Saturday, January 25, 2014

Interview with Marie Hammond about The Rabbi of Worms

The Rabbi of Worms.  Marie Hammond.  WIPF and Stock Publishers.  2013, Eugene, OR.  ISBN: 978-1-62564-459-6. $31.  280 pages.

Interview with author Marie Hammond

When did you begin writing? Why?

Rather late. My grandmother saved a story I wrote when I was about seven, as well as letters I wrote to her in my teenage years. Other than letters and the required school assignments, I wrote very little until middle age. It was not enjoyable to me. In fact, one attraction of my college major (math) was that I would not have to write papers. On the other hand, I’ve always loved reading, ever since my fourth grade teacher gave me a copy of The Secret Garden.

In my mid-thirties I found a topic I really wanted to write about, namely energy conservation. For two years I wrote a weekly column in The Durham Sun, giving advice on how to reduce energy consumption in the home, office, and automobile. That was the beginning. I was hooked.

When and why did you begin writing historical novels?

My first historical novel came about because I needed a topic for Judy Hogan’s writing class. At the time I was also taking a class on the book of Jeremiah. The story and the protagonist in the biblical account fascinated me. However, the book is a jumbled mass of history, personal anecdotes, wise sayings, and dire predictions, all very hard to sort out and follow. I thought I would write a more sequential version that readers could digest more easily. The medium I chose was letters that Jeremiah might have written to his uncle in exile. This came easily to me because I was already a letter-writer. I got the idea of doing an epistolary novel from Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March, in which Julius Caesar’s letters tell the story.

Do you plan more books related to biblical subjects or Jewish/Christian history?

Not at the moment. Both my books were inspired by historical figures who were insightful, forceful but not violent, persevering, courageous, and faithful to what they believed. Perhaps as a consequence of these other qualities, they were also good writers. If another such character appears, then who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired.

Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

Writing is the fun part. Finding a publisher is drudgery. I wasted a whole year looking for an agent, thinking this would help me get a big publisher and more publicity. Then I spent another year contacting publishers who expressed interest in historical fiction or Judaica. In the end I went back to the company that published my first book. Their procedure had changed—they now require a formal proposal that lists possible endorsers, similar books on the market, author’s qualifications to write on this subject, and more.
Actually I found writing the proposal to be a useful exercise—it clarified some things in my mind. The delay proved beneficial as well, because I could read the manuscript with fresh eyes and make necessary revisions.

Why did you choose to write about this subject?

The man who is the title character, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (known as Rashi), captured my interest. I first heard of him in the 1990s when my family was visiting relatives in Worms, Germany. Cousin Mieken led us on a tour of the reconstructed Jewish quarter of the city. The old synagogue had been burned down by the Nazis but since then had been rebuilt according to the original plan. Attached to the synagogue is a “Rashi chapel” and behind it a “Rashi museum.” Of course Mieken explained to us who Rashi was. She said he was a rabbi so renowned for his wisdom that people came from all over Europe to ask for his rulings on legal, religious, and social matters. Not only Jews sought his counsel, but Christians, too.

At the time I was working on another project, but I filed away this bit of history in the back of my mind, only returning to it years later. I began by reading several biographies of Rashi, plus articles and books about Jews in medieval Europe and some general histories of that era.

How have you found it to be published? Share that experience.

It’s a good feeling. One wants to see a project that has taken six or seven years of work brought to completion. If people like the book or find it helpful in any way, so much the better.

Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

These are the back cover comments:

“Though this is a marvelous, gripping, well-researched historical novel, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right to call M.K. Hammond’s book a ‘historical novel.’  In her narration, the eleventh century Rabbi of Worms speaks with a compelling faithful message that challenges us today. A timely, wonderfully written novel.” –Will Willimon, Duke Divinity School.

“The Rabbi of Worms is historical fiction at its best.  M.K. Hammond has written an engaging story set in accurately depicted late eleventh century Germany.  The characters’ conversations about Christianity and Judaism convey rich details of medieval religious practice that are integral to the characters’ friendships.  The work would be an asset for anyone interested in learning about medieval Europe.”  –Mary Jane Morrow, Duke University.

