Thursday, December 29, 2011

pastoral clinical week 11

(I'm late getting this written partly because it's not due to be turned in for another week and partly because I've been writing it in my head for a couple weeks. it's actually a reflection of a pre-christmas situation.)


I’m not certain how upset I ought to be over this situation, as it may be me simply over-thinking it by placing myself in the resident’s place. But I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have let the situation remain if I were still working in group homes.

Earlier this week I stopped in to visit a resident who’s been on a rollercoaster of health lately; sometimes in good shape, sometimes otherwise. When he first joined my floor he was starting the slow descent into dementia which has sped up in the ensuing months, to the point at which he sometimes seems uncomprehending of his surroundings. When I dropped in on him it was roughly 6:30 in the evening. His door was closed completely, which is unusual, and at first I thought he might be in bed already. But I knocked gently anyway and walked in. He was sitting in his wheelchair, indulging in his habit of ripping pieces of paper into smaller and smaller pieces of paper.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. We were having our usual conversation about how he was feeling and how he was doing when I noticed his sweatpants were down around his hips. I said, “Were you trying to change your pants?” He started to absently pull at them like he was pulling them up but I asked him to wait a moment I couldn’t see whether his undergarments were on. I looked behind him and realized he was sitting in a very messy undergarment that he’d obviously recently shat in.

I told him, “Wait a minute while I get someone.” I stepped out into the hall and caught a staff I knew and told him, “This guy's Depends are messed and I think he might have been trying to change his pants.” He said okay, and followed me back into the resident’s room. When we got there he gave him the medication that he’d been preparing, then asked if he was all right. The resident said he was. The staff couldn’t have helped noticing his pants were around his thighs and the undergarment was soiled but turned around and shrugged at me and then left the room. I stayed with my resident a few more minutes until I simply couldn’t take the smell any longer and left.

This disturbs me because I’m not at all certain I handled the situation right. My first inclination was to help him change (but I don’t do that work anymore) so my second inclination was to find someone who would help him change. However, that person seemed to take my resident’s word that he was all right sitting in messy undergarments.

On reflection that night, it struck me that the door might have been closed so that no one would enter and he could have some privacy to sit in his room. But I can’t imagine anyone opting to want to sit in a shit-filled undergarment, privately or not. The staff I approached is someone I’ve worked with on the floor for my whole length of time there and I trust his judgment. I didn't get the sense he was simply walking away from a situation but was acting on how he understood the resident to prefer. But I also can’t imagine allowing someone to decide for himself to remain in such a situation, particularly someone with the recent history of health issues of this resident. Should I have confronted the staff afterward and asked if we were making the best decision? Should I have alerted someone else?

I’m conflicted about the situation. My immediate reaction was to change the resident’s undergarments, and frankly I’m glad I waved that option away because I’m not qualified to do that anymore. I’m glad too of my second reaction, which was to recognize my role as being part of a team and report the situation to someone who could correct the situation. This is a role I've been working at. But I’m uncomfortable with the way the situation ended. Is it, I wonder, all right to let a resident opt to sit in shat-in adult undergarments, however privately, for an unspecified amount of time? Should that be within his rights? And can someone like this resident, whose thinking has been muddled at the best of times but is nearing the end of his life and is clearly showing increasing dementia, be permitted to make that decision?

Monday, December 19, 2011

TV dinners for xmas

A few days ago one of the residents at my CPE facility mentioned to me that his mother and most of his brothers were coming to visit on Christmas. “And they’re bringing TV dinners with them so the kitchen doesn’t have to cook for them.”
“TV dinners?” I said. “Was that a tradition at your house too? We used to have TV dinners every Christmas for dinner.”

He looked at me as if there were bugs crawling out of my nose.
“No,” he said slowly. “They just don’t want the kitchen to have to cook for them and TV dinners are easy to put in the dining room microwave.” He started to back his wheelchair up a little to get a better look at me. “My mom’s over 90 and I don’t think she wants to cook a big dinner anymore.”

