Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thank You and Goodnight

It has been 3 years since I finished my work as a hospice chaplain. But I never stop thinking about it. Today, as a Throwback Thursday, I thought I would revisit my post after my last shift. 
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Tonight I worked my very last shift as a hospice chaplain. It is midnight, my shift ended 11 minutes ago, and I am writing a blog post while my thoughts are fresh. I'm planning on going deep into the night, just as I have so many times when I've been on-call. And then on Friday I'm going to resume my previous life as a morning person.

I'm wearing my badge around my neck, for the very last time, as I write this. As another nod to sentiment, I just returned from a late night Del Taco run, which I have done probably 50 times between the hours of midnight and 6am in the last 2 years. Many times I circled the drive-thru just because it comforted me to know that other people were working at that time of night. While most of you have been oh-so-selfishly sleeping in your warm beds during these shadowless hours, some of us had to keep the world running. Big Fat Chicken tacos don't make themselves, you know.

I also just left my last voice mail for the team I worked for tonight. I ended it with "Peace out suckers!!" No one will laugh when they hear it. Hospice workers just aren't funny.

It's all but impossible to capture the experiences, the feelings, and the interactions that have formed these last 25 months. There is no way that I can fully describe what it feels like to go to bed with a beeper (yes, a beeper) next to your ear, and have it scream you out of sleep at 3am, like a rooster who's been doping. And that's only the preface to the terrors of what comes next: "Adam, there is a family who lost someone tonight and they're not coping well. The nurse needs your help for spiritual and psychological support. Oh, and their house is 50 minutes away from you, in east L.A. Tell us when you're finished, because we may have another visit after that for you."

When I told people I was a hospice chaplain, they would give me one of two responses. Either they would be absolutely mortified and look at me as though I were an alien from outer space, or else they would be incredibly moved and give me a hug. One time an old couple bought me a bottle of Syrah and a 20oz Rib eye after they found out what I did. One time a woman scowled and walked away after she found out what I did. One time a child yelled "I hate you!!", stomped on my foot, and ran away. I might have made that last one up.

But the extreme responses I received from others only echoed the contradictions that I experienced within myself. Hospice has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Hospice has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I feel like I have seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I have seen exactly what I needed to see. I feel like my heart grew 3 sizes. I feel like I left pieces of my heart all over Pasadena, and Monterey Park, and Pomona. I had days where I felt like taking off my shoes because I stood on holy ground. I had days where I felt like putting on layer after layer because I felt naked.

I have holy memories, and I have haunted memories, and they mingle in my mind, like a wedding attended by two families who hate each other.

I remember the man who threatened to commit suicide at 2am, and how I kept him on the phone for over an hour until he promised not to do it that night.

I remember the woman whose heart stopped beating the moment I said "Amen."

I remember the brothers who got into a fist fight after their dad died.

I remember Livia, who I sat with for hours and talked about her childhood in Italy.

I remember the family who complained bitterly about my service, even though I gave everything I had to that visit.

I remember Katherine, who told me what it was like to grow up in London during the Blitz.

I remember the woman who told my supervisor, "Either he needs to learn some goddam respect or else get another mother*%$ing job!"

I remember the people who said "You have been with us in the most important time. You are part of our family now."

I remember the time I was called 4 times in an 8 hour shift, and how I spent the next 3 days on the couch, depressed.

I remember the old woman at a nursing home, who answered my "Good morning" with a brazen flip of her middle finger.

I remember the time when I sat in a nursing home with a grieving woman with early onset dementia who had just lost her mom. She asked me the same exact question every 4 minutes for 2 hours.

I remember the late night drives to the City of Industry, where very little industry happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. I remember the late night drives to the City of Commerce, where very little commerce happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. Don't go to the City of Industry or Commerce late at night.

I remember the first time I was the first person to inform someone that a relative had died. It was my very first death visit.

