January 11, 2022
  • January 11, 2022

panning for joy in all the wrong places

By on December 31, 2021 0

For R&Q


“On the days when you are sick, we dress slowly,
find our hats and take the train.
We pass a dump and the bay,
then a dark tunnel, then a dark tunnel.

You lose your hat. I found it. The train
open sighs in Burlingame,
past gloomy tons of junk and water.
I carry you on the black steps.


I am not a father. I have no hats to find, no trains to take, no stairs to get you down. You can exist one day, and there is nothing in this world that I hope for more.

But after spending a third of my career in children’s hospitals – tracing my hands along the dark tunnel wall, spending the last three months working with a deeply traumatized young child – that hope is reinforced by an anti- hope: that we never have to take that train. May you never know the Black Steps.

Maria Hummel, whose poem is cited above and continues below, has cared for her sick child for years. In another poem, she writes: “somewhere there is a tree / which grows its leaves inside. / Somewhere a forest which rustles and is silent / without a breeze.

I wrote previously how poetry has something special and special to offer physicians. I think this connection stems from how medicine, too, reverses and invests new meaning in language. We run the list and circle the patients. When we pass, when we render, I like to imagine that we are doing it with both hands. Growth everywhere else denotes forward and upward progress. Growth, for us, is a dark tunnel; a crab, tunneling into annihilation.

At the children’s hospital where I worked before, the oncology department is called St John’s. I’d be happy never to obstruct his door again, but I’ve always wondered and never learned: which John is this? The voice crying in the wilderness, the Baptist? Or the loved one, the disciple? In a sense, the children there – the saints, all of them – embodied elements of both. I have never felt so burnt with the sparkle of another’s love than when I bypassed a parent to draw blood from their sick child. And I have never felt my own mortal envelope so deeply as when I was faced with the reshuffle of a family in the long, dark corridor of St John. A reshuffle that still resonates inside, like Rilke’s famous warning: “because here there is no place / that does not see you.” You have to change your life.


“Burlinggame is the size of joy:
a race in front of bakeries, gold rings
in open black cases. I do not care
who sees my smirk

or what erases it, past the bakery,
when you get tired. We ride the blades again
next to the crooked bay. You smile.
I hold you like a hole holds the light.


I am an uncle. On the blessed day of my brother’s daughter’s birth, the child we had struggled to reach for three months gave me his suicide note. I like to think that I received it with both hands.

It reads: “I laugh and smile, but behind this mask there is me a broken down girl.”


Joy: an exalted emotion that defies easy description. Sober as an acorn, yet seized by it, we are filled with the light of being. (Kierkegaard: “Joy is the present, with all the emphasis on the present.”) Notice how much work he does in Hummel’s poem, how lightly he carries it: the joy extends over the stanzas, provocative, while the “train” to “blades” and will become “knives”; as her child gets tired in a race in front of the bakeries, as her child goes slowly. Joy doesn’t care who sees your smirk. Joy, writes Zadie Smith in a brilliant and inspiring essay, “is such human folly.” Human madness is of course our number, as psychiatrists – so too, joy?

For my part, I turned to child psychiatry and children’s hospitals – despite the dark tunnels, black stairs, unpunctuated suicide notes – precisely because of the joy. Looking for joy, in fact. It seems to me that children live, breathe and move in a slightly altered atmosphere: in the presence of a child there is a load, a feeling of unpredictability, of being seen differently. There is also a feeling that children are more naturally in tune to serve as a medium for joy. They are all in the present, eyes always open, ready to participate in whatever moves them. Every moment is triggered for transformation.

And what is our role in that, for children in hospital or in desperation? If it’s fair for a child to be, as I think it is, then it’s up to us to see and be accountable. Or, as Smith says, recognize and reflect the joy in that “strange mixture of terror, pain and pleasure” that comes with raising a child. As physicians our help may be needed only briefly, but as long as children are “in our care” (a rare example where medical language reflects our truer and gentler intention), we are from this proverbial village. which raises them and subjected to tension. of the same terror, pain and pleasure. Subject, in other words, to joy.


“We wear our hats and ride the knives.
They can’t fix you. They try and try.
Tunnel! In the open dark we go.
On days when you are sick, we dress slowly.


On the blessed day of my brother’s daughter’s birth, the child in my care reached out under her mask to ask for help.

Here it is: we lower lanterns into holes, like buckets in wells, we try and try, we paint for joy in all the wrong places.

Beholden: in the open darkness we go.


“You weren’t there to teach us, but we learned”: the last words of Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One Talks, to her ailing niece.

Doctor, from the Latin “to teach, to show”.

Patient, from the Latin “to suffer, to endure”.

Doctor, to a broken-down girl: you weren’t here to teach us, but we learned.


What do we learn as we venture into the darkness of inpatient and outpatient departments, day in and day out? Or: how do you learn?

Who says the word “Tunnel!” », The only spoken word of the poem?

The answer to both, I’m starting to think, is love.

Forgive me three final quotes to bring this home:

i) Simone Weil: “Love is the gaze of the soul.

ii) Christian Wiman: “Joy, that something in the soul which makes it possible to claim the word soul.

iii) Ross Gay: “What if we unite our sorrows? What if it was joy?

Love, I’m starting to think, is what opens us up to find joy in all the wrong places. If joy is that something in the soul which has just joined our sorrows, then love is the gaze which joins souls.

Jesus said seven things on the cross. The third (from Wikipedia) enjoins his beloved John and his beloved mother, with a simple word: voila! Joy, in all the wrong places.

My beloved niece and my beloved patient will probably never meet. And yet they too, in one way or another, are enjoined. This mystery of a world. If we are looking for transformation, we have it with a simple word: here!
Matthew Shipsey is a psychiatrist in training.

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