Academia: so it begins

This one time, Betty did a master’s degree. In her thesis, she wrote about three Australasian physician-writers, and interviewed some of them to talk about the ways their literary writing affected their medical practice, and, of course, vice-versa. It was lovely fun, and during the two years that she spent writing it, Betty gave a couple of guest lectures on related topics as part of her supervisor’s medical humanities course.

Last year, her supervisor asked Betty to consider coming to the big city and co-teaching the course, as well as giving it a bit of a reboot and adding a creative writing component. Betty considered this for about a quarter of a second before quitting her job and looking for an apartment. (In the interests of full disclosure, Betty must also reference the opportunity to train with the world-class Pilates master teacher, the wonderful studio to train in, and the boy person friend.)

Betty and her supervisor (who is awesome; he was at Oxford) split the teaching 50/50, and the course was a roaring success. That is to say, the students (all third-year medical students, with backgrounds in literature ranging from BA to “haven’t read a book since primary school”) read Chekhov, Kafka, Carlos Williams and Verghese until narrative and metaphor started coming out of their ears, and then they wrote a collection of poetry that made Betty blush with pride, and hope that if she ever drops almost-dead she finds a physician as empathetic, ethically sound, and articulate as they are.

This year Betty and her supervisor arranged to split the teaching 80/20. Betty is very excited. Though she has no desire to become a full-time professor, being a Lecturer: Medical Humanities is just what the doctor ordered. It’s a tantalising and chewy reminder of how much Betty loves academia.

A macadamia.

All this, of course, means that Betty has a bunch of work to do redesigning the course. She plans to improve the section on mental illness by adding some more literature (the current readings are “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a semi-autobiographical story about undifferentiated schizophrenia, and some Plath poems; keen students can also read Alice W Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease), and create a specific section on grief (using CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Plutarch’s letter to his wife on the death of their child, and scenes from Truly, Madly, Deeply). Other sections cover topics like traditional medicine, ethics, metaphors of warfare and information systems, and the doctor-patient relationship.

Gentle readers with favourite literary texts that relate even remotely to practising medicine, giving birth, dying, being well, or being sick, should let rip in the comments section — no Lecturer: Medical Humanities is an island. Medium-sized stories or excerpts, or poems, are best, but I can show a few movie clips as well.

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Adventures in Burtonland

The first trailer that Betty saw for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie was, sad to say, a little underwhelming. Though he has gone to town with the visual lunacy for which he is justly famous, there were distinct hints of lazy Disney remix syndrome going on. With this longer and more revealing trailer, however, Betty begins to feel that there may still be something there. Please, Mr Burton, please let there be something there…

The Wise Men

Two Chesterton poems in a row: my word. Betty does apologise. She cannot help it. This one seems particularly suited to the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates (if you are of a Western bent) the revelation of Christ to the Magi; Eastern Christians traditionally celebrate Jesus’ baptism on this day instead, but no matter, is it. Here it is.

The Wise Men

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all the labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but truth.

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And serve the made gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly … it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(… We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

G. K. Chesterton

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

To Hilaire Belloc.

For every tiny town or place
God made the stars especially;
Babies look up with owlish face
And see them tangled in a tree:
You saw a moon from Sussex Downs,
A Sussex moon, untravelled still,
I saw a moon that was the town’s,
The largest lamp on Campden Hill.

Yea; Heaven is everywhere at home
The big blue cap that always fits,
And so it is (be calm; they come
To goal at last, my wandering wits),
So is it with the heroic thing;
This shall not end for the world’s end,
And though the sullen engines swing,
Be you not much afraid, my friend.

This did not end by Nelson’s urn
Where an immortal England sits–
Nor where your tall young men in turn
Drank death like wine at Austerlitz.
And when the pedants bade us mark
What cold mechanic happenings
Must come; our souls said in the dark,
“Belike; but there are likelier things.”

Likelier across these flats afar
These sulky levels smooth and free
The drums shall crash a waltz of war
And Death shall dance with Liberty;
Likelier the barricades shall blare
Slaughter below and smoke above,
And death and hate and hell declare
That men have found a thing to love.

Far from your sunny uplands set
I saw the dream; the streets I trod
The lit straight streets shot out and met
The starry streets that point to God.
This legend of an epic hour
A child I dreamed, and dream it still,
Under the great grey water-tower
That strikes the stars on Campden Hill.

G. K. C.

New Year’s Resolutions

1. Stop procrastinating. [giggles like a fool]

2. Read more fiction — starting with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I picked it up about two years ago, loved every word, and inexplicably put it down several times. There’s no real reason that I can discern: it’s the size of a medium-sized music box and heavy to carry around, and its tone and milieu make it difficult to dip in and out of, but for pete’s sake. Two years. I’ve gone back to the beginning.

3. Do some form of exercise that’s not Pilates or walking. Before I moved here I was taking ballet classes for a short while, and it was awesome. When I got here I excitedly looked at other dance classes, trampolining, capoeira, and kettlebells. Then I started working every night. There must be a way around this.

4. Sleep, think, and pray more. Preferably all the time, though not all three at once.

5. Learn how to thrift shop like a big girl.

I Sit and Think

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall never see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Favourite things: Penguin Great Ideas

It is well-known that Betty has a fairly hefty thing for Augustine. She also has a committed fondness for Unity Books and Penguin. Imagine her excitement when she gets to go in and peruse the Penguin Great Ideas display.

And these are the tip of the iceberg — the series includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Apology for Idlers, George Orwell’s Decline of the English Murder, Virginia Woolf’s Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid, Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, William Morris’s Useful Work versus Useless Toil, Plato’s Symposium, Marco Polo’s Travels in the Land of Kubilai Khan, even Revelation and Job in one slim volume. Each book is small and pleasing, in lovely paper, beautifully designed, and cheap. Great ideas, indeed.