“Notes from a Healer” — It ain’t over ’til the fat kid sings

The TV personality is interviewing a couple as they prepare to perform on the televised British talent show. The girl is thin, articulate, good-looking. The boy, her partner, is morbidly obese, with long curly hair. He fidgets with his hand-held microphone. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerIt ain’t over ’til the fat kid sings — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

“Notes from a Healer” — The Beauty of It

A medical office is usually not a happy place. A good deal of pain and suffering is temporarily housed within its walls. And so it is with a rare moment of pleasure that I savor this mother’s simple statement. more»

My latest installment of Notes from a HealerThe beauty of it — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

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.

Evening, After a Spring Rain

Spring is a season of transitions.

After a full day of steady soaking rain, the air cools considerably; so much so that you can see your breath on this late April evening.  I wait until the rain has tapered off to take the dog out.

Together we pad down the shiny wet street, past the flowering crabapple trees in the church yard, around the corner to the top of the hill, where yellow forsythia blossoms lie scattered on the sidewalk.  Wild violets hang in clusters over the curbing at the edge of the cemetery.  Sentinel rhododendron pods are swollen with the promise of spring.

As we descend the forest path to the river, the dog straining at the leash, the lonesome call of a mourning dove erupts—a haunting hallowed echo that resonates through the cool evening air.

In the village at the end of Main Street where the gravel road turns off toward the park there sits a tiny shingled house.  At one time this structure served as the village train station, back when the railroad was in its heyday.  The tracks are long gone; only a berm marks the former bed.

The man who lives there now works as a repairman.  Occasionally, I see his old van parked outside the village auto shop.  Sometimes I pass the man coming out of the post office, his work shirt pocket stuffed with a plastic sleeve of pens.  His wife died earlier this month.

The auto mechanic told me that the repairman had approached him about dispersing his wife’s ashes out on the sound.  The auto mechanic has a boat berthed at one of the marinas along the shore.  The repairman has the old van, but no boat.  The auto mechanic said he would do it.  They would take off early one morning in the old van and drive down to the coast to where the boat was moored and head out to sea with the urn of ashes and cast them out over the water in the morning sun.

The mourning dove calls again, and I think about the repairman and his old van and his newly deceased wife and the matter-of-fact neighborliness of the auto mechanic.  The dog strains at the leash as we walk along the path by the river to the pond in the park, then back up the gravel road to Main Street, where the tiny shingled house sits silently in the damp evening air.

The old van is parked in the driveway.  In the shadows of the arbor vitae to the left of the house the side yard is blanketed in a soft wave of sky-blue Forget-Me-Nots.

First Light

Only that day dawns to which we are awake.  —Thoreau

I awake in darkness and grope for the small chain dangling from the lamp on the bedside table.  A small tug and the room instantly floods with light.

Padding to my office adjacent to the bedroom, I reach for the wall switch. Because this sliding switch incorporates a rheostat, a different sort of illumination ensues.  As the lights come up on stage at the beginning of a performance, so these overhead lights gradually illuminate and define the objects in the room.

I descend the stairs in darkness to the kitchen.  While the coffee brews I peer through the back window.  The first light of morning has sketched out the structures of the ancient garage, the scalloped fence and the trees beyond.  Now merely shades of charcoal grey, these objects will soon take on their true colors in the increasing intensity of the light of the sun.

Back upstairs, cup in hand, I sit at my desk and watch the morning unfold outside:  shadows gradually give way to sharp definition as light makes all things new.

Tacitly, I reach for the slider switch on the wall and dim the artificial illumination within the confines of the office as sunlight streams through the double-hung windows, filling the room.

The season of shadows that has eclipsed our outlook for so long is gradually giving way to the promise of spring.

The Sensual Sea

When I was young, shortly after I turned twenty, I shipped out of Boston on a cutter bound for thirty-six days in the north Atlantic.  On the way out, we lay over for a night in St. Johns.  From the flying bridge I still recall seeing the red cliffs of Newfoundland rising suddenly out of the sea in the morning sun, still remember slipping through the tight channel into the calm water of the cozy port, still picture the quaint weathered houses packed side by side along the terraced streets above the harbor.

Later, on southern voyages, I would survey the swells of the Caribbean for giant sea turtles while flying fish darted out from the bow as it surged through the blue water.  Watching the swells rise and fall away at your feet, you understood what sailors meant when they said that the sea breathed.

Hemingway wrote that la mar is what the Cuban pescadores call the sea when they love her.  For his old man, the sea was always feminine, even though in the Spanish language the sea is traditionally masculine, el mar.  “The old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda incorporated sensual sea imagery into many of his compositions.  Here is an excerpt from his piece Oda al Mar (Ode to the Sea):

El mar
y cuánto mar
se sale de sí mismo
a cada rato,
dice que sí, que no,
que no, que no, que no,
dice que si, en azul,
en espuma, en galope,
dice que no, que no.
No puede estarse quieto,
me llamo mar, repite
pegando en una piedra
sin lograr convencerla —

“The sea moves in and out of itself each moment, saying first yes, then no; then no, no, no; then yes, in blue, in churning foam; then no, no. The sea can’t stay still: ‘My name is Sea’ it repeats, slapping against the rocks without convincing them.”

As a young man, Melville shipped out of Nantucket on a whaler and didn’t return for three years.  His nautical experiences aboard the Acushnet formed the basis for many of the narrative scenes in Moby Dick.  Here he records an impression of the sea in a chapter entitled “The Symphony”:

It was a clear steel-blue day.  The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.

But though thus contrasting within, the contrast was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.

Aloft, like a royal czar and kind, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom.  And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion—most seen here at the equator—denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

For those inclined to go down to the sea in boats, masculine or feminine, there is nothing asexual about the sea.

Requiem for a flower

Sixteen years ago on my desk it appeared:
A gift from my parents
To celebrate my new position,
A fresh chapter in my medical career—
A peace lily plant, young and tender,
With one newly formed white flower.

The plant continued to thrive,
Unfolding a white blossom once
Every three to five years.
Periodically I repotted the tangled roots
To accommodate its towering sedge-like stalks.

Just this month, a week before my daughter’s wedding,
It bloomed again—
The white flower unfurling like a flag,
Its cylindrical core dusting lush green languorous leaves
With powdered sugary seed.

I returned after my week away,
After attending wedding guests
And ferrying family from
Hostel to home and back again,
To find the listless brown-edged leaves of the peace lily
Draped across the carpet:
The white flower wilted, now edged in black.

Immediately I saturated the potted earth
With cup after overflowing cup
Until the water seeped through the soil
And percolated to the base of the pot.

Afterwards on my desk I found
A news clipping published the previous week,
Deposited there in my absence,
Bearing the obituary of the mother
Of two boys and a girl—three of my patients—
Deceased at age 42
From cancer of the colon.
Her face stared coyly out at me:
A black & white photograph
Depicting what I reckoned to be
A newly-wed young woman.

This morning the peace plant’s ragged leaves
Stand nearly erect,
Revived by living water;
While the wilted white & black flower,
Bowed in permanent prayer,
Has given up the Ghost.

Copyright©2009 by Brian T. Maurer