Friday, January 28, 2011

Hospital diary

i was hospitalised with chest pain some time ago, and i bought a small notebook and made journal entries. Foucault talks about how the first Western institutions were prisons, and how all subsequent institutions have taken prisons as their model. He was referring particularly to psychiatric hospitals, but i have always agreed with him about other institutions, and anyone who has been to boarding school would know what i mean.

So this is the prison diary - oops Michel i mean the hospital diary - of me, standing on the shoulders of other great prison writers such as Lenin and Mandela. :)

i was brought in by ambulance (that's BIBA to the cognoscenti) and spent the first few hours at the ED. The ED i understand. It is like an airport or any other place of placelessness. It was the usual trick of waiting. Suspend time a little, distract self from discomfort, watch and wait, take an interst in the environment. Time is suspended because you have no future here, one way or the other.

It was very busy and we were all stacked on gurneys like a fishing fleet at anchor, side by side, no room for proper beds. Someone vomited wretchedly inches away from me. We all tried to make eye contact with nurses, in the hopes they would come to us. They all avoided eye contact with us, in the hopes of not having to come to us, at least not yet. My chest pain had gone. The nasal prongs became annoying.

Then they said there was a bed for me, and won't that be nice, it will be much quieter up there.

i arrived on the cardiology ward and said something about leaving once the blood results were done, and the nurse said no, you are an inpatient now. There were four older women in the room and when i said i was leaving once the bloods were back, they literally slapped their thighs and laughed uproariously, and said yes, we all thought that too. And here we still are.

So i was welcomed into the strange world of cardiology.

i watched the sun set and the pigeons wheel around the trees outside, and heard the women talked about the church service, and their dreams, and premonitions of death.

Here there is nothing between breakfast and infinity.

All the ordinary worldly medium term stuff happens elsewhere. Here, you talk about knitting, or the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha.

My father was delirious when he died. He believed he was part of a terrible conspiracy, and he had been kidnapped by nurses who were trying to kill him. At the time it was harrowing. But in hospital i could almost link in with his paranoia. The nurses who looked after us were also in charge of us. They also performed arcane tests on us and took lots of blood - with all the symbolism of blood, and life-and-death. And they never told us what was really going on. They kept us uncomfortable and they controlled food, light, and space.

It felt like a cross between a prison and a very long haul plane flight with a very cheap airline.

In these places i am adaptive and wary. Learn fast, trust no one, get out as soon as you can.

Some of the women had been there for weeks, and some came and went regularly. They knew each other. At three pm, the husbands came. The women always had orders for things to be brought in from home, and the husbands always brought the wrong stuff. i thought that must have been traditional. Like maypole dancing or something. Some sort of ancient courtship ritual, perhaps.

Me, i listened to Tool and System of a Down through headphones and watched them fold things and read and potter. We watched the news. i read Moby Dick. i didn't mind much. i hadn't had free time like that in years. i was amused by the food. (The difference between meatloaf and casserole is lumps). i liked the sense of being suspended in time. i even coped with the arcane experiments - ECG's several times a day, treadmill exercises. i figured they just started testing and then found some random stuff and then felt obliged to keep on testing evenn though none of it related to anything i was actually experiencing. i actually wanted my sinus infection treated but this was a cardiology ward and no one was interested.

i thought about the beautiful psalm that starts 'I lift my eyes to the hills'. What sort of God is this? This is the God of Israel. How do i become part of Israel, who has this special God? And yet this is no local deity, not this late in Judaism. This is the One who made heaven and earth, who will always guide us. Always, there has been this tension between universality and specialness. Am i on God's side? Can i be anywhere else?

And i wondered about praying for help. i don't get that bit. i think you pray because it is the proper relationship with God, and because you can't help it, it is an act of trust. In my experience prayer does not stop anxiety or make stuff happen or make stuff not happen. And yet in monotheistic faiths there is the idea that God can help us. Every day i pray and tell God that God is 'the help in peril'. Am i in peril? How do i know i am in peril? Do i wait until i think i am in peril or do i approach God now about this in case of later on? In the psalm it said that help comes to me from God. On the night i came into hospital i thought about the psalm and i lifted my eyes to the hills, automatically, just as my ancestors would have done. i think this is what my favourite ecologist Edward O Wilson (who is a complete atheist, by the way) calls 'deep history'. i am sure the writer of the psalm knew it. The shit just got real!

There were also some new thoughts, by the time the psalmists were writing. This was not just the awful thundering sky father God of our deep history. This God knows us and guides us, all of us of the house of Israel, for ever. And this was not just the God who subdued the forces of chaos. This was the creator God; at this point people were beginning to think about a God who was outside of the world, who created the world ex nihilo. This remains an incredibly difficult thought. It was not one i could get a grip on, even from my bed in the cardiology ward.

i also entertained myself be reading my medical notes. You aren't supposed to do this. But i'm a rebel and i'll never be any good. i read the first cardiology registrar's note:

Sitting up
Eating toast'

i was mortified. Well, yeah i was eating the fricken toast but it's not like there was even anything on it. and i'd been there all night and it wasn't like there was even a cup of tea or anything. WTF! And obese, yeah OK, it's not like i can argue with that, it is a technical term, but it's not like i'm Jabba the fricken Hutt. It's not like i was lying there mainlining melted butter for fuck's sake. i sat on my bed waiting for the next arcane experiment, fulminating. The moral of the story is that they are right, don't read your notes. It will only upset you.

