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Journal, Day One
I would be neither a poet nor a physician today had it not been for the statement made by a very wise teacher of mine in graduate school. When I started college, I never dreamed I would become a physician. And no one could have convinced me I would be writing poems in the future. But after my second year of college, I dropped all aspirations of becoming a painter. I became involved with fellow students who worked at the college literary magazine. It is funny to think back on it now, but once I realized these people were writing poems, I started writing poems. It seemed, at the time, somewhat inevitable.
But I am straying from the point of this post . . . I would be neither a poet nor a physician had it not been for a teacher’s statement. In my last year of the MFA program at the University of Florida, a poet who offered me kindness despite the fact I never thought I deserved it, sat listening to me have a mini- nervous breakdown in his office. I had deferred starting medical school for two years, and that time was coming to an end. I was in a kind of panic. I was worried that medicine would silence all poetry in me, that it would drain me of any creative impulse whatsoever. I was contemplating studying for a PhD in Literature; certain this would keep the poetry flame alive. But my teacher looked perplexed. He already understood something that I wouldn’t understand for years to come. It was then the poet, my teacher, stated, somewhat matter-of-factly: “We always find time to do the things we want to do.”
The poet who listened to me and reassured me was Donald Justice. I am, even to this day, deeply indebted to that man. Some would think it was his knowledge of poetry that impressed me. He did, after all, appear to know virtually every poem you could cite, many times by heart. Others would think it was his brilliance as a teacher that drew me to him. In fact, despite learning more from him than from any teacher I have ever had in my life, this is not the case. I was drawn to Don Justice because he possessed a kind of wisdom, an ability to listen, to make you feel as if he cared about you and your work. Mark you, he was a demanding teacher, but you always believed he was just trying to make you a better poet, a better person.
“We always find time to do the things we want to do.” Is there a more true statement? We always find the time. I carried that statement with me all throughout medical school, internship, residency, all the way into my current practice of medicine. There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by the study or practice of medicine, but I rarely worried about poetry. I knew I would always find my way back to it, that I would always find the time to write, no matter how small or scattered that time was. I learned slowly what Don Justice already knew: I could not and cannot not write poems. Medicine taught me discipline as a writer, but what made me survive as a poet was Don’s simple statement. He somehow knew I belonged in Medicine. I think he knew also, while I sat in his office so many years ago, that I might have given up that dream and that responsibility in order to write poems, when really I didn’t need to give up either. In a strange way the man, and his statement, gave me permission to do what I needed to do, what I have continued to do.
It is funny. I teach occasionally at conferences, and now I teach in the low-residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson. I find, at times, the way one hears their own parents’ words rise from their very mouths, Don’s words and cagey questions escaping my own lips. It is unlikely I will ever be as a good a teacher as Don was, but from him I have learned to listen, to ask questions, to lead people to the answers as opposed to simply telling them. It is a trait I use not only in the classroom but also in the clinic. It is strange: I know full well that Don passed away, but it is hard for me to believe it. I always expect to receive a postcard from him, or a note about something that he recently read. Sometimes, on a foggy evening in San Francisco, when the slightest of winds slips through the portico leading to my front gate, I can almost hear the cadence of his voice. No, I am not psychotic: I do not hear his voice. I hear the pattern of it, something like a sigh, something exasperated but hopeful at the same time.