Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much. I was chatting to a research doctor the other day about vocations and she told me once she was teaching a clever student and made the mistake of asking him why he wanted to be a nurse rather than a doctor. He was offended by the question; it never occurred to him to be a doctor. Being a nurse wasn’t to be a failed doctor. It was a vocation in itself. He remembered as a child a nurse helping his mother; from that moment he decided he wanted to be a nurse. Nothing would deflect him from this course.
Dear Hanif, I washed a dead body a couple of days ago. It is what you do when a patient dies. One last act of kindness and dignity. Friends ask me if I am not grossed out by body fluids, blood, puke and everything else that is par for the course in an oncology unit. If there’s a point when witnessing death is no longer emotionally sustainable. And yes, there is. But I see my job as seeing another human at their lowest and possibly most difficult time and helping them navigate illness, holding their hands through recovery or death. It is my job to remind them of who they are, apart from the disease, and how to integrate the two. Is this a vocation? A calling? It does require certain character traits and a healthy sense of humour. I am also a writer and, as much as I love writing, I find its inner process much more arduous than taking care of patients. But not dissimilar: on the page I take care of fictitious humans and I put myself in their shoes just as much as I try to put myself in my patients’ shoes. Same empathy. I really do wish you a safe return to London. As much as I love Italy, where I was born, and Los Angeles, where I live, London (where I lived many years) is where my heart is. I am sure it is where yours is too xx
Ps. A physician is not an upgraded nurse. And a nurse not a failed physician. They are entirely different jobs.
I once asked one of my university students why she wanted to be a nurse when clearly she would excel as a doctor. She assured me of her calling. Ten years later when I was giving birth she was my nurse and I thanked God she had ignored my advice.
I'm surprised at how sad the news of the death of the Maestro made me. It is because you made him a real person for us. Not that you wrote extensively about him but somehow, whatever it is that you did, brought him into many other lives albeit briefly. I think we're in one of the the best writing classes/ group forum there has ever been – right here, on this substack. These dispatches are exemplary. Your predicament, unusual vantage point (at times literally), and enviable ability to expose the vulnerability it created will help us come out of hiding. Bon courage.
I so hope that you and Isabella manage to achieve what you both desire and need. Your continuing ability to string words together in an intelligent, fluid manner is a wonder to behold, and I can't thank you enough for persisting. Your point about not wanting "to inject them, give them pills, turn them over, insert a catheter or wash them" is interesting. I never imagined that I would be capable of doing any of this for another adult, and I still haven't done some of them, but it was extraordinary how naturally such gestures came to me as my husband was dying of dementia. And, as one of the other commentators here said, when he finally died, it was without any thought at all that I asked for the necessary to wash his body and did so. Keep on keeping on, please, if you can.
From an early age, I wanted to be a journalist. I considered it a noble vocation; one that men and women of principle and high moral virtue would naturally gravitate towards. Bear in mind that my grasp of what a journalist actually did was informed almost entirely by the first two Superman movies (the Christopher Reeve ones).
When I was fifteen, everyone in my school year was expected to undertake two-weeks work experience. A mini career fair was set up in the drama hall, where cards from the businesses who were participating were pinned to noticeboards. I had already raced ahead of the pack and arranged a fortnight on the local paper.
The editor, Colin, took a 'let's see what you can do' approach to my internship. He threw work at me, offering little to no guidance in how to carry out the tasks he set. He stood back and let me find my level; something that, in hindsight, I greatly appreciate. He certainly showed a tremendous amount of trust in me. I was loaned a Tandy – essentially a proto-laptop, with the memory storage capacity of a goldfish. It came anchored down in its own briefcase, and was capable of sending data to another computer through the telephone, by means of a pair of padded cups that fastened onto either end of the receiver.
