Postpone Until Monday

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”
I asked, “you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”


The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.


In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
“Okay,” he agreed.

~Ellen Bass “Phone Therapy” from Mules of Love

Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  We must breathe, we must stay afloat to save the drowning. Too often,  sacrificing our self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty plus years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work never got easier, only harder and heavier to carry.

I saw suicidal patients every day and am immensely grateful I myself have never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours when we should be resting our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to our own anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned those many years ago:
to save another life, I must first preserve my own.

Your bleeding heart, in your hands –
It’s been there a while you’re just now noticing –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to attend to –

Your bleeding heart, let it go –
You feel like it’s hopeless, but you never know –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to mend
~Kim Taylor
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Ordinary is Just Extraordinary That Happens Over and Over

…it’s easy to forget that the ordinary is just the extraordinary that’s happened over and over again. Sometimes the beauty of your life is apparent. Sometimes you have to go looking for it. And just because you have to look for it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

God, grant me the grace of a normal day.
~Billy Coffey

Now, at sunset, all I see are dandelions on fire in the field.

To think I’ve carelessly
walked through,
on top of,
over and around them
for nearly 70 years,
and only now I see what magic they contain
once I settle down at their level and look.
God grants me grace for my years of dandelion destruction.

They are so normal and ordinary: extraordinary happening over and over again.

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Getting Out of the Way

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see
and my self is the earth’s shadow
that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
The crescent is very beautiful
and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see;
but what I am afraid of, dear God,
is that my self shadow will grow so large
that it blocks the whole moon,
and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God
because I am in the way.
Please help me to push myself aside.
~Flannery O’Connor from her journals

I get in God’s way all the time — as if I were a photobomb of a shadow casting darkness on all that is light and beauty. With my human “blinders” on,  I can’t see beyond where I stand, where I move, what I feel, what I fear, what I see and hear.

And I certainly get in the way of my knowing God. I think all this is about me.

It’s not.

He’s here, though partially hidden in my need to be front and center.
He’s here, His glory and truth manifest behind me, if only I would turn to see.
He’s here, gently instructing me to get out of my own way and His way.
He’s here, fully radiant, once I step back in awe to actually look at Who really matters.

photo by Harry Rodenberger
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Patchworks – Warm and Beautiful

In your life, the people become like a patchwork quilt. Some leave with you a piece that is bigger than you wanted and others smaller than you thought you needed. Some are that annoying itchy square in the corner, and others that piece of worn flannel. You leave pieces with some and they leave their pieces with you. All the while each and every square makes up a part of what is you. Be okay with the squares people leave you. For life is too short to expect from people what they do not have to give, or were not called to give you.
~Anna M. Aquino

“I make them warm to keep my family from freezing; I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”
–From the journal of a prairie woman, 1870

To keep a husband and five children warm,
she quilts them covers thick as drifts against
the door. Through every fleshy square white threads
needle their almost invisible tracks; her hours
count each small suture that holds together
the raw-cut, uncolored edges of her life.
She pieces each one beautiful, and summer bright
to thaw her frozen soul. Under her fingers
the scraps grow to green birds and purple
improbable leaves; deeper than calico, her mid-winter
mind bursts into flowers. She watches them unfold
between the double stars, the wedding rings.
~Luci Shaw “Quiltmaker”

Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
Reflection

I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only
this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near
~Nikki Giovanni “Quilts”

We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe, with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand.”
~Anne Lamott

When I no longer have strength
or the usefulness to perform my daily tasks,
piece me up and sew me into a greater whole
along with pieces of others who are fading.
We are so much better together,
so much more colorful and bold,
becoming art and function in our fraying state.

Full of warmth and beauty and fun
covering all who are sick and sleep
and love and cuddle,
and who drift off to heaven on a quilt-cloud
as their last breath is breathed.

~~click each quilt to enlarge and admire the handiwork~~

(thank you again to the quilters displaying their art at the NW Washington Fair in Lynden
(see previous years’ work here, here, here, here, and here )

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Take Time to Stand and Stare

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~W.H. Davies “Leisure”

…I believe there are certain habits that, if practiced, will stimulate the growth of humble roots in our lives. One of those is a habit of awe and wonder.

By awe and wonder, I mean the regular practice of paying careful attention to the world around us. Not merely seeing but observing. Perceiving. Considering. Asking thoughtful questions about what we see, smell, hear, touch, taste. In other words, attending with love and curiosity to what our senses sense. (How often do we eat without tasting? How often do we look without seeing? Hear without listening?) Admiring, imagining, receiving the beauty of the world around us in a regular, intentional way: this is the habit of a wonder-filled person. And it leads to humility.

