Helping veterinarians heal

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How can we better support those who care for the animals we love? (Pixabay)

I’m as skeptical about studies as the next journalist, but this one got my attention. Veterinarians committed suicide between two and 3.5 times the national average between 1979 and 2015, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Mounting student debt (without the salaries “people” docs get), the physical and emotional strains of the job, scathing public criticism, and the ever-present shadow of death were among the reasons cited in a Washington Post story.

The story describes a second-career vet who was beset by debt, depression, and increasing chronic illness that fueled gossip and anger in real time and online. A conversation with an “old friend” was the last straw. She wrote goodbye letters and, using drugs meant for euthanizing animal patients, prepared to end her life. Then she looked into the eyes of her dog, and couldn’t do it.

Others are no longer here to take that chance.

You can stop here and say whatever you want about personal choice, being cut out for the job (or not), or those darn media people playing stuff up. So much is hidden from the view of everyone but God. I do know the depths to which a heart can sink, and break, over animal suffering and death.

If you’re still with me, let’s consider how we as pet parents, people who work with animals, and animal advocates might support the veterinarians among us so that we can all do what we do best: love and care for God’s creatures. Here are a few thoughts.

Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on Foter.com : CC BY-NC-SA

(Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

Respect the profession. Veterinarians have gone to school, learned multiple systems (“people” docs only have to study one), and done all kinds of work that most of us could not. Though I am not a fan of unquestioningly accepting whatever experts say, if you’ve done your homework and chosen a good vet or clinic, trust them.

Practitioners of complementary and alternative modalities such as massage, Reiki, essential oil therapy, etc. as well as vet techs, kennel owners, trainers, groomers, and more — would do well to work with vets as much as possible. We may not always agree, but we’re all in the business of helping animals and the people who love and care for them. Our collective efforts might just surprise us.

When a client wants to address a particular question or problem through animal communication or animal Reiki, my first question is always: When was the animal last seen by a veterinarian, and what did he or she say or do regarding the issue? I make it clear that I am not a medical or veterinary professional and do not diagnose. Anything I do is in support of — never instead of or against — veterinary care.

Show appreciation. Does your veterinarian administer the dreaded annual vaccinations in such a way that your dog barely seems to notice, let alone mind? Was your veterinarian exceedingly kind and gentle with your cat … and with you … when you faced the gut-wrenching decision to put her to sleep? Did your veterinarian come in on a Sunday when your dog got stung by a bee … again? Is your veterinarian patient even when your little darling is doing a spot-on Tasmanian devil imitation?

Notice. Say something. Your comment, however small it may seem to you, could make a big difference if your vet just had to put an animal down because the pet’s owner basically didn’t care, if an angry review just turned up on Facebook or Yelp, or if it’s simply been a long day.

Be aware, and use discretion. If you have reason to believe your veterinarian is struggling with a physical or mental health challenge, especially if it’s affecting his or her work, carefully consider the most kind, fair, and discreet way forward. You’ll have to decide whether you feel comfortable asking him or her directly or taking your concern to the clinic owner or even a state licensing board.

Whichever option you choose, do so in the spirit of help and accountability, not getting even. Likewise, anything you say on the subject to others in real time or on social media — and the best choice may well be to say nothing — should be in that same spirit.

Healing ourselves is so much easier when we can stand together. The animals deserve no less.

Seven Questions with Joel Selmeier

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Stainless steel lattice cap by peace pole sculptor Joel Selmeier

The Seven Questions series continues with my cousin and friend, artist Joel Selmeier — a sculptor who works for peace through the creation of beautiful, original peace poles.

1. What’s a peace pole?

Peace poles were born of a Japanese tradition. In Japan they have a tradition of posts with text on them to commemorate all kinds of things. Just after the Second World War a Japanese man wrote in Japanese, “May peace prevail on earth” on one and had it translated into a different language on each side. Someone saw that and wanted one, etc. Now there are over 200,000 of them around the world and a nonprofit organization organizing the movement for North America.

2. Tell me more about what happened in 1999 when someone saw one of your sculptures and asked you to submit a proposal for a peace pole. It sounds like a transformative moment.

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Joel Selmeier, peace pole sculptor

I had wasted a year in a rock band when I was young and during that episode spent time thinking about what better thing I could do for the world with my life. The Vietnam War had just ended and now that I wasn’t going to be dying there, I decided that the best thing I could do with my life is work for the United Nations, our only department of peace. So I went to grad school to study political science, with a specific interest in peace. And I communicated with someone at the UN about how to establish a career there. But after a year and a half of this, it was clear to me that I didn’t belong in a bureaucracy even if it was the UN. And I didn’t belong in politics. I was an artist. The thoughts that woke me up every morning and kept me going through the day were artistic. I had been trying to avoid becoming an artist because artists starve, but I had no choice. So I embraced it and starved for many years, all the while wondering how in the arts to serve the cause of peace.

Twenty-five years later I was working on a sculpture when someone who stopped to talk to me about it said they were looking for sculptors to submit proposals for a larger-than-normal peace pole and asked if I would be interested in submitting one. I had never heard of a peace pole, but looked into it and discovered that they are art and they are peace. They became my life’s work.