From day one, I was translating press releases into small articles. I got my first byline interviewing a member of the mounted police. I watched patches of tarmac flash past corroded holes in the bottom of a photographer's car. On the same outing, I stood by the roadside while he somehow fixed his transmission with a shoelace. I interviewed a clown, somebody who had witnessed an alleyway wall collapse on a schoolgirl, and a couple celebrating their golden wedding. I asked them their advice for a long, happy marriage: “Give and take,” they said. I accompanied a junior reporter to a council estate where a prisoner on day release had stabbed a pair of women (his mother and his girlfriend). When we arrived we weren't sure which block of flats to go to. Then one of us noticed a trail of blood so we followed that.
I went back to the paper over the Summer holidays. The first time I found myself out of my depth was when Colin handed me a screed of outrage penned by a local character named Del Flatley, who was incensed by the local council's plans to “soak” motorists with higher parking charges. I was asked to edit the piece, which I assumed meant checking it for spelling and punctuation errors. I didn't understand the broader concept of editing, which in Flatley's case meant reworking his article into something coherent while maintaining his unique voice.
Other matters intervened, and it wasn't until my mid-20s that I sought training as a journalist. I was disturbed by the emphasis that was placed on where a story might go next. It was understandable in a competitive industry where whoever gets there first reaps the rewards. On the other hand, this second-guessing mindset struck me as being a stone's throw from reporters directly influencing the news.
There were more internships. I covered the London courts which was interesting but challenging. You tended to be dropped in either on the first day of a trial, or on the day of the verdict or sentencing. In the latter instance, you had to very quickly get your head around the facts of a case that might have been going on for months.
I started being sent on doorstepping assignments. I stood outside the homes of James Hewitt (Princess Diana's lover) and Ken Livingstone. I met journalists and photographers with ties to the tabloids, mostly The Sun, The Daily Mail and The News of the World. They were rogues for sure, but they possessed a sharp opportunistic eye for a story, and there was an air of professionalism in the way they conducted themselves. Conversely, I once stood behind a journalist who was carrying out an on the spot interview for The Guardian, and was aghast that they were just jotting down the odd word and evidently couldn't write shorthand.
More and more, I felt that the profession was having a negative impact upon me as a person. When carrying out an assignment, I found it easy (too easy) to justify my actions in terms of the demands of the job. Then suddenly the working day would be over. I would naturally reflect on my behaviour and not really want to be alone with myself. I would wander aimlessly around London, putting off the moment when I would have to ride the Northern Line to a shared house in Tooting that was, to all intents and purposes, a brothel.
The final straw for me was standing outside a private hospital in Kensington where the footballer, George Best was allegedly resting his liver. I had been instructed to ask anyone entering or leaving whether they had been to see the barely living legend. Discounting the fact that I knew so little about football, that the entire English team could have paraded past me, and I would have been none the wiser, I found the idea of accosting people visiting sick loved ones to be incredibly distasteful.
In the end I never became a reporter, or anything really. I don't know how you would sum up my life. Having the watched the legacy media's shameful graduation from reportage, to blinkered activism, to its present role as partisan propagandist for governments and corporations, I am happy to have played no part.
RIP to the Maestro. One of the consequences of you talking about him in your writing, is that you have scattered the glowing embers of his memory far and wide across the world. I mourn the man's passing though we never met.
So sorry to hear about the Maestro. That is unhappy news. I enjoyed hearing about his life. Better news for Miss S. What contrary feelings and outcomes. And I hope you and Isabella manage to return to London very soon. Obviously, it will be better for you. Re: writing - I remember a comment from Charlene James who wrote the play Cuttin' It which premiered at the Young Vic some years back. I interviewed her and she said (and I paraphrase) that you don't have to be physically writing all the time to write. Sometimes a lot can be about thought which can occur anywhere and in the downtime too. I think she was referring to the pressure all writers must feel to produce a certain amount of words every day.
I am so sorry to hear about the death of the Maestro. When my father reached his mid-eighties, many of the other men in his social groups had passed on. He found it terribly hard to bear, and now that he has reached his mid-nineties, he prefers not to make friends - which seems like a very unproductive response to the problem of loving what is mortal, but what do I know? In any event, I am sorry you lost a good friend.