I remember Eulogia ("blessing" in biblical Greek), the 99 year old woman who had lived in her house for 80 years. Shortly before her 100th birthday her family moved her into a nursing home. When I visited her the next day, she saw me and immediately burst into tears and said "I didn't think you would know where to find me!"

I remember the time that I prayed for a man who had been unresponsive for three days. When I took his hand to pray, his fingers closed around mine. It was the last time he moved anything voluntarily.

I remember the two sisters - young, smart, attractive, and blonde, with dream lives in their crosshairs - and how they watched their mother succumb to breast cancer.

I remember the girlfriend of the dying man who sat by his bedside all Christmas eve and all Christmas day, when his family wouldn't come. They had been dating for 3 months. He was perfectly healthy when they started dating. They met at church.

I remember the men of older generations who didn't feel comfortable expressing emotions. They slowly died on the inside while their wives died on the outside.

I remember the time that I threw my beeper across the street and had to hunt for it in the dark for 10 minutes. I remember the time that I managed to turn off my beeper while asleep. I remember the last time I ever turned off my beeper. It was an hour ago.

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The apostle Paul tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," and as I penetrate through all the memories, all the late night drives, all the pop music I used to keep me awake, all the agony and the joy, all the holy and the profane, all the cursing and the praise, all the solitary walks around Pasadena City Hall, all the graveyard Del Taco runs and daybreak Starbucks runs, I uncover gratitude. I am grateful to be done, yes, but I am grateful for all of it.

Thank you for teaching me about pain. Thank you for teaching me not to run from it, but to sit with it.

Thank you for the sacred moments, when I was able to hold a patient's hand as he took his last breath.

Thank you for teaching me about death, that it is always awful and sometimes beautiful.

Thank you for opening my heart to family, who may war with another but almost always show up in the same room when they need to.

Thank you for showing me that my dreams and desires will not always pulsate within me.

Thank you for teaching me about depression, that it often shows up at times of transition.

Thank you for clarifying my priorities, for showing me what is significant in life.

Thank you for teaching me that my most profound thoughts fall completely flat in moments of life and death.

Thank you for making me a better person than I was 2 years ago.

Thank you for showing me that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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When you spend as much time around death as I have over these last 2 years, when every day on the calendar is Ash Wednesday, you learn that ultimately life offers no happy endings. Every life ends in sadness and grief and pain and silence. And all we can do is struggle and work, believe and doubt, hope and fall, run and wrinkle. Every person has both a victor and a victim inside of her. You have more fight and strength in you than you ever imagined, but you also have more weakness and vulnerability than you ever thought. Your bodies will decay and ultimately lose the fight, but you will battle valiantly and courageously. I have seen it time and time again from people you wouldn't think would be so strong.

When you work in hospice, you spend a lot of time with people who are waiting, suspended in that interim period between light and darkness. But whether in life or in death, we are people who wait. We anticipate a Day when the deathbed will be transformed into the cradle of resurrection, when the last gasps of death will be modulated into the cries of new life.

Until that glorious daybreak, we pray with the Church every night:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love's sake. Amen.

Goodnight. Thank you.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why I am a Listener

"Perhaps the best conversationalist in the world is the man who helps others talk."
                                                                                          -Lee, from Steinbeck's East of Eden

There may be no discipline in our culture so highly valued but so seldom practiced as listening. Every relationship self-help book kicks off with the panacea of better listening. Every marriage can be fixed, every work conflict resolved, every wayward child brought home with more and better listening. Preach a sermon on listening and every head will nod and every knee will bow.

But in truth, there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in practicing it. It is the New Years Resolutions of relationship disciplines. Listening is not glamorous, dynamic, or sexy. Listening will never be the next big thing. There is no money on the listening circuit. There is no listening circuit.  People who have been well heard aren't even aware of it half the time.

