Tuesday, January 27, 2004

So Many Stories

I have so many stories I haven't yet written about, and I feel like they're all swirling around inside me...Glenn, who is one month younger than me and emaciated from AIDs, received years ago during a transfusion for his hemophelia; Richard, who has only the lower lobes of his lungs left and is now fighting pneumonia; Georgia, with her thick German accident, staunch optimism, and tear-touched pride welling up when she talks about her daughter...

But the biggest story today was my own, shared in a newly formed group of chaplain interns I am only beginning to know...I was attempting to approach an assignment honestly and with full disclosure for the sake of learning as much as I could from it, and judging from the condition of my emotions, I'd say I pushed myself too far. The day has taken on a dark, nightmarish quality. I've felt like crying all afternoon. I feel in turns upset and embarrassed that I offered myself up as the first guinea pig in the group, and angry that I have made myself vulnerable to a contrived and formulaic learning format that rewards exposing peoples' woundedness perhaps for nothing more than the sake of processing. I don't want to share my most hurtful experiences with people who only want to use them as a roll-play in how to minister to others. I want my story to be understood, cared for, heard, felt--not analyzed, "figured out," or named in some kind of surface-level, academic way.

This is a good learning for me--both in remembering to give myself permission to set my own boundaries, and in recognizing how tenderly I would wish to be listened to. It also tells me something about the level of trust that needs to be there (for me? for others?) before we can journey deeply together through our respective dark nights.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


When I saw Arthur the other day, I accidentally knocked his water off on the floor. It was only my second visit as a chaplain; I was talking and laughing and gesturing and--oops! Arthur smiled and told me not to worry about it. I asked the nurse for a towel and stooped down and mopped it up.

Today I saw Arthur again. I entered his room with a smile and a greeting only we would understand: "Mr. K, I haven't knocked anyone's water over in two days!" Our conversation this time was deeper, more real, more open. Two or three times he let his frustration with his cancer show. I saw his disappointment about life--Someone was not keeping his contract. Life was playing a cruel trick. We spoke namelessly of the kinds of things that support us--accountants we've known for 50 years, wives who come faithfully every day, people who keep up the normal flow of our lives in a steady, predictable pattern, until something uninvited and unexpected happens...what did he call it? An obstacle, no--it had a more earthy name that I can't quite recall now.

We talked about not knowing how we'll get through something...about how things often look more unmanageable than they turn out to be, one step at a time. All of this was discussed within the context of our normal lives--his business, my kids, school, schedules. The second time the frustration surfaced, I got the signal it was time for me to go. I patted his shoulder and smiled and excused myself, thanking him for the visit. I felt we did good work together there in a very few minutes, and I found myself wishing I could do something to help Arthur believe that life wasn't a cruel joke and that God wasn't playing some do-it-right-or-else game. But at the place we were with each other in this beginning relationship, I couldn't address it directly. Besides, I know what it feels like. I've felt that way before too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Stories that Work

Here's a perfect example of how narrative can help. After a discouraging and difficult day in CPE, feeling a bit weepy and worn out, I talked with my agent Claudette. We've been working together more than a dozen years and our relationship has grown to the level of close friends and almost sisters. We've only met face-to-face once, but that doesn't seem to matter. Our phone conversations through the years have been long and full of the stories of life--we encourage each other, see the best, pick each other up, get mad together, vent our frustrations, and alternately, it seems, deal with our life learnings and crises.

Today she called about a contract issue and caught me in a shaky moment. I told her a bit about CPE, about the newness, about my self-doubt, about my irritation at my insecurities. I related a story about the time I decided I wanted to learn to play classical guitar. I fell in love with the instrument; I had to have it. I paid the music store $50 a week from my paycheck until I could get the guitar out of layaway. By the time I could afford to get it, I was six and a half months pregnant--a condition not condusive to the posture and position needed to play classical guitar. But the biggest obstacle was not my physical condition but rather my inability to be less than excellent. I saw this lovely instrument; I held it; I wanted to play it. But I couldn't bear to struggle, first at being bad; then at being happy with slight improvements; then facing the long path toward achieving any kind of mastery of that beautiful instrument. My frustration ended any positive experience I might have had at my lesson; it eventually filtered into my practice times (although I did seem less frustrated practicing on my own), and after only a few lessons, I quit, supposedly until after my son was born.

Eventually I found my own way to play the beautiful guitar, but I never achieved any proficiency in classical music. My inability to let myself be in the process of learning ultimately made my learning impossible.

