Sunday, July 30, 2017

THE HUMAN SPIRIT




The human spirit, that numinous and mysterious force that exists within us, so pervasive in determining the entire range of human behavior and thought, and yet too elusive to be measured or quantified by any scientific method or exercise.
It cannot be seen, touched, or heard, only experienced. 

It is this spirit that enables us to find the resolve, the strength, and the will, to overcome horrific events or experiences, and to navigate this journey called life.

It enables us to be moved emotionally by great art and music, to love and to care for one another, to share deeply in the happiness and grief of others, to nurture dreams and aspirations for ourselves and for others, to imagine our own souls, and to imagine God.

The human spirit is God’s foundation; He is imagined and experienced out of this spirit.  He is in the human spirit.  He is the human spirit.  Without us, He cannot be, and without the human spirit, we cannot be what we are and what we hope to be.


My search for understanding has taken me on a maze-like path, moving in one direction and another, retreating at a dead end, and choosing still another path.  Remarkably, in spite of the tortuous route, I am always left feeling one step closer to my goal.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

SOUTHERN BY BIRTH & CHOICE Paducah Sun-7-27-17


SOUTHERN BY BIRTH
7-27-17

People are surprised when I tell them I was born in the south. Not the Dixie south, or the Kentucky south, or even the Maryland south, but the New Jersey south.  Folks from my part of the state are not from New Jersey; they’re from “South Jersey”, a distinction important to South Jerseyians, long before the comedian asked – “you’re from New Jersey? What exit?”

South Jersey, with its flat land and occasional gentle hills (key words – occasional and gentle), sandy fertile soil, and scrub Oak and Pine trees is perfect for crop farming, thus the state’s nickname, the Garden State. The Dutch and Swedes were the earliest settlers in the area, eventually displacing the native Lenape Indians.  My own arrival was the result of a wave of Italian immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, coming primarily from an impoverished southern Italy.  If this is not enough to establish my southern credentials, I offer the Mason Dixon line for your consideration.  If the west to east line, which was directed due south at the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, had continued due east, my first 18 years on God’s green earth would have been spent below the Mason Dixon line.

These are my claims to my southern roots, and I’m sticking to them.

Fifteen years ago my wife and I moved to Paducah, and once again I found myself living in an area of a state that seems like an afterthought to the folks in the more “urban” northeastern regions with their major universities and the state capital.  When you mention Kentucky to anyone unfamiliar with the state they immediately think of Bluegrass and horses, bourbon, and Appalachia and coal. They usually do not think of the Ohio River, riverboats, or anything about western Kentucky. Mention New Jersey and everyone thinks of the turnpike and the industrial north.  So it is not a stretch to see how the last 15 years of my life in Paducah Kentucky mirrors the first 18 years in Landisville New Jersey. Perhaps that is why I’m so comfortable here.

This is not to say there are no differences. There are many, and they far outnumber the similarities.  The more obvious differences to me relate to my Italian-American heritage.  I grew up thinking most of the world was Italian.  Almost all of my classmates had last names ending with vowels.  Not so much in Paducah.  As a boy I knew there were other churches besides the Catholic Church - Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and that one whose name begins with an “E” - but they were a very distinct minority in my early years.  Fortunately I acquired a more accurate picture of the world once I Left home for college.

Probably the biggest difference between then and now is the food.  The default foods here are meat and potatoes, BBQ, cooked down beans (which I love), Okra, biscuits, gravy, and corn bread - not pasta, peppers, tomatoes, and sausage.  One could almost predict the dishes that would appear on potluck table in Paducah and in my hometown. However, although the culinary heritage of these two regions is different, the quality of the cooking is not.  Good food is good food, whether it is Southern, Italian, or whatever, and I enjoy southern cooking, as long as there is no Okra involved. My issue is not with the food that is here, but with the foods that are not available in local markets. I appreciate the efforts of the Midtown Market to make more ethnic items available: broccoli rabe, mortadella, prosciutto, and imported San Marzano tomatoes. And I am grateful to Kroger’s on Park Avenue for their amazing selection of pasta products.  Both markets make it easier for me to bring South Jersey food into our Paducah kitchen. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention one other difference between these two “souths”, and that is the simple phrase – “bless his (or her) heart”. My wife and I quickly learned that you could say almost anything about anyone if you include “bless her heart” somewhere in your remark.  “That Mary, she sure likes to talk, bless her heart”…what and ingenious concept.

