Free Write Friday: Santiago

I have had a week where much as been out of my control, where the bigger questions of life are asked and the daily answer is in the mundane tasks of doing the laundry, reading stories at bedtime and making sure there’s enough milk in the fridge for breakfast.

Perhaps because of this, I started cleaning out my desk at work with vigor, a task I could complete with a level of control and subsequent satisfaction, sorting through papers sitting dormant for months, maybe years. I came across a clipping of a poem, David Whyte’s “Santiago”. I don’t remember where it came from, if it was given to me by a patient or by a now-retired colleague who used to share poetry with me on Fridays when we both needed it most or if I clipped it myself at some point. Whatever the origin, it spoke to me this week, thinking about the road seen and not seen, the way forward and finding a way, and my own reflection, wondering at the “clear revelation beneath the face looking back”. Let it speak to you this week and may you always be more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way.


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Excited to share my post on the importance of narrative was published on this week. KevinMD is a widely read blog that shares “the stories and insight of the many who intersect with our health care system, but are rarely heard from.” Grateful for the work done by KevinMD to give voice to those who work within and are cared for by the health care system, as well as serve as a platform for discussing important current issues. 

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Free Write Friday: Snow Day

The kids gather their sleds, dusty in attics or basement corners, and head for the hill. An inch, maybe two, come each year, mid fall or late winter. Mismatched snow gear, the pants too small, the jacket gaping, the hat a hand-me-down from big sister, older cousin. 

Usually there’s a predawn session, heading out after a truncated breakfast, too excited to eat much, empty tummies rumbling in anticipation of the snowy day. Pink noses, rouged cheeks, they tread carefully in awkward snow boots. The silence is deafening after a bustling rainy day in the city. Neighbors smile at one another; everyone is off and out. 

The hill is just a slope, barely an incline. Even-earlier risers have already gotten some runs in, adults pulling their toddlers on plastic discs. The green betrays the locale, grass peeking through, causing a bumpy ride. Still, their faces alight with the novel sleekness, skidding down the street, slipping on familiar ground, sliding at the park. 

And after, hot chocolate warms tiny chapped hands, miniature marshmallows bobbing between the wisps of rising steam. It’s a little bit of true winter in the evergreen land. Northwesterners, unabashedly afraid of sleek ice, happily trade in their routine despite being ridiculed for closures. The freeze brings a warmth and the forced slowing in snowfall a welcome calm.

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Free Write Friday: Feed

She feels bound, normal routine punctuated by the dread of each day, a scrolling feed of ominous news. Her three-year-old collapses in a tantrum, a heap of hot tears as he pounds his fists on the front door; he wants out. She wants out too, of the surreal reality of this reality show. She doesn’t want to contribute to over dramatization but this present darkness needs no assistance; the prognosis is dire.

So she gets up in the dark, shuffles into her day. Some days it takes effort to exercise, to chat with the barista, to get the kids into the car and off to school, to carry others’ burdens of illness throughout the day. She does it all, simultaneously avoiding while craving the news, the next shocking headline of the day.

She needs to write but struggles to find the words. She reads articles from The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian. She listens to NPR and watches PBS. She streams The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live but finds it hard to laugh. The jokes are funny, but also so not. She follows the ACLU and World Relief on Twitter and avoids Facebook. The bombardment of outraged posts inevitably clog her feed. She feels like she needs to be fed, but slowly, so she can consider, in moderate, sustaining bites. But instead she is gorged on the glut of it all.

She wonders: this must be what it feels like to live during one of those eras, the kind she read about in school textbooks. Protests erupt, world powers align and misalign, everyone feels on edge. She looks at her chubby baby, not even a year old, and wonders what the textbooks will record of this time, how the era will be remembered, deconstructed. What will she tell her infant daughter about this nagging sensation of creeping dread, like struggling to find the surface as your lungs begin to burn underwater, knowing you need to break free and gulp the air.

So she writes anyway and moves about her day. She resolves to be resolute and find the ways a young mother can contribute. She gathers her people and marches with the crowd. She donates to persecuted causes and writes letters to her representatives. She mutes the static on her feed, will not tolerate xenophobia or the lies of alternative facts. She worries about the isolation of her liberal northwest bubble, she worries about her children’s distant future. She’ll read books and write more. She’ll feed herself with knowledge, with the lessons of history; she’ll feed her children and her tribe the same. She hopes this will sustain her and free her, or at least nourish her with a steady diet of discernment and tempered hope.