"Jews and Christians alike will easily identify with the characters living through this turning point in Jewish-Christian relations as the Crusades moved through Europe and renegade elements killed Jews and destroyed their communities in the Rhein valley.  Readers will understand better how the violence a thousand years earlier gave rise to the massacres of Jews in Nazi Germany."  --Judy Hogan, author of Farm Fresh and Fatal.

So far most of the reactions have been favorable. However, the sample of readers has not been random because the book only recently became available to the general public. Up until now it’s been my friends reading it. The best comments so far have been along the lines of “I couldn’t put it down.”

What other books have you published and where, when?

My other book, Balm in Gilead/Writings of Jeremiah, was published in 2007 by Wipf and Stock. It’s an epistolary novel, made up of letters, sermons, and diary entries, describing the life and times of the prophet Jeremiah.

Do you have a work in progress now?

Yes, but not fiction. I am transcribing and translating letters written by my grandparents and other relatives from the 1920s to the 1950s. Most are written in the old German script. The correspondence is sad because my grandmother was dying of tuberculosis and my grandfather could not find a job during the Depression.

Do you belong to any organizations which have been helpful to you as a writer and/or in the journey to publication?

My friends in the Triangle Jewish Chorale and at my church (Epworth UMC) have been very helpful and supportive.

Have you attended conferences which encouraged you to write about the topics you chose? How did that happen?

No. While traveling in Europe, I did visit the Rashi Institute in Troyes, France, and the Rashi Museum in Worms, Germany. At both places I picked up books, articles, maps, guidebooks, postcards—everything I could find about Rashi and the cities where he lived.

What else would you like to say about your books?

While the action in both my books takes place in earlier ages, the themes apply equally well in modern times. My new book, for example, shows the contrast between religious faith that is reasonable and thoughtful and brings good into the world and, on the other hand, fanatical religion that leads to hatred, intolerance, and perhaps violence. Another important theme of the book relates to education: What makes a good teacher? How do people learn most effectively? Why is reading important? Also there is some discussion in the book about fatherhood and what it means. In my observation, human nature has not changed much through all the centuries of recorded history.


Reading and book-signing events:

Thursday, January 30, 7:00-8:00 p.m., Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham
Sunday, February 9, 2:00-3:00 p.m., Levin Jewish Community Center, 1937 W. Cornwallis Rd., Durham
Wednesday, February 19, 7:00-8:00 p.m., Ponder Auditorium, Croasdaile Village Retirement Community, 2600 Croasdaile Farm Pkwy., Durham


How to purchase the book:

Through or other online distributors
At any of the readings
Locally at the Regulator Bookshop

Publication information:

ISBN 13:978-1-62564-459-6
Publication date: November 14, 2013
Number of pages: 268
Publisher: Resource Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers
Place of publication: Eugene, OR


Biographical information:

Former math teacher and newspaper columnist Marie K. Hammond now spends her time writing, teaching Bible studies at church, and singing Jewish music with a community chorale. She also tutors students in math and reading through the Durham Literacy Council. Mother of two grown children and grandmother of four, Hammond remains an avid bicyclist.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

That Inner Flame

 Backyard zinnias, cosmos, lantana at Hoganvillaea Farm


A THREAD OF LIGHT IV. August 25, 2013

We agree to work on incarnation while we live.
Make more and more of what we see come true.
Carry in our packs real food; free our shoes
of stones.  A climb like this will not appeal
to everyone, and most don’t yet conceive their chance.
But one who labors so–steady, constant–brings back
many stones–lost and never faceted by those 
who didn’t think they cared.  One who cares to be
in tune with rising sap, humming along the bark
toward leaf and light, can hold one hill in place,
and shelter in her branches many a joyful creature,
many a looping and ecstatic vine.  We have the sun
and we have life.  To be content in these, and in
that thread of truth residual in our core, our heart;
that sense, like a pulse beating, of what is good
and true and lovely; that surely is enough.
Susannah, Teach Me to Love/Grace, Sing to Me.  1985, p. 81.

