Claire Sylvester Smith
Claire Sylvester Smith is a doctor and writer. She is the author of "Prospect," the 2018 winner of the Walt McDonald First Book Prize in Poetry. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and an MD from the University of Chicago. Her research on communication during awake surgery has been published in The American Journal of Surgery and covered in the New York Times. She lives in Chicago and is an intern at MacNeal Hospital; in 2019 she will start residency in ophthalmology at UCLA.
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01 CHANGE: A change you enacted with intention, or one that came from the outside.
I renewed my passport. In the past ten years apparently they’ve changed the rules and you’re no longer allowed to smile with teeth.
02 SIMPLE NOURISHMENT: What simply satisfied you? Maybe it was a ten-minute phone call with a friend. Maybe it was a perfectly timed bath. Maybe it was a sandwich.
A walk in some woods outside Chicago. The more time I spend looking at computers, the more I notice how good it feels to look at things that are green, dark, and very far away.
03 NEW TO YOU: What did you do for the first time, as a beginner or simply with a new sense of openness?
I made a will and last testament, and included what I’d like done with my remains: Donate my organs, if unable, donate my body to science, if unable, cremate it.
04 ABUNDANCE: What was plentiful?
My family has had to move temporarily due to an issue in our old place with Chicago city fire code. The move has been frustrating, as moves are, but there are two marked upshots: first, we moved across the street from friends, close enough to yell back and forth from our windows. Second, one of our other new neighbors is a bookshop.
05 LOSS: What was lost, what are you mourning? Maybe it is minor. Maybe it was more of a simplification than a “loss.”
This will be my last winter in Illinois before moving to LA for the rest of residency. Last winter was hard, but this fall, at least so far, it feels easy to appreciate the cold, to find it quaint and cozy, to mourn it preemptively and properly, knowing I won’t have another real winter for a while.
06 MYSTERY: Describe a mystery from the last month. What happened that you can’t explain?
I walked into an 89-year-old patient’s hospital room on Sunday, where he was sitting reading the paper. Is that the Tribune? I asked him. Yes, it’s last Monday’s, he said. I offered to get him today’s paper. No thanks, he replied. I haven’t finished reading this one yet.
07 FRONT BURNER LIST: What was read, watched, seen, listened to? Any colors, tastes, sensorial details that stand out?
Books: "A Cruelty Special to Our Species" by Emily Jungmin Yoon, "Love Dream with Television" by Hannah Ensor, "The Unknown University," Roberto Bolaño. There’s a nature poem in Hannah’s book about Jurassic Park, which is perfectly laced with nostalgia and makes me realize that this is the oldest movie I can remember seeing in the theatre. “As we were driving / to the screening, Aisha humming the theme song, I knew / where all the cymbals crashed. I must / have practiced this before, somewhere in the deep past of my body.”
08 PROPORTION: A specific moment that reminded you of the scale of the universe, that you are part of a greater whole. An outdoor shower in the mountains. A particular drive at night. Reading a certain quotation at the right time.
I worked in an ICU this month, and several times was working when a patient died. It is a strange privilege to be present for death, to follow its patterns, to fight it, then wait for it, then encounter it, then go back to work. Most stunning was the contrast of the meaningful and the mundane—the ultimate mourning of a patient’s family as the person they love dies, meanwhile I’m typing away, moving through my work, very much thinking about them but also thinking about the less sick patients, the ones who will still be there the next day, and also sporadically thinking about personal, quotidian things—what I’ll make for dinner, the traffic, my son, his sleeping, daylight savings time, the weather.