The Asiatic Dayflower

Yesterday, while out for my morning walk with the dog, I noticed a stand of Asiatic Dayflowers (Commelina communis) in bloom at the end of our neighbor’s driveway.

Each blossom contained three petals: the two above, cobalt blue Mickey Mouse ears; the one below, an opaque white.  These in turn cradled three smaller clusters, each consisting of three delicate yellow petals and a central brown dot.  Stamens sloped down, partly obscuring the seemingly insignificant white petal below.

When we returned from our saunter that evening, the bright blue blossoms were nowhere to be seen.  At first I thought that they had withered on the vine in the afternoon heat.  Then I realized they had merely tucked their pretty heads into their green pods and retired for the night.

Today a new crop of blossoms greeted us on our early morning stroll.

Each day nature rejuvenates herself — forever alive, forever wild.

To Thine Own Self Be True

When Kristina Joyce was a little girl, she told her father that she wanted to become an artist when she grew up.  “Better a doctor,” her surgeon father told her, “than a starving artist.”

Kristina’s father was a pediatric surgeon who specialized in resecting tumors in children.  Her mother was a nurse.  Her grandfather and grandmother were both physicians.  They established the first hospital in Flagler, Colorado.  From the time she was a child, the family expected that she would pursue a career in medicine.  But Kristina had other dreams.

In 1986, Kristina became the first woman to attempt a series of scuba dives into the depths of Walden Pond.  She was interested in documenting the underwater flora and fauna of Walden, and wrote to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to request permission to make the dives.  As a result of her studies, she was able to document a number of freshwater plants like nitella and quillwort and several species of fish that inhabit the depths of Walden.

I marveled at Kristina’s slide show, “Underwater Walden,” which she presented at the Concord Free Public Library, as well as her artwork in the exhibit “All the Earth is Seashore,” currently on display in that institution through September, 2010.

At this year’s annual gathering of the Thoreau Society, Kristina accompanied us on one of the early morning nature walks to the cliffs above Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River.  She told me about the art classes that she’s offered to the children of local residents in her home over the decades.  A number of her students have gone on to careers as professional artists.  Kristina described the joy she derives from teaching young people to express themselves artistically.

If you happen to be in the Concord area this summer, make it a point to stop by the Concord Free Library to see Kristina Joyce’s exhibit.  Her drawings and calligraphy are exquisite.

If she had listened to her father, perhaps she might have followed in Frank Netter’s footsteps as the next medical illustrator par excellence.  Had she pursued that path, undoubtedly she would have realized a handsome income.  As it is, she contents herself with her work, knowing that she’s nurtured the artistic lives of her students.

I can’t help thinking that her father would have been pleased at the way things worked out.

The Scottish Artist

I met him at table in the basement of the Masonic Lodge after the morning bird walk at White Pond.  How did he, a Scotsman, come to know the writings of Henry David Thoreau?

Through an obscure reference in a treatise penned by Robert Louis Stevenson, he told me.  “It was actually derogatory in nature,” the Scotsman said.  “Stevenson quoted another author as referring to Thoreau as a scoundrel.  It piqued my interest.  So I set out to learn if it were true.”

The first book he got his hands on was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  After that he read Walden.  By then he knew that Thoreau was no scoundrel.  On the contrary, he found solace in Thoreau’s writing.  “So much of what he wrote resonated with me in my soul,” the Scotsman told me.  “Money and material things aren’t everything.  These days I try, as much as I’m able, to live a simple life.  My needs are few.  Besides,” he said, paraphrasing Thoreau, “a man’s life is rich in proportion to those things that he can afford to live without.”

I asked him what he did for a living.  “Now I’m retired,” he told me, “but I had a career in telecommunications.  When I was a young man, I served in the armed forces as a paratrooper.  I spent some time on deployment in the Middle East—special services,” he said with a wink.  “Afterwards, my wife and I settled in the Wansbeck Valley, ‘dwelling midst woods and waters,’ as our motto says.”

“And how do you spend your days now?” I asked him.

“I rise early and watch the dawn come up over the valley and the river beyond,” he told me.  “I ramble through the woods and fields.  Lately, I’ve done a little column for our local gazette on natural history.  I also paint—birds mostly—working in gouache.  And then there’s my book collection.”

I merely had to wait for the narration.

“I’ve collected over a hundred books dealing with Thoreau alone,” he told me.  “I’ve got several first editions of his works published in Great Britain.  Walter Scott publishers picked him up in the 1880s.  In some of the books the pages weren’t even cut.  I had to go through them with a penknife.  I believe a book should be read, not just put on the shelf.”

And what brought him to Concord year after year?

