If not for the moment when our training took over, last week would have seen me hugging a comparative stranger in a mutual, teary embrace. But I am a recovering family physician, and she an active occupational therapist, so the impulse was lost as we carefully evaluated body language. Neither of us wished to be the cause of an unwanted intimacy.
I would have enjoyed that hug. Since I can’t go back and tell propriety to stuff it, what I can do is unpack the magic of that occasion and see what lessons it contains for writing.
We two had been brought together by a senior citizen.
“Agnes,” a once-proud, fiercely independent woman was dealing with declining health and mobility issues. In recent months, she had come to rely upon others for help with meal preparation and dressing. She struggled to walk a few feet to the washroom, meaning that her life revolved around her bladder’s shrinking capacity. She routinely refused minor pleasures, like a cup of herbal tea or a bowl of soup, out of fear that she couldn’t reach the restroom in time. The result was a state of mild dehydration which had implications for her drug levels and mental alertness, and probably played a role in several worrisome falls.
Agnes had tried a cane with only modest success and resisted a walker out of the belief that it would create another physical dependence, weakening her further. Also, though she sidestepped the issue, I suspected a financial barrier.
Enter the occupational therapist and her dented, untrendy, gorgeous loaner walker.
Enter the moment of truth: Agnes’s tentative steps. The disbelieving smile with her first pain-free movement in years. Her burst of speed as she did a circuit of the house. Agnes’s tears when she understood that because of the kindness of strangers, this moment would cost her precisely nothing.
While I can’t be certain what the OT’s tears represented for her, I can extrapolate based upon my past, comparable professional experiences.
First, I believe she was in the grip of what I’ll call a Peak Moment of Meaning (PMoM).
Of the OT’s past 2000 clinical encounters, I’m willing to bet that most of her clients were too well, too stressed, too preoccupied, or too entitled to appreciate that moment as a minor miracle. Agnes’s obvious joy, on the other hand, probably had the OT thinking something like this: Now this is why I trained for six years and accrued a mountain of student debt. This is what it’s all about.
The second component of that scene is what I’ll call a Peak Moment of Gratitude (PMoG).
For as much as the OT contributed to that moment, she was but the final, visible step of a cumulative process. Were we to unspool the list of necessary preconditions to Agnes’s freedom, we could easily name a thousand components. The most obvious: that we live in a peaceful and prosperous country that has the luxury of caring for its senior citizens, at least in part; that I had sufficient education—again, partly funded by my country—to know what was possible for Agnes and advocate for her despite her resistance; that the OT’s salary was provided by my provincial government and she was an engaged, compassionate individual; that the Red Cross had enough donors to accumulate a pool of loaner walkers; that Agnes values her independence enough to grasp the moment’s import.
All this made me think about writing—about whether we have access to equivalent moments (PMoMs and PMoGs) in this world, and whether they can be similarly noticed and cultivated and celebrated.
Why bother, you ask? Because a sense of purpose and gratitude inoculate us against self-doubt, surliness, and all the grievances, both petty and large, which can separate us from our work and from our humanity. They keep us striving despite rejections and frustration. And frankly, if you take a meaning and gratitude inventory with an honest and open heart, it feels freaking fantastic.
So in the interests of modeling and the spirit of the season, here is a brief accounting of my writing related PMoMs and PMoGs, which for the most part overlap.
You can’t write without understanding the quiet, profound pleasure of working to combine words in pleasing, amusing, and useful combinations. Of bringing characters to life and discovering fresh twists to the genres you love. This is private work that is self-sustaining and essential to all writers, but none more than the novelist, who may go months or years or decades without receiving enthusiastic feedback.
I’m grateful for imagined moments about my future fiction. (Yes, I can be strange like this; I don’t have to experience an event in reality to benefit from its occurrence.) For example, assuming I do my job properly, I hope future readers will be inspired to forgive someone who’s emotionally unavailable, find empathy for a person lost to grief.
I’m grateful to the Internet/Facebook/Twitter—all forms of social media which we love to malign, but which allows us to communicate at nominal cost. What a time to be alive! We can connect and squabble like siblings about the usefulness of blog posts, how to interpret the themes of a book, and whether Fifty Shades of Grey deserved its audience.
I’m grateful to Therese and Kathleen, who founded Writer Unboxed and created a safe space for writing-related conversation. They are single-handedly responsible for many of my writing-related PMoGs and PMoMs, and have encouraged both me and others in more ways than I can count.
Also, look at that crew of contributors in the sidebar. While some readers believe they are here for promotional purposes alone, I don’t believe that captures the truth of their work. I’ve met many of them in person. They can’t fake their fire or enthusiasm, their desire to teach. You don’t hang around WU, comment on other writers’ posts, upload and edit endless posts, or moderate conversations—at least not for long—unless you are invested in a cause bigger than yourself.
Lastly, I’m grateful to you, dear Unboxeders. Through comments both here and in private, you’ve allowed me to know my words don’t disappear into the void. I count it a success when I know my work makes a difference to one other person, perhaps by allowing them to envision a bigger life. Your kindness soothes that part of me which left medicine behind but which clearly hasn’t abandoned the desire to heal.
Now I’d like to invite you to think through your writing-related Peak Moments of Meaning and Gratitude. Please tell us about them in the space below. And if they are sparse, my wish for you is that 2016 will be filled with moments of clarity and purpose and full-hearted thankfulness.
I believe Agnes would want that for you, too.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!