the (he)art of conversation

I’m always fascinated by people who have a way of making anyone and everyone feel as though they have known each other for years. My roommate in college during freshman year was this way. This worked out rather well for me, as all types of people would come knocking on our door, reducing the amount of effort I had to make to meet new people. I was dismayed to find, however, that just because people showed up at our door didn’t mean that I was going to know how to connect well with them myself. Compared to my gregarious roommate, I was shy, awkward. There is something to be said about the art of conversation.

There is, in fact, much to be said about the art of conversation. But at the heart of every genuine exchange between two people, at least those exchanges that are free of hidden agendas, is the desire within a person that says,

Find me here, where I am, and know a bit of me.

I think of the deaf patient I met who could ‘listen’ by reading what people wrote out for her. A slight inconvenience for a busy nurse? Undeniably, yes. The temptation to dismiss the value of that extra effort was real. But it became so readily apparent that she was significantly more at ease when I took the time to explain to her what I was about to do with the syringe in my hand, or why I needed to uncover her and probe at her in such personal ways. The written conversations were important in recognizing that she was very much present, in her quiet world, fearful and anxious about her condition, needing as much explanation and reassurance as any other person would. Would it hurt? How long was this going to take? Is this ok? Am I ok? Her nods and brief written replies let me know that she was ok. Less anxious. Increasingly at ease with me as her nurse. And I in turn became increasingly at ease with her. I found out a bit more about her, as she did about me.

I think of the elderly woman I met years ago during my years of research in nursing homes. The one who meant to tell stories about her son’s new baby, who meant to say “It’s nice to see you today” or “I feel sort of lonely today,” but when she opened her mouth to form the words, all that ever came out, in varying inflections, was “Doh doh doh doh doh doh.” That fateful stroke robbed her of all vocabulary but this one solitary word. She was, however, sharp as a tack and could understand everything being said to her. And so we had our conversations. I told her stories that I thought she might find interesting. I tried to remember not to ask questions requiring more than a “yes” or “no”… or in this case, a nod or a shake of the head, accompanied by “doh” with the appropriately corresponding inflection of her voice. I flinched when she would clearly be asking me a question, “Doh doh doh doh doh… doh?” and held my breath when I answered yes or no, hoping I had answered appropriately. Her shock at my response to one of her questions told me I had clearly misunderstood what she had asked, and so I quickly corrected myself, and she seemed sufficiently satisfied. Oh the adventures those conversations were! She wanted to be found and known beyond her limited vocabulary. And she was wonderful. I miss her.

I think of the recent immigrants who were uncertain about visiting a new church, our church, for fear that their English was too poor to connect meaningfully with anyone. They wavered for a while about whether or not to come visit. They smiled and nodded politely at people who talked at otherwise normal speed, but the translation process in their minds could not keep up. The ways they subconsciously brightened up when people spoke slowly, simply, or with a few phrases of their native tongue, revealed their relief at being freed for even just a moment from that gnawing sense of isolation. Please find me here inside my not-yet-bilingual world, and know a bit of me.

It has taken me a long time to understand, much less appreciate, the ways I am wired as an introvert. I love to sit back and just listen to people talk, but don’t tend to interject very often. I am handicapped with chit-chat. I feel uncomfortable entering into large gatherings of people I don’t know very well. I get nervous when I tell stories in groups, even in groups of people that I know and love. I tend to be rather reticent about volunteering a lot of personal information on my own initiative, but curiously I love being asked questions and tend to warm up to inquisitive people much faster. I too want to be found and known a bit by others.

There is so much to be learned from the art of conversation.

you must love me

I have to confess, I like control. A lot. I can’t deny it, though some days I do deceive myself into thinking I’m a flexible, go-with-the-flow, nothing-rattles-me kind of person. My deep-seated affection for control is not always a bad thing. After all, it makes me a real planner, which helps me stay a bit more organized in nursing and life in general. But being one who loves to feel in control is also troublesome and terrifying because there are plenty of moments in a pediatric ICU when things simply do not go the way you want. I must, therefore, keep my need for control, under control. Oh dear. Although when asked recently at work if the tape covering the cotton ball on my tiny patient’s neck was there to secure my patient to the bed, I had to wonder, maybe I do have ‘control freak’ written across my forehead after all.

But I digress. Why such a strong affinity for a sense of control? Predictability feels safe. Perceived sovereignty feels good. It’s a great place to be for the risk-averse.