Paducah KY and Landisville NJ each have their own unique geography, history, cultural heritage, and culinary traditions. But common to both is love and commitment to family, friends, and community. Some things have no boundaries.

Monday, July 3, 2017

DESTINY




Buried somewhere in the pages of my journal is a quote that reads something like this: never was a man so unafraid of his own destiny.  I don’t know if I can fully describe the incredible impact those few words had on me.  At the time I was struggling with depression, confronting a growing force pulling my life into a new and totally unexpected and frightening direction.

Until that moment I had always considered destiny to be the purview of great historical figures accomplishing grand deeds, real or fictional.  Destiny was reserved for these men and women, and not intended for those of us living our mundane lives far from the spotlight of such greatness.  I suddenly realized that notion was wrong; we all have our own personal destiny, and seeing my struggle in that light enabled me to move forward.  It validated the feelings and desires that were causing so much stress and tension in my life and affirmed my commitment to the journey that lie ahead.  I had my own destiny to claim.

I believe that somewhere, deep in our conscious and unconscious mind, there exists a “center” that defines who we are.  It provides the basic material from which we create ourselves and to a large extent determines our personality traits and basic psychological temperament that direct our behavior.  This center contains the seeds of what we can become, depending on the circumstances of our life.  I think of it as the soul, a mystical entity detached from anything physical, in spite of the arguments from the neuroscientists.  It is a concept that helps me to understand my life and guides my behavior.  This is where my destiny was born, and once recognized and acknowledged, I had the opportunity to act on it or ignore it.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a soul, think of this “place” as our psyche, or center, or perhaps the human spirit.  Theists can insert God somewhere in this process.  It doesn’t matter what it is called or why or how it exists.  That basic core of our humanness is there for each of us.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

MEDICINE & ART





More than once in a quiet moment (and in some not so quiet moments) I’ve found myself wondering how I’ve managed to end up so far from where I started.  What is the connection between medicine and art that has allowed me to pursue both with dogged determination? After fourteen years of preparation, I spent 10 years in private practice, twelve years focused primarily on art while working part time in emergency medicine, and nine years back in private practice, before leaving medicine completely for art. Thinking about how I’ve divided my life between these two callings, I’m convinced they must share a common bond of some sort that has competed for my attention, powerful enough to evoke a major disruption in what was once a rather ordered and fulfilling life.

Their differences are easy to identify.  Art is a solitary endeavor. Most of my days are spent alone in the studio where I have complete control over the pace and tenor of my work. I have the luxury of designing each day to fit my mood and ambition.   This is in stark contrast to medicine where there is little to no control over the tone and pace of days that are subject to the demands of the patient schedule and the unpredictability of medical emergencies.  My work in the studio is done in solitude.  In the medical office and the Emergency room, the “work” of the physician is more public, done in the presence of others, often under quiet, but intense observation (the patient, patient’s family, and often medical staff).

Another difference relates to the focus and tone of the work.  The physician’s work is primarily mental, evaluating the patient’s symptoms, assessing their emotional status, and recommending a plan of treatment.  All of the effort is directed externally, to the problem at hand.  The primary focus is the patient.  The artist’s work is basically in direct opposition.  While there is a cerebral component to the work – knowledge of basic tenants of composition, color, etc. – the artist’s work is generated from within, in response to creative impulses that cannot always be understood, or controlled.  His only responsibility is to himself and his work. Unlike the physician, the artist’s work is entirely self-centered.

It was only after my work in the Emergency Room that I appreciated still another significant difference between the two professions.  The constant exposure to the pain, suffering, and fears of patients and family, especially in an Emergency Room setting, requires the staff of providers to become emotionally hardened to protect their psyche and allow them to function amidst so much unpleasantness.  It becomes necessary to close out the world, while still maintaining a deep measure of compassion.  This is in stark contrast to the artist, who strives to remain open to ideas, inspiration, and imagination as catalysts to his work.

So what do medicine and art share?  The artist and the physician each work alone.  The artist labors in the studio, directed by subjective, creative forces arising from within.  Only she can decide on the composition, the mood, and the intent of the work in progress.  No one else can do that for her.  Similarly, the physician is equally alone in the work he must do.  Although it may be in a more public setting with patients, family, and staff present, the real work is done alone, assessing the patient’s complaint, initiating a treatment plan and counseling the patient. Although consultation with colleagues is common, it remains an individual enterprise.  I remember the words of Dr. Leonard Lang, the chairman of the Department of Medicine during my residency.  He would remind us, “You can’t practice medicine by committee”.  The same can be said for creating art.

