Prairie View

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Paradigms and Ulcers

Have you ever had to bite your tongue when someone complains about a situation or puzzles over a problem that you think you know the answer to--but you can't say what you know, for whatever reason? Or you hear another person confidently asserting and defending a narrow point of view on an issue that you know is actually quite complex, and expressing an openness to learning further would be appropriate? I'm especially wary of "The secret is . . ." statements. I think very few things in life are unlocked by only one "key." That is, success doesn't turn on doing just one thing exactly right. It's almost always the result of a succession of things done right, some of them perhaps done so accidentally.

I recognize in myself tendencies to fall into each of the traps that I see others ensnared in--not looking in the right place for answers, talking when I should be listening and learning, thinking in narrow, restricted terms, and considering the case closed too early--but when I am most intentional about arriving at truth I have a routine of sorts. I believe this routine serves me well when I remember to follow it.

I like to start by listing, mentally at least, the things I know for sure. My starting place is Scripture. Sometimes it takes a lot of digging to learn what is there, what it means, and how it applies. The search sometimes extends over many months or years, but I keep looking, and have discovered many treasures this way.

The second thing I try to do is observe carefully. I watch how choices or courses of action play out over the long term, and in reading and in listening to people I learn what is taking place in others' experience. I like hearing from professionals, but I maintain a sense of skepticism regarding professional opinion. I don't take the conventional wisdom in my own profession (education) too seriously. I'm aware that "When you have a hammer in your hand everything begins to look like a nail," and looking at everything through the lens of a single profession can be limiting. Documented research is useful many times. This kind of information is not as unassailable as Scripture because the reporting comes through the lens of peoples' biases, but it is useful nevertheless.

I try to fit new information into the paradigms I'm familiar with, or see how the familiar paradigms might need to be changed or discarded. Perhaps examining the shifts in understanding one specific problem will illustrate how this works. This one has changed within my memory and, to my knowledge, has the status of almost universal consensus.

One medical example where the prevailing paradigm has shifted dramatically in the past few decades is the understanding of what causes stomach ulcers. I remember the time when people thought ulcers were caused by stress, and perfectionist or hard-driving types of people were the ones likely to be afflicted. It was thought to be best treated by avoiding spicy or greasy foods.

Now, it's known that H. pylori is a bacteria that can settle in the stomach and cause ulcers. My 11-year-old happy-go-lucky niece improved tremendously in a hurry after one round of antibiotics when they discovered that her ongoing discomfort was caused by an H. pylori infection.

The earlier way of seeing the cause of stomach ulcers in a "mind-affecting-the-body" paradigm turned out to be largely beside the point. "Bacteria causes stomach ulcers" now seems like a much more useful paradigm. But what if that is not the last useful paradigm in understanding stomach ulcers? I especially deplore the view of ulcers that concentrates only on developing ever-more-precisely-aimed pharmaceutical "bullets" to target ulcers. Why not look for how ulcers can be prevented? For this, perhaps the H. pylori/ulcer paradigm is insufficient.

I think it's very likely that, in the future, an even broader understanding of what causes ulcers will make the "bacteria" paradigm look obsolete or at least incomplete. Some of the possibilities I think of are genetic predispositions, effects of environmental toxins on the immune system, nutritional deficits, and even effects of stress. I include that last item for several reasons, one of them being the fact that this was often observed in people who were known to be intense or under a lot of stress, and I think it must mean something.

From Scripture, I understand several things that help put stomach ulcers into perspective. I know, for example, that ulcers are a result of the Fall, when sin entered the world. I know furthermore that God has provided ways for us to deal with the results of the fall, but that final redemption must wait until we enter heaven. I also know that continual violation of God's laws exacts a penalty, and a failure to trust God, or an unhealthy desire to control circumstances or other people, or living a wildly out-of-balance life may carry a hefty price tag in terms of compromised health. I know God hears our prayers and answers according to His will. If we're suffering and God wills deliverance for us, He will provide it if we ask.