Let’s consider this in the context of dating, particularly on shows like “The Bachelorette.” I don’t typically watch this, but I was flipping channels the other night and became a bit intrigued by what Hollywood can tell us about our infatuation with control.  There are multiple, eager candidates hoping to win a girl’s heart through a very limited number of group and individual dates, followed all the while by cameras and microphones broadcasting every word and deed to the American public. The candidates must, then, carefully select what they choose to divulge and how they choose to divulge it in their sporadic interactions with this dream girl. Control is everything. Tell the impressive things, but don’t come across too cocky. Disclose morsels of weaknesses or hardships, and if articulated with just the right affect, they could elicit a twinge of sympathy which she might mistake for love. But alas. The men who trudge to the limo at the end of each episode without the highly coveted rose are perplexed and disappointed that they unable, despite all their valiant efforts, to make her fall in love. We love control, and we are frustrated by our lack of it.

I certainly don’t purport to know all the reasons for the bewildering, heartbreaking things that happen in life. But I would like to suggest some things that we gain from not having as much control as we think, and definitely not as much as we would like.

Lack of control humbles us. It softens our edges a bit. There is a rumor that cops won’t give traffic tickets to nurses. Maybe it’s because they think they might need the nurse’s help one fateful day when they are laid up in a hospital bed. Perhaps this is the thought that passes through their minds as they loom over the driver’s side window. At my work, when a patient goes into cardiac arrest, I might be able to give chest compressions, but I can’t at the same time also give those life-saving meds. I’m not fully in control of the situation. I have to admit it – I need help.

Lack of control makes us less flippant, less cavalier. A large earthquake strikes, and suddenly every news story is discussing how to create an earthquake preparedness kit. I have no idea what kind of medical emergency my patient might go into on any given day, so I renew my Pediatric Advanced Life Support certification regularly. This is not to say that our only option is to live in paranoia and constant gloom. Life is meant to be lived to the fullest for all the days that we are given! But lack of control exposes our assumptions about our invincibility, and pushes us to ask some of the hard but necessary questions.

Lack of control frees us. When we give up the desire to control people or situations to unhealthy degrees, we find that we are no longer obligated to behave in prescribed and often unbecoming ways to try and maintain control.  The roseless bachelor can move on from The Bachelorette and find love with a woman who knows him for who he is, for all of who he is. I can go to work knowing that I don’t need to tape my patients to the bed. Perhaps a compassionate touch, a reassuring voice (and ok, a small amount of medication) will do the job instead.

not…yet

When I first started voice lessons, my hopes weren’t too high for myself. I certainly was not going to become that self-deceived girl on American Idol who thought she could sing, only to convince all 29.3 million pairs of ears listening in America that even warbling would be considered a long shot. Let’s be honest. If my teacher could just help me sing in tune more consistently, perhaps help improve my tone, and help me hit those high notes without tearing up my vocal cords, he would make my miracle-worker list. I was sure I didn’t have any ability to produce vibrato because only the specially-gifted people can do that, and there was definitely no way I had any ear for harmonies. But after a few years of lessons, this voice teacher has proven me wrong, and I am convinced that what has made him such a good and effective teacher is his strong belief in the process of growth. This makes him wonderfully patient and gracious as a teacher. Every lesson ends with him sincerely raving about how much I’ve improved since thirty minutes, two weeks, two months, a year ago. Every time one of his younger students blurts in a fit of frustration, “I can’t do this!!”…he always asks them to end that sentence with the short but transformative word, “yet.”  “I can’t do this…!  ….yet.” A renewed glimmer of hope. An extra measure of patience. Faith in the process.

One of the many, many reasons I went into nursing was because I felt that I had stopped growing in my professional life. I honestly enjoyed what I did before nursing. I was competent at my job and worked with great people, but I was so stagnant. I had stopped learning. I was becoming dull. So it was exhilarating to dive back into the books, to learn new and amazing things, to be stretched again. But given that the last three years of my life have been nothing but one steep learning curve after another, I had also forgotten how terribly uncomfortable it can be to grow. It’s kind of like puberty. Your clothes just don’t fit or feel right on your skin like they used to. Your voice is not as it was, so you’re always embarrassed, uncertain, awkward. You feel like people notice all your imperfections, and notice them profoundly. You’re growing and changing and it’s just so uncomfortable.