To envision what can be–is that not the
true gift?  Giving up, giving in, giving out–
all those ways tempt us, undo our belief
in our own power to change our lives, even
to change the world around us.  If we imagine
that each of us has, deeply planted, a small
but persistent flame in our depths that we
mustn’t on any account cease to guard, then
we know exactly what our life is about.  We
are guardians of that flame so easily 
extinguished by despair.  Others can assume
the role of flame extinguishers and do their
best to dismay and dishearten us, or events
can seem to conspire against what we work
for, what we feel compelled to do and to say,
but only we can douse our own flame.  Only 
we can deliver the death blow to our hopes.
Only we can hold off our own despair.  How?
Some days it feels like we are holding on
by our fingernails, but we do our best.
If we can’t stride, we stumble, but we
keep moving in the direction we know we 
must go.  Then to our surprise, we notice
the landscape has changed.  The grey
skies have yielded to perfect blue.
The fruit hangs ripe on the trees.
The red zinnias seem to burn with light.
The return of sun has the whole creation
humming.  Butterflies dip into the
yellow cosmos blooms.  A hummingbird
suspends herself over the lantana.  A
cardinal scolds from the fig tees.  The
hens circulate at my feet, watching for
figs I drop accidentally or on purpose.
I see the weeds I must dig out, the pear
limbs that need pruning.  Thinking ahead
to the work that waits for me, I feel no 
despair.  I remember how much I wanted
to live here on my own land, growing my
food, feeding myself and my friends.
I learned how.  This is the life I wanted,
and I made it possible, with help, but
that, too, required me to keep my
inward sun aflame.  In one way, it’s all
that matters.  Exactly how we manage it
is up to us, but that inner flame 
will help us if we let it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Interview with Mystery Writer Carolyn Mulford


Show Me the Deadly Deer (hardback, $25.95) is just out (Dec 2013) from Five Star.  ISBN: 978-1-4328-2752-6.  Carolyn's website is:

1. When did you begin writing?  Why?

I began telling stories to myself to relieve boredom at about age three. I started telling them to equally bored friends in grade school, but I wrote down little (lack of paper, fear of humiliation) until my ninth grade English teacher encouraged me to write essays, poetry, stories, whatever. My teacher in a one-room school taught me grammar, but the English teacher revealed the craft of writing. In my senior year, I was co-editor of the school paper, loved getting the inside story, and decided to become a journalist until I could afford to write novels.

2.  When and why did you begin writing mysteries?

I wrote a couple of bad mysteries in the 1970s when I was between magazine jobs and hadn’t mastered the business of freelancing. In 1982 I became a full-time freelancer. For years I had little time to write anything that didn’t pay a bill. In the late 1980s I began to read mysteries by such women as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Elizabeth Peters, Anne Perry, Carolyn Hart, Margaret Maron, and Sue Grafton. In these books women solved the crimes rather than being victims or playthings. I cared about the people they wrote about. In the 1990s my list of mystery writers grew and grew. Finally, in the new century, my workload lightened, Social Security approached, and the thing I wanted to do most was write mysteries. 

3. Explain your basic idea for your series.

In the first book, Show Me the Murder, wounded former CIA covert operative Phoenix Smith returns to her childhood home to recuperate and reshape her future as she relaxes with her best friend, civic leader Annalynn Carr Keyser. Instead Phoenix must adapt her tradecraft to help Annalynn find out the truth behind her husband’s violent death—and to survive. A third old friend, a frustrated singer who has moved back to the hometown, insists on taking part in the investigation.

In each book (I’m now writing the fourth), the three very different women must find a way to work together to deal with a crime and their personal crises. 

4.  Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.

