Monday, July 4, 2016

narrative medicine 101

OK. OK! I know...I've been quiet on Blogger for the past few weeks. But, don't worry. I haven't given up or keeled over or been overwhelmed by anything remotely dramatic. It's just that I've decided to begin again, and that takes time and effort.

I'm beginning work on a new blog:

storytelling~the healing path
"The degree to which you can tell your story is the degree 
to which you can heal."
~S. Eldredge~

This blog will explore the importance and role of storytelling in medicine, a field known as "narrative medicine." 

It encourages the healthcare provider to trace his or her own journey into a profession that is both challenging and rewarding, full of both hope and despair, and, depending on the day of the week, both exhausting and inspiring. Perhaps his father and grandfather before him were physicians and to aspire anything less meant outright mutiny in his family. Perhaps she navigated a life-threatening childhood illness, herself. 

Narrative enables them to share the stories that unfold for them in the hospital among the patients they care for. Which patients touched them most deeply, and why? What scares them the most? Where do they find the courage, dedication and solace that make it possible to go on day after day, year after year?

Another perspective involves the most basic skill in medical care—obtaining a thorough history of the patient’s illness. Not just the facts (When did it start? What are your symptoms? What have you already tried?) but their feelings and thoughts about it. What it means to the patient to be sick. How it affects the people around them, and how they feel about that. 

The final path is therapeutic. It requires the caretaker to become a storyteller, to develop a talent for re-imagining the patient’s recovery in metaphorical terms, suggesting that healing is possible because someone has already experienced it.

Why is any of this important? Because patient outcomes are improved when the provider understands the patient's illness in the context of his or her experience, culture, and expectations.

Because satisfaction improves when the patient feels he has been heard. And, because (listen up all you health system CEOs and CFOs...) in the long run it saves time and money.

"storytelling--the healing path" will be up and running soon. You can find it at or connect to it hereIn the meantime, have a wonderful 4th of July!


Saturday, June 18, 2016

finding the right words

June 18, 2016: 
Part 1

I'm having a hard time finding the right words for things this week, so I thought I would skip writing anything at all today. After all, I just got back from a trip to Pittsburgh, and tomorrow I leave for Massachusetts. I didn't think I had any meaningful commentary to add to this week's news, and I certainly didn't expect to find time to write. I have to pack.

But when I got up, I couldn't resist going outdoors. When I left the house there wasn't a cloud in the sky, not a breeze. Fields that were emerald two weeks ago had turned to gold. Except for birdsong, the world was silent--not an airplane overhead, not a lawnmower humming away, not a single dog barking in the distance. For me it was the perfect way to start the day...too perfect for words.

As I walked I remembered the headlines from this past week. I thought about the families who are burying their LGBT sons and daughters today. Families who lost young children in unimaginable tragedies this past week. People fleeing deadly floods and raging wildfires. A friend whose cancer is spreading. For them, this is a terrible day...too horrible for words.

I walked with them for an hour and a half this morning, but it wasn't enough. Not long enough, not far enough, not hard enough. I may have to go back out again later...

June 18, 2016
Part 2

This weekend we observe Fathers' Day. In a perfect world, every day would be a happy day for fathers. But it isn't. Too many despair of finding and keeping their jobs so they can care for their families.Too many of them are stalked by bitter memories of war or abuse or the shortcomings of their own childhoods.  Some are besieged by addiction to drugs or alcohol, to gambling or sex, to the very work they take such pride in. Some have lost a child. 

In a perfect world, the rest of us would be happy to celebrate Fathers' Day with them, but we can't. We don't always know how to comfort them, or heal them, or make peace with them. Some of them are already gone. 

Perhaps we should try celebrating Heroic Fathers Day or Healing Fathers Day or Hopeful Fathers Day for the men out there who can't find happiness. For the rest of you:

Sunday, June 5, 2016

writing is a meditation

If you practice meditation you know how hard it can be to quiet your mind while sitting in silence. Our minds like to be busy--thinking back on things that have happened, thinking ahead to what awaits us, guessing, planning, judging, fretting--when our goal in meditation is to let go of all those thoughts so we can remain calm, mindful, and compassionate.

When our minds wander during meditation, we are encouraged to simply acknowledge the interruption and refocus on the body. When thoughts arise, we label them "just thoughts" or "just thinking" and move our attention back to the next breath--in, out, in, out. Letting go of intrusive thoughts helps mitigate the impact of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, bitterness and resentment that may have a strangle hold on us.

This, I believe, is a practice writers should embrace. We are accustomed to labeling our own negative thoughts as "voices" we hear. It's an interesting metaphor. We are advised not to pay attention to the voices of negativity that discourage our creative efforts...voices that insist we're wasting our time, that we have no hope of success, that our work is meaningless or inferior. Voices that make us feel guilty for indulging in something we enjoy when others are so hard at work.

The voice of a parent might come back to us...something about taking life seriously, earning a decent living or keeping up appearances. It might a teacher or boss or co-worker, all of them with your best interests in mind as they scatter aspersions and dissuasions and conventional expectations along your path as if your journey weren't difficult enough without them.
The point is that those negative voices are just thoughts. Just echoes from the past, not worth arguing about. They are opinions, and they do not have your best interests in mind at all. Banish them! Return to the breath. Or take a walk. Or call up a friend--someone who encourages you and supports your dream. Someone who understands how hard this is and respects you for trying. Someone whose friendship isn't invested in your success or wealth or fame.

