God’s Hotel

I, most likely, will be several weeks late for the Second Coming, so, it should come as no surprise that I am only now reading God’s Hotel, a book published in 2012. I sat down with this remarkable piece of creative non-fiction yesterday morning and finished it around two this morning. While I suspect Dr. Victoria Sweet would prefer her book be read at a slower pace, I found her simple story so compelling that I could not put it down. If you have not yet read the book, do put it on your must read list.

It is, among other things, the story of a remarkable journey and the lessons learned as Dr. Sweet, one of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrims, undertook the 1,600 kilometer walk that is called The Way. The Way is a journey of body and soul that affects how pilgrims view the world and helps them find the purpose and connection that are essential to a well-lived life.

The focus of her story, however, is her work and interaction with patients at the very last alms house in America, the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. She planned to work there for two months, but ended up staying 20 years while she completed a masters and doctorate in the historical roots of pre-modern medicine. When she began, Laguna Honda had 1,178 patients whose medical conditions were so severe and persistent that there was no other place for them to go, and it was here she began her investigation into the merits and need for “slow medicine” in modern patient care.

God’s Hotel tells the stories of patients and their caregivers, with all variety of chronic neurological, heart, lung and liver conditions, strokes, cancers, AIDS, and psychoses sent from acute care facilities to Laguna Honda for what might be a chance to find life again or to die with dignity.

Dr. Sweet does not disavow fast or modern medicine: A broken bone still needs to be set, a heart attack must be kept from killing someone, and appendicitis requires surgery. However, once acute care has done its job recovery needs the right environment, a different form of medicine, where the barriers to healing are removed, including unnecessary medications, abuse of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, inadequate nutrition, and fear and hopelessness.

Having studied the writings of a 12th century German nun, Abbess, philosopher, writer, composer and medical practitioner named Hildegard of Bingen who regarded the body as more like a plant than a machine, Dr. Sweet looked for ways of removing barriers to recovery and fortifying a person with the basics of healthy sleep, nutritious food, and protection from toxic substances and people while allowing time to also do its job.

The irony of this book is that slow medicine is actually efficient! Sometimes doing less is actually more, and it can save a lot of money. Dr. Sweet’s book is not a religious tome. It is a beautifully written argument that examines how slow medicine can co-exist with modern practice and medication to better the life of patients. Do read it!

Blossoms in Barren Ground

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste it’s fragrance on the desert air.“ — Thomas Gray


Spring in my part of the Pacific Northwest looks like a blanket of green velvet has covered the valley floor. As clouds move across the sky the velvet undulates from an apple to emerald green and fruit trees, with pastel bursts of color, tint the landscape with colors that even artists envy. If you travel to higher elevations, the shrubs and grasses of the lowlands are replaced with dense forests of Douglas fir rooted in gray duff covered soils.
As you approach the high desert, soils becomes red and pine forests replace those of fir. Once you’re east of the Cascade mountains and in the outback there is another dramatic change in the landscape. Water is sparse and can no longer support the growth of pines, so the only trees you see are an occasional Juniper and miles and miles of sagebrush and bunchgrass. It was here I had an epiphany.
There is an hundred mile stretch of highway that extends from Bend to Burns Oregon. It is as monotonous as drives I’ve taken through Spain and West Texas. In Spain you can drive that distance and see only olive trees. In West Texas cactus, scrub brush and wind farms line a hundred miles stretch of highway that’s guaranteed to put all but the driver to sleep. In Oregon, the hundred miles between Bend and Burns is so dry that even sagebrush struggles to survive.
That’s why the sudden appearance of a lone, perfectly formed, Juniper caught my eye and set me thinking. How did that happen? It obviously was not planted. There was no visible source of water and certainly nothing to protect it from high winds and the storms that must surely pummel it in winter. And yet there it stood.
That set me thinking about people. I’ll wager you have known children of adversity who, for whatever reason, have been inadequately parented. And while it doesn’t often happen, I also wager that you’ve also seen one or two of these kids escape their backgrounds and thrive, far exceeding anyone’s expectations of what they could accomplish or become.
They are like that Juniper tree. Something we can’t see, whether it is intrinsic to them or a factor in their environment, makes this phenomenon possible. For the tree I’m sure there is a genetic predisposition that explains its perfect form. I’m also sure it has a water source that that is not available to the scrub that surrounds it.
And I suspect that as a child, adult survivors of horrid childhoods had people outside their homes who listened to them, opened doors and helped define a better life. Armed with the support of older friends and the lessons that only bad examples can teach, these kids made it out and up. They saw change as a chance to grow and they believed they could change their lives, so, as adults, I suspect they are passionate about all their pursuits and embrace life and the good and bad of all its lessons. I also suspect they will never forget the helping hands and willing ears that made their adult lives possible. With the arrogance of youth behind them, they only smile when others speak of self-made men.

