chosen to be a good doctor and a horrible mom?

Thank goodness for Simon Sinek who, in his 2014 book, Leaders Eat Last, referenced a 2011 study that showed “a child’s sense of well-being is affected less by the long hours their parents put in at work and more by the mood their parents are in when they come home.  Children are better off having a parent who works into the night in a job they love than a parent who works shorter hours but comes home unhappy.”  This idea has saved me from countless episodes of self-flagellation and guilt.  It was so instantly redeeming that I recall the exact moment I heard it—I was at the airport, traveling solo, likely for a work related conference.  I can’t say I’m ecstatic every evening coming home, but I generally feel satisfied by a fulfilling day doing something I love.  I can confidently report that my husband feels the same.

I’ve attended one swim meet in two years.  I miss any school event that occurs during the workday.  I still get lost walking the maze that is the kids’ school, though we (they) have been there over a decade.  But I get to choir and orchestra concerts, and dinner potlucks.  I know my kids’ friends and am friends with their parents.  The kids’ teachers think they feel loved by us.  I think I do okay.

My kids hear me on the phone with patients and colleagues.  They know it takes time and understanding to take good care of people.  I’m confident they see and feel how meaningful this work and these relationships are to me.  And the science is pretty cool, too.  I would never pressure my kids to go into medicine, but I would not be surprised if they did.  I would absolutely encourage it, if it gives them the joy it gives me.

“You can be a good doctor, and you can be a good mother, but you can never be both at the same time.”  I respectfully agree and disagree.  You can absolutely be both, often at the same time.