Friday, June 29, 2012

milty, can you hear me?

A couple of years ago, I started noticing changes in my hearing. When it came time for my yearly physical exam, I asked my doctor about sending me to an ENT and also to an allergist, since I have yet to find a season to which I am not allergic in North Carolina. His nurse practitioner said she would make the appointments. That never happened. Midway through the next year, my allergies got so bad that I had trouble swallowing at times -- lots of times -- so when I went back to the doctor I made the same request a bit more emphatically and ended up with two appointments, or should I say dis-appointments. First, neither of them knew I was coming. Second, the ENT was efficient to the point of not dealing with my problem. At the very end of the time I asked about the hearing test and she said, “Sure,” and shuffled me off to a room with headphones and when the fifteen minute test was over they started talking to me about spending $4000 on hearing aids.

I said I would get back to them.

The point of going to see the allergist, at least as I understood it, was to get tested so I could understand more of what was going on and to find out why I was having such trouble swallowing. He, too, had no idea I was coming. He didn’t do the testing, other than to scratch a couple of times and tell me I was allergic to dust mites. Then he started talking about coming for allergy shots, which provided him a steady income but didn’t offer me much of a solution. I asked about my throat and he said he didn’t have the equipment to look at it and that it didn’t have anything to do with allergies. When I asked why red lines showed up on my skin when he scratched me he said, “You’re very allergic.” He didn’t seem concerned about what I was allergic to, but he did write me a prescription and offered to see me again.

I turned down the latter offer, started taking the pills and my throat loosened up.

Last week I went back to my doctor for my physical and he asked how the referrals had gone. No one had told him. I recounted my stories and said, “I guess I was mistaken to think that when you  used the verb ‘refer’ that meant you would actually talk to each other.”

He smiled sheepishly and said, “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

I then went on to say two years had passed and I still didn’t understand what was happening to my hearing. Since then, things have gotten worse. Higher frequencies are harder and harder for me to hear. When it gets quiet, I hear white noise that sounds like little bagpipes playing inside my head, and playing the way my father-in-law Reuben used to whistle: without any coherent melody. I needed someone that would pay attention. Someone that would act like I mattered more than my copayment. He then spoke of a doctor at Duke who is tops in her field and could help me find some answers. His nurse came in, picked up the phone, and made me an appointment. I wanted to ask why they had waited two years to play out the scene. I chose, instead, to say nothing and hope for a different experience.

This morning, I went to the Audiology Clinic at Duke. When the woman came in to do my hearing test, she asked me what was going on. I told my story and then said, “It may be that what I need are hearing aids. First, I need someone to listen to me.”

And she did.

What took fifteen minutes at the other clinic took an hour today. She did four or five different tests and then explained what she had found. I have greater than average hearing loss for my age. Hearing aids are probably what I need, but she wanted me to see the doctor first. She was also attentive and clear. I go back for follow ups next week.  The best part of today was I left feeling heard.

As the audiologist was explaining about hearing aids, she said, “You are actually at an easier age to learn how to use hearing aids because your brain can still recall what it feels like to hear.” Part of the reason for the bagpipes, it seems, is the brain makes noise to fill in the lost frequencies. When the sounds show up again, the brain has to remember what to do with them and it can be disconcerting, if not down right uncomfortable. “You will need to wear them all day everyday until your brain makes room for the sounds again. You’re going to hear better, but it’s going to be hard work.”

And it’s work I’m willing to do. If I don’t want to spend the rest of my life saying, “What?” or letting stuff go by, I will need to do the work to open my brain to sounds it has forgotten and to get over my vanity of having little battery packs behind my ears without any hair to hide them. I’m not going to be healed; I am going to be helped. That will have to be enough. I am motivated, in part, by the ears of the audiologist and the doctor who worked hard to listen today. How I wish they were not the exceptions in my experience in American health care.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

wild goose ride

A number of years ago a woman named Martha, who went to school with me at Nairobi International School (NIS) when we were both in ninth grade, contacted as many of us as she could and compelled us to get together again. The invitation was too good to turn down: I had not seen most of the people in thirty years. NIS was a small school made up of students whose parents moved around the world for any number of reasons. Many of us were only there for a year or two. All of us spent most of our childhood and adolescence outside of America and moving around. We met at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. Ginger and flew from Boston to El Paso and then drove the four hours to the hotel hidden in a valley in the middle of nowhere. As we passed a sign on the interstate that said, “Next exit 65 miles,” Ginger and I spoke simultaneously.