The Old Lie

“It is sweet and honorable to die for your country (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori).” – Horace.

April 25th is ANZAC Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. The day is set aside to honor those who fought and died at Gallipoli during World War I. Bob and I visited the beaches of Gallipoli when we were in Turkey several years ago. What follows is an excerpt from my journal following a visit to the cemetery at Seddulbahir.

It is deadly still here. The silence is broken only by bird songs and the waves that lap against these once bloody shores. There are better than a hundred of us on this beach head and no one speaks a word. Bob and I have crossed the Dardanelles and are in Gallipoli at a place called Seddulbahir which is the final resting place of ANZAC forces who tried to land here in 1916.

Those of us who love words and understand their power suddenly have none. As you walk the rows of well kept graves, the headstones tell the story of what happened here. These boys, fighting for a king and country they had never seen, were canon fodder on a beach whose cliffs could not be scaled. James McElroy age 18. Thomas Shoemaker age 19. Johnny McBride age 17. The oldest in this cemetery is 32. The old lie…Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…was told again and at the behest of their elders, young men died on a beach whose name they could not pronounce.

Before this eight month battle ended 260,000 young men would lose their lives and leave wives and mothers to grieve their loss. Half were Aussies and New Zealanders. The other half were Turkish. Mustafa Ataturk, who would become the leader of the new Turkish nation, left this memorial for all who died at Gallipoli. “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

The guns have long fallen silent, and the peninsula is now a destination of pilgrimage for people from around the world. I marvel at a place that manages to seem so tranquil and beautiful, while harboring reminders of so much human destruction.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a line from the Odes by the Roman poet Horace. The line was quoted in a poem written by Wilfred Owen before his death in 1919. His poem, “Dulce et Decorum est,” described the horrors that befell soldiers who fought in World War 1 and called Horace’s line, “the old lie.” Prior to the publication of his poem the phrase was often used on monuments and memorials commemorating the fallen. It has since been used to decry propaganda and war.

I am including his poem to remind myself and others who write how transcendent words can be.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

Cut the Mustard

We’ve had two consecutive days of near perfect weather and the landscape here remains a riot of color. While the flowers of the forsythia have dropped, and the daffodils, with droopy heads, have started the  traverse that will take them completely to the ground, yellow mustard still blankets fields with shades of gold that put the sun to shame.

Some fields have the bearing of a dress parade. They have been planted in neat rows and their seeds will eventually be ground for table and medicinal use. Elsewhere, there are unkempt acres awash in yellows that rival those of their cash crop cousins. They’ve gone to seed and will propagate until the plants lose vigor or are turned, adding nutrients to the ground in which they grow. Then there are the wild mustard volunteers. Like my friends, they’ve been carried by wind or wing to new homes where they bloom alone, strong and unyielding in their quest for water, space and light. They add great beauty to our lives. Continue reading “Cut the Mustard”

Half Full Half Empty

“People tell me, “You’re such an optimist”. Am I an optimist? An optimist says the glass is half full. A pessimist says the glass is half empty. A survivalist is practical. He says, “Call it what you want, but just fill the glass.” I believe in filling the glass.”Author: Louis Zamperini

I had occasion to deal with negativity this weekend. Usually elements of humor surface in these displays and the vitriol can be chalked up to a bad day or a passing fluke. Chronic, on-going negativity is a different story. It becomes as grating as fingernails on a blackboard and, when you are a captive audience, you have to grin and bear it – at least for a while. I’ve never accepted the half full-half empty concept when it comes to world or life views. I know all major industrial countries have expressions for it in their languages, but it’s an awfully simplistic way to determine how one sees the world.