But that little word yet is what lifts my chin on those days marked with a particularly high number of foibles. I have deep appreciation for all the preceptors and mentors and coworkers and friends who always insert that word yet to close out the end of my more discouraging days. And the beauty of that little word is its ability to punctuate the end of so many different sentences – sentences about work, about singing, about building relationships, about being a better wife, about growing into a person of greater integrity.

And lest you think me naïve, I’m not saying that trusting the process, ending sentences with yet, necessarily means I’m going to become a rock star in any or all these areas of my life. But it gives me hope that by the grace of God, change for good can happen when I’m willing to let my voice teacher correct me. On the same things. Over and over again. When I’m willing to go through my really hard days at work so that I can learn to think critically and apply new skills. When I’m willing to be vulnerable with my husband and apologize for how my shortcomings hurt him, and give grace for how his shortcomings affect me.

And so I find that, under the grace of God, walking courageously and humbly through the process itself is the only way to actually experience the transformative power of that little word, yet. I am praying for greater courage and a humbler heart.

writing resurrected

So, so very much has happened since the last time I blogged. I survived nursing school. I survived the NCLEX. I have been blessed with my dream job. I have met some of the most amazing classmates, professors, mentors, coworkers, patients and families in my young nursing career. Personal issues in family and church life have filled my heart with longings, some heartache, and much hope.

I have missed writing terribly. My neglect of it is primarily attributed to a lack of time. But sometimes I have felt there was just too much to say, and oddly, that kept me silent…probably because so much of it was not meant for a public forum. But nowadays, free time has become a bit less elusive and I am hungry for expression and connection through writing again.

I suppose it only makes sense for me to resurrect my writing by addressing the question I get asked the most nowadays. It usually goes like this:

Friend: “How’s work? How do you like nursing?”

Me: (as my mind at light speed recalls a thousand issues that I’m learning to deal with for the first time; multitudes of faces who have inspired me, broken my heart, or done both in the course of one shift; and the flood of fears and hopes and insecurities and joys that fill my heart in that same shift)   “….it’s… good… I’m learning a lot…”

And then I feel unfulfilled, for myself and for my listener. I’m not a fan of glib answers.  It’s just hard to know where to start and where to end with my response to that question.

That being said…I’ll now attempt to sum up the main thoughts and feelings I’ve been working through regarding this new life of mine as a nurse in a pediatric ICU.

–       It is quite the uncomfortable adjustment to feeling so unsure, and frankly, scared, about what each work day is going to bring…and to realize that this is my new norm for work.

–       On the other side of that coin, it is that same sense of challenge, unpredictability, fascination, and never-ending learning that draws me back to work and makes it so exhilarating!

–       Nursing is so much about servanthood, and I’ve got a lot to learn. When I realize that many of my patients may not have much longer, I start to see that my reaction to their needs and requests can profoundly shape what short time they may have left to live, for better or for worse.  Eye-rolling, heavy sighs, and short answers? Or joyful service, full of compassion and grace? I’ve certainly been guilty of the former, at least internally, and pray for more of the latter as I grow.

–       Nursing is about dignity and respect. I must choose daily how I will treat my patients, regardless of how they appear or what their ‘deficiencies’ might be, which are so often not under their control. I know there are a ton of controversies and complicated issues that this particular point can branch off to. But I hope for grace to still honor the value of each life that is entrusted into my care for each shift.

–       I am learning about self-care and balance, real fast.

–       Don’t underestimate the therapeutic power of a baby’s bundle, a popsicle, a Dora the Explorer DVD, or a good poop.

–       I LOVE my unit. It’s truly a team effort and I am beyond thankful for it!! I have the. best. coworkers.

–       A lot of people say, “I just don’t know how you can work with sick kids. You’re amazing.” And I just think, if you only knew how much inspiration I drew from these kids and their absolutely selfless families. Their strength is often what keeps me going. I do my work for a day, but they do their work for their lifetime, and I would argue that they have the harder job, hands down.

–       Sometimes, it’s just hard, and the attempt to find any easy answers would simply downplay reality. Healthcare professionals have this amazing privilege to do some incredible work. But at the end of the day…we are only human in our ability to care and give, much less to heal. Oh to rest in the mercy of a loving God who is intimately present even in our unexplained sufferings…who suffered Himself at the hands of cruelty and injustice. And so we find that He is with us, ever still, pointing our hearts to a hope beyond this present world.