So if I ever have any reason to suspect that stomach ulcers are the cause of pain for me or anyone I'm responsible for, I'll rue again the day the perfect world God made was corrupted by sin, and I'll think ahead to heaven where ulcers are barred from entry. I'll know to check with God to see if any of His laws are being violated. I'll pray for wisdom and healing from God. I'll get a doctor's diagnosis. I'll follow recommendations on taking medication. I'll take the nutritional supplements I believe to be necessary for supporting wellness. As much as possible, I'll avoid ingesting harmful substances. And I'll keep my ears tuned for any snippets of information that belong in the "ulcer" paradigm I'm still in the process of developing.

The paradigm discussion here has focused on ulcers as an example. But it could just as well have explored any other medical condition, or mental illness, education strategies, Christians and government, agricultural practices, man-made designs and structures, weather anomalies, relationships between people, running organizations, the process of creativity, measures of success--or anything you've ever pondered.

In every area of inquiry, operating within an appropriate paradigm ought to be the first order of business. The next step should be to determine not to close the investigation prematurely, always maintaining an openness to needful paradigm adjustments. With these strategies in place, the adventure of learning can safely commence.

And now, in keeping with what I've outlined above, I'm ready to listen to other people's ideas on how to discover truth, how to keep necessary things settled and stir up questions where complacency is counter-productive, and how to glorify God in all our endeavors. What are you thinking?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lizzie's World

I have a friend in her seventies who has a place I love to visit. For more than seventy years she lived there with her parents and her older sister. One by one the others all died and left her alone on a 160-acre farm. Alone, that is, except for God and her beloved animals and flowers. I like visiting her because she likes some of the same things I do.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect that when she was born the family was known ahead of time to be complete. Women who had their first baby by C-section were always told in those days that two children was the limit. Lizzie and her sister were nearly always together and dressed alike--until the day that Fannie died, after a 24-hour illness.

Lizzie told me once that she hates the long nights of winter. On those days, taking care of her sheep mark an important part of the day. "At least something's glad to see me," she said of them. But the dark evenings alone indoors are a burden. In the summer she can be outside a lot of the time, and she has things to keep her busy.

I asked her once if her house could be altered slightly to accommodate a house mate with separate living quarters upstairs. She thought out loud about what might be possible and seemed to be considering it favorably. I knew not to push her, because I know it would take a special kind of person to live there. Lizzie is not difficult to get along with, as I know her, but
not everyone would happily open and close the gate across the drive to keep the sheep confined and then tiptoe to the gate among the sheep droppings, and just the right mix of sociability and isolation would be a little tricky, but I know I would have loved such a living situation as a young person.

Her sheep respond to her care by thriving and keeping the native buffalo grass pasture manicured. During lambing season she can always tell me exactly how many singles, twins, and triplets have been born and how many ewes have not yet lambed. The neighbor who farms her acreage hauls lambs to market when necessary and helps with vaccinations, etc. I've learned from her that sheep love eating fallen leaves, and that black-faced sheep are more difficult to confine than white-faced sheep.

When Lizzie shows me a newly opened flower, and when she talks to her cats or her sheep, she talks in a child-like voice, full of the delight these things have always given her. It's a very different side of Lizzie than most of the world sees.

Lizzie knows about the family of foxes that live in a den by the sheep shed. And she knows that if she leaves the cat food outside overnight the raccoons will clean it up. Her hens are kept in the chicken house to save them from these predators. She's fairly philosophical about the presence of these wild animals. "Do you know what that bird is?" she asked me recently when we both heard the same bird song. "It's a little brown bird," she continued, "but I couldn't get a real good look at it." I didn't know either, and I do know the bird songs of the more familiar local birds. It's a tantalizing mystery. She knew that the blue jay and chickadee populations have been decimated of late because of West Nile Virus. She misses these bird friends.

Besides the fenced-in yard around the house, two other places on the farm are fenced off from the roaming sheep. These are the places I go with Lizzie when I visit her. One place is the vegetable garden right next to the barn. Extending east from the corner of the barn is a block wall more than six feet high. It extends to the silo. This creates a wonderful windbreak to the south of the garden. It's a perfect backdrop for the tall hollyhocks that are gearing up to bloom shortly. The far end of the garden has several apricot trees with strawberries to the south; the north edge has a double row of rhubarb near the trees and winter onions and perennial sweet peas populating the rest of that side east of the garden gate. To the west are mums in great drifts, columbine, hardy dahlias, Lollipop lilies, and asparagus. Raspberries huddle next to the barn.