In the first book, I was learning about my characters and the setting. I wrote it in third person, the point of view familiar from my nonfiction writing, and threw in everything. The first draft ran 123,000 words, about 35,000 words more than my final (tenth?) draft. I queried agents as I started the second book. Show Me the Deadly Deer. About the third chapter, I knew the voice would be stronger if I switched to first person. By the time I finished Deadly Deer, I’d received many “like it but don’t love it” and “not in this tough market” responses from agents on Murder. Agents gave much the same response to Deadly Deer.

By then I’d worked (part time) on the two books about four years. I considered giving up, but I really liked my characters and setting. So did members of my critique group and some other objective readers. I rewrote Murder in first person and pitched it to a Five Star editor at Killer Nashville. She asked to read it, sent it on up the line for a final decision, and I received a contract. From submission to publication took eighteen months.

I began thinking about the protagonist in late 2003. Show Me the Murder came out in early 2013. You could say the gestation took nine years.

5.  Why did you choose to set your scene in a rural part of Missouri?  Why did you make your sleuth a former CIA operative?

I chose rural Missouri because that’s where I grew up and my family lived. I’d worked in cities in other countries and states for most of my adult life but planned to move back. (I made the move in 2007.) The research on farm life for Show Me the Deadly Deer helped reacquaint me with my home state.

Why use an ex-spy as a sleuth? As a writer, I’m an observer rather than a doer. I wanted to write about an action-oriented protagonist, a woman who would do the things I wouldn’t/couldn’t. Then the Bush administration infuriated me by illegally revealing the name of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. I’d accidentally discovered that a friend of mine in Vienna was an operative, and I’d thought of the consequences for him, and for me (then a United Nations employee), if that came out. 

So current events and my experience led me create an ex-spy forced to come home again and afraid of being exposed. I was also intrigued by the price someone pays to live a double life.

6.  How have you found it to be published?  Share that experience.

I had published several other books before this series, and each brought a different experience. The nonfiction books gave credibility and a boost to my freelance career. In D.C., the biography of a politician evoked more interest than my books on travel and fundraising. 

Nothing I’ve ever written has produced such as emotional reaction as my historical novel, The Feedsack Dress. Officially this story of the only girl in ninth grade wearing a feedsack dress is for middle grade students, but the people who love it—really love it—are the former farm kids from my own generation.


Readers, including reviewers, have reacted positively to Show Me the Murder, particularly to the main characters. That’s gratifying and affirming. What I hadn’t anticipated was the amount of work and the psychic energy required to promote a mystery. I’ve sent out review copies, written blogs for my own and others’ sites, given talks to different audiences, done workshops for writers, served on and moderated panels at conferences, and carried the books in the trunk of my car just in case someone wants one. While I enjoy these activities, they take time from writing the next book.

7.  Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?

Several Murder readers have said to me, “I can’t wait to read the next one.” That sends me back to the keyboard on a down day. One friend said, “I’m always sad when I finish a book I like a lot, but this time I knew I’d meet the characters again soon in the next one.”

My most exciting moment in 2013 was opening on my screen the Kirkus review of Show Me the Murder. It was the first one to come out, and one of the most important in persuading people, especially librarians, to buy the book. The concluding line, “The first in Mulford's planned series explores the unsettling rise of crime in rural areas and provides an amusing and touching look at the reunited gal pals.” Some other favorite snippets: Library Journal: “a tightly woven tale”; Gumshoe Review: “appealing characters” and “compelling story”; “One of the best books I have read in a long time.”

Kirkus also gave the first review to Show Me the Deadly Deer. Its summary: “Small-town Missouri again proves almost as dangerous to a former CIA agent as European back alleys. Mulford’s second provides plenty of excitement as readers wend their ways through a slew of suspects.” 

Suspense Magazine’s David Ingram began his review with, “A mark of a good mystery series is when you can pick up any volume as a starting place and not feel lost. That test is passed by ‘Show Me the Deadly Deer,’ the second entry in Carolyn Mulford’s enjoyable Show Me series, set in rural Missouri.”