Meanwhile, the medical stuff. There was nothing wrong with my heart, like i didn't already know that. i did have a hepatic reaction to Erythromycin which was taking for the sinus infection. That was a bummer, because it is the first line treatment for bubonic plague and if ever i am the plague belt (which runs roughly from Kazakhstan to Mongolia) i won't be able to take Erythromycin and will just have to avoid eating the marmots. And i have a really interesting recipe for marmot cooked with a blow torch, which i will now never be able to try.

So there i was, ineligible for the cardiologists, but not yet picked up by the gastroenterologists. And the hospital was going in and out of what they rather theatrically called 'red gridlock' which meant there were no beds anywhere, and they would not discharge me, no matter how much i asked them to. Clearly the place was run by the finest graduates of the Franz Kafka School of Medical Administration.

After a few days of this i became vaguely manic. i skidded around corridors in my socks and ran up and down the stairs. My husband came to see me (and brought all the wrong stuff, despite my very explicit instructions - clothes i hadn't seen for years. How could he do that? It really is a tradition!)

Finally a kind gastroenterology reg. (and Tool fan) came to see me special-like and i was discharged. It was 9 pm on a frosty night. The darkness outside sparkled. i stood at the bus stop in my old ill fitting clothes, with the potted gerbera my workmates had given me, and was free.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

She considers his lost years - a poem, and an explanation


You were never exactly going to live a normal life, were you.
You will be the flaming out.
You will gather the greatness -

the pain
and the glory.

You have no filters.
You hold your heart open.
You don't run
don't privilege
let it
on you and through you and your filling and your emptying
is the great original sigh, and we are filled and emptied in your presence.

i am amazed by you.
i am amazed you have survived this long,
in this world of tread and toil and trade.
i think you have been with the monks.
i think you have studied surrender,
the study of absence,
the study of exhalation,
and hurting and healing and helping and hearing
and hurting.

Honestly, i had my times of breathlessness.
There were times i wondered if i would hear you sing again,
and i almost didn't care. i could ask nothing more of you.
To wrench open the door of my heart
was an act of holy violence.


This poem is more literary than it sounds. i had in mind stylistic ideas and even phrases from the great romantic/transcendentalist poets, such as Blake, Yeats and Hopkins. (i am especially fond of Hopkins.) i believe i can poach so freely because i liken the subject, singer Altiyan Childs, to them.

i also had in mind some very old ideas, because i think when we consider greatness we are often drawn to our oldest and most developed ideas. One idea is about breath (prana, ch'i) being the source of life. Another idea is about being emptied. This is called kenosis in the Greek, and 'fana in Sufism. When we experience Spirit, we are emptied of our ordinary selves and transported into greater realities. In early Hinduism sound was considered generative of all life and was used as liturgy to shock people out of their ordinary selves. Music and dance have always been used in this way. i use the word shock here advisedly, because we cannot experience kenosis and remain the same, and because the experience itself can be as confusing and disturbing and problematic as it can be glorious and exciting and joyful. It has been for me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Christmas dinner on the firm

This is an email i sent to the CEO of the firm i work for. Those of us rostered on Christmas day traditionally get a meal from the cafeteria.

'Dear ...

I am not normally given to complaints but i wish to make one in the strongest terms regarding the lunch (and presumably the dinner) provided to staff on Christmas day.

By the time I opened the polystyrene box the reputation of the contents had preceded them. The general thinking was that because there were compaints last year, by some Orwellian twist of managerial logic the plan was for an even worse meal this year.

What was inside looked like 'Your Brain On Drugs'. There was a slice of grey and white matter which purported to be a vegetable terrine. I suspect eggplant was involved. It looked like something I would not have transplanted into my body to save a life. There were some desultory greens. The cucumber was slushy. The tomato tasted like fridge. There was a truly wretched yellow knob of what could have passed for broccoli in poor light. The whole arrangement seemed to have been frozen, or chilled for several days. It was definitely not 'Made With Love'.

There was also a pudding. It was pink. More slush. I ate some of it, because I think by then I was in a regressed state where anything pink and pappy looked attractive.

Now, I have a reasonably adventurous palate. I have been to Vietnam, and to Hokitika. I have cheerfully sat down to meals where I recognized none of the ingredients. But this one had me at a stand. It was inedible. It was a waste.

I am aware that (my employer) is financially stretched and I think I have my priorities straight. would I rather have (vital piece of equipment) or a slap up Christmas feed? Would I rather have (excellent service) or a slap up Christmas feed? Clearly, the former in each case.

Which is why I am requesting you do not bother. To give us staff food that is inedible is insulting and undermines our loyalties. It is also horribly wasteful - the food must have cost something and most of it went into the bin. Heaven knows, we do not do this job for the perks. Save the small amount of money it costs. We heard ont he day that the City Mission provided the best nosh ever. From now on I will be heading down there. '

This was the reply, a superb piece of managerialism of the sort designed to strip language of all meaning, in its own flow-chart style, a piece of brilliance:


I am in receipt of an email delivered to (CEO) on the 28th December 2010 with regard to the Christmas meal as delivered to yourself on Christmas Day and from the tone of the email I understand this meal did not meet your expectations.

I can ssure you that the appropriate amount of planning, preparation and presentation went into the meal that you ahd on Christmas Day. I apologise for the fact that you did not enjoy the meal and you (sic) comments are duly noted.

I would like to thank you for your time and your feedback.

Yours sincerely (Catering Manager)'