In the middle of the garden Lizzie plants out the tender bulbs she has saved from the year before: gladiolus, calla lily, and sacred lily (also known as voodoo lily). Any flowers that have reseeded from the year before are allowed to stay, and typical warm-season vegetables join the food parade. Always there is parsley, which Lizzie eats in sandwiches all summer long. I think Lizzie's garden would feel right at home in Europe where fruits, vegetables, and flowers often keep company comfortably in walled spaces.

What would be known in modern garden parlance as a cottage garden is to the south of the driveway and farmstead yard. Among the spring bulbs, larkspur, and iris, here are some of Lizzie's most prized flowers--lilies that must be either Aurelian or Oriental lilies. They do look magnificent in bloom atop 5-foot stems. She sometimes alerts me when they're in bloom and I drive over there to see them.

Inside the fenced yard by the house are roses at the base of the windmill, wisteria and larkspur alongside the north wall of the house, miniature roses by the fence, and reseeding petunias along the walkway to the front door. A huge clump of peonies grows among the petunias, and baby tears fills an old clawfoot bath tub around the corner from the front door. House plants from the porch fill up a table in a protected spot by the front door. After the petunias begin blooming, the evening air is fragrant with their scent.

When Lizzie works outside, she usually wears a long apron over her dress, and a scarf tied like a "do" rag. She walks awkwardly, as if lifting her feet were hard work, but she never acts as though taking a few extra steps is a burden. As I get into my vehicle to leave, she willingly walks ahead of me to open and then close the driveway gate.

My regular visits there began after Fannie died and Lizzie wanted to continue selling rhubarb and asparagus at the Farmer's Market. In my early days of selling flowers there, I often set up next to them and visited while we waited for customers. Fannie and Lizzie were veteran vendors, with angel food cakes and homemade noodles their main products. Surplus garden vegetables and other baked goods rounded out their offerings. They chatted easily with their customers as these old friends came and went.

Lizzie could not face going to market after Fannie died. I'm sure she thought that meeting people without Fannie would be too emotional and difficult. And she had wearied of the hard work of getting ready for market long before her sister was ready to quit. But all her rhubarb and asparagus begged for an outlet, so she asked me if I would sell her garden produce for her. She also generously lets me pick any flowers she has in bloom to add to my bouquets. It has worked out well for both of us. I'm still hoping to take her to market with me some day. I want her to feel the love and welcome that people who knew her would offer.

Lizzie and I sometimes do a little language dance. She loves to talk Dutch and I love to hear her. She uses German words I remember my parents using, but they're not everyday Dutch for most people in my generation. My Dutch is a little awkward sometimes from lack of practice, and I can't be very expressive in that language without giving it some thought. So we switch back and forth repeatedly over the course of one visit. I answer her in Dutch and continue talking in that language till I get stuck. She responds to me in English till she gets stuck and then switches to Dutch. Since we both understand it all, it works out alright.

Lizzie does not gossip. I like that about her. She doesn't complain about the weather either. I like that too. She does not easily articulate matters of faith, but she lives a consistent, faithful life that is a blessing to see.

I hope that Lizzie can stay on her farm as long as she lives. And after she's gone, I hope someone who cares as much as she does for the plants and animals of the place will make it their home. In any case, I'm hoping to make many more treks to the place of peace and tranquility that is Lizzie's home.

I Can't Believe He Said That

Conversation with Hiromi:

H: “What are you making for supper?”

M: “Chop suey. I’m going to use that leftover rice from yesterday.”

H: “Joel said he likes fried rice better than chop suey.”

M: “Did you make fried rice?” [Yesterday, I meant, while I was gone over supper.]

H: “Oh, I don’t know.”

M: “I said ‘Did you make fried rice?’”

H: “Well, I can.”

I give up.

The good part is that I got an offer to help with making supper without fishing for it. Unfortunately, he thinks I asked for his help , so I still look like a shameless beggar.