Former Pleasanton doctor uses poems to probe personalities

New book helps people understand themselves -- and others

Dr. Karen Van Zino organizes beloved poems around nine core personality types in her new book, "Midnight's All A Glimmer: Poetry, Personality and the Power to See." (Photo by Erika Alvero)

Karen Van Zino has always been interested in what makes people tick.

"At Stanford Medical School, they were pressing you to become a specialist, but I was interested in working with the whole person," she recalled.

She first practiced medicine on the Peninsula, but when she and her family moved to the Palomares Valley between Pleasanton and Castro Valley, she opened a local family care practice with Dr. Bonnie Rathjen.

"In 1990 we were the only two adult primary care women," Van Zino said. "We worked with patients from Alamo to Livermore."

"I looked at all of the person, and I did a lot of work referring patients to social workers and psychiatrists," she added. "Long before the word 'holistic' came into vogue, that was my approach."

She also served as head of the ethics committee at ValleyCare Hospital for a decade.

Then, after 16 years, Rathjen moved on.

"After she left the practice, I worked for a few years on my own," Van Zino said. "But I was restless. Actually, I wanted to pursue spiritual things. I was very interested in teaching and literature and taking a break."

She closed her Pleasanton practice in 2007 and taught in the Stanford primary care course for 10 years. And she began to ask how she could use all of her gifts to help others.

"As life happens a friend introduced me to the 'enneagram,' and I became amazed with the power of that," Van Zino said.

The enneagram, an ancient tool for understanding human behavior, divides personalities into nine different types, defining the way they think, feel and act. Van Zino began to use the enneagram as a framework to gain insight into a person's grip on behavior.

"Then I had a major upset in my life," Van Zino said. "My husband of over 30 years had a midlife crisis and left me."

"This is the best thing that has happened to me," she continued. "It destroyed my self-image and I took a good look at myself. It helped me immensely."

She spent a winter by herself in the north of England, in Keswick, where Beatrix Potter lived as well as Coleridge and Wordsworth, which appealed to her love of poetry and literature.

"I walked paths where they walked, and I made deep, deep friends there," Van Zino said.

She has brought together her passions for poetry and the wisdom of the enneagram in her new book, "Midnight's All A Glimmer: Poetry, Personality and the Power to See," which she published in July. It is in paperback and sells for $19.95. She will be doing a reading at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at Towne Center Books, 555 Main St.

Van Zino explains in the book that the enneagram is "a description of the whole of human capacity. It helps us to focus the quality of our attention on both our gifts and our challenges."

In the book, she weaves the power of poetry with that of the enneagram.

"I have chosen poems from all times, from ancient Greece to today, and matched them with personality types," Van Zino explained.

She recounted her amusement when certain friends and relatives admitted they were surprised to find they were enjoying the book.

"The poems in my book are approachable, and I do help with the old-fashioned language," she noted.

"Reading good poetry is not meant to be a brainy contest in puzzle interpretation, but an invitation to a new experience," she writes.

The book is annotated with stories of her personal journey, she said, and she is also writing a memoir. She grew up in rural New Jersey and at 15 she ran away to Canada with an older man. Although it was the late '60s, Van Zino emphasizes that she was not a flower child but rather a naive teen.

"I was a total goody-goody so when I ran away, everyone was in total shock," she said.

She later earned her GED and moved to Arizona where she studied science and literature at Arizona State University and graduated with honors.

Now Van Zino and her husband of 30 years are reunited, and she says their separation caused her to form and rise again, like the phoenix.

"It's a great spiritual lesson, the idea that there is a necessary suffering we go through when there is something that shakes us," she said. "We came back together after a year with a whole new honesty."

After studying with the Enneagram Institute, in 2014 Van Zino became a certified teacher. She will teach a one-day workshop in November through the institute.

"The beauty of the enneagram is you not only learn about yourself but about that best friend of yours. All of a sudden, all of these lightbulbs do go off," she said. "We are all born wired with one set of tools that comes more easily."

This understanding opens people up to bringing more compassion into the world, she said.

"If we can't understand ourselves or others, we don't have any hope," Van Zino said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Rozie
a resident of Val Vista
on Oct 8, 2018 at 1:43 pm

I hope to meet you on Oct 12th. You sound like an interesting person. I love to know how people tick & what makes them the way they are. I am buying your book.

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