Monday, March 31, 2014


Joan Benoit Samuelson. They said:
a month out from knee surgery, no way
let her go, she will never keep up that pace
women running marathons?

Mostly things conspire to make one feel small. This is especially true if you are any of the following:
a child
an orphan
a teenager
a woman
not rich
not white
not in charge
a stay at home parent
a working mother
too short
too tall

The list is probably nearly infinite. I suppose every person has felt small at some point. Even Charles Foster Kane was heartbroken.

In general, I believe power is dangerous (corrupts, absolutely, yada yada). However, I also believe power is essential. I was trying to explain this to one of my teenagers in the middle of the night last night, a teenager who sees no power within and sees the world as enemy territory. Everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault. Disempowerment is not always a choice, but sometimes it is, and here are a few good ways to become disempowered:

do not read books
believe everything on TV, the internet and Fox News
do drugs
blame someone else
let more powerful people do harmful things to less powerful people
never exercise
complain but don't change your circumstances
be influenced by what other people think is cool
take Facebook at Face Value
allow "friends" to treat you poorly
allow anger to guide your response to those "friends"
give up on your dreams
lose track of the beauty in the world

When I left high school without graduating and went to college, I was told I was not going to make it. When I left music to become a doctor, I was told I was not going to make it. When I had a baby during medical school, I was told I was not going to make it. When I adopted a child with "special needs" I was told I was not going to make it. When I adopted a 6 year child who spoke no English, I was told I was not going to make it. When I decided to run a marathon, I was told I was not a real athlete. When I left outpatient medicine to be a hospitalist, I was told I was too meticulous (AKA anal) to survive it. And now, as I leave hospital medicine to become a palliative care and geriatric specialist, once again there is the general opinion that what I am doing is meant to be an "escape", a "break", and for some, a job that will make me "lose my skills".

I dreamt the other night that my piano tuner came over and was looking at my Bach piano books. They were all so covered in mold that the music was unreadable. My piano tuner was upset. I was upset. I get that I haven't played my instrument much, because I am working as much as I can to make money to pay for my medical training and my house and my bills left over from a residency at one of the finest hospitals in America, unfortunately also in one of the most expensive cities in which to live in America. Where I gained my skills. Where one mentor said I was "a natural palliative care physician." But, for those in power (not me), I am just a middle aged chick with absolutely no power.

And what does this have to do with running? Well, I can still run. I am not the fastest. I am certainly not the cutest. But I know how to dig down deep and find my inner strength. Tomorrow is the beginning of my 12 day count down as a hospitalist. Twelve 12-15 hour days, where I am looked down upon by a system that sees me as less than (fill in the blank):
Less than the specialist
Less than the man doctor
Less than the righteous stay-at-home-mother
Less than.

I am not rich. I am not young. I am not sexy. I am not a perfect mother. I am not a perfect wife.

But I do care, and I do have some skills which even those who see me as small can not take away from me. Hey! Psst: if you are sick, you want me at your side. I show up and I study hard and I am a powerful advocate for you.

Here's the thing. Power resides in supporting others. Even when they treat you like shit in return. Power resides in loving others. Power resides in forgiveness. It resides in that feeling when you are rounding the 3rd turn on the oval of the track and your lungs are exploding, but you push on. It resides in reading. Learning. And opening your heart. It resides in recognizing the need for a change. Humor and self doubt peppered with an occasional fuck you helps too. There is a reason Frozen is so freaking popular.

Twelve more days.

"I have power. They don't. This bothers them."
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

the Tao (Stephen Mitchell, transl)

Monday, March 3, 2014

In the Dark

Woods Run at Dusk, March 2014

It is best to have a goal which puts you solidly in control of your days and minutes and longterm future. It is best to aim high and to just smile and look away when people doubt you and make you wonder whether you should even try. Look up at the ceiling like something is interesting there and sigh. I used to believe this and without it might not be a doctor or marathoner or half decent pianist or be growing my hair long again. Maybe I still do believe it except I know now that control is remote at best and I pine away for the days when one had to get up out of their chair and change the channel, with a finality and commitment that is foreign to modern times. We think we are aware like we invented Zen and with regular runs everything can be right again and we won't need to buy new jeans for an expanding waist line or start lipitor. We go to the gym to strengthen our core. 