3. How is one of your peace poles born?

People wanting to become part of the movement often get excited about getting a peace pole while all of their friends, when they see it, wonder what the excitement was about. They are just posts with text on them. Trying to make peace poles with which people unfamiliar with the movement will want to engage, and that manage to become part of the communities in which they stand, is a huge conundrum in the face of the practical limitations and the strictures imposed by tradition. The tradition is important. It is what creates the language that enables peace poles to speak. They are poles. They are not twisting and bending shapes. How do you make a pole interesting enough for people who have no idea what a peace pole is to engage with it? In the decade and a half that I have worked on this, I have managed to come up with only two that do that. I put prototypes of them in an art gallery and watched people engage with them in ways that I have never seen people engage with any other peace poles. So I’m working on versions of them now that will be suitable for photographing so I can put pictures of them on my site to see if anyone can afford them. That is the biggest problem for these two. They are expensive.

4. How can a peace pole benefit and function in someone’s garden? In a public space?

There are so many monuments to war. There should be some to peace. I mention on my site that there is a high school in Illinois where when there is an altercation, they tell the kids to take it out to the peace pole and stay there till they figure out how to live with each other. You could do that with a family and a peace pole in their backyard, or with anyone else with a peace pole in a public place. If it can be established as a place that is different, as a place where we drop other problems and considerations in order to work on this one, that is one way that peace poles can be a benefit.

5. Describe the most unique, or challenging, peace pole you’ve made so far.

I made an invisible peace pole. There is a thing called hypersonic sound. It is like a laser beam in how tightly defined it is. If you pointed it across a parking lot, someone who walked into the beam of sound could be hearing deafening thunder while someone ten feet away heard nothing. I put recordings dozens of native speakers of different languages saying “May peace prevail on earth” and put them on a loop broadcasting in a vertical column of sound. It’s on the coast in Texas, I think on private property, where people walk through it on their way to the beach. So it is an invisible peace pole of sound.

6. During the dark times, is making art an outlet? A needed distraction? Or something else entirely?

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Text-only peace pole by Joel Selmeier

Something else entirely. For me making art usually is the only thing between me and darkness. If I cannot be creative I get seriously depressed. It is a bulwark more than an outlet. However, what is the point of making it if no one sees it. It must have an audience in the end. Otherwise it is like cooking food that no one eats. Still, that is not what staves off darkness for me. What does is where I go mentally during the act of creating. There are plenty of outlets for expressions these days. Having people eat what I create for me wouldn’t stave off darkness if I was putting hotdogs in buns all day for the audience. But if I spent three weeks or months or however long it took, to figure out something new that was transformative, it is during that period of time that I would have staved off the darkness. Someone finally eating it is what would keep me from feeling that I had been fooling myself the whole time. And, interestingly, for me, I need only one person to eat that creation in order for that to work for me. After that I lose interest and need to move on to the next creation. Which explains why the best two peace poles I have made are taking so long to find their way on to my website. I have seen people engage with them in a gallery. I’m done. I’m ready to move on to trying to make one that’s even better, if I can, but I need to pay for what it cost to develop these last two. So I have to sell some first.

7. You organize a regularly gathering group of creatives (of many disciplines) in Cincinnati. Why is that important, and what does it do for you?

Sometimes someone in the group will complain about a problem with a material or a technique and someone else will tell how he/she solved that. Sometimes the discussion is about aesthetics. Sometimes it is about opportunities. Today after the meeting ended three of us continued to talk for a while and in the end opened an app that I’d put on my cellphone a couple of weeks earlier. I had found trying to employ that app boring and even distasteful until three of us took it on. Then we were laughing and playing while we figured it out. Einstein was his most productive when he had people with whom to discuss his thoughts. At times we all are. But you’ve got to be talking to people who know what you are talking about. We get that in this group.

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Learn more about Joel’s work at peace-pole.com.

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New Year’s candlelight vigil at a peace pole by Joel Selmeier

Bitter “Olive”

Unknown“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is one of those books I’m glad I read, but which didn’t leave me with a very good feeling. Making the reader feel good is hardly a requirement for good literature, but I was still wishing for a tiny glimmer of hope for the human spirit within these pages.

Olive Kitteridge is a seventh-grade math teacher — the one the kids hate and fear but secretly respect and want to please — in a small coastal town in Maine. She is openly rude, abrasive, and has no concept of the effects of her actions on others. She is like a storm that her husband, kindly pharmacist Henry; and son Christopher have learned to steer around, tiptoe through, and clean up after (sometimes all three). Yet she has an extraordinary sensitivity to what is going on in the hearts, minds, and lives of others. She instantly takes a young woman suffering from an eating disorder under her wing, and her well-honed instincts zero in on a former student who is contemplating suicide. Depression is a thread that runs through the novel, as Olive’s father committed suicide and she herself lives with depressive illness, although she is loath to own it or get treatment.

This is actually a novel in short stories, “Spoon River Anthology” style, featuring other characters, plot lines, and desperation in the same town. All are connected to Olive, if only peripherally. It was a little dizzying trying to keep up with who was who. I wanted to know more about what happened with some of the characters, but others appeared to have been stuck in as an afterthought.

Central to Olive’s story is her disappointment over her son’s move to California after she and Henry have built a house for him and his new bride (who, not surprisingly, she can’t stand). After he has divorced, remarried, and moved to New York City, with a child on the way, Christopher invites his mother for a visit. Henry by this time has suffered a stroke and is confined to a nursing home, but Olive calls every night while she is away and has the staff put him on the phone even though he cannot speak. She is hoping to reconnect with her son, but before she knows it, she’s screaming at him — and he is responding calmly to her accusations, which of course irritates her even more.

I have not seen the HBO miniseries based on the book, but the reviews were positive (you can hardly go wrong with Frances McDormand in the lead). If you’ve read the book, seen the miniseries, or both, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.