Do whatever it takes to stay on the optimistic side. Turn your attention back to the truth: 
When we choose to pursue something as fleeting as a creative urge or as elusive as a dream, negativity is intrusive. Think about it. Meditate on it. Learn how to let it go.

For more on writing and meditation visit my friend Madhu Wangu, at .

She's the expert.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

where the poppies grow

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

~John McCrea~
The name of John McCrae may seem out of place in the distinguished company of World War I poets, but he is remembered for what is probably the single best-known and popular poem from the war, "In Flanders Fields." He was a Canadian physician and fought on the Western Front in 1914, but was then transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918. His volume of poetry, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, was published in 1919.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

a word of praise, a nod of approval

This week a member of my critique group asked me to reflect on my experience with the group...specifically, what I think I've learned from my fellow writers. I've posted before about how much I appreciate my fellow writers, and how important it is for a beginner to have a good critique group.

So, here are five things I've learned from my critique partners in addition to correct grammar, spelling and punctuation:
  • I've learned that it's a lot easier for me to edit some else's work than it is to pick up on my own mistakes (passive verbs, extraneous adjectives and adverbs, pacing, etc., etc., etc.)
The entire process has improved my self-editing skills.
  • We meet once a month. Polishing up a couple of pages in time to make that deadline has helped me forge ahead with my novel. Without it, I would probably never have finished a line of revision or moved ahead to the next scene.
  • You can't please everyone.  What one person likes, another deletes. What one person thinks you should keep, another thinks is needless. I've learned to make the final decision based on what I want to get across to the reader. What is true for me.
  • In their early drafts, even some of the already-published authors among us struggle with the same issues I do as a beginner (scene setting, characterization, plot points, etc., etc., etc.).

 I've learned to trust the process. The finished-product may scarcely resemble the first draft.
  • I've learned that a word of praise or a nod of approval can do more to motivate a writer than all the advice in the world... matter who it comes from :)

A big round of applause and gratitude goes out to all my critique partners! Thank you!

" We do not mind our not arriving anywhere
nearly so much
as our not having company on the way."

--Frank Moore Colby--
This weekend I'm missing the annual Pennwriters' Conference in Lancaster, less than an hour from where I live. This means I have to miss some terrific workshops, but mostly I miss seeing the friends I only get to see once a year. Miss you guys. Maybe next time...

Saturday, May 14, 2016

ten signs you're ready to begin

When I retired in order to begin all over again as a wannabe writer, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I didn't know if I had any talent for this kind of thing, any hope of success, or the necessary dedication to it. Nevertheless, I put my misgivings aside, summoned whatever courage I could muster, and cleared my desk so I was ready to try.

Since then I have learned that there are certain signs that writing is a person's true passion in life. Is it yours?

In my experience, these are the top ten signs that you, too, may be ready to begin:

  • At any one time, you carry at least five pens with you (six to ten is even better). Go ahead. Check your purse or briefcase now.
  • You have enough pens with you but sometimes you forget to carry paper. Therefore sizable chunks of your manuscript are recorded on napkins, on the back of receipts, on used envelopes, and when that fails...on the back of your hand.
  • You have perfected the ability to record plot points, dialogue, and gorgeous prose whenever and wherever your muse is kind enough to share it with you...and you can get it down without taking your eyes off the road.
  • Sudoku makes you cringe.
Image result for sudoku
  • You are reluctant but willing to concede that your laptop/word processor is a convenience, but you will defend the merits of pen and paper to the end. Remember the likes of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
  • When you're writing, you sometimes make yourself cry.
  • Sometimes you make yourself laugh.
  • When you read what you've written later on, it happens again.
  • You have made peace with the "delete" key.
  • "I wasted the whole day," is not part of your vocabulary.
  • You make excuses (Oh, all right--you lie) so that you can stay home alone.
Oops. That makes eleven sure signs.

The point is that unless you begin, you will never know what you can accomplish. You will never put your passion to the test, exercise your creativity, or realize your dream. You will never know if you have what it takes, and you will always wonder about it.

When do you plan to begin?


Monday, May 9, 2016

change is good

"Change is good." How many times have I invoked that weary platitude in defense of starting a new project--redecorating a room or sprucing up the yard, trying a new diet, or even starting a new story.

The problem is that I would rather redecorate a room than clean it. A total makeover is so much more fun to think about than scrubbing down the walls or shampooing the carpet, and then tossing a couple of new cushions onto the couch.

I'd rather put in new landscaping and plant fresh flowers than face the drudgery of edging and weeding the beds I already have.

And how many times have I made up my mind to go vegetarian, or vegan, or Mediterranean rather than simply cutting down on the fat, salt and sugar in my diet like I know I should.

There is something irresistible about starting anew, the promise that you can make it bigger, brighter, or better this time around. Imagine what you could do with a truckload of new furniture, or a gourmet kitchen, or a updated wardrobe! Oh, the anticipation, the execution, the endless possibilities!

It's like starting a new book. You're full of sure that this one will be better than the rest! Every day you're eager to get back to work on it...

...when you really should be plowing through tedious revisions on the piece you've simply grown tired of.


Spring is a time for change, whether you're working in the yard, giving the house a good cleaning, or starting a new story.

Sometimes all it takes is a little dusting and polishing, or a little hoeing and raking to spruce things up. Just a few minor revisions can make all the difference.

Then again, sometimes it pays to stick with what you already have and make it the best it can be.