Author to speak at 5th annual Cell2Soul retreat

Author Brian T. Maurer is slated to speak at the fifth annual Cell2Soul retreat the weekend of October 8th, 9th and 10th, 2010, on the island of Nantucket.

Maurer will deliver a presentation entitled “Melville’s Spirituality in Moby Dick,” on Sunday morning, October 10th, at the Nantucket Inn.

Additional topics at this year’s conference include medicine and the arts, music and healing, caring for the caregiver, and the power of stories.

Readers can access more information about the gathering here.

Soup

There are three things that I become passionate about in autumn:  (1) cool evenings that allow me to drift off to sleep while still listening to the nightly insect orchestral cacophony, (2) walks shared with the dog on crisp clear mornings when the leaves begin to turn and helicopter down to the street, and (3) soup.

I felt the sore throat coming while I worked in the office last Saturday morning.  Respiratory illness started making its rounds in the community early this year; children and adolescents began to file into the office with complaints of cough, congestion and sore throat.  All it takes is one uncooperative youngster to sneeze or cough in your face during an exam to effectively inoculate you with the latest virus.  I can almost always peg the start of an illness—the onset is 48 hours from the time of droplet contact.

By Sunday the sore throat had developed into nasal congestion and post nasal drip; the cough came on Monday morning.  I went to work anyway, figuring it was better that I occupy my time doing something constructive rather than sit at home and feel downright miserable.  As it was I drove to the office and felt miserable there for the entire day.

That evening I came home to a pot of homemade soup steaming on the stove.  I lifted the lid and inhaled the magnificent odors of chicken broth, fresh parsley, celery, carrots and noodles as they bubbled below my nose.  I sat down at the table and consumed two large bowlfuls of the mixture, then made myself a cup of hot tea with honey.  There’s nothing like a bowl of homemade soup to soothe body and soul in sickness and in health.

Recently, a good friend gave my wife the recipe for a hearty minestrone soup.  I’ve posted it below for those of you who, like me, are soup lovers at heart.

MINESTRONE SOUP

½ or less cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 medium potatoes, diced
½ lb fresh or frozen green beans, cut into 1” pieces

In a large pot over medium heat and in hot oil, cook above ingredients until lightly browned, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Adjust heat if needed.

Add:

6 cups water
½ head small cabbage
½ 10-oz bag fresh spinach, coarsely shredded (may use frozen, too)
1 16-oz can diced tomatoes with their liquid (optional)
2 medium zucchini, diced
6 beef flavor bouillon cubes
1 tsp salt (optional)

Bring to boil over high heat, stirring occasionally.  Reduce heat to low, cover; simmer 40 minutes or until all vegetables are very tender, stirring occasionally.  DO NOT OVERCOOK.

Add:

1 16-oz can chick peas, drained
1 16-oz can red kidney beans, drained

Cook 15 minutes longer.

Serve with parmesan cheese, salad and fresh bread.  If you like meat, cook some hamburger or turkey breakfast sausage and add to soup before serving.

Makes about 8 servings.  Total preparation time is about 2 hours.  This soup tastes very good the day after it is made, so it can be made ahead.

Polyblogs

Last month our editor initiated a rotating blog on the website of our national publication, the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.  Editorial board members were invited to send in pieces for posting to allow regular readers and subscribers a chance to glimpse the musings of a cross-section of those representing the Physician Assistant profession.

Today my contribution — Front Porch Reflections — has been posted.  Interested readers can access it here.

Over the years it’s been good discipline for me as a writer to generate weekly postings for my WordPress blog: challenging, stimulating and educational too.  One of the beauties of the internet is the ability to link information and ideas across the web.  Articles serving to clarify concepts become instantaneously accessible.  Blog entries can be linked as well.

Here I would like to put forward the concept of the polyblog.  Polyblogs — any number of blogs composed by a single author, or one particular blog with multiple contributors — are becoming ubiquitous across the web.

Like pollywogs in a vernal pool, polyblogs proliferate abundantly.  Some might grow into mature blogs, while others may fall by the wayside and perish — natural selection at work.

Of Cosmic Significance

I spent the greater part of last week delving into quantum electrodynamics, the theory that now forms the basis of our understanding of how the universe operates at the atomic level.

Thanks to solid-state technological advances, through my personal computer I was able to access a number of video lectures on the web—several by Nobel laureates Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe—that enhanced my understanding of quantum mechanics.

Unfortunately, because I lack the mathematical background, I found that I was unable to comprehend both derivations and solutions to complex equations such as the Schrödinger wave functions and the calculations of probability amplitudes.  But then, perhaps even this knowledge might not have served to enlighten me further.  As Feynman pointed out in his 1979 Auckland lectures, “no one understands quantum mechanics.”

According to Feynman, it all comes down to this:  (1) electrons move through space in time, (2) photons move through space and time, (3) electrons and photons collide and separate, absorbing and releasing energy.

Thus far, theoretical physics has managed to integrate quantum mechanics and the atomic weak force. It has yet to meld the nuclear strong force into the equation, and gravitational force is turning out to be elusive as well.

Lately, M-theory, a derivative of string theory, has been proposed as a possible answer to the theory of everything, although we are far from integrating infinity into these equations.

When I made mention of these musings of mine in an e-mail to a good friend, he responded: “My own thoughts about life and the universe have become simpler as I have grown older.  Like the flapping of the butterfly’s wing, an act of love reverberates through the universe in a way that goes beyond the phenomenon of the act itself.”

Electrons, photons, butterfly wings—minute reverberations through a complex universe that extend well beyond our ken.

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever insignificant.

