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Where I Find My Heaven

"Can you go on a truck?"

That was the hasty request of our Operations Manager. I was sitting at my desk trying to catch up with the myriad administrative things I have to accomplish. I'd cleared my schedule, come in early and closed my door in the hope that I could focus and maybe even make some headway on the new projects I'm building. But here he was asking me if I could hop on a rig to take calls because we were getting slammed. Of course I got on a truck. Our operation comes first above all. Our ability to be there when people need us is the only thing that matters when push comes to shove. I love that about our organization - we don't miss calls. Even the CEO and Company President get on an ambulance when we're strapped. Office work will wait.

Our HR Manager and I hopped into Unit 253, bounced around for the better part of an hour, and then responded for a guy with expressive aphasia. A transport to the regional vascular center and a drop-off for a stat head CT brought us to 6pm and my day was done.

I know that this is part of my job, and conceptually I really like being on the ambulance. There are two places where I know I am highly competent - in the back of a rig treating patients and in the front of a classroom. Yet I was still somewhat annoyed because, ultimately, I came to work with an expectation and that expectation was not met. That's basically the definition of anger  - not having your expectations met.

I started thinking about this cascade of emotions I was having - a polychromatic swirl of feelings. Anger at the interruption, sympathy for the patient, pride in my skills (22 years later I can still nail the IV while driving on Buffalo streets)! But the frustration was burning me and causing me stress. That's when Joe spoke to me.

I have an unhealthy relationship with a dead guy. Prolific mythologist Joseph Campbell passed away in 1987, but part of him lives on in my mind. Campbell's interview with Bill Moyers and resultant video, CD series, and book all entitled "The Power of Myth" get regular play time in my car and in the folds of my grey matter. Joe's wisdom pops up in memorized quotes and anecdotes that appear when I'm stressed. Today's lesson was Sacred Spaces.

Joseph Campbell believed that everyone needs a "Sacred Space" wherein they can let their imagination soar. "Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again." quoth my late mentor. Joe was VERY careful to also mention that this need not be an actual space. You don't need a secret grove or a cave or some candle-lit room at the top of a tall stone tower. You really just need to be left alone for a half hour or so several times a week. No disruptions, no intrusions. Just you, your thoughts, and whatever creative endeavor, if any, you may wish to participate in. It's a recharging of your soul. If you're inclined to believe in God, this is the time when you can best hear him speaking to you - or feel him acting through you. It's sacred time, indeed.

The problem we have in contemporary society is that we rarely ever make it into our sacred spaces. There's cell phones and jobs, kids and spouses and bills and houses that need cleaning and fences that need mending. There is a never-ending deluge of demands on our time, and if we get too caught up in those external things, we lose our inner voice in the fracas of the daily grind. I consider my inner voice an umbilical cord to the spiritual dimension - and when it's severed by the morass of life, I am starved for divine bloodflow.

This past weekend after a few too many drinks of whatever they were handing me, I ended up by a camp fire waxing philosophical with a friend who unwittingly became the victim of my long-silenced inner voice finally being uncorked. More likely than not she was looking for an out to escape from my rum-soaked musings (who wouldn't?) but when I became the last man standing, the voice sang louder. The stars shone down from the gorgeous clear night sky and the gentle breeze brought respite from stagnation. I wandered off alone through the silent campground we were at and ended up sprawled out on the hammock, shoes off, swaying gently under that canopy of thousands of tiny white specks. And more than anything at that moment I wished for my guitar because music, for me, has always been my sacred space. Singing, writing, and strumming are the only activities wherein I have ever truly lost myself. Unfortunately I rarely play anymore even though I trip over the damned thing nearly every night when I go to bed. I just don't make the time.

We in EMS are funny creatures. We work strange hours and see bad things. We eat too fast, sleep too little, and have trouble finding sympathy for people which is a sublime paradox since every single one of us got into this business to help others. The psychological ramifications of trauma codes and dead babies are a discussion for another blog post, but the point is that many of us fail in the sacred space thing. We fail epically. We get caught up in the grind, we stop hearing our inner voice, we suffer from that detachment and then we decide to fix it - by working more and squelching the voice further. It's a vicious cycle and we do it to ourselves. Is there any wonder why so many emergency responders suffer from PTSD and dozens of other mental health issues? We simply don't find sacred space.  The idea itself becomes something of a joke for us - as if stepping away is a sign of weakness. Today I tried to make my office a sacred space which was nothing short of stupid.

This week, eleven of our personnel are embarking on the year-long marathon that is paramedic school. They'll memorize drug dosages and calculations, learn how to intubate patients, read 12-lead ECGs, understand basic pharmacology, and a hundred other advanced medical concepts. They'll do it while they work full-time, and while trying to schedule some 1000+ hours of clinical time. They will become acquainted with the art of scheduling sleep. I'm not making this up - you literally keep a calendar and mark off times when you're going to be able to sleep. What most of them will not do, however, is find sacred space. They'll need it more than anyone on the planet, but they won't get it because it won't seem "practical."

Therefore, I challenge all of these students, all of my colleagues, and even all of my friends to find sacred space- just for an hour a week if that's the best you can do. Find a quiet place or a time when you can be alone with your thoughts, and just sit there. Listen to your voice. It may not happen right away, but after a few times you'll begin to hear it - through an old memory or in song that pops into your head. If you really get connected, you might start to write. You may laugh along with an old story or shed some tears over something you'd lost and forgotten about - it's okay. You are reconnecting. You'll build strength and confidence. Your mind will sharpen, You'll begin to flow through life rather than stumble over it. It will be one of the best investments of your time you'll ever make - just sitting and breathing.

I just did it myself - at 2:44 on a summer night I tapped my inner voice and you're hearing what it said. Cool? Most definitely. Cooler for my family that I did this rather than break out the guitar again. I'm recharging and reconnecting. And tomorrow when I hear "Can you go on a truck?" I'll smile wide outside and inside and head off to help those in need - because two decades ago that's what my voice told me to do.


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