Claudette told me that she'd never had formal lessons of any kind, so she was surprised to find that, after many years, she did some things very well. She said she has found that her love of horses has over the years taken her to a "different level" than most people get to. She has an understanding of horses, a natural ability to ride, a way to find and know her center of balance that most people continue to struggle for. She said that it was suprising to her that she also had this internal sense of balance when she tried to ski, which she's done only a few times in her life. I asked her what this meant to her, this bodily "knowing" that enables her to move in cooperation with life around her. She said she learned to overcome the fear and keep it from changing her body; she continues to "breathe and seek the center," realigning and continuing to seek it (as opposed to panicking and going rigid) until she finds it. She is aware that the horse needs her to be centered--it needs her direction and deep listening; that keeps her seeking until the fine point of balance is found.

Her story ministered to me in a way that 100 stories about chaplain experiences could not have. I'd been praying that God show me what I, Katherine, needed to know in order to understand that I'd done His work in a successful pastoral care visit. Now I know. Seek the center. Find my divine north star and invite others, silently and openly, to find theirs. The surface work may look like a careening slope or a galloping horse, but now I know what I need.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Patient Story

Today I was taken to my unit (Oncology) and made my first patient visit accompanying a CPE resident. The woman appeared to be in her early 70s, high energy, nervous but welcoming. A nursing manager was in the process of inserting an IV, which made the woman anxious. As soon as the chaplain introduced herself, the woman's eyes lit up and she began a string of stories--stories about the level of her pain ("I didn't think I'd be able to stand it"), stories about her daughter ("she lives only a few blocks away but I didn't want to bother her...she has two small children"), a story about her grandson ("he had to come along to the hospital and he sat there with his Gameboy. So cute. When they went to leave, he said, 'Grandma, do you want me to leave my Gameboy here so you have something to do?' And he had just gotten that for Christmas!'), to a story she repeated two different ways about her sister coming over from Europe (her home) to care for her during her last illness. She spoke of the smallness of her family as well. I said almost nothing; just observed. But I found myself wondering about her surprising chain of stories. I didn't expect so much to be offered right from the start. But I also thought her "chattiness" was partly due to her anxiety about being in the hospital and partly to get her mind of the nurse trying to find the right spot for the IV.

I came home pondering the woman's string of stories. I wondered what type of story she might be telling in various forms. I looked up John Savage's, Listening & Caring Skills and almost immediately knew both the level and the type of story the woman was offering. (Click the link "Story Levels & Types" on the right to get my condensed notes for evaluating story types.) This was a rehearsal story (evident by the repetition with different characters and it's tie to a story in the past) and a level-three (emotions now) story. The woman was obviously concerned about who would care for her if she became as ill as she was four years ago, when her sister flew over to be with her. This went on like a light bulb in my head. I wish I had seen it sooner, when I might have been able to direct the conversation more toward something that would have been helpful in that regard (although it wasn't my conversation to direct). But it is still helpful to see this concern for any followup pastoral care visits I may be able to have with this patient.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Nun Story

She is the type of nun I love--tough on the outside, almost manlike. Intimidating to some. Smart and professional and left-brained. But when she begins to talk about a moment of essential connection, when she describes herself 30 years ago as a "new, green chaplain," explaining how a patient transformed into a human being right before her eyes in the moment she listened to the internal prompting to touch his arm, I knew it was there. The love of Christ. The still-awe-inspiring power of God's absolutely transforming LOVE. It was still transforming her, repeating this story, three decades later. This is my first day of CPE, and I know I'm in the right place.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Testing an Audio Story

My son Christopher talks about the musicians that inspire him and why.

To hear the recording, click here: Christopher's Music Inspiration

NOTE: Nope, this doesn't work yet. I need to figure out how to make a sound file execute when clicked. Stay tuned...

Friday, January 02, 2004

Thelma's Rehearsal Story

Two weeks ago, 94-year-old Thelma told me during a pastoral care visit that she'd recently found a story she'd written "for some reason" about the earliest Christmas she can remember. She described going to her grandmother's house on a frosty Christmas morning in a "storm buggy" that was reserved only for extra-special outings. She remembered the candles on the tree and the special gift of the fur muff and hat (expensive presents for her parents to give) that she used to keep her warm on the ride. She sat snuggled between her "mommy and daddy" (as she still calls them today) and said her little brother Will rode on her mother's lap. It was a comforting, wonderful memory of a special day and an exciting, anticipated outing.

As I read Listening & Caring Skills by John Savage in preparation for my CPE work beginning next Monday, I realized that Thelma's story was a rehearsal story, a story about her own next passage, hopefully also done in the companionship of her dear parents. After a series of falls in a world that continues to grow ever smaller, Thelma is preparing to die. This realization moved so solidly into my consciousness that I knew it was true. I wish I had been more conscious of the meaning of her story so that I might have been able to meet her in it. For now maybe the most important thing was to hear in it her own curious preparation and the anticipation of a hopefully wonderful trip. I didn't know what I was affirming for her, but as she told the story it seemed to bring her peace and hope.

Post One

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a seminary student learning about the stories we live and tell and the stories we tell and live...