Wednesday, August 13, 2008

subway vision

We few, we happy few.
-- Henry V

I’m still a hospice chaplain. Our small circle hasn’t gotten any smaller. We’ve gone two weeks without more layoffs. How, one grieves, can a couple of hundred people who meant to do good, working under a revered brand name, have come to this? Our ministry flickers like a candle in a drafty hallway.

It is, after all, a ministry.

One morning on the way to work, I sat in the subway, angry at my bosses. Angry at the meeting that would start my day. Angry that, instead of telling the stories of the people who depended on us, we would speak obligatory words of jargon. We would throw across the table at each other for signature stacks of paper forms, documents bloated in idiocy, whose options and categories ruled out the truth. Documents that in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land prove we are doing what we have little time to do because we spend so much time creating documents that prove we do it. It was my job to open the meeting with a “meditation.” In my spiritual function I would invite my fellow clinicians to three hours of brain damage.

Unitarian Universalists are good at this kind of thing. We open meetings well. We always have a great quotation at hand, some pretty poem just metaphorical enough to be “inspiring” without sounding too pious for the resident atheist. I can do this. I have a thick file stuffed with pretty poems and thoughtful quotations.

A woman was standing in the subway car. As she talked with a girl who sat before her, she bent down to kiss her, consoling about a thing known only to themselves. I saw this mother comfort her daughter, and reach for her face with the right hand. As she stroked the girl’s cheek, her thumb went to the corner of the eye, doing that thing that mothers do when they wipe away a child’s tear. Then the train stopped, the door opened and the mother left the train.

Spirit, I said, leave me alone. Don’t talk to me now, I’m working on my meditation. I’m figuring out what to say to my Inter-Disciplinary Team. It’s hard enough without you breaking in on my process, you with your tricks and misdirections and surprises. Don’t mess with me. I’m not in the mood for it.

That was it. I had been given a vision. That’s what we are here for – to wipe away tears.

And that’s what I said at the Inter-Disciplinary Team meeting. No pretty poem. I said that I had met God that morning. I told them about the mother and how she wiped away tears. I said we had come here to wipe away tears, not to sign documents. No one will award us a grant so that we can sign documents. No one will put their mother in our care so that we can sign documents. No good clinician – no nurse, no doctor, no social worker, no chaplain – will come to work here so that they can sign documents. And yet we must sign documents, knowing all the while that this is not what we came here for. That is our pain. That is what we shed tears about. And anyone who doesn’t feel that pain probably shouldn’t be working here. This is a ministry. It’s not just chaplains who minister here; every one of us wipes away tears. Our work together is not a corporation but a ministry.

That inspiration was almost two years ago. There has been much, as they say, water under the bridge. The meetings are better now. We don’t throw stacks of documents at each other, because the documents are electronic and we can see them on the screen. We don’t speak in jargon any more: the ones who pounced on us if we spoke plain truth have left, and others who are more sensible have taken their place. We get to tell the stories. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we care for each other. And we don’t know whether the doors will be open tomorrow. Our ministry flickers like a candle in a drafty hallway. How can we, so few, be so happy in our work that might end tomorrow?

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