Where Is the Light?

covid fairy penguins melbourne

Photo by Tobias Baumgaertner, Fairy penguins near Melbourne, Australia

*deep breath*

I always wonder about you, dear reader.  Where does this post find you, since we last connected?  How are you?

It’s a good practice to check in with ourselves regularly.  These nine weeks of sheltering in place have exercised my patience, awareness, and identity, among other things.  What have they done for you?  How are you?

For a couple weeks now I have felt all but overwhelmed by darkness.  Infection and death rates have slowed, but they will continue to accumulate indefinitely.  I worry that we will become inured, calloused, to the human toll.  PPE is still in short supply at hospitals across the country. Thousands of my colleagues continue to risk both their physical as well as mental and emotional lives to care for gravely ill patients.  They leave their families and support networks to become the sole supports for patients alone in the hospital, whose own loved ones may not visit, even in the hour of death.

Mostly I have felt burdened by the fighting.  The shouting, protesting, mean memes, and ad hominem all around me, directed both by and at my friends and colleagues.  Important reflections and insights arose this week that helped me see clearly the internal origins of my distress.  I re-accepted and re-integrated these parts of myself.  I was able to laugh out loud, exclaiming, “How fascinating!”  I know I will necessarily repeat this discovery exercise ad nauseam, ad infinitum—such is life, karma says, also laughing.  But for now I feel lighter, unburdened, more at peace.

So I thought about role models for peace.  I feel so lucky to have so many.  But one in particular shone in my consciousness this week:  Dr. Vivek Murthy, our 19th Surgeon General.  He has published a book, Together, in which he “makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern: a root cause and contributor to many of the epidemics sweeping the world today from alcohol and drug addiction to violence to depression and anxiety. Loneliness, he argues, is affecting not only our health but also how our children experience school, how we perform in the workplace, and the sense of division and polarization in our society.”

I recently watched a live interview with him conducted by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, widow of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote When Breath Becomes Air.  I listened with one earbud, watching in my peripheral vision, while hurrying around my kitchen, preparing chicken and assembling a salad, all before rushing to host a Zoom workout.  It struck me that in stark contrast to my frenetic energy at that moment, Dr. Murthy presented only calm and serenity.  He answered every question with love, joy, conviction, and equanimity.  I noticed and marveled.  Then I rushed around some more and got on with my evening tasks.

Looking back, I have felt this serene and loving presence every time he speaks.  He has a way of making everybody in the room comfortable, welcome, and included.  Even if he’s interacting only with a moderator, it feels like he’s speaking to me personally.  He sees me, he gets me.  He cares about me.  In searching for the Kalanithi interview, I came across this lecture and discussion he gave at Stanford University in 2015.  I hope you will take the time to watch (or at least listen).  Notice how he shares stories of his parents, his patients, and people he met during his national ‘listening tour’ at the beginning of his tenure as Surgeon General.  Hear how he sees and knows every one of these people in their whole humanity.  Abraham Verghese, physician, author of Cutting for Stone, and another hero of the profession, moderated the Q&A, and also named Dr. Murthy’s equanimity—his peacefulness.  Notice how Murthy validates questions asked by students and faculty alike.  Observe his humility, juxtaposed with a resolute, unwavering point of view.  Do you feel it?  Does he not inspire you to be a better person?

Dr. Murthy and his wife, Dr. Alice Chen, have written an open letter to us medical professionals, in the midst of this global pandemic.  Reading it, once again I feel seen, understood, and comforted.  I feel true belonging in a proud and humble tribe of professionals, committed to service.  They shine their light on all of us, so we may see the path before us more clearly and walk more confidently, knowing we’ got our peeps holding us up.  This, in turn, gives us the strength and love to hold up others along the way.

I see the light tonight.  It emanates from my fellow and sister humans, and it saves me.

For a little more light, check out this Jon S. Randal Peace Page post with the picture of the penguins.  In it you will read about gems like John Krazinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube series, and Chris LaCass, founder of Pandemic Kitchen, feeding New York City’s homeless.  You can also share your own stories of inspiration and light in the darkness.

Where is your light today?  How will you keep it in front, as we travel this long road together?

 

 

Trust and Safety in an Uncertain World

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Suddenly I felt my heart pounding.  My palms got sweaty.  My jaw felt tense.  I’m anxious, I realized.  It felt like sometimes when I speak up in big meetings.  Wow, I don’t even have to be in front of people for this to happen, how fascinating.