Whitman’s verses come to mind:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Anger, Hate and Reconciliation

As I scanned the overnight fax reports clipped to the pile of medical charts on my desk this morning, I learned that one of our teenaged patients had been discharged from a residential psychiatric facility.  The girl was admitted for observation after voicing suicidal ideation, thoughts that surfaced after she was informed that she would have to testify against the perpetrator who raped her a year ago.  In spite of the fact that the perpetrator admitted his guilt, the legal system dictated that the girl would still have to face him once again—this time in the public setting of a courtroom.

Modern psychological theory has it that a victim who has suffered intense trauma needs to tell her story in order to heal.  Healing is a process that takes place over time.  Some of us heal faster than others, and some of us need to tell our story more than once to work through it.

There are those theorists who maintain that reliving a traumatic incident ad infinitum might serve to sear the trauma into the victim’s memory to such an extent that it will never be erased.  In short, the more we relive a traumatic event, the more likely we are never to forget it.

Communal groups, whether small or large, might also find that collectively revisiting traumatic events serves to heal.  As human beings, we do have the need to commemorate those fellow creatures victimized by some tragic event—a war, an attempted genocide, a terrorist attack.  In some ways it does us good to ponder and reflect.  It helps us work through our collective grief—something we need to do in order to heal as a community, as a society, as a nation.

Yet there is a danger that lies in revisiting such events ad infinitum.  That danger has to do with rekindling our anger and hatred for those who perpetrated the horrendous act.  When our collective anger flares, we relive not only the trauma of the historical event itself—it also serves to harden our hatred and prevent us from allowing ourselves to heal as a community, as a society, as a nation.

On this 9th anniversary of 9/11 I arose early to read through several opinion columns in the press.  Largely, columnists fall into one of two camps: those who prod us to maintain our vigilance “lest we forget what happened on that day,” and those who advocate a sincere attempt to separate the perpetrators—the militant fanatics—from the major religion with which they have come to be identified.  Some advocate the use of “free speech” to decry the enemy, while others strive to emphasize the need for peace and reconciliation.

As a nation, how do we commemorate the victims of 9/11 without fanning once again the flames of hatred?

Such thoughts ran through my head as I began my day seeing patients in the office.

I spoke at length with a father about his obese son, giving him some practical tools to help the boy move toward a healthier lifestyle.

I counseled a young man suffering from depression, attention-deficit disorder and drug use.

My last patient of the morning was the youngest daughter of a Muslim family that I have known for more than a decade.  Her mother brought her to see me because the child was complaining of a sore throat and belly ache.  During the course of the visit the mother pointed out the nits in her daughter’s hair.  Suddenly, she began to cry.

“I don’t know how she get this,” the mother told me through her tears.  “None of my other children ever have such a thing.  She bathe every day.  I make sure she have clean clothes to wear to school.  We are a clean family.”  And then, exasperated, she sobbed, “I am so ashamed.”

Here the daughter began to cry as well.  “She don’t want to tell her teacher because she afraid that the other children will make fun of her,” the mother said.

I reassured the mother that head lice was a common malady in young school-aged children, that it had nothing to do with personal hygiene, and that it was fairly easy to treat.  I wrote out a prescription and explained to the mother how to apply the preparation.  “You’ll have to comb the nits out afterwards,” I told her, “but she will get over it.”

As I handed her the prescription I noticed an intricate henna tattoo on the mother’s left hand.  “Today is holiday in my religion,” she explained.  “Eid-ul-Fitr, the day after Ramadan ends—a day of forgiveness, a time of giving and sharing.  That is why I do this, to remember.”

All of us set aside special days to remember—some to commemorate, some to ponder and reflect, some for feasting and celebration.

Perhaps the time will come when one day we will agree to set aside a special day to reflect on one more thing:  forgiveness.

“Notes from a Healer” — Mothers at the Window

Frequently I glimpse their faces when I dash through our front office between patients—mothers standing at the check-in window above the receptionist’s desk. Mothers waiting for forms; mothers stopping by to pick up prescriptions; mothers who drop in for an informal chat with the women in our office.

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerMothers at the Window — 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.

Metamorphosis

The breakfast dishes are done, the dog is walked, the bed is made.  Time to retire to the front porch with a cup of coffee to sit in the morning sun.

Cicadas whir in the trees overhead.  There’s a hint of a breeze.  The air stirs the compound leaves on the wisteria vine.  Down in the front yard, among the long dried stems of the black-eyed Susans, a pair of white butterflies flutter about, exploring the last spoils of summer.

When I was a boy, my friend and I used to stalk butterflies in the expanse of fields near our home:  cabbage butterflies, white with black wingtips and two dark insignia dots on the wings; golden sulfurs; tiny coppers and azures; orange monarchs; fluted swallowtails; admirals and fritillaries.

Inexperienced trappers at first, we used our cupped hands to capture our prey.  Later we fashioned butterfly nets from old red nylon onion bags, wire coat hangers and broomstick handles.  We experimented with killing jars—gas chambers made from our mothers’ mason jars with rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton balls stuffed into the bottom.

We mounted our specimens with straight pins and glued typewritten labels below to identify each one.

Sometimes the wing scales would inadvertently rub off onto the tips of our fingers, and we would scrape this precious dust onto glass slides to peer in wonder through the lens of a small microscope I had ordered through the mail.

In school we learned how a caterpillar spins a cocoon and hibernates all winter to emerge the following spring, changed utterly—boldly turned into another creature, this one winged; and, like the cherry blossoms, ethereal.

As adults, few of us pause to consider the wonder of such transitions.  We accept them as fact, and attend to other, more pressing things.

Yet on this bright morning after an overnight rain, I sip my coffee and ponder the sight of another pair of small miracles flitting about in the remnants of the flower garden; and catch a glimpse of wonder from a boyhood long since passed.