“This is beautiful,” I said.
“There is nothing out here,” she said.

Both statements were true. By the time we got to the hotel, most of the others had arrived. We walked into a room of twenty-five or thirty folks who were talking and hugging and laughing. When we got to our room that night, Ginger reflected on what she saw. “The healing was visible,” she said. “You could see it on all the faces -- as though it was the first time in a long, long time that you were in a room where you were understood, where everyone understood what you had gone through, where you felt normal.”

She was right. I had not known that feeling since my family had come back to the States for good the middle of my junior year in high school. I’m not sure I’ve felt it again in quite the same way, but I thought about that night as I took part in the Wild Goose Festival which happened last weekend about an hour outside of Durham. The festival is self-described as one of spirituality, justice, music, and art. People came and camped in the woods and sang and talked and ate and looked for ways to connect. To me it felt like a cross between Woodstock and church youth camp. When I looked out over the field of participants, I heard Ginger’s words about my NIS reunion because most any direction I looked I saw people who didn’t look like “church folks” who were lost in wonder, love, and grace. For these four days, they got to feel understood. “Normal.” None of us was asked to do more than be ourselves and welcome one another.

And it was good.

I don’t want to overly romanticize it. The days were hot, the woods were filled with chiggers, and some of the speakers and performers remained quite impressed with themselves. The swath of inclusion still needs to be wider. We Christians who were raised to proclaim still have work to do in learning how to listen. And I loved who I saw gathered together at Wild Goose. The name reflects a metaphor for the Holy Spirit taken from Celtic Christianity. From the first time I heard it, I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” Even though I have never heard anyone refer to it at the festival, the words are resonant.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Announcing your place in the family. And what a family gathering it was: the pious and the pierced, the tattooed and the trendy, the charismatic and the questioning, the earnest and the edgy, the philosophical and the pragmatic, the sarcastic and the sensitive, the devoted, the depressed, and the determined. Yes, I’m glad I’m a part of the family of God.

Both this year and last I was one of those who drove people -- mostly speakers and musicians -- back and forth from the airport. On most every run someone would ask if there were more people here than last year. The answer was yes and the festival goes mostly unnoticed by Americans, much less most American Christians. Somehow, in both arenas, working to be inclusive will get you marginalized. One afternoon, sitting at a picnic table in the afternoon sun at the festival, I read these words from yet another book by John Berger that is blowing my mind:
The larger is not more real -- if we tend to believe it is, the tendency is perhaps a vestige of the fear reflex to be found in all animals, ion face of another creature larger than themselves. If is more prudent to believe that the large is more real than the small. Yet it is false. (53)
The challenge is not to become larger but to become truer. To be more committed to listening than speaking, to noticing rather than wanting to be noticed, to making room rather than making points. It is a harsh and exciting call. In the “Invitation” on the festival web site it says:
We are called to embody a different kind of religious expression than has often dominated our institutions and culture.  We believe that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better; so we refuse to merely denounce the shadow of the tradition and abandon it.  Instead, we humbly seek to both tear down and build up, walking a path that embodies love of God, neighbor, and self.
We dream of a movement where everyone is welcome to participate.  We are intentionally building a space in which we invite everyone to value, respect and fully affirm people of any ethnicity, age, gender, gender expression, sexual identity, education, bodily condition, religious affiliation, or economic background, particularly the marginalized.  We are committed to fair trade, gift exchange, ecological sanity and economic inclusion. We strive for high standards of mutual respect, non-hierarchical leadership, and participative planning.
That’s not the kind of talk that builds mega-churches. It is the kind of talk -- and action -- that might help us all find our place in the family.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


“Until I met you, I would have been unable to name the transformation that was taking place. Today, at my late age, I name it -- the fusion of love.”
                -- John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

I have spent the afternoon in Old Havana
(the sandwich shop, that is)
with my Cafe Americano and mantecaditos
and the empty chair that is yours

the Caribbean rhythms danced around
the young couple sitting on the couch
as I wrote and wished for you
(not necessarily in that order)

and thought about the shine of silver
in your hair that matched the spark
in your eyes as you kissed me
this morning when you left

Yes -- silver (better than grey):
sought after, valued, refined,
transformed, even earned;
the jewelry of well worn love.
There is a new recipe.