I teach writing. 2023 is the year of the Chatbot. It is utterly revolutionizing what I do, not so much in my creative writing classes where the students are self-chosen and therefore motivated. I have assigned my last take-home essay. There is absolutely no point in assessing the reasoning and expression in something that has been written by an algorithm. Plagiarism is meaningless - it is a pointless waste of time and energy to try to police it. Students are already using chatbot technology so broadly, I never get the chance to get to know their authentic writing voices. Everyone's work sounds the same - I have dubbed the style "bot-bland" - it is distinctive and it is everywhere.
I don't know what the answer is, but I am already planning for next year. The take-home essay is a non-starter, as I mentioned. I am blowing up the way that I used to assess writing. Now I am devaluing writing as a final product and giving much more weight to multiple drafts and a lot more emphasis to metacognitive reflections and peer-to-peer questions and critiques. All writing must be done workshop style in front of me. Which is kind of horrible and exposing, but what can we do? I watched in bemusement the other day when one young man showed up with a draft and tried to submit it. Because he hadn't shown me any steps that would expose his work on he essay, I made him sit down to improve the draft in front of me. I watched in bemusement as his "improvements" utterly dismantled the grammatical perfection the bot had given the work. The student had no sense of why one was considered more "correct" than the other and could not even explain the ideas. After all, he hadn't done any thinking! It's going to be wild next year. Yes, I do have a vocation, not just to writing but to teaching. I am eager to get a better sense of what students, facing a future in which the reality is that most communication tasks will now be done quite ably by computers, will need to learn from us.
So far, I am thinking about what chatbots can't do yet - although I am assured they will one day: ask the right questions, evaluate the merit of the answers (contextualizing), critical thinking that involves inferring, intuiting, dreaming, creating (in ways that are not repetitive and cliché), making moral and aesthetic judgments, finding causes from effects and effects from causes, self reflecting ... more?
Thank you for this latest piece on Vocations
As a retired nurse I loved your observations about your hospital care by your nurses thank you!
And thanks for moving on to your own vocation of writing Not being a writer myself, though I love telling stories of my interesting life experience in medical mission volunteer work in the Punjab of your native land of Pakistan, I find it fascinating to learn how it is to be your kind of writer. I’m sure I would do it in the more relaxed manner of your doing it than so rigidly obsessive as the ones you mentioned
Please keep giving updates on your hospital and emotional state. I treasure those. They are words of a hero I pray for you and Isabella that you’ll soon be back “ home”
I’ve sent this to my sister-in-law, whose vocation is nursing. It’s been terrible for nurses in the U.S. since the start of pandemic. She’s stayed committed in impossible circumstances.
Also very sorry to hear about the Maestro.
Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing. So many people deserve admiration for their work and for the hardships they have to endure.
It is so hard not to read your pieces and jump on to the keyboard, composing a response, as if I knew you. That must be due to the intimacy of your writing, and the very pertinent things you say, pertinent to me, and to all the other readers who are subscribed to you.
Nurses: Devotion. A calling. Humility. Service. The myriad skills involved- knowing the human body, medicine, psychology, timing, compassion, ethics, languages spoken and unspoken, and how to be of service to the doctors, other staff- to some degree every nurse has some competence in all these fields. For many years I remembered the nurses who were in the hospital when my first child was born. They were like saints, in my mind- caring about people.
And your calling: writing. Yes, it is your calling. And you benefit others by the immense skill you have achieved in this lifetime.
