The tea was poured and the biscotti ready to dip into the green tea in the fine German tea cups. Little Molly, the curly black poodle, had settled in by her dog dish. The sun shown brightly on my dear friend and mentor sitting across her kitchen table from me. I knew the words would start coming, and they did. When I asked her about which words have been powerful in her life, she responded with this quote from former Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”
I’m sure my expression was somewhere between quizzical and awe, not unlike my expression 35 years ago in her nursing lectures. This friend, mentor, and Professor Emeriti of Augustana University, Dr. Joyce Nelson, was the perfect choice for my first blog interview. She proceeded to share three or four powerful words that at first seemed unrelated but at the end of the ninety minutes would feel forever linked.
I chose Joyce because it is some of her words that have guided my nursing practice for years, “Begin with people as they are and the situation as it is.” Her words were born out of experience. As a psychiatric nurse and a community health nurse, she learned to check any preconceived notions at the door and be ready for surprises. That phrase was always in the back of my mind spoken in her voice. It served me well in my practice in small rural hospitals, years in geriatric nursing, and a short but bizarre stint as a clinic nurse for a psychiatrist.
After re-listening to our rich conversation (which she graciously allowed me to record), I am wondering if I should be doing a podcast rather than writing a blog post. Her voice has such an innate kindness and cadence that radiates warmth and confidence. We landed into a fascinating conversation about expectation and anger. I knew I was hearing Professor Nelson’s words, an expert psychiatric nurse, yet seasoned with lived experience.
Joyce: I like to think of a single word somedays. My word during Lent has been desert.
It was Christ that went to the desert, Moses and David as well . . .it’s a time of reflection. You go in with nothing. . . and when you have nothing, you have everything.
My word for Advent was expectation. What is anger? Unfilled expectation.
We expected a King and here comes the Christ Child in poverty. You know we got kind of ticked off about that. We should have expectations; but when our expectations aren’t met we become angry.
Becky: Talk more about that word anger.
Joyce: Anger is a sign that there is something that’s not going right. We need to ascend, elevate ourselves above it. You know Ronnie (her beloved husband) loved to fly planes so we’d go flying together. It would be so cloudy and brown and then you would get above it and the world would be so clear.
So then we always need to ask, ‘Why has this situation been gifted to me?’
Becky: That’s a great question.
Joyce: (Pauses, sips her tea) Anger is a very thin emotion. When people are angry they have to ask the next question. They have to ask what underlies it and what underlies it is fear.
Becky: Fear, what a great word.
Joyce: What are we afraid of? Are we afraid we might lose this or that. In our nursing profession, we saw that so much with our patients. . . they expected a cure, their loved one to get well.
The best response for us to say in return is, “This is a scary time, isn’t it?”
I don’t always remember to do that.
Becky: Talk a little more about fear. Let me tell you, you seem fearless!
Joyce: I can’t think of many things I’m afraid of. I’m not afraid to die.
Becky: Why aren’t you afraid? Where did that come from? Were you raised that way?
Joyce: I think so.
Becky: I’ve always said that the best gift you can give your children is courage.
Joyce: Also, to be able to allow them to say, “that’s your opinion.” Mealtime got pretty loud around the table and I was determined to be heard.
Becky: Did both your mom and dad challenge you to speak up?
Joyce: Oh yes! My mother especially. Gossip was forbidden. If I ever started speaking about someone she would put up her finger and say “tut, tut, tut, you do not know their situation.” So you see where I got my “begin with the situation as it is” line.
Becky: So you never heard her gossiping?
Joyce: Never. I remember one time as a teenager commenting that my aunt’s (my mom’s older sister) hair would be so much prettier if she dyed it like mom did to hers. She would say, “If it makes her feel beautiful, leave it alone.”
Becky: What a great role model you had in your mom.
Joyce: Oh, yes, and she was the champion of one liners!
Becky: So that’s where you got it from!
Joyce: Oh my! “Don’t milk the cow.” was one of hers.
Becky: I think I’ve heard that one . . maybe from you! Like, “don’t stir the pot?”
Joyce: Well, here, I’ll tell you how she used it. There was a prominent family living at the next farm over. The young man at that farm married the daughter of a banker; she was a young, very pretty woman. She would come to my mother for advice. She told my mother one day, “We’re going to get a cow. I suppose I could just as well be the one to milk the cow.” My mother said, “You have three little boys, you do not have time to milk the cow.” The sweet farm wife said, “But I’m sure my husband would appreciate it.” “Well, yes,” my mom said, “ I’m sure he would. The first time your husband will thank you profusely, the second time he may say thanks, the third time it’s your job. Don’t milk the cow.” Laughing.
Joyce walks quickly to the next room and comes back with a small, hand-painted sign proving the family lore of the story she just told. She also brought back a framed photo of three strong women: herself, her mom, and her grandma. This linage of strong women who were all made with words. A few more stories were shared before we parted with hugs and her kind words of encouragement and affirmation to me.
Thanks for the good words, Dr. Joyce Nelson. I want to be like you when I grow up.
The words that stuck with me from this visit with Joyce were desert, expectation, anger, fear, and of course, “Don’t milk the cow.” The teacher is still teaching the student. What did I learn from this morning tea? In days or weeks that seem chaotic it’s ok to go to the desert (be alone). Take some time to evaluate your expectations of yourself and others. Watch for that thin emotion of anger and ask what fear is hidden underneath. Confess those fears and speak up. Speak up with your opinions and be sure to encourage others to do the same. . .but “don’t milk the cow!”
Read more about Dr. Joyce Nelson’s life of learning and service here.