After struggling through this narrative, am I any closer to finding the link between two seemingly conflicting calls?  Perhaps I am.  The first half of my life was dominated by the reason and logic of science, and the second half by intuition and imagination.  Thus I have had the good fortune to be able to exercise both sides of my brain.  But the real link that enabled me to answer both calls was the opportunity for independence provided by both professions.  Although only art allowed me to design my own days, both allowed me to design my own life.



Thursday, June 29, 2017

I Called His Name


The following is an excerpt from my book TRANSITIONS, available at the Artist Guild of Paducah's gallery at 115 Market Square in Paducah.




I looked,
I called His name, again and again, I called,
I talked to others
I read, I listened.
And I called His name, alone, and I called with others.
I called in darkness and in stillness
I called in celebration, with noise and music.
I read, I reasoned, I argued.
I was angry, I was lazy, I was frustrated.
I pleaded with Him, I derided Him.
I refused to give in,
and I called his name still.
I called from a small room.
a crowded church,
a personal retreat.
I called him through four seasons.

Once He answered.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

MATERIALIZATION?



  
I don’t know what else to call it.
 
Why it has taken me this long – 74 years – to see myself so clearly is beyond comprehension.  While most of my “ah ha moments” occur in the proximity of my morning shower, I can’t recall when this one poked me in the head. It happened about a week ago.

I cannot let things simply be what they are.  I have this unrelenting need to act on things, to make them more than an experience or knowledge.

Ideas, thoughts, or feelings must be put into words, spoken, written, or both, and more often than not, they must be shared, quietly and personally through conversation, or publicly through writing (blogs, social media, etc.).

In my encounters with the world around me the same phenomenon occurs.  When a particular scene, natural or man made, inspires me, I am driven to re-create it on paper or canvas, directly or via a photograph.  Living with the experience and memory is not enough for me.  I have to make it into something tangible that I can see on demand, and, as is usually the case, share with others.

This is what has been driving me for the second half of my life.

Friday, June 16, 2017

PATIENCE MEETS MY PARENTS


Love can slap your head and knock you silly when you least expect it, and it does so at a time of its own choosing, regardless of your personal circumstances.  It certainly did so with me when I met a young nursing student named Patience during one of my shifts in the ER.  My life at that time was dark, and her radiance gave it light and hope.  After a very short courtship – phone calls, one day-long date, and a walk in the park – I knew we would be spending the rest of our lives together.  So it was only a matter of time that we would be driving the 30 miles from Wilmington Delaware to Landisville New Jersey for her to meet my parents.

When my father’s health prevented him from working, my parents decided to sell the farm and build a small home on a nearby wooded property they owned.  It was perfect for them. It had a large basement where my mother could cook and can (Italian-Americans often had a second kitchen in the basement.), and my father could make his wine, and with enough cleared land for a garden.  My father had two passions, wine making and gardening, both of which he pursued until one year before his death at age 82.

On the day of the big meet we pulled into their drive in my wild and wooly ’65 Mustang hardtop, stopping just short of the garage, which was always open.
Family and friends usually entered through the garage because it opened into the kitchen-dining area, where all the entertaining took place.  This day would be no exception.

Patience, whose 8th great grandfather was Miles Standish, was a stranger to Italian-American culture and understandably was slightly apprehensive.  The first thing she noticed as we entered the garage were large, dark, moldy pieces of something…resembling hams… hanging from the garage beams.  I’m not sure she was reassured when I told her that was prosciutto my father was making.  It looked like nothing she had seen before, and certainly not something meant to be eaten. We did not have prosciutto that day, but we were having manicotti, one of my mom’s specialties, She asked Patience if she ever had “mana gought”, which is the way we pronounced manicotti.  Of course Patience said no, she had never had mana gought; when the food arrived at the table she immediately said, “oh, you mean manicotti” which sounded strange to our ears and brought polite smiles to our faces.

It did not take very long for the unfamiliar to become familiar, and Patience immediately became family.  Years later, when my parents died, mom in 1992 and dad in 1995, Patience was with me at the bedside holding their hands.  I cannot imagine getting through their respective illnesses without her and I thank God for her presence in our lives.