It was the second or third comment I had written on another Facebook page, belonging to a high school classmate.  I think we became ‘friends’ through his wife, a friendly acquaintance of mine in high school, with whom I’ve been connected on Facebook for several years.  I don’t really know her husband at all, and yet here I was, writing long replies on his page about universal masking, why recommendations changed between March and now, and why I trust Dr. Fauci despite his apparent flip-flop on this issue.

I had entered someone else’s house, offering my unsolicited opinions.  Though we have a handful of mutual friends, I had no idea who else would attend this party, and whether I would be welcome.  I wasn’t sure it was safe.

And yet I felt compelled to enter, why?  Perhaps I felt defensive of my professional standard bearer, Dr. Fauci, the father of modern infectious disease and icon of science, medicine, and public health.  He has basically led the research to define and defeat HIV/AIDS since the 1980s.  Through six administrations, he has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to successfully manage H1N1, Ebola, and Zika, at home and abroad.  He is one of my heroes.  Likely, I also wanted to absolve myself a little, as I had also recommended against masking in public early on.  I wanted to help some strangers see us, the ‘experts’, as human and fallible, and also earnest and caring, worthy of heeding.

So I obsessed over my comments.  I read and reread before posting.  I edited after posting.  I included the links embedded above, inviting anyone on the thread to hear Dr. Fauci in his own words, in full.  I offered my own mea culpa twice, explaining how academics sometimes fall victim to ivory tower thinking, as we did in this case.  Perhaps this was my attempt at earning back whatever trust people may have lost because we experts contradicted ourselves in such an important and pivotal moment.  I regret this, and I wanted people to know, and then maybe not hold it against me (us).  Would I be crucified?  Or would I crack a door open to hearing what I had to say?  I feel anxious now, just thinking about it again.

My own friends discussed this on my page a few weeks ago, after my post on antibody testing (our recommendations have not changed yet).  Paul, MD PhD and rheumatologist, pointed out, “US experts really blew it initially when it came to masks… All they had to do was consider the possibility that Asian countries might be right and then consider that the risk associated with (masking) was virtually zero.  The first thing experts need to do, when confronted with circumstances that are truly new to them, is admit uncertainty and base recommendations accordingly.”  I’m so lucky to have such honest and direct friends.  I replied that I felt badly for following the ‘expert’ advice like a sheep (which is exactly how others on my acquaintance’s page described followers of universal masking, yikes).  “Lesson learned,” I wrote—but have I really learned it?  David, Paul’s and my classmate who now leads quality and hospitalist programs at his institution, replied, “It’s weird to be here with you (two) bashing experts, since the three of us are by any definition, experts.  But the value of experts is not that they’re always right, but that they have a) a better track record and b) the ability to self-correct.”  Yes, humility is key.

It all makes me wonder, how do we trust someone?  I have conversations every day with patients and non-medical friends and family, educating and advising, and they are appreciative; they trust me.  But we have already established mutually respectful, personal relationships.  What made me think I could go on this unfamiliar man’s social media page, interact with perfect strangers, and have them trust or accept anything I said, when they had already expressed reservations about, if not hostility toward, my ‘tribe’?  Was it my place?

The original post commented on universal masking and referenced Dr. Fauci not in a snarky, pejorative, or aggressive way.  If it had I would have scrolled right by.  Because it was a neutral presentation, I felt it could be safe to enter this house and offer my perspective.  Out of respect for the page owner and his friends, I did my best to present both humbly and objectively, to be informative but not condescending.  I really wanted to put my best online foot forward, to represent my tribe and my profession as well and as trustworthily (it’s a word!), as possible—to connect.  So far I have not been attacked, and a few readers have liked my comments.

In the end, as I have written before, I think it’s about how we show up to one another.  I wrote recently about tribal culture, and how through this crisis, individuals can help our own tribes thrive by modeling a more collaborative rather than competitive mindset, by amplifying our togetherness.  “Who do we want to be on the other side of this crisis?” I asked.  David Logan and colleagues go on in their work to discuss how tribes can effectively interact with other tribes, forming alliances and advancing even greater good together.  They posit that tribes draw closer when their respective members, especially designated leaders (representatives), connect.

We find ourselves now in an existential battle for our lives, literally.  Now is exactly the time to find common ground, step onto it, set up camp, and make decisions from there—to merge tribes.  A friend asked me today, “Who do you want to be now?”

I want to be a connector, I answered.  I will do my best not to contribute to division, polarization, alienation, disconnection, and suffering, through my words or actions.  I will not be perfect.  I will make mistakes.  I will continue to learn and apply.  I will strive to earn and maintain people’s trust.  And I will help make it safe for people to question and challenge, discuss and explore any point of view.  In the face of uncertainty, this is what I can offer.