8.  What other books have you published, titles, publishers, and dates?

All of my nonfiction books have gone out of print. Promoting Show Me the Murder has had the fringe benefit of reviving sales of The Feedsack Dress (Cave Hollow Press, 2007, $7.95 paperback; $2.99 Nook). The Missouri Center for the Book chose it as the state’s Great Read at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

9.  How is your next book in the series coming along?

The third book in the series, Show Me the Gold, is beginning the long, slow publishing process. It’s tentatively scheduled for release in January 2015. 

I’m a little more than two-thirds of the way through the first draft of book four, Show Me the Ashes. Barring interruptions from work on the first three books, I’ll finish the first draft in February, revise the content (correcting errors and inconsistencies, putting in and deleting clues, etc.) in March, take a mental break from Ashes by polishing a historical novel, and go back to work on the last two or three drafts of Ashes in April and May and maybe June.

Meanwhile I’m wondering how each of my three main characters can move on to the next chapter in her life in book five. I put them each in a personal crisis with no obvious way out.

10.  How has belonging to Sisters in Crime and to the Guppies (great unpublished) been helpful?  

SinC keeps members updated on what’s happening in mystery publishing and provides resources—human, online, written—not available anywhere else. It also gives those of us not yet established a place to meet the veterans and introduce ourselves. Members share.

The Guppies chapter of SinC has been a priceless show-to resource. Members ask questions and share what’s happening—good and bad—on the main listserve and in subgroups. I studied structure and techniques with the Mystery Analysis group early on. The Agent Quest group gives valuable feedback on queries and synopses and tips on how agents react (many use the same polite and ultimately meaningless wording in their responses) and what they’re looking for. The Small Press Quest group maintains a list of small presses, gives tips on promotion and marketing, and shares experiences in self-publishing, 

The Guppies also sponsor online courses and partial and full manuscript exchanges. I’ve taken several great courses—including body language, setting, and synopses—from Mary Buckham.

Many of us are now published writers but continue to participate in the group, sharing the expertise we’ve gained and continuing to learn. The Guppies I’ve come to know online, and sometimes in person, over the years aren’t just resources. They’re friends.

11.  What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

I have to confess that one reason I go to Malice, a fan conference, every year is that it’s great fun. Before I started writing mysteries, I enjoyed listening to both favorite and unknown writers on panels and talking to them in the hospitality room, the halls, at meals, etc. Malice is a place to see and make friends who share an enthusiasm for mysteries.

For either a fan or a writer, Malice acquaints you with what’s being published by whom and gives you a long reading list. 

As a published mystery writer, Malice is a prime place to introduce your work to new readers by serving on a panel, taking part in the Author-Go-Round, and handing out your bookmarks everywhere. Promotion there, and at other conferences, forces me to draw on the recessive extrovert part of my personality. 

Each mystery conference has its own emphasis. One of my favorites is Killer Nashville. It offers a fan stream, but it’s a writers’ conference. You can pitch to editors and publishers, attend excellent sessions on police procedures, and take part in skills panels on writing, editing, and marketing. I’m sure most of the people who attended the two panels I served on had never heard of me before. I hope a few of them bought the book or requested it at their local library. One tangible thing: I gave an ARC of Show Me the Deadly Deer to the Suspense Magazine reviewer quoted above. Plus you meet other writers and have a good time.

To earn your tax deduction for any mystery conference, you need to be on a panel or in some other memorable event, listed in the conference program, and sign books sold in the bookstore.

12.  What else would like to say about your books, including those in the works?

Writing novels yields more pleasure than profit, at least for me. That’s fine at this stage in my life—as long as other people get pleasure from reading what I’ve written. I love creating characters based on a lifetime of observation and figuring out how they’ll respond to uncomfortable and life-threatening situations. I like to bring attention to problems (e.g., the destruction of meth in Murder and the subtlety of elder abuse in Gold), but my special delight comes from telling a compelling story in sentences that speed people through it.

13.  I’m interested in the psychic mixture in Phoenix Smith, your sleuth.  At times she’s extremely tough to go with an image of a sharp shooter, which she is, but other times she’s so compassionate.  It puzzles me, and I wonder how you think about it?

