Absorbing the Shock

There are three kinds of men.
The ones that learn by reading.
The few who learn by observation. 
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.
~Will Rogers

Learning is a universal human experience from the moment we take our first breath.  It is never finished until the last breath is given up.  With a lifetime of learning, one would think eventually we should get it right.

But we don’t.  We tend to learn the hard way especially when it comes to matters having to do with our (or others’) health.

As physicians in training, we “see one, do one, teach one.”   That kind of approach doesn’t always go so well for the patient.   As patients, we like to eat, drink, and live how we wish, demanding what interventions we want only when we want them – this also doesn’t go so well for the patient.  You’d think we’d know better, but as fallible human beings, we may impulsively make decisions about our health without actually using our heads (is it evidence-based or simply an anecdotal story about what “worked” for someone else?).

The cows and horses on our farm need to touch an electric fence only once when reaching for greener grass on the other side.  That moment provides a sufficient learning curve for them to make an important decision.  They won’t try testing it again no matter how alluring the world appears on the other side.   Humans are smarter sentient beings who should learn as quickly as animals but unfortunately don’t.  I know all too well what a shock feels like and I want to avoid repeating that experience.  Even so, in unguarded careless moments of feeling invulnerable (it can’t happen to me!), and yearning to have what I don’t necessarily need,  I may find myself reaching for the greener grass (or another cookie) even though I know better.   I suspect I’m not alone in my surprise when I’m jolted back to reality when I continually indulge myself and climb on the scale to see the results.

Many great minds have worked out various theories of effective learning, but, great mind or not, Will Rogers confirms a common sense suspicion: an adverse experience, like a “bolt out of the blue,” can be a powerful teacher.  As clinicians, we call it “a teachable moment.”  None of us want to experience a teachable moment — none of us, and we resent it when someone points it out to us.

When physicians and patients learn the hard way, we need to come along aside one another rather than work at cross-purposes.

It just might help absorb the shock.

The Edge of Morning

Horse Team by Edvard Munch
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn
Black chimney builds into the quiet sky
Its curling pile to crumble silently.
Far out to the westward on the edge of morn,
The slender misty city towers up-borne
Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue;
And yonder on those northern hills, the hue
Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.

And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs
With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main
Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain,
Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze,
Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team,
With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam.

~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
photo by Josh Scholten

The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.

Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.

We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.

We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.

For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.

And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.

No fossil fuel necessary back then.
No exhaust other than steaming nostrils
and a pile of manure here or there.

We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.

Brought Together By the Lights

image

I awoke to eery inky darkness this morning around 5 AM. No digital clock numbers shining red, no nightlight illumination. Just black. The wind and rain storm yesterday that hit Puget Sound and the Washington coast left us without power, and a quick scan out the windows informed me we were not alone waking in the dark this morning.  The closest lights in the horizon were the Canadian border cities ten miles away gleaming bright.

We were caught unprepared on this one.  The flashlights, of course, were not where they were supposed to be, and the candles were stuck deep in cupboards after Christmas.  The generator, unused for too long, won’t start.  Our little bit of battery power for computer and phone is rapidly diminishing. When an Amish acquaintance from Ohio called me and I lamented about how completely unAmish I was in my dependency on the power grid, he chuckled and asked me if I had my oil lamps lit yet.

We are nearing 20 hours since the power went out, the storm long past, but sit with 200,000 other homes waiting to be “turned on” again. It could be awhile. It is just for these kinds of situations on the farm that we have a small generator that we use sporadically to pump the water to the barn and keep the freezer and refrigerator cold. No such luck this time.  Good thing it is a warm time of year (except for the freezer stuff).

Our children always celebrated our power outages. It is high adventure, an escape from the routine, and even in their teenage years, they cling closer. They are all gone but I remember past power outages when we cleaned barn with the help of flashlights, cleaned house together and folded clothes in the dark, guessing the color of the dark socks, played piano and sang together and read lines in my son’s high school musical, helping him to memorize his part. We played games and laughed more than usual. We were drawn together by necessity as well as by choice. There was one good light in the kitchen, so there we sat encircled together, connected by a candle, when so often we are flung apart by the busyness and bright light of the world.

Last night we revisited those times as we had previously planned to have five neighbor children over for several hours to hang out and eat dinner.  The barbecue worked, we ate canned fruit and green salad and finished off all the ice cream before it became soup. They found our dark house unique with books by flashlight, playing piano and watching cartoons by iPad.  As they headed home last night to their generator-powered house, I wistfully hugged each one, remembering those family storm days not so long ago.

I am hopeful about the thought of the power returning sometime soon. Our children used to say a no power day was one of the best Saturdays they remembered in a long time. I have to agree. Maybe we need to take a hint and shut off the electronics– the phone, TV, computer, and just sit down together more often, sharing ourselves inside a circle of light. It is far more memorable, and in a dark house battered by a windstorm, far more enlightening to the heart.