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If Mary Oliver Were a Medical Student

"”stay awhile”" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by mindwhisperings

I inherited from my mother both a love of medicine and of taking long walks. I love to take an hour or so and wander down the paths that snake through the woods behind my Vermont home to the country roads of neighboring towns. Sometimes I listen to music or a podcast — often I leave my phone home. Sometimes I take a friend — often I am alone. I’ve found that I have relied on these walks more and more as my time as a medical student has progressed. I can turn my attention to the rhythm of my footsteps and turn down the volume of my stress, letting the day percolate through my subconscious.

On my walks, I pay attention to my surroundings. I try to make myself aware of all my senses, to notice everything: the different feel of the trail, the ground cold and firm or wet and buoyant, the leaves beginning to change color or falling to the ground, the air velvety or clean, the brook chatty and curious or dry and somnolent. On the town roads at dusk, I’m invited by the warm yellow lights of the homes. I look through windows to catch glimpses of neighbors at various stages of their evenings. I sometimes picture myself in their position: getting dinner ready for kids, finishing a report for work, relaxing in front of the TV, on the phone with a sick relative. Are they happy or sad? Stressed or content? I let myself wonder and feel. I wander down these mental and emotional paths and into these strangers’ psyches uninhibited, with no judgement of my surroundings or my reactions. This is meditation in motion. I am only concerned with the present moment while I’m walking and so I try to pay attention to it alone, as best as I can.

I cherish this unscheduled freedom because it’s no over-exaggeration to say that much of medical school involves, or rather demands, planning — class assignments, exams, research projects, meetings, resume-building, residency-prepping. At its best, this is an adaptive mentality that helps us stay on task to reach our ultimate goal of becoming competent future caregivers. At its worst, we are jumping through hoops, making ourselves crazy for no other reason than fear that we aren’t doing enough. In the natural sequelae to this pathology, our own self-worth gets caught up in the frenzy. We are not enough unless that which we produce can be measured and sold — to classmates, future residency programs, ourselves. The danger in this game is how easily it causes us to forget to pay attention to the current moment. Our minds are always one step ahead of our bodies, to the point that we forget where we are, what we are doing, or why we are doing it. It is an epidemic of early onset presbyopia; we’ve spent so much of our lives looking so far ahead that we can no longer see up close.

I have loved Mary Oliver’s poetry since I was first introduced to her as an undergraduate. Only now have I begun to realize her true importance in my life and the ways she has helped shape me. (She herself was an avid walker, taking her notebook into the woods and penning some of her most famous poems on her daily walks.) Reading Mary Oliver is like taking a master-class in paying attention. She is the expert attention-giver, examiner-of-life in all forms both beautiful and mundane, celebrating the significance of both. Recently I have let myself consider how wonderful of a physician Mary Oliver would have been, and how wonderful a medical school classmate. She would be sharp and inquisitive, of course. But I imagine she would also be present, immune to the current climate of “efficiency above all else,” that mentality which makes it perfectly reasonable to spend all day inside alone doing flashcards instead of engaging with classmates and professors. This mentality that, in my opinion, sucks the joy out of learning and replaces it with obligation and boredom.

Most importantly, she would be empathetic, an observer of both the motion and emotion of things. She recently noted, in her eulogy to her late partner, that “attention without feeling is only report.” Her approach to the study of medicine, then, would be spiritual: observation with significance, awareness with feeling, knowledge with softness. To be engaged, aware, present; fully thinking and feeling. This is what I hope for in my own study of medicine and my own future career, and I thank Mary Oliver for giving me the courage to sustain this hope.

Now if you would excuse me for a moment, I think I’ll take a break from my studying and go for a walk.

Image credit: “stay awhile” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by mindwhisperings

Julia Danford Julia Danford (2 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

Julia is a second year medical student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. In 2013, she graduated from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a focus in poetry. Outside of school she enjoys reading short stories, spending time outside, and relaxing with friends.