“Wall, it’s good to rub shoulders with like-minded individuals, you know,” he said.  “And I bring poppies to place at the graves of British soldiers who died in the American War of Independence.  I place two at the graves at Old North Bridge, two in Lincoln, one at Meriam’s Corner and one at the marker by the Colonial Inn in Concord,” he explained.  “The war was really just a family feud.  And these poor lads have been sleepin’ beneath the soil over here so far from home for over two hundred years.  It’s the least I can do for ’em,” he said.

Soldiers of Fortune

While cleaning out my office desk in preparation for an impending move, at the bottom of one drawer, amidst countless pharmaceutical samples, business cards, stray paperclips, staples, rubber bands and pins of all sorts, I found a trove of tiny slips of paper the size of preprinted address labels: fortunes salvaged from luncheons at a local Chinese restaurant.

For several years I ventured out for lunch at Cheng’s Garden once a week. The food was good, the price was right, and it got me out of the office for an hour. At the conclusion of each meal, along with the bill, the waiter would bring one fortune cookie, which I promptly opened and chewed thoughtfully as I read the words on the piece of paper hidden inside. Invariably, I would tuck the fortune into my shirt pocket before rising from the table to make my way to the register to pay the bill. Back at the office I would extract the slip and read it again before tossing it into my desk drawer. My mother (and my wife) can testify that I am a packrat at heart.

I thought of discarding this impromptu collection of fortunes along with myriad other paraphernalia that accumulated over the years—stuff that I had no use for any longer—but then decided to conduct a survey of sorts. I read through the fortunes that had been meted out to me at random to see if I could detect some sort of pattern. I have recorded a number of them below.

Excellence is the difference between what I do and what I am capable of.
Joys are often the shadows cast by sorrows.
Hope is the most precious treasure.
Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.
The only rose without a thorn is friendship.
A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Treasure what you have.
To be eighty years young is more cheerful and hopeful than forty years old.
Good to begin well, better to end well.

Writers of fortunes—those who soldier on, mustering their thoughts in unknown secret offices—must be wise in the sense that they have the uncanny ability to produce universally accepted turns of phrase. Narcissistic at heart, we humans personalize the good that is spoken of us.

But perhaps a greater collective good serves to spur us on to elevate our lives to a higher plane, if only temporarily in our afternoon postprandial somnolence.

That is why, like any good philosophical text, the lowly fortune cookie imparts some small degree of wisdom—at a bargain price.

The Poetry of the Commonplace

In her recent New York Times column, Compelling Stories, If Not Literature, Dr. Abigail Zuger bemoans the recent outpouring of health-related memoirs. “Few of these efforts rise to the level of great literature,” she writes. “None of these books comes close to succeeding according to the usual standards. The language is clumsy and full of clichés; the dialogue is stiff and unreal; the pacing is way off.”

Dr. Zuger also has something to say about doctors who have taken to writing their own stories: “the great majority are sentimental and predictable, and a few manage to be as pedantic, self-important and annoying as, one ventures, their authors must be in person.” Her conclusion? “Most of these books aren’t great literature either.”

Still, Dr. Zuger confides, she has a soft spot in her heart for such books. In the face of all of her prior criticism, you have to ask yourself why. Is Dr. Zuger merely being sentimental? Or does she identify with the sentiments of her patients and colleagues?

In my opinion, what Dr. Zuger fails to recognize is that the patient’s story, no matter how ineptly told, becomes an integral part of the healing process itself.

Medicine’s great 19th century humanitarian physician William Osler remarked that, dealing as he does with poor suffering humanity, a good doctor has to keep his heart soft and tender, lest he develop too great a contempt for his fellow creatures. Osler reflects on what he terms “the poetry of the commonplace”—the ordinary man, the plain, toil-worn woman, their love and their joys, their sorrow and their griefs.

According to Osler, such tales serve to sustain the weary-worn clinician in his daily work. They also serve to sharpen his compassion for his fellow creatures.

My collection of clinical tales in the art of medicine, Patients Are a Virtue, might not be great literature. Few practicing clinicians and fewer patients will ever read it. Most likely it will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of narrative medical writing. And yet I take heart when I receive that occasional communication from cyberspace, such as a brief e-mail from a doctor in rural western Pennsylvania, who wrote that, after reading my book, he felt energized and renewed in his commitment to his patients. He felt so strongly about it that he purchased additional copies for his colleagues and encouraged them read it as well.

Is every patient and practitioner a poet? Dr. Zuger asks. In his consideration of the poetry of the commonplace, I believe that Dr. Osler would answer her rhetorical question in the affirmative.

“Notes from a Healer” — Thank God It’s Friday

It’s Friday afternoon. I’ve been scrambling at the office, trying to service my scheduled patients as well as those last-minute add-ons: self-proclaimed emergencies that absolutely need to be seen before the weekend.

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerThank God It’s Friday — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.