The ministry of listening is quiet. Preaching happens center stage from a pulpit in front of hundreds of people. Listening happens in corners and coffee shops and late-night phone calls and hospital rooms. People don't line up at the door of the sanctuary to shake your hand after you have listened. The ministry of listening is small. It happens in one-on-one settings, maybe in an occasional small group that has prioritized listening to one another. The ministry of listening is slow. There is always more to learn about another person, no matter how long you have known them. There are more layers to unpack, more stories to hear, more emotions to usher us into trembling silence. It requires significant time and meaningful waiting. 

I am not naive enough to think that my listening book will sell many copies. It will not bring me money and it will not bring me fame, and that is okay. Because a listener does not seek the spotlight.

The reason I am so dogged in my pursuit of a listening life is because listening is making me into the kind of person that I want to be. I want to be the kind of person who helps others find their voice by listening along with them. I want to be a story-listener more than a story-teller. I want a listening heart, one that seeks to give, to learn, to welcome, to serve. I want to believe that the way to be filled is by giving away. I want to release my power so that others would be exalted. I want to set aside my agenda and my desire to control and to let the heart and words of another, maybe even Another, direct the conversation. I want to be the kind of person who submits, the sort of man who is subject to others out of reverence for Christ. I want to be the kind of person who has the capacity to be present and attentive, and I want others to feel loved, respected, and valued by my attentiveness. I want my listening to remind people who they truly are.

I don't just want to listen. I want to be a listener. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bud Break


It's spring time in the vineyards, which brings with it the most awaited moment of the vineyard's life cycle. In early March the days get hotter and the vine begins to wake up. The heat triggers the reproductive rhythm, the sap flows upward from the root to the vines, and then that annual miracle happens: bud break. Even those vineyard workers who have seen it 60 times wait with anticipation and some anxiety for this moment, and praise the heavens when it happens. Bud break brings hope, it brings life, and it brings the promise of abundance, livelihood, and harvest.

I wondered for a long wintry season if the buds would ever break in my life. Everything felt cold, dormant, and desolate. I was burnt out, stretched thin, in a job that was choking the life out of my soul, stuck in uncertainty about my future. I could hardly remember the last harvest, when my life had felt full and rich. I had lost my passion for writing, and I struggled with bouts of depression. Even the holiday season had been lifeless and empty. I wondered if the earth had stopped spinning under my feet, and whether I would be stuck in eternal winter.

I got serious about wine after I started visiting the Santa Ynez Valley, about 45 miles north of Santa Barbara, in 2004. I first visited after seeing the movie Sideways, and I quickly learned two things: first, this is my favorite place on earth, and second, don't mention the movie Sideways to locals. I quickly became a regular, making the drive up here 10-12 times per year, and I began to nurture a dream of living here and spending my remaining days writing, sipping the plentiful nectar of the land, working at a winery, and living a big life in a small town.

The Santa Ynez Valley became my promised land, a place where wine flows like water, where beauty lifts and calms my soul, where it takes an hour to get out of the grocery store because everyone in line chats happily with checkers and baggers, where life moves at the pace of the annual vine cycle, where the farmer's market is three blocks long in a six block town.

But every promised land has giants as well as grapes. There were significant obstacles keeping me from the entering the land. It is expensive to live in wine country, and my hospice resume wasn't exactly conducive to getting a job in the wine world. My dream was so near and yet so far away, and I lived for many seasons in that far away nearness. I was in the wilderness, and I didn't know how to get out.

In April 2013, I attended a conference in Napa hosted by Image Journal called "Cultivate," and the theme was winemaking, art, and the creative process. I had left hospice a month before, and was suspended in an in-between world, walking a tightrope between two cliffs, trying not to look down. It was an unsettled, anxious time. One morning at the conference, I spoke on my own search for "place," and especially how elusive true place has been for me. I longed for a place where I felt I belonged, a place that I could call home, a place where God visited. And for me that place is Santa Ynez, but I felt like Moses in that I got to see my promised land but didn't get to enter it.