Not all of us share Annie’s belief that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” We have, however, learned to make our dissatisfaction known without constantly harping on the negative. We have also learned to save the negative for things that really matter. Continue reading “Half Full Half Empty”

The River of My Childhood Ran Green

Tell me the tales that to me were so dear… I was born to the green, but it’s been years since my family fussed about St. Patrick’s Day. Our celebrations ended when my grandmother, Maude, passed away. She was the grandchild of famine Irish, and was born in an American community 30 years after the Great Hunger ended. That community was so insular that, despite never setting foot in Ireland, her speech mirrored the soft lilting brogue of those born to the sod. She also retained that curious fusion of religion and superstition that some immigrants never put behind them, and, perhaps by osmosis, absorbed that community’s absolute contempt for all things British. Until the day she died, Maude could never bring herself to speak kindly of the English and, had it been in her power, would have pinned the death of all the martyrs in the “Lives of the Saints” on them.

Like many Irish widows she attended daily Mass and thought the aforementioned book, with it’s graphic depictions of martyrdom, was Continue reading “The River of My Childhood Ran Green”

Petals Fall Like Snow

Petals don’t ask where to land, they simply fall with grace.

Sheniz Janmohamed

It’s snowing in the mountains while here in the valley petals, camouflaged as snow flakes, fall in waves as wind passes through blossom laden trees. The flowers of our magnolia and pear trees have begun to drop and soon the spent blossoms of their blushing cousins, the apple and cherry trees, will join them. When soft winds blow, their petals will fall and blanket the ground like a light winter snow. Proof we can’t always believe what we see.

At this time of year, Pacific storms push cloud formations behind existing ridges where they rise behind the Coburg Hills, creating a vision that looks for all the world like Himalayan peaks that have been thrust from the valley floor. In other places and other worlds, mirages

Continue reading “Petals Fall Like Snow”

Come Down the Primrose Path With Me

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?

– John Lennon.

I was a fanciful child and at a young age fell in love with words that could be woven into heroic or tragic tales. I was abetted in this folly by an Irish grandmother who had the gift of gab and a tongue of purest gold. As I wept at the fate of “The Little Match Girl”, she’d comfort me with her very Catholic interpretation of the fairy tale. “Ah, child, can’t you see she’s in a better place. She’s with the angels now.”

Maude’s telling of a story would put most actresses to shame, but as good as she was with the words of others, her telling of her own stories was worthy of an ovation at the

Continue reading “Come Down the Primrose Path With Me”

A Purpose Driven Life

“In the end only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”

Years ago, a dear friend, now a memory of the best sort, put down her coffee and asked, “Is this all there is?” The question came out of nowhere and I hesitated before speaking. I’m not good with cosmic queries. I have a skewed view of the universe and I’ve never allowed myself, by interjection or example, to foist my beliefs on others. So we sat a bit, burping our baby girls, while my brain sorted possible answers to her question. When it came, it was neither profound nor pointed and what escaped my lips was an inane, “Why do you ask?” I have a recollection that she replied, “There has to be more.” While our lives and education had been in lock-step, we filtered lessons differently and I was not sure if the conversation about to come would be philosophical or Continue reading “A Purpose Driven Life”

May You Live In Interesting Times

That was true in 1966 and remains true today. However, the problems we now face are exacerbated because truth is no longer absolute. It has been fragmented and left open to interpretation. Apparently, no one lies today. Instead, we are left to deal with individual truths – yours, mine and theirs. Lies are whitewashed and hypocrisy has been refined to a fine art. The Greeks were the first to define and record hypocrisy and years ago, our immigrant ancestors warned against “speaking out of both sides of the mouth.” Even the uneducated were able to recognize the hypocrisy of individuals who failed to live according to the precepts they wanted to impose on others.

Many believe that the saying “May you live in interesting in interesting times,” is an ancient Chinese curse. While the phrase has a Confucian ring to it, it is actually recent and western. It was first coined by Frederic Coudert, an American politician, who attributed the gist of it to the British statesman Sir Austen Chamberlain. It was popularized by Robert Kennedy who included it an address he made in 1966, and to paraphrase his words, like it or not

Continue reading “May You Live In Interesting Times”

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