Last Year’s Mistakes Wiped Clean

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That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing… Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.
~Wallace Stegner from Angle of Repose
 
 
 
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Sixteen thousand students have appeared magically overnight on the campus where I’ve worked for three decades.  Unfortunately a record was set for the number who ended up in the emergency room last night due to their celebrating the start of the school year a bit too aggressively.

How is it the start of a new school year can be wistful, jubilant and potentially hazardous all at the same time?  There are always plenty of mistakes to be made and plenty to learn from, though sometimes at tremendous cost.  This is a risky way to start an education.

More than New Year’s Day, the beginning of autumn represents so many turned-over new “leafs”.  We are reminded of this whenever we look at the trees all over our beautiful campus and how their leaves are turning and letting go, seemingly joyful as they make way for the next stage of growth, the slate wiped clean and ready to be scribbled on once again.

Every autumn each emerging adult comes to the university with a similar clean slate, hoping to start fresh, leaving behind what has not worked well for them in the past.  These are our future patients who we hope are open to change because they are dedicating themselves to self-transformation through knowledge and discipline.

It is a true privilege, as a college health doc, to participate in our students’ transition to become autonomous critical thinkers striving to better the world as compassionate global citizens.  Their rich colors deepen when they let go to fly wherever the wind may next take them.

We who remain rooted in place celebrate each new beginning, knowing we nurture the hoped-for transformation…

…as long as we can keep them out of the emergency room.

 

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Enter Autumn Cautiously

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Enter autumn as you would 
a closing door. Quickly, 
cautiously. Look for something inside 
that promises color, but be wary 
of its cast — a desolate reflection, 
an indelible tint.
~Pamela Steed Hill  “September Pitch”

 

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Today is a rainy gray start to the University’s academic year:  we enter autumn cautiously with no little trepidation about what comes next.

Once we’re on the other side of the closing door, we search for what enriches and envelopes  —  that which is unforgettable and indelible.

May we find the color midst the gray.

 

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Not Just Another Day

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“This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.”
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

 

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This day is the wrap-up to my twenty-eighth academic year working as a college health physician,  the most demanding so far.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.   Reaching this day today is poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five years,  we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe, and we weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again.

In my work I strive to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to courageously do nothing.  It is very difficult for any doctor to choose to do nothing but I vowed in my own graduation ceremony over forty years ago to “First do no harm.”  And I’ve tried hard to live up to that vow.

In a sense I graduate as well on this last day of the school year– only not with cap and gown and diploma in hand.  Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor our students and their families on this day, sharing the blessings from us who work toward the goal of sending them healthier and better equipped and joyful into the rest of their lives.

It is not just another day.

 

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Send Our Roots Rain

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Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? (Jeremiah 12)

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes

Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain
~Gerard Manley Hopkins  “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

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As I look out through a tear-streaked window at the beginning of this dark day,
I feel inadequate to the task before me.

Parched and struggling patients will line my schedule in weeks to come;
they are anxious and already weary and barren, seeking something, anything
to ease their distress in a hostile world.
Preferably an easy pill to swallow.
Nothing that hurts going down.

While others thrive around them,
they wilt and wither, wishing to die.

Lord of Life, equip me to find the words to say that might help.
May it be about more than
genetics, neurotransmitters and physiology.

In this dry season for young lives,
send your penetrating rain to reach them
and those who guide them.
Reach down and shake our roots fiercely
to slake our continual thirst.

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And I Weary Wept…

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The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellowed leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left.  And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
~Antonio Machado translated by Robert Bly

This garden blooming with potential,
entrusted to me, now 26 years:
the health and care of 15,000 students,
most thriving and flourishing,
some withering, their petals falling,
a few lost altogether.
As winds of time sweep away
another cohort from my care,
to be blown to places unknown,
I weary weep for losses,
wondering if I’ve failed to water enough
or is it only I with thirst unceasing,
my roots drying out, hidden away deep beneath me?

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…one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
~Billy Collins from “Forgetfulness”

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The Last Hour

photo by Josh Scholten

Resolved, never to do anything which I would be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.
~Jonathan Edwards

The first few weekends of any university’s fall semester is fraught with risk.  It is a time when freshmen, in particular, participate in age-old college rituals that take some to the emergency room and result in a few lying in the morgue.  There is sometimes an attitude of tossing care and good judgement to the wind.  Leaving home and being on one’s own means the freedom to do what one wants, when one wants, until the moment when payment comes due.

The national headlines in autumn over the last few years have shouted in large font about toxic reactions at parties serving Four Loko, about students gone missing, about fatal falls off overloaded balconies, and this week about the devastating effects of alcohol enemas.  There never seems to be an end to ways students can experiment with stretching and possibly breaking the slender thread between life and death, in the name of fun and games.

A helpful rule of thumb has always been what our grandmothers said:  “Don’t ever do anything you’d be embarrassed to see on the front page of the newspaper.”

In this day and age of social media, as newspapers become less relevant, the new rule of thumb should be: “Resolved, never to do anything which I would be afraid to see on FaceBook, YouTube or going viral in a matter of hours.”  Unfortunately, in the twisted way modern society works for some, that is all the more incentive.

Jonathan Edwards, writing almost 300 years ago, had it right.  We need to live each hour as if it were our last, considering what that hour might mean for eternity.

Just Another Day

photo by Josh Scholten

“This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.”
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

This day is the wrap-up of my twenty-third academic year working as a college health physician,  my most challenging so far.  Despite diminishing budget, shrinking staffing, higher severity of illness in our patient population, three suicides and more failed attempts,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we have.   Reaching this day today is poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five years,  we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far places around the world, and we weep for those three families whose students will not return home again.

In my work I strive to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are times when I tend to fall short–too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something, anything when it is best to courageously do nothing.  It is very difficult for a doctor to do nothing but I vowed over thirty years ago in my own graduation ceremony to “First do no harm.”  Never do I want to cause someone harm.

In a sense I graduate as well on this last day of the school year–just not with cap and gown and diploma in hand.  Each year I learn enough from my patients to fill volumes, as they speak volumes with their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes their forever silence.

Bless our students and their families on this day, with blessings from us who work toward the goal of sending them healthy into the rest of their lives.

It is not just another day.

photo by Josh Scholten