My mom, on the other hand, never reached 90 but we ate TV dinners every Christmas as if it was a gift itself. The best part was that my sister and I got to choose two of whatever we wanted: her
taste ran to fried chicken because it came with a brownie, but I always chose two differing Asian dishes, Polynesian and Hawaiian. I loved the contrasting sweet and sour of them, the tastes of meat and fruit.

The official reason we ate TV dinners was so my mother didn’t need to cook a big meal on Christmas, but the truth is my mother never cooked a big meal on Christmas. I think we simply liked the ease and comfort food of TV dinners, which were the content of meals pretty regularly at our house, and wanted to extend that relaxation to Christmas, which for us was a really big day that involved watching parades, opening gifts, playing in the snow, watching my dad burn the wrapping and boxes in the fireplace, and drinking hot cocoa with little marshmallows.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the pantisocratic pirates, part the 2nd

"We first came together in London in 1753," Wilberforce began. "This was after the Great Comb Riots and alien dissenters were being interned under the Sedition Act, that was us, you see. We were Poles, Prussians, Serbs, Dalmations, any nation you care to think of . Even a Frenchman. Anyroad, we all fetched up together in Newgate jail and waited for the business to blow over. Only it didn't. More tea?" Peter Rathkael-Herbert shook his head. "Very well, we thought, so we wait to be charged. Standard procedure, you see. Get charged, plead guilty, be deported, three days at Boulogne and you're back within the week. But time wore on and we still were not charged. In the meantime we kept ourselves busy, political debates, discussions, a little dialectics. We look back on those days as the birth of Pantisocracy. It was the only compromise we could reach. You see, when you've got dia-hard Anabaptists and Thuringian ultramontanists in the ranks, take it from me, you need something broad. Pantisocracy is broad, if nothing else."

Wilberforce reached for his pipe and began packing it with a gluey substance. "All men are equal," he said as he lit the pipe, and Peter Rathkael-Herbert smelt a sweet scent familiar from the Tesferati. "That's about it, really. The stuff about land ownership doesn't really apply aboard ship. Anyway, in the end we figured out the delay. The section of the Act we'd been charged under had yet to be passed, and with the threat of revolt over, no one was very interested in getting it onto the statute books. We couldn't be released until we'd been tried, and we couldn't be tried because the law didn't exist. We rotted there for over a year until the magistrate who'd arraigned us in the first place chartered a ship. This ship, in fact, though it was called the Alecto then."

Wilberforce sent clouds of sweet blue smoke wafting toward his guest. "The idea was: Stage an escape, hop aboard this ship, be charged with the escape, plead guilty, be deported to France and back in a few days. The only problem was the Magistrate. He retired that very week, leaving us aboard the Alecto. There we were, suddenly fugitives from justice with nothing and nobody between us and the gallows. Technically, we were already pirates. After a quick debate we decided to go the whole hog. We put the master and his crew in the pinnace, hoisted the Jolly Roger, and set sail that night for the Barbary Coast. It's been thirty-odd years now and I can tell you truly that not a man jack of us has looked back since. I still think of that magistrate and each time I do I raise my glass and toast him: 'Happy retirement, Henry Fielding!' Without him, we'd all be living under the English boot, but here we are and here we stay. It's the rover's life for us and a damn fine life it is too, right, lads?"

"Right, Cap'n," replied a trio of hoary-headed tars from the quarterdeck.

Wilberforce van Clam passed the pipe to the Internuncio. "Suck on that, m'boy."

Hot sweet smoke curled in Peter Rathkael-Herbert's throat. Small metal centipedes raced around the insides of his kneecaps.

"Nn," he said, exhaling and handing it back.

The sky was a vacant eye, massively blue. The sun flared low over the sea. He coughed and thanked the captain.

"Only for today," Wilberforce explained to him. "Wilkins is captain tomorrow, then Schell, we rotate, you see, all being equals 'n' all. Gets a bit confusing sometimes."

His head was spinning, slow half-rotations which blurred the ship and its aged crew, somehow making them even more fabulous than they already were. "Pirates," he slurred. The chair was so enveloping, a whole world.

