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Pine Needles and Saguaro Songs

By Monica Myklebust, M.D.

I lay on the floor of the northern Minnesota woods, back against the earth, arms folded beneath my head, one foot crossed and resting on my knee. The moist earth beneath me breathed, filling my spirit. In that moment there were no mosquitoes buzzing or wood ticks sucking blood from beneath my elastic stockings. Only I was there. Alone. An eight-year-old at one with the woods, and the birds and the pines. Embraced in wonder.

I loved school and creating bulletin boards and reading aloud. I learned to like gold stars and praises by my teachers. Life was good and there was so much to learn. I loved it all. Especially what they were calling biology: bugs and flowers and plants and the human body. Every day I learned new names and concepts and theories. I identified birds by their feather patterns and recognized each one’s call as different from another. I was good at facts: memorizing, recalling, categorizing, discriminating, separating, test taking, right and wrong, black and white.

While attending college in central Minnesota, I noted the contrast of taking Philosophy in the hour right before Molecular Genetics. While I enjoyed the mental gymnastics, science was obviously the "real subject" and softer subjects were only required hoops. Genetics was my meaning of life and I isolated opalescent DNA in test tubes and counted chromosomes. My first professional job was at Mayo Clinic where I dressed in navy blue polyester, proud to be an accepted part of the establishment. In the evenings I returned to tie-dyed t-shirts and vegetarian cooking. California called and I answered. The adventurous move was wrapped with a new position in clinical, then research genetics.

The University of California in San Francisco was filled with Birkenstocks and the air drifted with marijuana smoke. I mixed with Jew and Gay and Philippino and Chinese. My world expanded as realities of abortion and Twinkies and civic politics merged. Grayness began to creep in. I pushed the edge of the Pacific and lived in mainland China. Poverty and communism, restriction to knowledge and secrecy, paucity of opportunity and privilege carved deep in to my psyche. I emerged determined to actualize my potential and filled with an intense sense of responsibility. A career in conventional medicine offered the study of the body, memorization, reward, wonder, and renewed relationship with the power of the establishment.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done, the endless hours of medical school study and harnessing of my determination and focus. All the book learning paid off when I realized the breadth of my life experience compared to my resident colleagues at Mayo in the next step of my training, experience with real lives. I was, by then, quite developed in my fascination with human beings. It was life stories that pulled me in the closest. It was after all, the real reason I went to China, because of the surreal stories of the Cultural Revolution. By now I was comfortable in the presence of others, with their fear and anger, helplessness, and pain. An ability to absorb scientific facts paired with my seemingly natural capacity for compassion reinforced my chosen path. And yet the one-hundred hour weeks and need to satisfy unbelievable academic expectations from staff physicians, the pressure to not error and to live up to my personal perfectionist resulted in a decision to limit all that I knew. I pulled in the wide-angle lens and pushed my intuitive belly rumblings down. I was on survival mode.

After training, practice in Family Medicine allowed me to "practice" what I had learned. I opened once again to all that I knew. My intuition, compassion, and gut feelings yielded to a slow letting go of many hard facts as I learned how much patients could teach me. The world was getting bigger. The more I learned, it seemed, the less I knew. I wanted to be everything to everybody: my husband, my patients, my colleagues, and my institution. Within four years I began to burnout. All I knew was no longer enough. Only my mother offered sympathy. I read about a fellowship that started with a retreat where physicians rediscovered why they had gone in to medicine. It continued with self-care and explored many definitions of and offered many options for healing. I wept. I filled out the application with great care, knowing that if I really wanted this, it would be mine.

I left my practice, my husband, and my life. I headed for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson. It would never be the same. I would lose it all.

My world would expand beyond greatest imaginings, to places and ways of thinking and being that exist beyond the world of words. I would fill into the edges of my potential, committed to so many years ago in China. I would exponentially increase all that I had to offer the world. The little girl at one with the woods would re-emerge, and smile. Embracing wonder.

For more information, see University of Michigan Integrative Medicine and Body Gratitude.