Some of the most powerful memories of summer come out of our childhood when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out and that summer stretches in front of us as endlessly as the infinities of space.
Everything is different. The old routines are gone. The relentless school bus isn’t coming. The bells will be silent in silent hallways.
Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks.
Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick, or the celebration of a holiday or a birthday. Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.
But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending.
Yet summer does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into the shadow dusk of autumn and the night of winter.
I always let go of summer with reluctance, feeling as if no summer like it will ever come again.
Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday. Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.
Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect.
We’ve already had a taste.
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When summer time has come, and all The world is in the magic thrall Of perfumed airs that lull each sense To fits of drowsy indolence;
Just for the joy of being there And drinking in the summer air, The summer sounds, and summer sights, That set a restless mind to rights When grief and pain and raging doubt Of men and creeds have worn it out;
O time of rapture! time of song! How swiftly glide thy days along Adown the current of the years, Above the rocks of grief and tears! ‘Tis wealth enough of joy for me In summer time to simply be. ~Paul Laurence Dunbar from “Summertime”
Each year, on the same date, the summer solstice comes. Consummate light: we plan for it, the day we tell ourselves that time is very long indeed, nearly infinite. And in our reading and writing, preference is given to the celebratory, the ecstatic.
What follows the light is what precedes it: the moment of balance, of dark equivalence.
But tonight we sit in the garden in our canvas chairs so late into the evening – why should we look either forward or backwards? Why should we be forced to remember: it is in our blood, this knowledge. Shortness of the days; darkness, coldness of winter. It is in our blood and bones; it is in our history. It takes a genius to forget these things. ~Louise Glück from “Solstice”
I stand, wavering in a balance of light and shadow~ this knowledge of what’s to come next rests deep in my bones.
I’ve been here before, so grateful for the sun’s return.
I will not forget this gift of Light, as darkness begins to claim the days again.
I remember, He promised to never let darkness overwhelm the world again.
I believe Him, on this longest day, and even more so, in the midst of the longest night.
“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him. The weather here’s so good, he took the chance To do a bit of weeding.”
So I saw him Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, Touching, inspecting, separating one Stalk from the other, gently pulling up Everything not tapered, frail and leafless, Pleased to feel each little weed-root break, But rueful also . . .
Then found myself listening to The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks Where the phone lay unattended in a calm Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t have by now. Whatever the world is going to do to him it has started to do. With a pencil and two Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and grapes he is on his way, there is nothing more we can do for him. Whatever is stored in his heart, he can use, now. Whatever he has laid up in his mind he can call on. What he does not have he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one folds a flag at the end of a ceremony, onto itself, and onto itself, until only a heavy wedge remains. Whatever his exuberant soul can do for him, it is doing right now. Whatever his arrogance can do it is doing to him. Everything that’s been done to him, he will now do. Everything that’s been placed in him will come out, now, the contents of a trunk unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light. ~Sharon Olds “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”
This is the season for graduations and commencements to the next phase of life, when students move into the adult world and don’t look back.
As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and over thirty two years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch. In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into their hearts so they can pull it out when it is most needed?
When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trusted they left well prepared.
As a former school board member, I watched our students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.
When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years. I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.
When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably bumpy.
I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of our graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love. Only they will know the time to unpack it when the need arises.
And now, this year, I find I am “graduating” as well, moving away from a regular clinic work schedule to whatever waits for me next. I cleaned out my desk yesterday, carrying the detritus of three decades back home with me, including a packed-away glass “tear drop” I somehow earned ten years ago for “exceptional effort.” All I really remember about that time in my professional life are the shed tears that award acknowledged unbeknownst. It was a fitting symbol for what I had been through during a hard year.
I’m not exactly climbing on a bus with my lunch packed to go to summer camp, but it feels a bit similar as I enter this new phase. I’m nervous, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m exuberant, so much like all the graduates I’ve seen commence over the years.
And best of all for me, summer camp is right here on the farm, peanut butter sandwiches included.
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Someone spoke to me last night, told me the truth. Just a few words, but I recognized it. I knew I should make myself get up, write it down, but it was late, and I was exhausted from working all day in the garden, moving rocks. Now, I remember only the flavor — not like food, sweet or sharp. More like a fine powder, like dust. And I wasn’t elated or frightened, but simply rapt, aware. That’s how it is sometimes — God comes to your window, all bright light and black wings, and you’re just too tired to open it. ~Dorianne Laux, “Dust” from What We Carry
We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute? I’m ready to go back. I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people. ~Thornton Wilder, from Emily’s monologue inOur Town
And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
Lord, all bright light and protective wings…
Let me not wear blinders through my days. Let me see and feel it all even when it seems too much to bear, lest I’m too weary to listen.
Let me write it down or find an image that captures You, if only for the moment I feel your presence.
Lord, prepare me to be whelmed at your world, so Heaven itself will seem familiar, and not that far, maybe just round the corner.
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Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all, in my hand, Little flower—but if I could understand What you are, root and all, all in all, I should know what God and man is. ~Lord Alfred Tennyson “Flower in the Crannied Wall”
Am I root, or am I bud? Am I stem or am I leaf?
All in all, I am but the merest reflection of God’s fruiting glory;
I am His tears shed as He broke into blossom.
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The wind, one brilliant day, called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead.”
“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals and the yellowed leaves and the waters of the fountain.”