"Look at it financially, morally, politically, however you like," Captain van Clam leaned across, "we're the most succesful pirates these seas have ever known."

--from Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk

many of the characters from norfolk's novel are real, including the title character john lempriere, who did indeed write a dictionary of mythology. henry fielding, of course, as any english major knows, is real, although remembered here for his legal work rather than his satire. peter rathkael-herbert might be a twist on baron peter herbert-rathkael, who apparently had something to do with the breakout of the first world war. anyroad, to quote the fictional van clam, the point is the pantisocratic pirates who are an inspired creation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

the pantisocratic pirates, part 1

"At first it was the Tesrifati's own shadow. Some strage refraction of the nowhere-light had thrown a dark double of his vessel off to port. Then it was his imagination, an image rising out of the silent hypnotic hours, now redoubted and returning. And then it was a black ship bearing down on him out of the fog. Hamit turned and began to shout. A dark form was running alongside his ship, the angle of coincidence so narrow it must have been there for hours. Hamit scrambled down ladders, through hatches, along gangways, shouting, cuffing the heads of the crew. None of the guns were primed. He could hear water rushing in the channel formed between the hulls. Two or three of the men were stirring themselves. Hamit...saw the black ship loom out of the fog to fill the gunport. He was hammering down the powder, tamping the ball. Lining the wales of the black ship from prow to stern were faces withered with age. Two crewmen were pulling at his arms. He pushed them away. The ship was almost on him, filling the sky, blotting out the fog, huge and black as night. He lit the taper. The crewmen were shouting at him, moving backward. Hamit touched the fuse and turned to see them running away from him with their hands to their heads, away from the cannon. The fuse hissed, he heard the first grappling hook fall with a thud on the deck above. Then the cannon exploded.

"From within the confines of his crate, the Internuncio heard muffled shouting, a thud somewhere above, a deafening explosion, more thuds, a terrible grinding sound, and feet running in all directions around him. The ship was being boarded. He heard barrels being rolled along the gangplanks and manhandled out of the well. The hole through which his young friend had fed and watered him allowed a view directly overhead. Useless. Then his own turn came and he braced himself against the 'walls' and floor as the crate was shifted up to the deck, then seemed to hang in space before landing on the deck of the Tesrifati's aggressor. He heared voices speaking in English. The grinding sound came again. The hulls rubbing against one another, he realized belatedly, and then the ships were free of each other. He could hear the crew levering off the lids of the barrels. He raised his head to shout his presence and the sound died in his throat. His crate was positioned directly below the mainmast. Looking up through the feeding hole he saw swirling fog, bare spars, and rigging. At the top of the mast, a tattered pennant flew, and on the pennant was a skull and crossed bones. They were working down the line, staving in the barrels with jemmies. Peter Rathkael-Herbert cowered in his crate waiting helplessly, hopelessly for discovery. Then his turn came. Wood splintered above his head and shattered slats rained down on him as he curled up, burying his head in his hands. The lid was prized off and a croaking voice above him said, 'Aha!' before strong hands reached down to pluck him from his refuge and deposti him on the deck. Crumpled, racked with aches and pains, exhausted Peter Rathkael-Herbert looked up to see an old man, grizzled and weather-tanned, standing over him. The old man reached down and offered the Imperial Internuncio his hand.

"'I am Wilberforce van Clam,' he told the disheveled heap. 'Welcome aboard the Heart of Light.'

"The sirocco began to blow away the fog.

"Aboard the Heart of Light, Peter Rathkael-Herbert saw sunlight for the first time in a fortnight. Looking up into the rigging and around the deck where the crew were making ready to set sail, he could not help but notice the extreme age of the sailors. Not a one seemed to be under fifty. Wilberforce van Clam was at the helm.

"'Take some tea.' He gestured to a pot brewing on an occasional table by his side. 'Wilkins!' he shouted. 'A cup for our guest, if you please!'...Wilkins, a spry sixty-year-old with a long white mustache, jumped to the task.

"'You are...pirates?' Peter Rathkael-Herbert ventured, watching as elderly men leapt up and down the rigging.

