Yesterday, I wrote this post which included my poem "Ash Wednesday in the Intensive Care Unit." It came from a true event. My mother-in-law had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit, and I visited her on Ash Wednesday. I noticed that all the patients had an ash cross smudged on their foreheads. I asked the nurse, and she said, "Oh, sure, the priest was here this morning."
Most of the patients were unconscious, and I wondered about the ethics of smudging an ash cross on unresponsive patients. I decided not to ask further questions. The nurse was probably not interested in having a theological conversation: that's not why she went to nursing school, after all.
I got to school later in the day and tried to write a poem. I tried to compose at the computer. What came out was a grammar worksheet: improbable but true! I used it for many years. I'll put one of the paragraphs below; can you find all the run-ons and comma splices?
"Because it is Ash Wednesday, the man in black (no, not Johnny Cash!) puts ashes on our foreheads. The ashes represent our sins, they also represent the ultimate end to our bodies after death. But we've been in the Intensive Care Unit, so we know better. The end has very little to do with ashes the end comes when your body fluids go where they don't belong. Sometimes the end comes despite the best efforts of the pumps and tubing the hospital provides. If we didn't already believe in a Supreme Being, we'd have to invent one, it's just too hard to face the end otherwise."
Not only did this worksheet allow me to discuss run-ons and comma splices, but it also let me talk about writing that had different purposes for different audiences. When I taught Composition, I brought my poem into the class, and we had a reason to read a poem and talk about the difference between what one attempts to do when writing a poem and when writing an essay. When I taught poetry, I showed them the grammar worksheet and we talked about line breaks.
I also had to talk about Ash Wednesday, what it means and the customs that surround it. It gave me a chance to have a brief theological discussion. You could argue that such a theological discussion is as inappropriate in a Composition classroom as a priest smudging unresponsive patients. I would argue that college should expose students to existential ideas and spiritual connections and not just in religion classes. Since I wasn't proselytizing or pressuring students to convert, and since we spent all of 10 minutes on the theological background, I'd say I didn't overstep.
So, the experience in that ICU has been turned into a grammar worksheet, a poem, and a blog post. Maybe it's time to write an in-depth consideration of the theological implications of smearing ash on unconscious patients. Or maybe it's time to write an essay that considers pedagogy and theological side trips.
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