A regular habit of awe and wonder de-centers us. It opens a window in our imaginations, beckoning us to climb out of our own opinions and experiences and to consider things greater and beyond our own lives. It strengthens our curiosity, which in turn lowers the volume on our anxieties and grows our ability to empathize. Over time, we become less self-focused and can admit without embarrassment what we don’t know. In short, we grow more humble.
~Kelly Givens from “Teaching Children to See” from Mere Orthodoxy

This would be a poor life indeed if we didn’t take time to stand and stare at all that is displayed before us – whether it is the golden cast at the beginning and endings of the days, the light dancing in streams or simply staring at God’s creatures staring back at us.

I need to be a child for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, or forever, just to experience the wonder of what is before me. There is nothing sweeter.

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Everything is Meant for You

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk

and August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;


And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone —
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass
.
~Wallace Stevens, from “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts”

This summer has brimmed with fullness ready for emptying:
a spilling over of light and sun and heat and life,
almost too much to take in.

I tried to blend in, almost disappear into my surroundings,
as evening fell, catching me just-so, immobile,
captured by failing light as the day darkened.

Then I prepared to dream unthinkingly
peaceful in the night
when all is stilled anticipation.

With pulsing vessels in twitching transparent ears,
both warming and cooling, aglow yet fading,
my empty spaces are filled.

I welcome the relief of sitting still as a statue
in the cool whiff of this misty August morning.

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Walking Over the Threshold

I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life — thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.

And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

A decade ago, someone I respected told me that my writing reflects a “sacramental” life —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains me as God’s eternal grace and gift.

I allow that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to write here.

It is all too tempting to emphasize the sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I share here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, through forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

I feel so unworthy — in fact, threshed to pieces most days, incapable of thinking of anything but how I feel reduced to fragments. Perhaps those fragments can be like the droplets coming from a farm sprinkler at sunset, sparkling and golden despite waning light, bringing something essential to anyone feeling dry, parched and dusty.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free
.

Only then we can walk each other home.

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Of Perfect Sloth

Broad August burns in milky skies,
The world is blanched with hazy heat;
The vast green pasture, even, lies
Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.

Amid the grassy levels rears
The sycamore against the sun
The dark boughs of a hundred years,
The emerald foliage of one.

Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen,
Within the clement twilight thrown
By that great cloud of floating green,
A horse is standing, still as stone.

He stirs nor head nor hoof, although
The grass is fresh beneath the branch;
His tail alone swings to and fro
In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.

He stands quite lost, indifferent
To rack or pasture, trace or rein;
He feels the vaguely sweet content
Of perfect sloth in limb and brain.
~William Canton “Standing Still”

I flunked sloth long ago.  Perhaps I was born driven.  My older sister, never a morning person, was thoroughly annoyed to share a bedroom with a toddler who awoke chirpy and cheerful, singing “Twinkle Twinkle” for all to hear and ready to conquer the day.

Since retiring, I admit I am becoming accustomed now to sloth-dom. I am still too cheerful in the early morning. It is a distinct character flaw.

Even so, I’m not immune to the attractions of a hot hazy day of doing absolutely nothing but standing still switching at flies. I envy our retired ponies in the pasture who spend the day grazing, moseying, and lazing because … I have worked hard to make that life possible for them.

I want to use my days well yet I know August was invented for lulling about. Maybe there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away but I’m not working hard to find out what it might be. So perhaps I’ll get a passing grade in sloth after all.

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Radical Gratitude

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

We are making hay when we should be making whoopee;
we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain,
or Lazarus.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Other than a few exceptional circumstances in my life, I have always played it safe: a down-home, don’t rock the boat, work hard and live-a-quiet-life kind of person. My grandparents lived that way, my parents lived that way so I feel like it is bound in the twists and turns of my DNA.

Even so, I do know a thing or two about sulking on the edge of rage, lost in a morass of seething bitterness about the state of the world.  Yet if I were honest about it, my discontent is all about me, always about me. I want to have accomplished more to deserve taking up space in my days on earth.

But that’s a problem we all have, isn’t it? We’re never worthy of such unmerited grace as has been shown to us.  It is such a pure Gift I wait for, borne out of God’s radical sacrifice that warrants from me a life of radical gratitude, even when I choose to live it out a little quietly, making hay and raising tomatoes.

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An Object of Ultimate Concern

We live in an unbelieving age
but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual…
an age that has domesticated despair
and learned to live with it happily.
There is something in us
that demands the redemptive act,
that demands that what falls
at least be offered the chance to be restored.
…what <modern man> has forgotten is the cost of it.
His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether,
and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.

This is an unlimited God
and one who has revealed himself specifically.
It is one who became man and rose from the dead.
It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities,
one known early on as a stumbling block.
There is no way to gloss over this specification
or to make it more acceptable to modern thought.
This God is the object of ultimate concern
and he has a name.

~Flannery O’Connor from a 1963 lecture published in Mystery and Manners

He has an unpronounceable name,
this God of specificity,
yet still He asks us to breathe it out
with each breath we take —
even if we don’t believe.

This God of specificity knows our name,
as He formed each one of us for a reason
and it is His voice calling out to us —
even when we aren’t listening.

He is worthy of our attention as
we are the object of His ultimate concern.

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