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Narrative Matters

As I struggle with how best to respond to recent events, one thing has become clear to me: narrative matters. People’s stories matter. Words and how they are presented in written and spoken form matter. I am just a mother, just a doctor, just a writer. My daily life consists of changing diapers, getting my kids to school, managing diabetes in my patients, picking up scattered toys, treating depression, doing laundry, writing blog posts, weathering tantrums, listening to the news. It’s mundane. It’s commonplace. It feels insignificant beyond my family, beyond my little corner of the world. But recently I’m seized by the enormity of the need to respond, of the urgency to do something. It feels as if we’re ushering in one of those times: a time that tests our resolve, our character, our unity, our faith. What can one person do?

I remind myself: I am a mother, I am a doctor, I am a writer. I am a citizen of this nation and of this world. My words matter. My stories matter. My voice matters. And so does yours. This is what the world needs: our stories. I am the daughter of an immigrant and a person who welcomed a young Iraqi refugee family into her home. This family, made up of brave, intelligent, hardworking people, left behind what remained of their home, of their family and friends to come here to build a better life for their children. Their story matters. And if you sat with this father, who wants to pursue graduate level studies in the U.S., who cares about what food he eats and laughs easily and plays soccer on a grassy park lawn on a summer day with his son, maybe his story would change your perspective and mitigate your fear.

So we must start here, with our stories. Share your story. Listen to one another. Narrative is needed to break down walls and build bridges of empathy; stories are required to combat fear and xenophobia. Words matter. Truth matters. Listen to words, discern truth, share stories. This is the antidote to being paralyzed by indifference, it is the cure to saturation with propaganda, it is the remedy to “alternative facts.” Narrative is the answer to the call of such a time as this.

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Free Write Friday: Dressing

The stomp of his feet as he clambers upstairs, whiny pitch to his voice as he exclaims: “Mommy, where my clothes?” His big sister is dressing and he’s beside himself. He wants to follow suit. Three years old, he can choose his clothes and dress himself, but an older sister trying to be helpful stifles his independence by doing it all for him. 

When he was a toddler he writhed this way and that, twisting his torso with wild intention as I tried desperately to diaper and clothe him. I was surprised he was so particular about what clothes he wore. The shirt had to hang just so, the waist of the pants a specific elasticity, the fabric itself not too textured, not too rough. 

Now we lay all the next day’s clothes out the night before in a green laundry basket. After bedtime bath, they each choose clothes for the following day. Sometimes an argument ensues: a sleeveless dress in the chill of winter, pants that have long been outgrown, a shirt already stained and dirty from wear earlier in the week. The compressed morning requires this evening ritual, whether mommy is working or not. I’m either tasked with getting the oldest out the door to before school care or hauling all three to morning drop off by the the elementary school bell at 7:55 a.m. 

The baby is easy. No choice in the matter, she wears what I choose, what the nanny decides. On work days I arrive home, sometimes surprised at what the nanny has chosen, more or less layers than I would have picked out, leggings matched with a top I hadn’t considered. If I’m home for the day, often I’ll leave the baby in her pajamas; an easier non-choice for a harried mama of three.

After dressing, my eldest moves on to accessories. She carefully selects a headband, brushes her hair, the front part at least, to a gleam, considers her reflection in the mirror. She tries on a turquoise ring, takes it off. She adorns herself with a beaded necklace, or two. Sometimes she practices her ballet moves on the blue step stool in the bathroom, lifting a lithe leg, pointed toe, reaching up behind her like a flamingo’s pink neck, extending to the sky. The elegance and simplicity of the moment gives me pause before I rush her, rush us all, finally clothed, out the door. 

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Free Write Friday: Cafe

The glass door swings open awkwardly; it easily gets stuck. It’s slow today, rainy outside and indoors is a refuge. Roasted coffee grounds suffuse the air, I breathe deep for the caffeinated aroma to wake me. Glass display case houses delectables. I like the cinnamon roll scones, butter and spice infused pastry crumbles at the touch. 

They know me here. “The usual?” One barista dark haired, glasses, someone I might be friends with if we were contemporaries in college. She usually has her hair pulled back, a ready smile. She inquires about my kids, about my weekend. The other is more quiet, still friendly but I find a kinship in her introversion. They trade off working the espresso machine, making the savory crepes and manning the register. They work well together.