Phoenix struggles to balance the idealism of her childhood in a small town and the darkness of her adulthood in Cold War Vienna. She grew up with a loving family believing in service and hard work. Her drive, diligence, and intelligence led her to succeed in a harsh world, one in which she lived the double life of an economist dealing with money-obsessed entrepreneurs and bankers in her day job and traitors in her covert work for the CIA. When the cynical adult returns to her hometown, her love for and loyalty to her childhood friend conflict with her cynicism and distrust, and she finds evil as common in Laycock, Missouri, as she has in Eastern Europe. She also sees goodness and generosity of spirit, sometimes where she least expects to find it.

Her duality is a theme in the series. In Show Me the Murder, Phoenix must learn to trust in order to identify the killer. In Show Me the Deadly Deer, she initially regards the investigation as a game, a contest with the killer. (I’ve observed that some police officers work that way.) Then she meets suspects and witnesses affected by the death and becomes, in some instances, a protector. Which was part of her motivation in becoming a covert operative. In the third book, Connie, who isn’t Phoenix’s biggest fan, comments that she has a black walnut shell with a marshmallow interior. Phoenix certainly values justice more than the law.

I see duality in people every day: the volunteer at the food bank who opposes food stamps; the CEO who donates many thousands to a charity but refuses to pay employees more than a minimum wage; the Christian who never misses church but cheats on his taxes.

People are complex. Life is rarely simple.

14.  I love the dog Achilles and the part he plays and the qualities he brings out in Phoenix.  It’s this compassionate, sensitive dog-owner part of Phoenix that draws me to her especially.  Any comments on that?  Have other readers liked that part of her, too?

Her initial concern when she finds him wounded stems partly from a dog she loved as a child. Besides, she and Achilles share the bond of surviving being shot. He adopts her, and she can’t resist his unqualified devotion. This sweet, smart, orphaned dog banishes her cynicism and becomes a companion and a sounding board for her. He brings out the best in her, and that is part of his function in the books. And in her life.

In Show Me the Deadly Deer and later books, he serves as her backup and uses—with great pride—his K-9 skills to help her discover clues. 

And yes, most readers tell me they love Achilles. He’s our dream dog.


I grew up on a farm near Kirksville, Missouri, the fictionalized setting of my first middle grade/young adult novel, The Feedsack Dress. During the summer I worked in the fields and garden, pumped water for the milk cows, and read books that carried me far away.

About the fifth grade the urge to write stories overtook me. A few years later I learned that few writers earn a living writing novels. That knowledge and experience on my high school and college papers  prompted me to earn a Master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri.

Before taking my first job as a magazine editor in Washington, D.C., I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, teaching English and helping build a school for lepers. On my way back to the States, I traveled for six months in the Middle East and Europe.

One intriguing city I visited was Vienna, Austria. I returned there to work for the United Nations until the bureaucratic writing drove me to quit. Again I spent six months returning to the States, traveling through Asia and Australia.

Settling in Washington, D.C., I edited a national magazine on service-learning and then became a freelance writer and editor. I wrote hundreds of articles, four nonfiction books, and a variety of other nonfiction materials. I edited several national newsletters, most notably Writing That Works. From 1990 to 2011, it served as a monthly “desktop seminar” for corporate writers and editors.

A few years ago I revived my childhood dreams of creating my own worlds. I moved back to Columbia, Missouri, to focus on historical fiction for young readers and, my current emphasis, contemporary mysteries for adults. My mystery series begins with Show Me the Murder (February 2013) and Show Me the Deadly Deer (January  2014).

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Health Care Partnership

Early spring 2011 at Hoganvillaea Farm: beets, peas, onions.


This is the story of a relationship that triggered a major transformation in my life this past week.  I could call it a doctor-patient relationship, only I wasn’t often a patient.  Over the last twenty-five years it became a partnership for the sake of my health and well-being.