But buds are relentless and inevitable. They may look fragile when they first emerge, but they will not be denied. Even if a spring frost comes and freezes the nascent buds, new buds will shortly take their place. The vines will flower, they will produce leaves to make sugar and protect the flowers from the summer sun, and clusters of grapes will develop out of the flowers. Sugar levels will increase, acidity levels will decrease, and come the fall the grapes will make wine.

Last July, I was offered the assistant manager job at one of my very favorite California wineries, Au Bon Climat. Last fall, I took another part-time position as a winery tour guide in Santa Ynez, combing my passions of wine, history, and Santa Ynez. About the same time, I figured out that downtown Santa Barbara is the right spot for me to live.

There have been some dark and cold nights. There has been loneliness and sadness and desolation. But once again, buds are breaking all over the place here. They will not be denied, not even by the coldest winter.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Writer as Madman and Mystic

I spend a lot of time reading what other writers say about writing. It's an excellent way to procrastinate from actually writing. In reading the words of seasoned authors, who themselves are usually writing about writing in order to avoid other projects, I have discovered two recurring themes. The process of writing may very well make you crazy. And it may also make you a mystic.

Sometimes the crazy is the charming kind of crazy, like the retired journalist in my hometown who walked the streets for hours a day, waving at everything that passed by: cars, people, planes, squirrels. Philip Yancey says that the first phase of his writing process "is all psychosis. I don't even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don't shave. I'll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk."

But sometimes the crazy is the life-choking, relationship-poisoning kind of crazy. It doesn't take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway's routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. The alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle. Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, pondering that her greatest writing success is likely behind her, confesses "It's enough to make you start drinking gin at 9 in the morning." She laments that the pressures of the creative process have been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The writing process is an emotional rollercoaster that threatens to run you right off the rails. Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It's more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy. In writing, your hopes, dreams, fears and inadequacies are exposed. You learn what it is you most want in life and how incompetent you are to actually achieve it. It's easy to see how the first casualty of this war is your sanity.

But the process of writing may also make you a mystic. A life of writing can transform the most committed atheist into someone who talks of gods and spirits and muses. Countless authors attest that, in some mysterious way, the discipline of writing can connect us with outside forces, as our words become channels for other voices speaking in the universe. C.S. Lewis said, "I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say." Others take a more earthy approach when they claim they don't invent a story, rather they excavate it. They imagine themselves as literary archeologists, discovering a story or an idea that has been buried deep within them yet cries out to be found.

Some writers seek to renew our belief in muses, those ancient spirits that inspire the creativity behind great works of art and music and literature. Elizabeth Gilbert says that in ancient cultures people themselves were not considered geniuses, but they had a genius who sparked their creative impulses. In a different spirit, Stephen King envisions his muse as a fat guy living in his basement, smoking cigars and admiring his bowling trophies and pretending to ignore you. But, says King, "the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."

Some people may consider the writer's tendency towards madness and mysticism as one and the same. But from what I can see, the first leads to restlessness and despair while the second moves toward peace and freedom. Gilbert hopes that resurrecting the muse will give writers a necessary distance from their work, releasing them from the destructive side effects of the creative process.

As much as I appreciate Gilbert's views, as a Christian I am not ultimately satisfied with her solution. I agree that there is another power that overlaps with our creative efforts, but for me it is the Holy Spirit. I won't reduce the Holy Spirit to a muse, but I do believe that the same influence that inspired the apostles to preach and write is also, in whatever lesser form, present in my work, even in the very messiness of the writing process. I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.

The ancient muses, it was thought, helped create works of art and literature. But the God in whom I believe is about creating certain kinds of people, shaping them into men and women who believe, hope, and love. While I do think God cares about the works we create, I believe that God is more interested in the process and its effect upon us. God is in the dying - the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising - the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. And if, through the writing process, we allow ourselves to be shaped into new kinds of people, then perhaps writers will come to be known for more than just being crazy.