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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Narrative Medicine Monday: Family Summons

When rotating through the Intensive Care Unit in medical school or residency, one of the most significant skills learned, in addition to adjusting mechanical ventilation settings and how to run a code, is how to conduct a “family conference”. This is where loved ones, preferably including the patient’s designated medical decision proxy, gather to discuss the patient’s status, prognosis and treatment plan. As these patients are severely, sometimes suddenly, ill, these can be very challenging conversations. 

In “Family Summons” Amy Cowan illustrates how she was surprised to have a patient’s family gather in the middle of the night, wanting to speak with her as their family patriarch’s physician. Her piece highlights how important it is to listen and extract the true identity of the patient, the life they lived beyond the ICU. Establishing this portrait can help inform the care team as well as free the family members to make decisions in line with what their loved one would want.

Writing Prompt: Have you ever attended or conducted an important medical family conference? How was it run? If not, can you imagine what questions you might ask to best get to know the patient? Think about if you were the patient in the ICU; who would you want to gather on your behalf and what might they say when asked about you and your life, what’s important to you? Write for ten minutes.

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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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Narrative Medicine Monday: Published!

Starting the year off sharing some great news! I recently received in the mail the Fall 2016 Edition of OUHSC’s Blood and Thunder Journal, which includes two of my essays. I’ve had several pieces published in online journals but there is a special kind of excitement that comes from seeing your name in print on a tangible page. I’m humbled that two of my favorite shorts “Expectant” and “Burst” found a home in this narrative medicine collection.

“Expectant” chronicles the very first delivery I witnessed. Obstetrics was a revelation to me as a young medical student, especially never having had children myself. I was in awe of the entire process and this short essay reveals my own insecurities as I was christened into the world of medicine.

“Burst” is about my first continuity delivery in residency training: a pregnancy meant to be followed throughout all nine months to completion. I was a new physician and had much to learn about the unpredictable nature of obstetrics.

One of my writing goals for 2017 is to make significant progress on a book-length collection of narrative medicine essays.  I’m starting the year off taking Creative Nonfiction’s online course “Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal”. Finding time to edit and submit my work has been a continual challenge but writing classes provide encouragement and structure to make the time, harness the energy and muster the gumption to keep at it. I’m eager to let go of the draining and perfectionist tendencies of 2016 and write on in 2017. Holding a palpable culmination of my writing efforts is an encouraging way to embark on a new year and I’m grateful.



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Free Write Friday: Goodnight Moon

Her sister loved the book, requested it every night. Her brother, not so much. He wouldn’t sit still to listen to any board book; made me worried about his attention and future schooling prospects. The words rush back to me now with this littlest one, memorized at some point years ago with the repetition I endured. Every night: “In the great green room…” I rock the baby and read. 

She tries to eat the thick pages, colored with orange-red, yellow, kelly green. She too takes to the silly story of bidding goodnight to the bears, to the mittens, to the bowl full of mush. I discover I now find comfort in the rhythmic cadence, the sentences fall out of my mouth sing-song, lyrical and pleasing. 

Maybe that’s why she listens quietly, transported to the simplicity of a warm room, a rocking old rabbit, a nightly ritual of farewell to all the little things that surround us – the comb, the brush, the little toy house, and all the big things too vast for us to comprehend – the stars, the air, nobody, the moon. Goodnight to it all. Goodnight to the immediate and the immense. Maybe this still appeals at a time when everything seems virtual, intangible, rushing by. It’s nice to stop and acknowledge, step into the present space and recognize the greater cosmos above. 

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Due to the holiday week, I’m taking a break from Narrative Medicine Monday and sharing a favorite: River Teeth’s Beautiful Things. This narrative nonfiction journal posts a short piece of prose each Monday, highlighting a different “beautiful thing”. Today’s piece by Jennifer Bowen Hicks, entitled “White” captures a moment between her and her son as she walks him to school on a cold winter morning. I encourage you to check out River Teeth’s complete series; these short pieces never fail to inspire.

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Free Write Friday: Ornaments

The plastic boxes pulled down from the attic, thin film of dust, debris from the particles upset overhead. I begin to pull out, sort through. Shiny, shimmery reds, glittering silver, deep forest greens. I rediscover: Santa photos from years past, wide eyed children frozen in shock and concern, not wanting to flee from the bearded stranger lest it mean no presents; ornaments from childhood, a styrofoam princess with a billowing egg crate gown lined with purple glitter, angelic cherry red dot of lips, blank coal eyes, snowy tuft of hair; items bought on deep discount sale the year prior, appealing to my inability to resist a bargain, accumulating that which isn’t really needed. Candles, too many candles, shaped as evergreen trees, lined with sparkles that shed unceremoniously; I’m hesitant to light them and deplete the wick, thereby defeating the purpose of having said candle, year after year. 

I turn on the Christmas playlist, honed over the years to specific tunes that conjure up Norman Rockwellesque memories that may have happened, or that I wish had happened, in holidays past. We don’t have enough lights, depleted over the years by broken bulbs, but I’m hesitant to start anew with the energy saving LED lights; their glow just isn’t the same, less desirable to sit and stare at the sterile pale light rather than bask in the yellowed soft glow of traditional bulbs no longer available at the drugstore. 

I trim the tree; this year two of my children old enough to participate, take over with their careful placement too distal on the needled branches, causing them to sag, sad with the weight of the gibbous bulbs. Their eyes brighten as they behold each trinket, eager to cluster them at eye’s level. My kindergartener realizes some balance is needed, grabs the step stool, reaching high with her arms to give the wooden snowmen, the tiny wreaths, the fabric angels full view of the living room. She examines each ornament closely before placing it strategically, then steps back, admiring her work as the baby coos as if approving, down below.

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Narrative Medicine Monday: Thanksgiving Dinner

Allie Gips’ striking poem “Thanksgiving Dinner” profiles her grandparents as they suffer from dementia and recurrent cancer. Gips writes that there is “there is a forgetting that is wrenching and then there is a forgetting that must seem like some kind of forgiveness”. Gips expresses sadness watching her grandfather relive the disappointment at finding the sparkling cider bottle empty again and again. This simple act of recurrent forgetting serves as a rending reminder of the cost of his illness to family gathered at the Thanksgiving dinner table. 

Writing Prompt: Have you witnessed someone suffer the effects of dementia? Think of a particular incident, like Gips’ empty bottle, that struck a chord with you, illustrating the defecits. Write for 10 minutes. 

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