When I was forty-one, I sought out a local family doctor to help me make lifestyle changes.  He suggested more exercise (I got very little) and sent me to UNC Hospital to get a chest x-ray.  I’d been avoiding this teaching hospital because it was so big that it was easy to get lost between all the specialities, and I told the resident this. 
He had to approve the chest x-ray and told me that a new doctor had been brought in to work on this very thing–preventing patients from getting lost as they were referred to various specialists.

I made an appointment with Dr. F, and she was my primary care doctor for ten years.  I argued with her sometimes and she listened. She made sure she negotiated my way in the hospital and prescribed as few tests as possible.  About 1988, when I was fifty-one, she left the hospital and gave me to another internist, Dr. H.  

I remember arguing with him early about hormone replacement therapy.  I’d passed easily through menopause and saw no reason to interfere with my hormones.  He was concerned about osteoarthritis.  Years later he said I was right.  Some of those HRT drugs led to cancer.  By this time I was getting regular exercise and was eating in a healthier way, making my own high-protein bread, and leading a very active life (teaching more than full time under NEH grants, running a small press, and I’d recently given up running the state’s new Writers’ Network, not to mention raising teenagers, who were now leaving the nest).

Normally I saw Dr. H only once a year for a general checkup.  He suggested losing weight, but he never pushed me.  He said, “The more exercise the better as you age.”  By 2006 I weighed close to 190 pounds, and I couldn’t fit into the dress I’d bought for my son’s wedding.  I started eating less and walking more, and I did wear the dress.  I kept up that routine and slowly my weight dropped to 165 pounds.

A few years ago he tested for my cholesterol, which he’d never done as my blood pressure was good.  The test was around 200 and borderline.  He wanted me to take the statin medicine.  I said no, those statins gave other problems.  A year later he had researched alternatives to statin in the People’s Pharmacy books (Joe and Terry Gradon), and he recommended red yeast rice in capsules, and eating oatbran.  I already ate oatbran cereal in the winter and put it in my bread.  After taking red yeast rice for a year, my cholesterol came down.

He never ordered tests unless absolutely necessary.  Around 2007 he said to discontinue the glucosamine I was taking for my creaky knee.  He said my walking was enough.  Then maybe two years later, he said discontinue the multi-vitamins but take extra Vitamin D.  So by 2012, my “drugs” were Red Yeast Rice and Vitamin D. During the year my health problems were usually “normal,” like a poison ivy rash or a urinary tract infection.  

In 2012 I’d noticed my heart beating irregularly and consulted him. He listened to it carefully and said it was skipping a beat.  We went over all the heart attack symptoms.  I had none of them.  He said it was the part of my heart that controlled the beat and not to worry about it.  I decided to stop drinking coffee and to eat more fruits and vegetables (five times a day).  The heart returned to normal beating.

Meantime I had some “dis-connected” (= dislocated) toes on my right foot and was referred to an orthopedic foot specialist, who gave me a little pad for metatarsal support, and I changed to wearing $100 exactly fitting shoes.  I had osteoarthritis in my toes. 
I had heard that sugar aggravated arthritis, and so I gave up sugar and substituted honey.  I lost more weight, down to 158 pounds as of December 2013.  In my 20s I weighed about 150.  This was a good weight, and I hadn’t even expected it to happen. My toes stopped hurting.

I saw Dr. H on December 13, which was supposed to be our last appointment, as he told me he was retiring at the end of March.  I’d been afraid of this.  He let me choose my next doctor.  I knew how rare he was as a listening doctor. I said I was worried they would try to push medicine on me, and he said doctors were supposed to listen to their patients.  I could try one of the other doctors in the practice first and see if that was a good fit.  He told me I wouldn’t have to have any more mammograms and my heart sounded good.

I realize now that over those twenty-five years we had come to trust each other.  What builds this kind of trust with a doctor?  It’s not unlike trusting your mechanic, and I’ve had a wonderful one for even longer.  You have to trust that they’re good, know their business, also they listen to you and give advice when it really matters, when you or your car need something, but not for the sake of getting money or some use out of you.  They can tell and fix the essentials but let the non-essentials go.  You trust their expertise and their judgment.  You trust their word, and they’re honest.  If they don’t know or can’t find anything wrong, they tell you.  Their goal is to keep your car in good working order, your body, healthy. 

