Friday, February 29, 2008


Leap year! I'll take this extra day to tell you about a question I got asked this week. I had just given a talk at the University of Washington and an audience member asked me how I stayed detached from my work.

"I'm not detached," I said. "I don't mind going home and thinking about all the people I've met in the clinic."

I just figure that there is something for me in every encounter and it's up to me to mine that experience for all it's worth. If I don't think there is something for me in every patient encounter then I'm going to get burned out pretty quickly. So that means I think about my day at home.

My model is Mr. Jesus who was never detached. Talk about no boundaries! He was eating dinner with whores and IRS men; letting little children climb all over him and going out fishing with the guys.

Doesn't seem detached to me.

I know this model isn't for everyone but I don't think I could do it any other way. That also means I've had "patients" over for dinner and selectively given out my home phone number. No regrets so far.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


A couple weeks ago I heard Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine says something like, "We don't lack the resources for there to be enough for everyone in the world. What we lack is the will and the incentive."

Right on, Jim! It's all about greed, isn't it?

It's a pretty well known concept that having some measure of inner peace is just as important as advocating for world peace. You know, peace begins at home. Which got me to thinking about my own greed--at home.

How is the desire for a huge company to make profit, any different from my desire to have biggest piece of cheese on the plate? Or one more piece of cheese despite the fact that my belly is full? (But my mouth wants more.)

I don't think it's all that different. But here's the thing: it's not as if only developed nations have greedy people. The poor are greedy too. Humans are greedy and the continual challenge is to overcome our own greedy natures. Or decide to be greedy in a different way.

I, for one, am working on being greedy for silence, for peace, for laughter, for justice, for God.

I'll let you know how this works out.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Pardon My Begging

A friend just wrote to me that she has been reluctant to go to India because she couldn't handle the poverty. Well, the poverty will be there whether you go or not. It’s a question of do you want to deal with your feelings of guilt, outrage, helplessness, confusion, despair and wonder?

I can’t get the image of a little girl pressed against the car window. She was gesturing to us to give her something to eat. Then she put her hands together in namaste on her forehead and pressed them against the window. And there were those dirty, little brown fingers pushed against the glass. And we didn’t have any rupees. We didn’t have anything. She wasn’t angry, she was smiling and inviting. I wanted to give her something. I wanted to put her in the car, take her back to hotel and give her a bath.

Then the light changed and we went another mile and there was another group of kids. This time Wes dug around and found a few McVitie’s biscuits in the bottom of his pack. A little boy was pounding on his window, not as sweet as my little girl. The light changed. Wes rolled down the window and gave him the biscuits. He looked at the biscuits and threw them back into the car.

I swear to God here was my first thought: Beggars can’t be choosers.

Wes turned to me and said, "I think he wanted money."

A few days later I’m back in Seattle getting crown work done. It’s a two hour job so I asked for the nitrous oxide. The assistant put the mask on my face and I said, “Oh, I don’t remember nitrous having an odor.”

“It doesn’t. That’s our peach-scented mask!”

Little brown fingers pressed against the glass.

After a minute it became clear the mask was too big. “I’ll give you the pediatric mask,” the assistant said. “It’s grape-scented.” Then she opened up a tube of lip balm and said, “This is your lip balm, it’s yours to take home, but I’ll be applying it on your lips because your mouth is going to get stretched out.”

Little brown fingers pressed against the glass.

I just heard last night that Mitt Romney spent 40 million dollars on his campaign. I pay three dollars a can for dog food. The dentist gives me a grape-scented nitrous mask and my own lip balm.

Here’s the thing about going to India and seeing all the poverty: you don't come home with answers, but it makes you question.

Little brown fingers pressed against the glass.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Dutiful Wife

So we just returned from India. We were gone only ten days which is short considering it takes about two and a half days to get there. Wes taught for four days at a science conference held at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. As a Dutiful Wife I was forced to go along with him and spent most of my time swimming and reading, "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth. It was only 1, 474 pages. The title of my next book will be, "A Dutiful Wife" and it will be 1,475 pages.

We secretly ate in the student cafeteria whenever we could. It was fun being with the students and I liked being able to refill my own coffee. The Faculty Dining Hall had white table clothes and I was forever trying to remember if my bread plate was the one on my left or my right. Plus there were all these waiters whisking things away. I was acutely aware of the beggar children just a few miles from campus, so I was very uncomfortable with all this formal dining. In fact, I was uncomfortable dining at all. (More on that later.)

And here is the amazing Taj Mahal at sunrise. I thought it was a palace, but it's really a mausoleum. Yes, that's right. When you finally get inside, the actual room is the size of a large McDonald's restroom and there is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal ("Chosen One of the Palace") and her husband Shah Jahan ("He Who Builds A Really Amazing Mausoleum For His Wife").

It turns out that Mumtaz was the love of his life, soul mate, friend, lover, first wife. And yeah, sure he had a harem but I'm assuming they were for when Mumtaz was hugely pregnant or having her period. She bore him fourteen children in seventeen years.

So she dies giving birth to their fourteenth child and he is bereft. Despairing. Since Porshes weren't yet invented, he decides to build--big time. But here's my question: Shah, why did you wait until after she was dead to build her this breathtaking place?

Why wait to say, "I love you"?

I saw a patient last week who when her husband left the room told me, "My husband has been so attentive and concerned. He insists on coming to every chemo with me. I know he loves me, but he's never been so out there with it."

He's scared witless, I thought. And sure enough, when we prayed together at the end of my visit, he was holding my hand so tightly my fingers had indents from my rings. He whispered, "Amen" after me and tears rolled down his cheeks.

As Wes and I walked back from the Taj Mahal to our hotel, he asked me, "Well, what did you think?"

"Don't wait until I'm dead," I answered.