You must have seen hundreds of times how quickly some people write, and how slowly others do. In my writing group, one woman composes a few well-structured and beautiful paragraphs in the same amount of time as another fills pages and pages. These days perhaps I am getting lazy because I often regret the sheer volume of writing there is- why? I can't read that much in my entire life. Everyone wants to be heard, everyone has something to say- like the birds and the crickets do. And we can't listen to them all- only the tiniest fraction of them can enter our consciousness, but the very fact that they sing- writers sing their own songs- is wonderful if a cacophony at times. I wrote "cacaphony" at first, which might be another type of chorus. The slow-writer in our group writes about pots- she is a potter- a very skilled potter. When she writes, her words are shaped like vessels, and leave us satisfied. We also really appreciate the fast-moving stream of the plots of the rapid writers. But in fact, long pieces are hard to deal with now- because there is just too much of it. I read the article about the prolific writer, also- and he seems so successful as well as insane on a personal level. I have no desire whatsoever to read his books. I have piles of books everywhere that I am very anxious to read- I tried an Annie Ernaux book which was very short, and rather disturbing- but not so disturbing that I won't read more of her work.
In fact, reading you here- where you very kindly make yourself available, contactable, present- reminds me of an experience I had many years ago. We had a friend who would periodically come stay with us, with or without his wife. His conversation was so engrossing to me that it was as if I were hopping on one foot, wanting so much to respond to so many things he said- but he almost never allowed a response- he kept right on talking. I had to go get acupuncture treatments to calm my nervous energy after his visits. I loved hearing him. Loved it. He inspired an enormous enthusiasm for life, for discovery, for literature, for art... I would not have traded the crazy frustration of having to be unheard for anything. After all, i reasoned, why did I need to talk when listening was so exciting? But we all want to be heard. Listen--- all those sounds. They are creatures giving voice to what they want to be said. They are giving voice to what they hear in their own minds. They are giving voice to what they want to hear said. They are sounding themselves.
Wishing you and Isabella a good sojourn there, as long as it lasts, and a good landing, when you return to London. Sorry to hear about the Maestro. May he rest in peace. And happy to hear about Miss S.
Hanif, thank you for the update. I agree with your observation about the vocational aspect of nursing from personal experience. I do quite a lot of writing but it’s entirely technical, not creative. Recently I’ve thought more about dictation using the software available and then honing later. I hope you get back to the UK soon and have been able to find someone in the NHS who can lead on and coordinate your safe return.
Strangely enough, the isolation of the pandemic and the creation of my Substack have made me a far more disciplined and productive writer than I've ever been. But with all the same anxiety!
Yet another Laura writing to tell you how much your writing is enjoyed and appreciated. A friend once said that a perfect life is one in which an avocation becomes a vocation. I am grateful for nurses and writers alike
Dear hanif, having been surrounded by nurses a good deal these past 6 months, i have seen soo sooo much that confirms your positive impression. They are nice to me. I don’t deserve a damn thing, at all. But they make me feel 1000 times better than if i had tohandle things—my body—myself. They deal with our hardships, and are experienced and competent, and most of all convey good naturedness that helps us become positive. And on top of this are poorly paid. It’s an outrage that the invisible administrators of health care pull down millions and the nurse tech who helped me a month ago in the hospital earns $17/hr; i.e. $34,000 a year, barely enough to live on, even in our inexpensive city of lansing.
For your comments on the vocation of writing, forgive me to return my thoughts to myself. I kept imagining your writing was fiction. I am a scholar, writing dealing with african literature and cinema, and in dialogue with other scholars. I believe as firmly in the value of scholarship as in any other intellectual endeavor, and value theory as any other form of thought. We can call it broadly philosophy; but it is not different from scientific thought that wrestles with issues and problems, often the same, though the disciplines of the sciences and humanities have unfortunately divided for the past 300 or so years. The best of both worlds are open to each other, or should be. Rovelli lectures on the pre-Socratics, and they were proto-scientists. You are in italy; shades of gallileo, of da vinci, humanities and scientists all. Ken
Hello, my cousin in a nurse, I don't know how she does it.
BTW, there are many ways paralyzed people can use the ipad, including by voice. I am including some links for you and Isabella to consider. This first two links are review sof using Apple ios by someone who is quadraplegic.
This link is to a video on iphone accessibility tips by a young woman who is quadraplegic.
This last link is to an article about the non-touch use ways of using an iPad. I have no affiliation with this company, just thought it was interesting. Hope this is of use to you.