December 10, 2018

People : Objects

On my first day of medical residency, while other trainees across the country started long and nerve-wracking days in the hospital, the eight people in our primary care program sat down with our two program directors and shared our life stories.  I remember feeling so lucky that this was the philosophy underlying my medical education: that everything springs from our background, that what we value shapes our paths, that our foremost priority in becoming a caretaker is learning each person's narrative.  Similarly, last week I attended a retreat for health providers in safety net clinics in the East Bay, and we started the day by sharing an object that said something about us.  I offhandedly thought it would be interesting but had no idea how moving it would be, how much it will always stay with me.  It was an unexpected gift to share and learn such vulnerability, and to remember that this work and this community is founded on people who value this kind of raw storytelling.

There were themes in what people brought, and I loved these patterns alongside the individual stories.

The Legacy of Women
Three women shared objects that represented their grandmothers:
  • A knit baby cap made by her grandmother who knits them for babies born in the hospital where she volunteers, even after a stroke impaired her fine motor skills
  • A beaded flower, each petal made from a hundred beads.  The woman who made them lived to be 104 years old.
  • Weight bands, in memory of her grandmother who lifted weights daily up until the week she died.  This woman also lived to 104 (!).
The Perspective Lent by Nature
  • A teeny tiny sand dollar
  • A jar of pebbles, one of many that line a kitchen shelf as a reminder to stay present.
  • A photo of herself climbing in the French Alps, a place that has receded in sad ways over the years she has visited. 
  • A menorah his son made from wood collected in the wilderness.
Trying Over & Over
  • A magnolia tree that would not grow until being planted in a number of different environments
  • A spoon, used by her toddler son who is learning what can spoon (soup) and what can't (cardboard)
  • A Swiss army tool kit, with numerous ways to try and fix things
  • The only childhood photo she had of herself in Vietnam, before fleeing to refugee camps: a vision of what was and what could have been instead
  • A childhood photo of himself with a stethoscope, a 4th generation Chinese immigrant whose family was persecuted and driven to Mexico, bestowing upon him a Hispanic name
  • A book she can't read because it's written in German and connects her to her family's past as Holocaust survivors
  • A bike
  • Dance shoes
  • Running shoes (the women who brought shoes were sitting right next to each other)
  • A pen given to him after graduating medical school from the doctor who had cared for him since childhood in Nigeria
  • A crystal given to her from a mentor whose friendship perservered through a drastic change in career
  • A pawn from a chess set. She was taught by her grandfather, who once beat her in a chess game by playing against her with only pawns, that this is the most important piece.
  • A knit square, as part of the Welcome Blanket, a re-imagining of the wall, where 2000 miles (the length of the proposed wall) of yarn are knit into welcome blankets for refugees
  • A manuscript of poetry
  • An iPod, in which he plays a song for every occasion 
  • A wedding ring, the base of which forms the symbol of the trinity, and a wife who supports his commitment to care for the underserved 
  • A photograph of her growing family, and the need to protect our natural community 
  • A photograph of her clinic at the holiday party, and the community we create

My favorite, in its own category:
A painting of Nelson Mandela. He keeps a picture of Mandela in his office, as many reminders--of social justice, stamina and perspective (on a day he thinks is bad, he can feel Mandela looking at him: "Really? This is bad?"). But the painting he shared isn't the one he has in his office; it's a painting of that photo. A patient noted the photo in his office, saw its importance to him, and gifted it in a new form to him.

As for my object, I was dog-sitting in another person's home at the time so didn't have access to my personal items. As a last minute thought, I shared the book I was reading at the time, because I always have a book on hand. I explained that I had studied English in college, with the intention to make my living from stories, and how this eventually (unexpectedly) took me to medicine. As much as I love language, I can't imagine loving anything more than the narratives we get to hear, live and impact in small ways every day.  One of the best parts is working with and learning from a community of people whose values are so generous.  I can still remember in vivid detail each person's object, and by extension their story. During a time when I'm feeling like I can't hold much more, it's expansive to experience that stretching of emotional space.

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