Goals can change, but  mine remain a sub 3 marathon and memorizing and performing the entire Well Tempered Clavier, though I cannot imagine who would want to sit and listen to all of that. I might have a recital where beer is served and people can chat during the boring moments. I could finish with some Liszt or Rachmaninoff or finally learn to play jazz and people could dance to stretch their legs after the long night of fugues. My kids walk by when I am playing impossibly magnificent passages on my piano and don't really even notice or so it seems. One woman said to me she remembers her concert pianist mother playing all the time and it is a source of inner comfort, that memory. Mostly though I think they see it as a bother or distraction. Except the one time my little Dragon was suddenly behind me while I played, thin arms wrapped around my waist and her face nestled by my ear, whispering "Mom, you are really good." I will take that to my grave.

To reach a goal once seemed a linear path of fighting resistance when it threatened progress. I did this with mathematics which I had to do to become a medical doctor, for some reason I will never understand. I did this with birth and adoption which both require strength and tenacity and ignoring the noise which gets in the way of your purpose: to love and hold your child. To love and hold your children who eventually leave and live their own lives, with their own goals, and their own beautifully delusional sense of control. I dream of my eldest who is off to college all too soon, and in my dreams she keeps disappearing and I cannot find her, but she is small and vulnerable. Now she is a young woman and astounding in her presence and gifts. She will write her way into the future and she will not disappear so much as reappear at my side as a woman and not the newly-minted toddler who needed to be walked with two hands in a back-breaking several weeks of bent-over mothering. Linearity is rare, and I am glad I took algebra, when all is said and done.

Physics I am less certain about and as I watch my body age I sometimes fill with a certain rage I cannot explain. If I had it to do over, I would've tried for that sub 3 marathon in my 20's, but was too busy planning my longterm future. I tolerate less now, physically anyway. I tolerate much more in terms of disappointment and surprise. I am lucky to have a wise husband who makes me my PB & J for my long work day and a son who constantly makes me feel alive. With worry, with wonder, with anticipation. What will he be? No hurry to answer that because he already is and I love him for it. What will any of us be after all? When you hit the wall in a marathon or life, nothing else exists. It is the most Zen place to be, because you cannot be bothered with thoughts of anything else. Your mind is clear. Shot through with pain and certain failure. But failure is my favorite motivational speech, "nowhere to go but up from here", and it is the best catapult into the next moment when hope sneaks under your skin and makes you tingle with power. This. I. Can. Do.

I ran in the near dark in my woods after a long day and week treating patients who hit the wall. In my experience, one either gets smushed and slides in a cartoon heap to the floor, or stops and is still for a moment, says some choice words, then sees the wall for what it really is: a facade that one can simply walk right through. On the other side is some more living or perhaps some dying. It might be birthing or it might be a trip to the ICU. Chemotherapy or hospice or an earnest hospitalist hovering over you. My run in the dark after my long day and week was with JS Bach plugged into my ears. The Well Tempered Clavier, book I, Glenn Gould's young years. I ran in the dusk in my redwood temple, and the walls came tumbling down. 

I can do this. Sub 3, maybe, but to try is where life is. And Bach? Well every self-respecting pianist knows the WTC like the back of their hand. The answers reside within preludes and fugues and the creepy sounds of Glenn Gould humming along to his singular interpretation. He brings out voices from dead Baroque notes on a page. His choices are not always appreciated by the mainstream musicologist. 

Run in the woods in the near-dark. Play Bach so people listen. Fuck the critics. Look at the ceiling and smile.