"'Pirates? Oh yes, pirates all right, absolutely pirates we are, aren't we, lads?'

"'Oh yes!' came the reply from all quarters of the vessel.

"'But we're Pantisocratic Pirates,' Wilberforce van Clam went on. 'We never really wanted to be pirates at all.' He paused and sipped his tea. 'It's society made us what we is now.'

"'Society?' Peter Rathkael-Herbert was bemused by the notion. 'But how?'

"'Aha!' said Wilberforce for the second time that day. 'Now that is a tale worth the telling. Wilkins! A chair for my friend!'

"And so, seated in a splendidly upholstered armchair and fortified by tea, the Imperial Internuncio listened while Wilberforce van Clam unfolded the story of the Pantisocratic Pirates."

--from Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk

I have been reading this book for a little over a year and a half, having come across it for a dime at a library book sale in rural pennsylvania. I've read a lot of negative reviews but I have to say I am on the side of the faction that argues it's worth the staying with. it's got many red herrings and sometimes lapses into strange digressions in the middle of a sentence, but on the whole it's been worth the time it's taken to read it. the parts I'm posting today and tomorrow are a little better than 2/3s through the novel, and remind me of some of terry pratchett's discworld, and wilberforce van clam himself has made me think of cohen the barbarian.

part 2, the story of the pantisocratic pirates, tomorrow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

pastoral clinical week 10

The most affecting experience I’ve had this week has been finding and then going through the artwork and photographs in a resident’s room for her memorial. I was lucky there was such a large cache to go through and I’m disappointed her remaining wants nothing to do with them.

First of all, the artwork is rather nice. It’s not something that will blow anyone away, some hidden Picasso or Chagall, but she had talent and a flair for drawing that comes through nicely. The photos of her sculptures were also impressive: some were horizontal, like a woman looking as if she were coasting through the waves, and were these massive, granite slabs often teetering as if playing with gravity, while others were vertical, like one that resembled a stylized milkweed, and willowy and slim.

But what really affected me was the implication of these photos and artwork that our residents were not always the people in the conditions that they are in now. Intellectually, we all know that. But as I sorted through the work in the interns’ office, sometimes holding something up and saying to anyone there, “look at this,” we were reminded constantly of that fact and commented on it. After her memorial, I showed the display to a nurse who had known her when she was still mobile and somewhat verbal before disassembling it, and she was like a little girl pawing through the work and saying over and over, “she was really, really young once.” I think that’s the takeaway from this experience, that while we’re all aware these folks had previous, maybe extraordinary lives, it’s nonetheless good to be reminded that those lives often didn’t include whatever illness or disability defines them for us now.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

teach naked

this is an essay written for a class on christian education expanding on an earlier essay defining the term.
“Now I Know Why I am an Orthodox Jew”

A recent issue of The Jewish Review of Books contains this anecdote to make clearer late neo-conservative founder Irving Kristol’s identification as a Jew “with an abiding interest in and respect for religion” first and as a political creature second.

A good clue to the answer [why he identified himself as a “neo-Orthodox Jew”] can be found in one of his later essays…Kristol there recounts an experience that his wife [Gertrude Himmelfarb] had while teaching a graduate course on British political thought in which she had spent several sessions on the writings of Edmund Burke. At the end of one class, she was approached by a “quiet and industrious” young woman. “Now,” this student said, “I know why I am an Orthodox Jew.” Needless to say, this wasn’t because Burke had supplied an incontrovertible proof that the Oral Torah had been revealed at Mt. Sinai. “What she meant was that she could now defend Orthodoxy in terms that made sense to the non-Orthodox, because she could now defend a strong deference to tradition, which is the keystone of any orthodoxy, in the language of rational secular discourse, which was the language in which Burke wrote.” (Soloveichik, 19)

This lengthy quote explains nicely, I think, what religious education ought to do: to inculcate in the educated not the dogma of the religion but a way of explaining what it is he or she believes to the non-member of the faith. As Judith Berling writes, “We not only learn through conversation, but we learn how to converse” (emphasis in original; 80). In my previous essay for this class, “We are Church when We are Gathered, We are Church when We are Dispersed,” I defined religious education as follows:

It’s a way of teaching children and adults how best to affect their world in order to make it more reflective of the type of world where they would want to be citizens. It reflects how they think a world of justice and equality ought to be (in Christian terms, bringing about the realm of God). Religious education determines the communities children and adults want to be a part of, discerns what is holy and how to talk about it, and most importantly, what the ethics, morals, and behaviors the members of such communities should participate in.