Music is varied, dependent on the day. Today it is soft, vibratory melodies, barely perceptible. The other day it was David Gray, flashbacks to the 90’s and early 2000’s. I liked the melancholy music; it triggered memories of a transitioning millennium, a time of before and after, when we were all ushered into a dark and divided new norm. 

They remodeled the coffee shop recently, adding wood panels, copper lighting. The concrete floor rings cold and is polished roughly. Anywhere else it would chill me, this floor, but here the soft bare light bulbs overhead, the steam rising from the espresso machine, the friendly conversation between neighbors, the head down seclusion of the newspaper reader: it warms me.

I like the quiet, the bursts of gentle laughter, the sound of sipping coffee, of cups resting on square tables, of tip-tap typing, of a clanking of dirty dishes as we each take a morning pause, collective and caffeinating into the new day.

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“Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957

Today, this week, this year especially, it seems important to heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m particularly struck by his call to “divine dissatisfaction” in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” May we all meditate on his words today and may they stir us to action. Let us all be dissatisfied.

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Free Write Friday: Makeup

She pulls out the shiny magenta case, like a tackle box but smooth at the edges, a mirror secured inside the lid. “I have to fill it with my makeup!” She exclaims, moving from room to room, collecting her beauty things. “Mom, have you seen my mermaid lipstick?” No, I haven’t. I hid it away somewhere and promptly forgot where I put it; a parent’s prerogative. It’s not really lipstick, just rose tinted chapstick, gifted to her by a well meaning friend. I got rid of it as soon as I was able to without her immediate protest. 

I suspect she suspects me as the thief, the culprit discarding of her treasured beauty trinkets, but I have to accept her eventual disdain for my actions. She’s five. She loves long flowy dresses, she’s gravitated toward high heels since she was two. She collects hair accessories like they’re candy, items to be savored and adorn her mousy brown locks. I worry. Will she be superficial? Will she self-scrutinize? Will she be consumed by what she looks like, how she appears to herself and to the world? Of course she will. But I want to temper the inevitable, preemptively find a way to help her emerge from the challenges of girlhood with the foundation of a healthy identity intact. 

She watches me hawk-like when I put on my own paltry morning makeup, scrutinizing every move: sponge applies a tinted moisturizer, brush of peachy blush, a swipe of eye shadow. I just started wearing mascara again a few months ago, conscious of my aging beauty regimen and tired mama eyes. She studies me like an artist regarding a celebrated sculpture, trying to deduce the method of craft. I’m self conscious as she analyzes me, defensive at my feminism and wondering at my hypocrisy in wanting her to avoid the trappings of the beauty counter world.

She and her brother used to stand below me as I regarded myself in the mirror, applying my cosmetics for the day. They’d ask for a makeup sponge and imitate my movements, swiping over their face and neck. Eventually they’d bore of this and use the sponges to “clean” the bathroom walls; perhaps a more appropriately concrete activity to occupy their imagination. 

She doesn’t really have any makeup of her own, so she fills her plastic box with sparkly headbands and large hair bows. She corrals her tiny hairbrush and her brightly colored elastic bands. I want to protect her from the self-scrutinization, the self-criticism of being a girl in this superficially focused world. I want to adjust her own lens, swap it out with one that filters with self-acceptance, appreciation of variation and an ability to discern a deeper beauty, the kind essential to all that matters.

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Free Write Friday: Resolution

She’s a goal setter, a rule keeper, a list maker. She pulls out the worksheets early each January, looks back, plans forward. There are questions about finances and fitness, family and work. She found this simple form years ago and it’s her favorite. Straightforward and practical, with New Year’s Eve reflections and promptings for concrete steps to be taken in the unblemished year to come.

Light streams in through the dining room windows, tainted with tiny handprints and a subtle layer of accumulated muck. The answers flow this year, falling out of her head and onto the page. 2016 was a crucible of sorts and it’s time to rise from the ashes. 

Midlife reached, she’s realizing the truth: that everyone hides in their cocoon of facades, that we share too little of ourselves, that authenticity is a rarity and an unexpected gift to those around you. Life isn’t just messy, it’s cruel at times. But the beauty, astounding magnificence, really, is in the sharing, in the connection that comes from journeying through the valleys together.

This all pours out, onto the page, infusing her goals, her plans, her lists. And what stands out: grace, boundaries, sleep, kindness, gratitude. So she starts with these as she binds herself to her tribe, stepping a little more boldly, a little more bruised, a lot more vulnerable into the new year. 

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