A Time to Try New Things

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My friends:  What’s happening for you these many weeks?  What are you noticing (again, still, and newly)?  What do you miss most, least, and/or not at all from pre-COVID life?

What’s been the best thing that’s happened for you in this time?

Many of us are out of our depth here; we have no map.  As NASA says, we must “test as we fly and fly as we test.”  That necessarily means putting aside what we usually do and how things usually work, and trying new things–experimenting.  What a fantastic opportunity for learning, growth, and connection!

Be the change alpha workout

The Alphabet Workout

How has the pandemic affected your physical activity?  How have you adjusted?  After the New Year I realized I needed workout buddies to strengthen my workout resolve.  My colleague and I started exercising together after work a couple days a week, and then the pandemic hit.  Almost right away I came across various alphabet-based interval workouts, perfect for the newly shut in.  My siblings and friends and I started meeting on Zoom to try it, first spelling our names.  We moved on quickly to our heroes’ names, and now to sayings we like.  Exercise, accountability, variety, fun, and connection—yay!

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Baking

My daughter may single-handedly make our whole family diabetic.

Spring break started a week early, then the kids transitioned to distance learning, with minimal direct, real time interaction with teachers.  With so much more time to complete homework and a recently developed fascination with any and all things French, we now have a baker in the house.  And with anaphylactic allergies in the family, recipes are necessarily converted to vegan and nut-free.  To date she has succeeded with macarons, beignets, fruit turnovers, cupcakes, and red velvet cake.  But by far I’m proudest of her opera cake, completed tonight and surely damaging to my waistline.  It’s worth it, though, to watch her experiment, fail, redirect, and succeed (mantra = “It’s edible!”), gaining confidence with every attempt.

The sibs had better not abandon me on those Zoom workouts, though!

moon path LOH

Photo courtesy of Dr. Karen Cornell, January 2020, Loveland, CO

Circadian Loosening

I always knew I was a night owl, but holy cow, left to my own devices, I am practically nocturnal.  I never pulled all-nighters for school.  The first time I stayed up all night reading was for one of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books—I had not even done that for Harry Potter!  I have discipline when I need it.  I get up for morning calls now; I even look forward to them, as a sailor looks for the buoy thrown by his shipmates when he has fallen overboard.  I will readjust to a regular work schedule when the time comes.  But for now I can truly enjoy my owl self.

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Connecting with Friends

Maybe you’re missing your friends the most.  Somehow I’m not, which is a bit shocking and disconcerting.  But maybe it’s because I’m still connected, in some cases better than ever.  I miss meeting Donna for breakfast at our usual egg and toast place.  But I love that we now talk weekly on the phone while walking outside.  I continue to send and receive snail mail from friends across the country.  Perhaps I’m FaceTiming more with the Colorado sister and my parents, in addition to our sibs Zoom workouts.  And finally yesterday, blogging friends Nancy and Donna and I got together, after talking about it for at least three years.  Of course it was over Zoom, but without COVID-19 who knows how long it would have taken us to meet in person, living in Washington, Illinois, and Michigan?  Now we plan to ‘meet’ monthly—so much to share!

Writing Out of My Comfort Zone

Thanks to sister member Christina Guthier from Ozan Varol’s Inner Circle, I accepted a 5 day mindful writing challenge set by Nadia Colburn this past week.  Free, only five days—why not?  Nancy, Anne, and a few other friends agreed to try it with me—they accepted my Facebook invitation.  After a short meditation and poem, each day Nadia offered a prompt, followed by ten minutes of writing dotted with serene reminders to stay with the breath and remember to smile.  In these brief, structured and yet freeform sessions, I stretched existing ideas and queries farther than usual.  I quieted the inner critic sometimes and not others.  I learned a little more about my style and preferences for writing.  And I wrote a poem.

Based on “I Am Offering This Poem” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Day 5’s prompt asked us to write a poem entitled, “I Am Offering This ______ to You.”

Onward, my friends.  Let us try new things, learn, grow and connect.

 

I Am Offering This Love to You

So imperfect

So flawed

So human

Yet honest, earnest, real

How can I make sure

You feel it the way I intend?

Or do I even need to?

Who would that be for?

What’s the best way for you to feel

Loved by me?

According to whom?

What is the best outcome

Of all this love

We carry for each other

In our families

Between friends

For our country

For the world

For humanity?

How can we live into this now

Today?

I am offering this Love to you

Now

On this day

In this moment

With this breath

What will you do with it?