To this I would now add that in addition to helping the student make sense of the world it should also help her or him to explain to others how he or she sees the world. For many students, one of the most important questions revolves around how they can affect the world (hopefully, in a positive fashion). Craig Dykstra’s retelling of Philip Haillie’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, for example, provides

a story of how the gospel can be taught when the church comes alive to face both the dangers that beset it and the concrete needs and hungers of the specific world in which they live. It is a story of youth groups and schoolchildren, of classroom teachers and adult Bible study groups. It is a story of how worship and preaching and studying and acting all come together to make a community into a people of God. It is a story of how people read the Scriptures, lived their life with one another, and opened their doors to strangers as essential elements in their being the church in the world. But most of all it is the story of what happened to and in these people and in the world in the midst of what they themselves did. (57)

I’ve argued that religious education, in order to make plain the opportunity for learners to hear the questions that should be demanded of them, must emphasize the holiness of life and experience. Everyone’s life and everyone’s experience. Dykstra notes exactly the sorts of questions that we ought to expect students to ask: “Of what value are human beings, and how is that value secured? What is worth dying for? What is worth staying alive for? How should our lives be spent?” (7). If, as Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore points out, holiness is found in the very “rhythms of life,” the stuffness of daily, average life—and I think it is—then it’s in that very experience of everyone’s daily life, its celebrations and atonements, that learners begin to articulate what holiness is.

For the graduate student in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s class, holiness resided in her ability to articulate her faith to someone outside it. To make this particular to my faith, in his pamphlet entitled Should My Child Go to Sunday School?, Unitarian Universalist minister Tony Larsen explains

We teach our children what Unitarian Universalism stands for today so that when people ask them about their faith, they can feel confident answering [their] questions. We help them understand that the inspiration of the divine is to be found not in one book but in many; that we are born not in sin but with the potential for goodness; that the doctrine of hell implies a cruel god, and salvation for members of only one religion would be unjust; and that we have a duty to cherish the earth and revere life instead of sitting back and waiting for some divinely sanctioned cataclysm to come and end it all.

I came to UUism in my 30s. While I spent time with various faiths between them, including Krishna Consciousness, Buddhism and Catholicism, I was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, a religiously and socially orthodox group for whom religious education is based

upon the philosophy that students at all levels of schooling possess individuality and should be educated to use their God-given capacities to become individuals of principle, qualified for any position of life. Education was to begin in the home where the basic values of redemptive discipline and mental and physical health were to be balanced with the importance of work…Adventists have embraced the philosophy that education should be redemptive in nature, for the purpose of restoring human beings to the image of God, our Creator. Mental, physical, social, and spiritual health, intellectual growth, and service to humanity form [its essential] core of values…(

My memories of my childhood Christian education at what we called Saturday School reflect some of this. I remember quite distinctly the emphasis on work and thrift as well as vegetarianism (for physical health) without which I would be unfit for the Kingdom of God, although I don’t recall a redemptive nature to my schooling. It may have been there and I was too young to appreciate it, although I also recognize a strong redemptive flavor to much of my current theology that may have originated there.

I locate much of my theology of religious education in articulating what is holy. To quote Mullino Moore, who cites Orthodox tradition for her definition: “[That] all of life is sacramental, that the church’s sacraments make visible the sacramentality of God’s creation, and that the human calling is to participate in the sacrament of life…[The] power of sacramentality and its interrelated movements…reveal holy presence in the rhythms of life” (emphasis in the original; 217). I would modify this otherwise excellent definition to reflect my UU perspective by substituting “reality” for “God’s creation.” I am especially influenced in this latter view by Joyce Ann Mercer’s early comment distinguishing practical theology from academic exercises.

