In February 1995 I must have seemed overworked and headed for burnout. Clarine, my bed-bound patient who always encouraged me to write down my thoughts and experiences as a country doctor, gave me a copy of Thomas Moore’s 1992 bestseller “Care of the Soul”. She ran a small book editing and publishing business from her sickbed. Her vision was poor by then, but with the help of the adjustable settings on her computer, she could still do her work. When she inscribed the book with her thick fountain pen, she accidentally turned the book around and inscribed the back of it:
“With love and every good wish –
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Soul is not the same as spirit. While the spirit looks toward heaven, the soul has to do with our roots, the messy depths of our psyche. Thomas Moore explains that soul is in attachment, love and community; it is in food, music, art and experiences that touch our hearts.
In “Care of the Soul”, Moore points out that we cannot think ourselves out of the modern split between body and spirit, because “thinking is part of the problem”. He quotes fifteenth century writer Marsilio Ficino: “What we need is soul in the middle, holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world”. Moore goes on to say: “Care of the soul is not solving the puzzle of life; quite the opposite, it is an appreciation of the paradoxical mysteries that blend light and darkness into the grandeur of what human life and culture can be”.
I remember reading parts of the book, but hurriedly and not with an open mind. It sat in my bookcase for years, and I often glanced at the title on its spine.
In February 2007 my Nurse Practitioner wife and I registered for a Cape Cod summer seminar with Thomas Moore. We were working very hard, side-by-side, and we were feeling a bit stretched. We had a cleaning lady, who also did our grocery shopping, a laundry service, a lawn-mowing service and a handyman. Our spare time was occupied with dancing; in just four or five years we had become accomplished ballroom dancers. We took private lessons and practiced at least three nights a week and several hours every weekend in a rented studio. We used to joke that while we worked and danced, other people were living our life.
July 23rd, just after we came home from a surprise retirement party for one of our dance instructors, where we had done a humorous tango exhibition, our 15 year-old German Shepherd got sick. She was a cancer survivor, and we made arrangements to have her seen at Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston on our way down to the Cape. The diagnosis and prognosis were grim; she had a grapefruit sized tumor in her chest.
That week in August, beginning four years ago today, turned our lives around. Our dog’s health failed rapidly, and my wife stayed with her in our rented cabin while I attended the Thomas Moore seminar. The topic was soulfulness in clinical practice and in one’s life. Moore took the principles from his book and put them in the context of being a clinician, a healer.
Back at the cabin we dragged the mattress off the bed and slept on the floor with our dog and our little Persian cat. I would update my wife on the day’s discussions and we worked on our assignments together.
In class, Moore showed a strobe-like black and white movie of C.G. Jung carving his inscriptions into a big rock at Bollingen. As the gentle waves of Obersee lapped against the shore, one of the fathers of modern psychiatry tirelessly and with great pride carved a stone when he could have written another book or lectured at foreign universities. Instead, he chose to do this, creating something that was important to him and could last for thousands of years. Were we, my wife and I, doing something really important to us or were we just working hard without purpose? We knew we had to get off the merry-go-round we had created for ourselves.
At the end of the week, Moore signed my old copy of his book – inside the front cover, which Clarine had inadvertently left blank when she gave it to me:
”Help us save the soul of the world.
Within weeks our dog died in her favorite spot in our kitchen. Two months later another Shepherd was given to us. He had been born July 23, the same day Callie got sick. Six months later my wife’s health caused her to leave her career as a Nurse Practitioner. We reassessed our priorities and vowed to take care of our own health the way we had always told our patients to.
I have developed an undeserved, strong bond with our recently adopted 23-year-old rescued white Arabian horse. She has made me the first human being in years that she dares to trust, because I ask nothing of her. I have read that Martin Buber, author of “Ich und Du” first became aware of the true nature of I-and-Thou relationships when he befriended a gray mare at age eleven.
Without all those other people running our life we are doing the soulful chores couples have done on small farms for countless generations – “chop wood, carry water”. We cook together and we read out loud after supper and talk about health, disease and doctoring. My wife studies other forms of healing and I write about my life as a country doctor. Dancing isn’t an exhibition sport for us anymore; we think of it as an expression of our love for each other.
Earlier this week a package came in the mail with my latest online purchase: Thomas Moore wrote a new book last year, “Care of the Soul in Medicine”. I opened the package eagerly, weighed the hardcover book carefully in my hands and reluctantly put it down on my desk. I haven’t had a chance to start reading it until this weekend.
How will I grow – as a man and as a physician – from his words this time?