Strangers

February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.

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Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.

You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.

In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.

This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?

I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.

 

 

 

I am a Writer

A token from Jennifer Louden, our retreat leader

I am a writer, and I am writing.

I come from a strong line of female writers. My grandmother liked to write historical fiction and romance novels. My mom is writing a memoir about being the parent of a medical school student. We are writers, and we write.

I spent the last week on retreat in Taos, New Mexico with 22 brilliant women writers. Every day we listened and shared, wrote and read, moved and found stillness. Every day the rain came and brought with it the scent of fresh lavender and mountain air. As our time together went on, I heard an echo from several of the women at lunch, in our small groups, even after morning dance: You are brave. You are so brave.

Every time I heard this my gut reaction was to correct. “Oh no, I am not brave. I may hide it well but inside I am terrified, nervous, anxious, and completely unsure. My mother is brave- a cancer survivor. My grandmother was brave, she was a mother of six. But I am not like them.” In one of the afternoon sessions, our assignment was not only to name our inner critic but to personify them. These are the people or experiences we internalize that tell us we can’t write because we’re not creative, or edgy, or we might offend someone. What if they could help us, we mused.

My inner critic turned out to be an old man sitting at an antique wooden desk, looking sternly at me over his glasses. In his hand he holds a rejection letter. All it says is, “no.” The man couldn’t be expected to waste his time telling me why or what I might do better, he just laughs and shakes his head. “You really thought your story belongs in our prestigious publication? HA!” He shoos me out with a lazy wave. This critic comes from something I wrote about last week, which is an obsession with perfection and a deep hesitance to show anyone my work unless it’s absolutely stunning. I can write all day, never stopping for a minute to consider how scary it is, until it comes time to share. I can practically feel my face fall when the email comes in, something about dear writer, we regret…it’s hard to read past that part. Sometimes you don’t even get an email, just silence. Ghosting, as the dating world calls it.

I read a few books this week, really living in to the question “What do you want in this moment?” Reading is always one answer. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors tell us that admitting our imperfection is quite a profound step as humans, but one that ultimately leads us to healing. In one chapter, they consider the woes of perfectionists by considering a particular point: “We may not be able to do anything completely perfectly. But what that means is that we cannot do anything entirely imperfectly. Consider a bad day: we wake up late, spill our coffee, give a terrible presentation at work. But we complete a few tasks and commiserate with our spouse in the evening, and not everything has gone wrong.”

I thought about all the writing I have ever read. What a spectrum from mind-blowing to absolutely horrifying. Yet, the mind-blowing could always be tweaked just a little more. The absolutely horrifying still has one tiny piece of merit. My work will never be perfect, and never completely useless. Bravery is knowing this and not letting it stop you.

I am a writer and I am writing. I come from a strong line of female writers- my grandmother, my mom, and now 22 new sisters. None of us perfect, all of us alive with stories. We are writers and we write. We are brave- fear exists within us, but we do not entertain the possibility that this fear would stop us from doing what we love and what is right. And what is right, is to write.