We now have the ‘science of gratitude’ to back what we’ve already known: gratitude is good for us, both individually and collectively. That we have a national holiday named for gratitude is something that–despite the complicated colonization and empire-building historical roots–I am thankful for.
Over the past four months, I have had the privilege of interviewing a variety of people in the Seattle area who work (or live) at the intersection of health and homelessness. These interviews are part of the oral history component of my ongoing Skid Road project, exploring the historical roots of ‘charity’ health care in King County, Washington (the county within which Seattle is located). One of the first open-ended interview questions I pose to people is, “Who or what has most influenced your work and life?”
People I interview typically pause for a moment after I ask this question, they gaze at some corner of the room as if seeing pleasant ghosts, and then they launch into detailed descriptions of people and events essential to who they are as people and to the work they do. Most people identify one or two key people in their lives who provided a sort of moral compass steering them in the direction of compassion–for their own humanity, as well as for other people. Parents. Teachers. Counselors or therapists. Professional mentors. They can easily tell a specific story of lessons they learned from these key people. And due to my use of snowball sampling–asking them to identify people I should try to interview–I have been able to complete oral history interviews on several generations of mentors.
These interviews have led me to reflect more deeply on the people in my life I am grateful for, people who have influenced who I am and what I do. I am also reminded of the wisdom of Rachel Naomi Remen, MD and her healing work with physicians, nurses, and other caregivers. I often introduce my students to her Heart Journal daily practice. For this, she advocates a 10-15 minute quiet time at the end of the day where you review your day, then write the first things that occur to you when you ask yourself three questions: 1) What surprised me today? 2) What moved me or touched my heart today?, and 3) What inspired me today? Attention and gratitude.
As a nurse and a teacher, I remember two people who have had the most influence on my work, my life. One is Lorna Mill Barrell, RN, PhD who came into my life when I was seriously considering dropping out of nursing school. It was in November of 1983, my final year of the BSN program at MCV/VCU, and I had just been informed by my community health clinical instructor that she was giving me an ‘F’ on my final clinical rotation project paper. “I don’t see how this has anything to do with nursing,” she wrote across my project paper’s title, “The Health of Richmond’s Homeless Population.” I contested her grade and that’s how I met Lorna, who was the chair of the department my instructor worked in–she was my instructor’s boss.
I remember Lorna’s welcoming and nonjudgmental attitude towards me when I came into her office to meet with her about my grade. I’m sure I came across at first as indignant, haughty, and angry. At the time, I wasn’t just contesting my community health grade, I was also contesting my desire to be a nurse at all. She offered to read and re-grade my paper. Thanks to her intervention, I not only passed community health (she changed my paper grade to an ‘A’), but she helped convince me to finish nursing school and go straight into their master’s program for becoming a nurse practitioner. She was my thesis advisor and the co-author of my first published academic journal article. Within a year of graduating and starting my first job as a nurse practitioner working with homeless and marginalized patients at Cross-Over Clinic, Lorna hired me to teach a community health clinical course.
The other mentor I draw on as inspiration for my current work is another MCV/VCU teacher–from the medical school though–who I only remember as Chaplain Bob. During my first semester of the BSN program, fresh out of a brief stint in a MDiv medical humanities program, I convinced him to let me take his medical school elective course on death and dying. He approached this topic in our small seminar-style class, from a health humanities perspective, having us read and discuss Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, among other works of art and literature. He also encouraged us to write our own poetry and short stories. I took that assignment seriously and wrote a chapbook-length collection of poetry. Chaplain Bob gave me an ‘Aa’ (not entirely sure what that grade really is) for the course, but he also enthusiastically encouraged me to continue my creative, reflective writing. I kept that chapbook. And here, impossibly at age twenty-two (meaning–not that it is great poetry but that is impossibly so long ago) , I wrote:
Sitting by the hour/ listening to the drone: “The Patient. The Client./And don’t forget the Significant Others./ By all means, keep in mind the Nursing Process.”
“We’re training you to be/ Professionals./ We want you to think/ Independently./ Here, take this test/But don’t think too much/just fill in the dots/the computer will understand.”
We learn to forget,/ to not feel, to not know./ It will hurt too much,/ and it certainly won’t help /us to be professionals.
Sitting on park benches/writing their hands/trying to forget the ill one inside/that hospital there/ the building you just stepped out of/ the one you walk by every day/ that structure that has become/ a part of the skyline/ seen from the window of a dorm room.
It is a lab/a place to practice/the proper way/to give drugs/ to make beds/to become a nurse.
But reflected in the eyes/of the park-bench individuals/ the building becomes/ one room/one bed/one person/one fear/one hope.
____ To all my mentors, named and unnamed (and in Bob’s case, half-named): thank you. Remember to pass it on.