For example, practical theologians are not content with abstract proclamations that God cares for all persons as God’s children. Practical theologians ask about the meaning of God’s parentlike care for children in contexts in which particular children experience pain and suffering. They work out visions of such children experiencing and manifesting that care in their everyday lives. They combine such visions with action strategies effecting transformation. (12)

Or, as she writes more succinctly later, “The suffering of children must be acknowledged and addressed…” (244). To paraphrase Jurgen Moltmann, a theology that doesn’t take into account the suffering and pain of children—and in religious terms, we are all God’s children—has nothing to say to us.

Doing this brings into sharp relief my earlier assertion that religious education, in addition to helping people sort out and articulate what they believe, also has to give them the opportunity to determine what the beliefs and actions a moral community of which they want to be a part should include. This attempts to answer questions put by Mark Yaconelli:

What would it mean if the goal of our ministries was simply to be prayerfully present to young people—to allow them to be fully themselves? Could we trust that our presence is enough? How would we treat youth if we weren’t trying to convince them of the importance of the faith, the worthiness of Jesus, the necessity fo the church? What would happen if we sought to minister to young people through our ears, through our presence, through silent prayer and an open heart? What would such radical acceptance evoke in young people? (122)

In her pamphlet UU Religious Education and Your Child, Gaia Brown quotes Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in response to a similar question, “How can you teach without doctrine?”

“The great end of religious instruction is not to stamp our minds irresistibly upon the young but to stir up their own…to touch inward springs.” We have a strong faith in the inherent spirituality of children and see it as our task to nurture, not to indoctrinate. Our respect for the children teaches them respect—for themselves, for others, and for this fragile interdependent web of which we are all a part.

An emphasis on the concerns and experiences of students, supporting their abilities for recognizing the holy in existence, a trust in their abilities to come to sound conclusions, identifying themselves as individuals of principle and helping them to articulate to other people of faith what that means: I would argue that the result of such religious education will look and sound a lot like the experience of that graduate student in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s class. “Now…I know why I am an Orthodox Jew.”

• (2011.) “Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Education.” The Official Site of the Seventh-Day Adventist World Church. Accessed November 30, 2011, at
• Berling, Judith. (2004.) Understanding Other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books.
• Brown, Gaia. (Undated.) UU Religious Education and Your Child: Frequently Asked Questions. Boston; Unitarian Universalist Association Pamphlet Commission Publication. Unpaginated.
• Dykstra, Craig. (2005.) Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press.
• Larsen, Tony. (1993.) Should My Child Go to Sunday School? Boston; Unitarian Universalist Association Pamphlet Commission Publication. Unpaginated.
• Mullino Moore, Mary Elizabeth. (2004.) Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland, OH; Pilgrim Press.
• Soloveichik, Meir. (2011.) “Irving Kristol, Edmund Burke, and the Rabbis: [A Review of] The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009 by Irving Kristol.” The Jewish Review of Books. Volume 2, number 2; Summer 2011. 19-21.
• Yaconelli, Mark. (2006.) Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"you don't tell anybody; you just deal wit' it."

just yesterday I read another local article about another former cop arrested for molesting kids. in light of the jerry sandusky and bernie fine stories, which seem to indicate that boys are more often abuse victims than girls are, this has been sitting on my table for about a month and I finally sat down to read it. it's quite a good essay full of information, much of which I've suspected, and some of which I hadn't. I was following the story it alludes to in the village voice back in march, so I was familiar with some of the issues and cast. it's a controversial topic--read the comments here and at the original march story for an indication how so--but even for someone coming into the subject cold (as if anyone has no preformed opinions about childhookups) it is altogether an excellent read. (as a sidenote suggesting that one of the essay's major points, that the media is invested in the false assumption that most victims are girls, when I looked for an illustration for this post by typing "child prostitution" into google images, with the exception of mug shots of perpetrators and a couple illustrating prostitution in other countries, all the images were of girls. I had to go outside that descriptor to find a boy's photo I could use.)