The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself: “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” ~Antonio Machado “The Wind, One Brilliant Day” translated by Robert Bly
This garden bloomed with potential, entrusted to me for 32 years: the health and well-being of 16,000 students, most thriving and flourishing, some withering, their petals falling, a few have been lost altogether.
As the winds of time sweep away another group of graduates from my care, to be blown to places unknown, their beauty and fragrance gone from here.
I marvel at their growth, but also weary weep for those who left too soon, wondering if I failed to water them enough – or is it I who am parched in this garden with a thirst unceasing, my roots reaching deep into drought-stricken soil, ever so slowly drying out?
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I had a profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being becoming a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbounded joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact thateverything has a deep and obvious meaning – this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the infinite”;
I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. ~Václav Havel in a letter to his wife
– for Czesław Miłosz
How unattainable life is, it only reveals its features in memory, in nonexistence. How unattainable afternoons, ripe, tumultuous, leaves bursting with sap; swollen fruit, the rustling silks of women who pass on the other side of the street, and the shouts of boys leaving school. Unattainable. The simplest apple inscrutable, round. The crowns of trees shake in warm currents of air. Unattainably distant mountains. Intangible rainbows. Huge cliffs of clouds flowing slowly through the sky. The sumptuous, unattainable afternoon. My life, swirling, unattainable, free. ~Adam Zagajewski, “Fruit” Translated by Renata Gorczyńska and C. K. Williams
Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. ~Celtic saying
Sometimes the abundance in my life is so unbounded, I possibly can’t absorb it all, like an endless feast that far exceeds my hunger.
At times I have no idea how hungry I am until it is laid out before me; I don’t know where to begin.
When I feel myself on that cliff of overwhelm, that thin edge of knowing I can almost reach past the finite to touch the infinite, I realize it is unattainable.
Not now, not yet.
We live in the already but not yet. The all-encompassing I AM is here among us, His Spirit surrounding us with beauty beyond imagining. But we are waiting, wondering, wistful as the kingdom of God is already here and yet to come.
So He offers a glimpse and a taste and it is so very very good.
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Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant; and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy. ~Mark Twain
Today I will wrap up 45 years of uninterrupted training and doctoring. Most of that time, I have worried I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake.
Maybe no one has noticed. These days we call it the “impostor” syndrome. Mark Twain knew all about currant cake and how easy it was for a fly to blend into its batter.
Even while bearing three children and going through a few surgeries myself, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time. This is primarily out of my concern that, even after a few weeks, I would forget all that I’ve ever known. In fact, half of what I learned in medical school and residency over forty years ago has evolved, thanks to new discoveries and clarifying research. I worried if I were to actually to step away from doctoring for an extended time, then return to see patients again, I would be masquerading as a physician rather than be the real thing. A mere fly among the currants palmed off on the unwary.
If being truly honest, those who spend their professional lives providing medical care to others always share this concern: if a patient only knew how much we don’t know and will never know, despite everything we DO know, there would really be no trust left for us at all.
Of course, some say, didn’t the COVID pandemic prove our ignorance? Physicians started at Ground Zero with a novel virus with unclear transmissibility and immense potential to wreak havoc on the human body … or cause no symptoms whatsoever. We had no collected data to base prevention or treatment decisions: would masks just protect others or would they only protect ourselves, or maybe they protect both? Could a common inexpensive anti-inflammatory/antimalarial drug be beneficial or would a parasitic wormer medication be somehow effective to fight the devastation of the virus?
Effective treatments are still being sought all these months later; others have been debated, studied and discarded as worthless.
Or would this pandemic finally resolve thanks to effective yet controversial public health mandates while rapidly distributing highly effective vaccines developed from many prior years of carefully performed research?
During the past 16 months, your next door neighbor, or the loudest tweet on Twitter proclaimed more expertise than the average medical professional and definitely had a stronger opinion. At least we doctors knew how much we didn’t know and how much was simply guess work based on experience, good intentions and hopeful prayer. Gradually, while lives were lost, including too many of our own, real data began to trickle in so decisions could be made with some evidence backing them. But even that data continues to evolve, day by day, as authentic medical evidence always does.
That doesn’t stop all the “quack” flies out there from climbing into the batter pretending to be currants. With so much rapidly changing medical information at everyone’s fingertips, who needs a trained physician when there are so many other resources – sketchy and opportunistic though they may be – for seeking health care advice?
Even so, I am convinced most patients really do care that doctors share the best information they have available at any point in time. None of us who are doctoring wants to be the “fly” in the batter of health care.
As I meet with my last patient today, I know over forty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for the subtle signs and symptoms that no googled website or internet doc-in-the-box can discern. The avoidance of eye contact, the tremble of the lip as they speak, the barely palpable rash, the hardly discernible extra heart sound, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base. These are things I am privileged to see and hear and about which I make decisions together with my patients. What I’ve done over four decades has been no masquerade; out of my natural caution, I am not appearing to be someone I am not. This is what I was trained to do and have done for thousands of days and many more thousands of patients during my professional life, while passing a comprehensive certification examination every few years to prove my continued study and changing fund of knowledge.
The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough that an unwary patient might gobble it down to their ultimate detriment. I know I’ve not been that doctor. I’ve been the real thing all these years for my patients, even if I’ve seemed a bit on the tart side at times, yet offering up just enough tang to be exactly what was needed in the moment and in the long term.
And someday, hopefully not too soon, I will die happy having done this with my life.
A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here: