Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Year of the Hurricane

1 year ago this week Theo and I caught the last flight into Tallahassee's airport before Hurricane Hermine. We had planned to leave the following day, but made last minute changes when we saw the weather. Jonathan was already there, camping out in an empty house and getting ready to start teaching.

We had known we'd be moving to Tallahassee for 16 months before moving day actually arrived, and yet the last minute change in plans, the cancelled goodbye dinner planned for the following day, the chaotic hustle to check out of work early, the scramble to get an airport ride and hours on hold with the airline made the move feel sudden. It felt like rushing out of a birthday party because your kid fell and broke his arm, even though you knew you were going to leave just 30 minutes later anyway.

Despite starting off with a dramatic storm and a week without power, the year was less like a storm, and more like an intense sports match. There were notable highs and lows which caused cheers and tears, but the majority of the time was spent in a high power dance between defense and offense. I'm not sure who won or lost, or even really who the opponent was - perhaps my expectations, my past, my future hopes? I definitely did battle with several thousand mosquitoes.

Still, it was a stormy start, and the analogy of "rebuilding life" after a major event, like a hurricane, feels apt. I found myself often torn this year between the desire to rebuild what I used to have and what was familiar, with the reality that those habits and patterns don't all fit into life in a new place. When people talk of rebuilding after a storm, they rarely rebuild the exact same house, in the exact same spot. Their favorite elements remain the same, I would think- perhaps the location, or the style of home, or how big it is. But an exact replication would be, if anything, foolish. A new home should be safer, sturdier. It would be foolish to plan for a new home and keep the faults - the creaky floors or sticky windows or awkwardly shaped kitchen - of the old home. The past should inform the present, but not limit it from growth.

There was nothing so perfect about my life in DC that it warranted replicating so exactly. And yet, I struggled not to replicate it because at least I knew how to live life in that structure. But, just like new wine will rip open old wine skins, a new city and job and space literally did not fit into expectations and daily life strategies that worked well in a different city and season of life. What I needed was not skills in memorization - the repetition of words and concepts that don't change. What I needed was wisdom - the application of skills and concepts learned but applied to a life that is dynamic.

Wisdom has the ability to fully hold the past and present (and sometimes the future) at the same time, to see and know them both, and to act in accordance with that truth and knowledge. Wisdom doesn't rebuild the old, it creates the new. Creation is a lot more work than replication. Better and more fruitful, to be sure, but more work.

I'd like to think that a year after our hurricane, we've got a solid foundation build. There are even some metaphorical walls and decorations up. Still, for better or worse, I get a lot of comfort from moments that remind me of more familiar life patterns - long weekend walks, the diversity of people seen in public spaces, the familiar frustration of healthcare system. They are sweet moments of God saying, "here I am." Because, unlike my wisdom, which is ever-lacking despite feeling like I'm constantly growing, God's wisdom- His ability to be true to past, present, future, and self all at once, and to act accordingly- is not lacking, and is that constant companion calling out, "here I am."

This year was not about starting new, because God is too kind to give us blank slates to work with. It wasn't about re-building the old, because, well, I tried that at first and it didn't work! It was about learning to need and find and grow in the wisdom of a Creator whose constraints are not location and experience and comfort, but rather goodness and truth and beauty.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Walk Two Moons

“Don't judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”― Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons [adapted from a Native American proverb]. I have fond memories of reading this book as a middle-schooler. The details are long forgotten, but the themes I can still recall.

Last week I got in a fight with my doctor. Ok, so it was really more of a medical disagreement, but it felt like a fight. It had that bitter aftertaste of discontent, like when disagreements reach a conclusion but emotions are still at odds. We disagreed by 7 days about the most accurate due date for baby girl.

It was not your most typical doctor-patient disagreement. I have both the benefit and burden of also caring for prenatal patients, so I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about when it comes to establishing an accurate due date. If the roles had been reversed, and I was the doctor, I would have agreed with myself. I had assumed it was something we would agree on. I don't have a lot of experience with different doctors in this city, but she seemed like a solid choice- I had no reason not to trust her medical knowledge. (though, to be honest, I mostly choose her office because as an OB she worked together with a midwife partner which I appreciate, and because her front desk staff was nice and efficient).

Now, practically speaking, it probably won't matter too much which due date we pick. I will probably go into labor right around those two dates anyway, and the difference of a few days won't change matters. That said, it could matter. It could change when I decide to start my leave, if I would need to be induced, if I need extra (expensive) post-dates testing, or if a baby would be called preterm or post term. It felt like it mattered practically, even if chances are it wouldn't change much either way. It also mattered that we made a decision based on all the best facts, to the extent that we were able to do so.

On her end, she had to trust some of the facts I was telling her. She also was having a bad day- her partner called out with a broken rib and she had to cover clinic and the hospital floor. I know how that goes- I would be stressed and rushed, too. She needed the time to document, emotional energy, and patience, to have this discussion, change her mind, and come to an agreement. She did, in the end, reluctantly agree with me, though perhaps more out of exasperation than conviction. I won, but it didn't feel like winning.

That's a long story simply to reflect on the fact that we become better providers and receivers of goods and services when we experience both sides of that economic coin. I am a better doctor - more patient, a better listener, a better teacher-  when I am also a patient. I am a more gracious and understanding patient because I am also a doctor- long wait times, frustrating insurance problems, last minute schedule changes, I know that's not what any doctor wants (though I also might be more annoying when I refuse to do non-evidence based lab work or tests...).

Depending on our profession, we can't all quite so smoothly experience both sides of the coin. I suspect, though, that making a significant effort to do so would go a long way. Regardless of profession, we all have a chance to do this socially, economically, even racially (to some extent). "What's it like to be you?" we need to first ask, and then endeavor to experience.

That's what incarnation is. It is embodying, en-flesh-ing, the life and world of an "other" out of a desire to know and be with them for the purpose of forming a better, truer, relationship. It reconciles and restores us to one another in ways that we didn't even know we were un-reconciled and broken. It helps bridge power differentials in a way that is mutually beneficial, though perhaps not always mutually comfortable. Rather than changing us to be like someone else, incarnating the life and experience of others makes us all better, fuller, truer selves.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Healthy Stools

There's been a lot of talk about healthcare, and I'd like to do some defining of terms when it comes to health, medicine, and what it means to be healthy.

Medical care and Health Care are different. This, I believe, is at the root of the problem with our insurance system. That is a blog post for another day. Medical care provides medicine, operations, and concrete solutions to clear diagnoses and problems. The goal of medical care is to make some one who is sick, better. This is important! Health care, I would argue, includes medical care as I've just defined it, but goes on to also focus on preventing medical problems before they arise (good medicine is awesome, but isn't not getting sick even awesomer?!), educating patients on medical concerns that may arise in the future, addressing ones hopes and fears in relation to living, dying, and just getting through daily life with as much purpose, energy, physical and emotional wellness possible. (our insurance system was set up to address medical care, but research and experience have lead the medical community to want to provide health care...but like I said, a blog post for another day).

Our health (and therefore our care of it) comes from 3 different places. I often describe this to patients as a three-legged-stool which, without any one leg, wouldn't be complete.

One leg is made of the health related factors that we are born with; our genetics. In medicine we call these non-modifiable factors. You have no control over them. This includes your genetic predisposition for cancer, or diabetes, or any number of illness. It also includes your race, body type to some extent, and some behavioral tendencies as well. One day these may become more modifiable, though I expect even then, our genes will have a large influence over our health.

One leg is made of health factors that are largely up to us. What you eat, if you smoke, how much you drink, if you exercise, if you wear a seat belt, what type of physical and emotional risks you take...etc. We call these modifiable risk factors. They are aspects of health that can be changed by your actions. Though, it is important to point out that while all of us have choices, for some of us the healthy choices are easier, more obvious, more available. For others, they are options in theory, but in reality much harder to choose, even if desired.

The last leg is made of health factors that happen to you because of your surroundings. They didn't have to happen, and are therefore technically modifiable, but they are also largely out of your control. They are modifiable by someone - your parents, the government, your city officials, those with more power and influence than you, but you yourself can't do much to change them. Some examples might be - having a parent who smokes, causing respiratory harm to a child; a city with high lead content in its water causing lead poisoning; what your school serves for lunch; the safety of your neighborhood.

Health care (care for one's health), I would argue, can be seen in a similar 3 legged stool analogy - if you remove any one leg, the goal of improved health becomes much harder.

One leg is the patient - they can choose to follow medical advice, take medications, alter modifiable risk factors, and be an active participant in getting or staying healthy. We all acknowledge that there is some degree of personal responsibility in the movement towards health. It is important for one's mental and emotional well being to find ways to be in control of one's health.

One leg is the doctor or other health care provider, and her or his specific recommendations and treatments. It's the medical professional's job to explain diagnoses in clear terms, review treatment options, discuss goals of care, and pick a plan going forward that is both evidence based and realistic for the patient.

The final leg is the medical industrial complex - insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, regulatory organizations. From what medication is covered, to how many doctor visits are allowed in a year, to how many days of rehab you are allotted, to which doctors you can see, to how much your doctor will get paid for the care they provide, these groups have a lot of power.

I like the stool analogy because it demonstrates how reliant each leg is on the other one in order to create a sturdy, safe, reliable system of care. If your genetics are so strong in predisposing you to a certain illness, then sometimes there isn't much medicine or you can do to help change that as much as you'd like. If your environment leaves you with so few reasonably healthy options for food, activity, education, mental well being, it is hard to over power that with pure will power or medical advice. If you put no effort into wanting to improve your health, even the best doctor in the world won't get far in making you healthier. If you are highly motivated, but have a doctor who suggest culturally or economically unrealistic treatments, you feel stuck. If your insurance, or the price of a medication, or even the existence of an approved medication, is out of line with your needs and reality, then even the best health care goals and plans won't help you very much.

Whether we like it or not, these three pieces are woven together to make this system we've created called Health Care. A less than holy trinity. But, as power and influence shifts more to one leg, we become unbalanced. Sometimes this unbalance is non-modifiable (genetics) or very hard to modify (systemic poverty and all its causes), and sometimes it is hard, but slightly more modifiable (policy, law, regulations, encouraging evidence based medicine).

We're all faced with a different set of modifiable and non-modifiable factors that affect our health. But for many, there are aspects of their health which should be modifiable that have become non-modifiable, and this is the greatest task the health care world has to address right now.

PS - extra props if you got and enjoyed the pun in this blog title. :)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Nazis and Refugees

My ancestors were both Nazis and refugees. So are most of us.

I was born in Germany, and half of my family is German. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in the eastern German countryside, with a few of them also in Berlin. There's not exact information about what they all were doing during WWII, but the evidence generally indicates that some escaped to the countryside to avoid all conflict, and others, though not my direct grandparents, were likely Nazis.

When the war ended, my grandparents were still in eastern Germany. The Berlin contingent experienced the soviet blockade in the 1940s, and moved as far West in the city as they could afford. The eastern Germany group was forced into the Russian labor camps. While they weren't concentration camps, conditions were bad, food was scarce, lives were lost, and my grandmother was raped. They were, somewhat miraculously, released, and returned to eastern Germany to settle down once again. There, my dad was born. When it became apparent that conflict with the Soviets was not going to end, and the Iron Curtain began to fall, they escaped on literally one of the last trains to cross from East to West Germany for the next 30 years. The needed refuge. They lived in Hamburg and Berlin for the rest of their days. There I was born, in West Germany. My baby clothes and toys are marked, "Made in West Germany." **

We moved to the US in the late 80s, after seeing the Berlin wall come down. My father brought me a piece of it - graffiti red and black on one side, and grey concrete on the other.

I loved my German-ness. I enjoyed our few remaining traditions, being able to speak German, getting to travel internationally at a young age. It made me feel unique. Until 6th grade. Our history class did projects on injustices throughout history. At least half of them were about the Holocaust. It took me years to figure out how I could feel ashamed and sorry for something that happened before I was born. I could have gone off-campus to take German as my required foreign language. Instead, I took Spanish.

This (his)story may sound uniquely dramatic, but it's not. Not really.

Most of us have within us, within our families, within our culture or country or religion, stories of being oppressors and being oppressed. Perhaps not to this degree. Nazis, after all, are essentially the gold standard example for oppression, injustice, and hate. They may not be our personal stories, but we carry them with us. We exist, because of and in spite of them. Some of our stories are neater, more obviously lacking of evil and oppression, and perhaps more filled with mercy. Some are messier, making us feel dirty and wishing we could dissociate from that part of our unchangeable identity.

I've thought again and again about how to hold these two identities at the same time. I've wondered, what I would have done, had I been alive back then.

At any given moment, we all hold the ability to enact either hatred or mercy. It's a grace in and of itself that we're able to choose mercy and kindness as often as we do. At times we are the oppressed, the refugee- powerless, alone, vulnerable, the object of oppression. Some face this intensely and physically. At times we are also the oppressor, or at least given a choice of being the oppressor- powerful, safe, able to harm others. Some experience this in large, dramatic ways; all of us experience it in smaller, day to day actions and choices.

Just as my family history holds both evil and escape, hatred and harmony, mercilessness and mercy, so do I. So do we all.

Let us be refugees from our own hate and fear- to flee from evil and darkness, and run with abandon towards goodness and light; to find refuge in something outside of our selves.

** while my family were not refugees when they came to the US, they were relatively well-off immigrants, they were also descendants from one of the largest terror organizations, in modern times. Yet, we had no trouble getting into the US.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

History. Whostory?

I'll openly admit that history is not my best subject. I appreciate it. I enjoy when it is told to me in engaging ways. It is certainly important.

I took a fair bit of history in grade school that I still remember. I don't remember all the details- dates and names and specifics- but I recall the overarching themes and lessons from each period and nation. Still, my knowledge of history is millions of miles behind Jonathan. To be fair, he's a history buff. I'll ask him a simple question about a basic historical fact and 15 minutes later he's managed to retell the entire story of some nation or people.

I've been wanting to increase my own knowledge of history but have always felt a little overwhelmed at where to start. I enjoy reading, but history books have never quit been my thing. I don't always enjoy documentaries, though there are some good ones. There are probably some decent audio programs out there.

It used to be that learning more history just wasn't really a priority in my extracurricular life. It's still not truly a priority, but more and more I've found myself wishing I had a better understanding of the context and past of different people and places to help me process the present. We've watched a few engaging documentaries recently that have helped start to fill in the large gaps in my history knowledge.

But, I still feel hesitant about diving in. I used to think I was just intimidated by the vast amount there is to learn. I'm coming to realize, however, that it isn't intimidation, but concern, that keeps me at arms length.

I feel concerned that what I read will only be one side of the story, that my view of a nation or people, and subsequent interpretation of history and even the present will be colored by an only partial truth, or worse, by a false retelling of events.

History, so often, is written and told by the victors, the powerful, the resourced. I know many true historians, past and present, place great value on truth and strive to retell the stories of the past with the greatest truth they can find. They do research and care about the information they are sharing with others. I appreciate their effort, but it doesn't feel good enough. I feel constantly concerned that whatever I choose to read or watch or listen to will only be part of the story. An honest effort to tell the whole story, perhaps, but still just a part. There will be people's voices who won't be heard.

Even two similar people can experience the same event or time period so differently. What and how they recall what happened will sound different. I know this to be true even from simple examples of my own life- my sister and I, I'm sure, would tell different versions of life together growing up. Neither are wrong, but neither is complete.

Current academic historians, I believe, do try to research and tell the fullest and truest version of history, though even they have special interests and agendas. But the primary documents they have and period literature they use to research is still generally written and told by the wealthy (not the losers of battles), powerful (dominant culture, men), and resourced (not the poor, uneducated). In school we're taught history as though it is fact- simply a set of events that have happened that we are to memorize and take for granted. But who decided on that version of events, on those set of facts?

So I find myself feeling trapped- wanting to learn about the past, but concerned I won't hear the whole story. Arguably, this is not a reason not to being learning (got to start somewhere). But, it does make me feel cautious. I don't have time to read multiple sources and accounts and vet authors and such. I haven't found a good solution to this discomfort. I know there are authors out there who focus on telling history from the perspective of the losers and powerless- their books aren't as fancy, mainstream media and publishing doesn't promote them in the same way, so they feel less credible, which is the whole problem to begin with! These are the people whose story wasn't incorporated into history the first time, it's hard to weasel your way in decades or centuries later.

Truth is so exhausting to search after, sometimes.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

100 Days

Today marks the 100 day mark in Tallahassee.

A few reflections on life here, with some (perhaps unfair) comparisons to DC and Philly.

Tallahassee is not a morning city, but I am a morning person. Streets and playgrounds and stores are close to empty until closer to 10:30 or 11am on the weekend. There are a few more serious runners out, but weekend mornings are very quiet.

Religion (Christianity, in particular) is a fair topic for conversation among almost near strangers. I was never once asked "where do you go to church" in DC by anyone but a close friend. Strangers ask this here. Politics, however, is not a fair topic for conversation. The city overall seems much less "in the know" about what goes on abroad and throughout the country. Perhaps it just isn't talked about.

People aren't as obsessed with work here. Work seems to start mostly at 8:30 or 9. None of that 7 or 7:30am craziness that happens in DC. It's not the first, or only thing people talk about. Then again, I don't have that many people I talk to regularly, so maybe they do. Tallahassee is less pretentious, a little more humble. People don't walk around thinking they have all the solutions and answers. Or at least that's my impression. People here don't go boozy brunching every weekend. They just eat normal breakfast and lunch. People seem to care most about comfort and security.

The first thing everyone says when they hear where we moved from is, "Wow, that is quite a change. How's it going?" Then they ask, "Why did you move?" Then, "Do you have any kids?" Then, "This really is a great place to raise a family. You'll learn to love it." I find that amusing, because I never say during these conversations that I'm not enjoying it here, it is inferred that because we moved from a big, bustling, full of life city, that we must find this place boring and conservative. Everyone feels the need to reassure us that this is a wonderful place to raise a family. I wonder what they would say if we didn't have kids? If we were single? Where does the need to reassure come from?

To elaborate a bit on the family friendly point- It is certainly nice to have more space, a yard, a safe street to run around in. There are some playgrounds and parks. There are weekly lists of "family friendly" events going on throughout the week. I find the term "family friendly" interesting. It just means your kids will like it, or will tolerate it, or will be tolerated. No guarantee that the whole family will actually feel they're meant to be there. BUT, I actually found both DC and Philly to be very family friendly. There are way more parks, playgrounds, public spaces to be in. When everyone owns/rents less personal space, more time is spent out in public. There are small playgrounds every few blocks, you can walk or metro to school/daycare/church/groceries/zoo/friends house. Here, it seems everyone has enough space in their yard and house, they don't need to go out as often. The streets always seem quiet. Where are all the kids playing outside? Don't people work in their front yards ever? Getting anywhere means at least a 15 minute car drive it seems, plus the hassle of getting in, out of the car, taking kid gear with you, buying gas...etc. In DC I don't think we used our car for anything except going to work, and then later on groceries.

Life rhythms in DC/Philly aren't about going to specific events/places most of the time. You just go out for a walk and spend a few minutes at the park, maybe pick up a gallon of milk, and head home 30 minutes later after running into at least 2-3 people you know and many others who look familiar. Your life syncs up with the life of the city- you become a part of it and it a part of you. Your feet are familiar with the cracks on the street and your eyes notice even small changes in your surroundings.

I don't hear gunshots in our back alley in Tallahassee, I've never left my wedding rings at home while running to lessen the chance that someone might mug me. I don't see people peeing on the side of our house when I leave for work in the morning. I don't walk by corners on which I can recall the names of young men and women who were shot in gang fights. But then, I also don't run into people I know while walking/metroing to work. I don't have the chance to talk with Theo about all the evil that is sometimes so blatantly obvious in big cities. (Good and evil, are everywhere, of course. But they look different in different places). I can't pop into a friend's house while going for a walk. I don't notice if our local school has planted a new garden or if the homeless man on the corner is gone. I just don't naturally see people as often. Maybe as I meet more people this will change.

Finally, race relations here feel quite different. It's hard to put my finger on exactly what is different. The city feels uncomfortable talking about race, out of practice. Though, it's clearly a segregated city. Philly and DC are exhausted from racial tensions- they're stuck in the fight to figure out how to live life closely with those who are different. I haven't figured out yet where Tallahassee is in that glorious battle. By numbers, Tallahassee is actually quite mixed, much more than I'd ever guess just driving around. Why is that? It is easy to live here and to never need to interact with those of a different race, class, religion if I don't want to (except for work). That isn't true for everyone here, but it does seem true for large swaths of the city. It requires great intention to be with those who are different because the city is set up in such a way that it doesn't happen naturally. It's why we intentionally put Theo in a daycare where he's one of few white kids, mixed mostly with Latino and Black kids. There are parts of the city where this seems to happen more easily, I'll admit. In DC/Philly, the city requires you to interact with those who are different. You can avoid doing so, but it takes intention. My feelings about this, too, may change as I get to know people and places more. But, after going to a historically black med school and living in an incredibly diverse city and neighborhood, life here feels a bit homogeneous. I've never lived anywhere where I felt a part of a religious majority, and it's been a while since I've lived so obviously as part of a racial majority (though my privileges by being a part of each of those groups have never diminished despite my geographic location).

I have a lot more learning and listening to do about this place. I'm sure all my observations are not reflection of the full truth of this place. They are just what I have experienced so far. Part of that experience comes not just from moving cities, but from also moving from one type of neighborhood to another, namely from lower income to higher income.

Life is full and complicated and best lived when all the hard questions of where and why and with whom to 'live and move and have our being' are brought to the light and struggled through in truth and grace.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Waiting for Advent

I've been waiting for Advent for weeks.

It's strange, I suppose, to anticipate and wait for a season that is all about anticipation and waiting.

Holidays, I find, are too quick. One day of celebration and it's over. Advent is a season. I need the time to marinate. Advent is like a walk in the woods- there's time for marveling at big trees, dipping toes in the stream, a picnic, bouldering to the highest point, and maybe even a nap in a sundrenched clearing.

Advent is about remembering how to be and become more human.

Advent gives us four weeks to find light in dark places, to remember that wandering and searching have both purpose and an end, to remember promises and long for their fulfillment, to be human in all humility and glory, to find hope in unexpected places, to be near to God, and yet feel not near enough. It brings out our every longing and need, and yet doesn't leave us vulnerable or taken advantage of- it mysteriously holds both our needs and their fulfillment in the same breath. It gives us hunger while it cooks us a feast. We are safe to long for, anticipate, and even expect, and that honesty and security is a gift.

As much as I enjoy this season, perhaps the greatest glory of Advent is that it ends.