They also trust you to take care of your car or your body (I had to learn to do both–now my mechanic tells me I can get more miles out of a car than anyone he knows, and my doctor points to how most people my age take 10-12 prescription drugs a day).

It’s like Abraham Maslow’s idea that the only protection/preparation for life that we can give our children is teaching them to cope with whatever comes along.  A healthy body can also cope best of all with disease and occasional bodily glitches, unexpected changes or events.

I think of how I longed to walk on the neurology ward when I was hospitalized in December for tests because of my “left arm numbness” episodes) (cf blog for December 25, 2013).  The doctors and nurses feared I’d fall, but my body somehow “knew” I needed to walk.  They focused on preventing falls, and I focused on staying healthy and returning to normal health.  Dr. H was focused on healing me.  The neuro docs focused on studying me and trying to find my problem.  They wanted to prevent more episodes, which they called seizures.  Dr. H figured out what I sensed, that the medicine and further tests might set me back.  I needed to summon the resilience of my body, not hamper its healing.

Back in 2012, I told him I was having some balance problems, and he recommended using a cane.  He didn’t want me to fall.  I said, “I can’t farm with a cane.”  In our December 13 appointment, I told him I hadn’t fallen in the last year and was doing “standing on one-foot” balance exercises, and I could catch myself better.  

He told me on Dec 13 that he was going to do some writing after he retired, and maybe he would take a class with me.  Also he wanted to buy some of my healthy bread.  In the hospital they did all those expensive tests and discovered how healthy I was, though they never mentioned this.  Dr. H knew because he had listened to my heart, talked to me, checked my feet for good circulation. 

Following the hospital experience, he studied my discharge report and all those test results, and I told him everything, gave him the blog I published on Christmas Day, described how I’d fought with the doctors.  

He said, “What do you want me to do?”

I said, “Help me with those doctors.  I don’t want them to increase the dosage of the anti-seizure medicine.”

He said, “You did absolutely the right thing.”  He agreed on keeping the low dosage.  He gave me his home phone number. Monday, the 30th, I called and left a message that I’d had only one episode since I left the hospital the Monday before. It happened Saturday night the 28th, but I wasn’t worried.  He called me January 2 and said I should return to my normal active life.  It took me a few minutes to register what he was saying.  “You mean I can drive?”

“Yes, it’s not life-threatening.  You don’t lose consciousness.”  I said I’d told those hospital doctors that I could manage the car and pull over even if I had an episode.  They, however, pulled out the big guns and said DMV wouldn’t let me drive if I had seizures.  Dr. H said he wasn’t sure that seizures was my correct diagnosis.

What a transformation.  I said, “that’s freeing.”  After I got off the phone, I realized that the result of my hospital stay, not being allowed to walk by myself, being sent home with a cane, not being allowed to drive had set me worrying I’d push too hard if I went back to my normal level of activity, which isn’t actually that stressful as I do change activities and take rests regularly.  I’d been setting up arrangements to have people take me to shop, back to the doctor, etc.  I was feeling too helpless.

Then came Dr. H’s words.  “Return to your normal active life.  You may have more episodes but don’t worry about it.  People live with such things.”  I felt almost drunk.  The next day I drove to the post office and to town for groceries and the bank.  I wrote to all my helpers, my kids, and my friends that I was able to drive now.  I took Wag for the walk we both love and had missed for two weeks.

I was tired that night but I slept well.  I’ve had another normal active day this Saturday and no more episodes.  I can tell by my mental state that I’m healing, and I know that Dr. H is a true iatros–healer.  That Greek word iatros is in our language, in psychiatry (mind or soul-healing), in pediatrics (child-healing), and also in a word I didn’t know about: iatrogenic: generated or induced by the physician as in physical or mental ailments resulting from the treatment or from an alarming diagnosis.  Dr. H obviously knew about this, and caught it early.  What a gift!


Orchid and daffodils on Judy's kitchen table, March 2012.