Doomed to Rebirth

You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts that separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.

Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran
Or the trenched features of an agèd man.

Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

~Richard Wilbur “A Black Birch in Winter”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
~Robert Frost “Birches”

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

The poet understands as we (and trees) age, we are no longer smooth on the surface, developing cracks and furrows, a flaking and peeling skin surrounding a steadfast trunk. Yet we still grow, even if not as recognizable in our old skin – our innards are still working, in particular enhancing a “greater girth.” (!)

Our farm’s twin birch trees have had some rough winters, having been bent double in a previous ice storm. One has not survived the trauma – the other continues to struggle. There are times when these flexible trees can bear no more bending despite their strength and perseverance.

As I am no longer a swinger of birches (and in truth, never was), I hope instead for the “finished wisdom in shriveled skin” of the aging tree. I admire how the birches renew themselves each spring, not giving up hope despite everything they have been through. They keep reaching higher up to the sky, while a slender branch just might touch the hem of heaven oh so gently.

1. See the lovely birch in the meadow,
Curly leaves all dancing when the wind blows.
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows,
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows.

2. Oh, my little tree, I need branches,
For the silver flutes I need branches.
Loo-lee-loo, three branches,
Loo-lee-loo, three branches.

3. From another birch I will make now,
I will make a tingling balalaika.
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika,
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika.

4. When I play my new balalaika,
I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree,
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree.

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Just Keep Going

In winter the steep lane
is often icy
one in four, and today
it brings me
to my hands and
dodgy knees

absurd under trees
tall as the sky
a mile or two to go

I crawl for a while
then scrabble
to my feet but stay low,

young old man
I stop at a dry
stone wall then step

up
atop
a stile

owl call
far city
constellation

then down
to a field
that might be snow

nothing to do
but keep going
~Peter Sansom “In Winter the Steep Lane”

When faced with navigating an icy path ahead of me, I am rendered helpless. An icy path on a slope is even more intimidating.

Our farm is located on a hill, which is wonderful 50+ weeks out of the year, but in winter during arctic wind flow days, plus rain or sleet, it becomes a skating rink on an incline. Even the best traction devices won’t keep me on my feet.

I’m thankful my husband has much better balance than I do, but even the last ice storm was even too much for him. We don’t have much choice but to slide and crawl to our barnyard destination to complete our chores. It is exceedingly humbling to be brought to our knees, but that has always been the best position for sorely needed prayer and petition.

We pray to keep our aging bones intact.
We pray to keep our backs and noggins functional.
We pray for the thaw to come soon.

Despite an unsure landing for each footstep, there is nothing to do but keep going.
So we do.

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Watching Where I Step

I watch where I step and see
that the fallen leaf, old broken glass,
an icy stone are placed in

exactly the right spot on the earth, carefully,
royalty in their own country.

~ Tom Hennen, “Looking For The Differences”
from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems.

If the pebble, the leaf, the walnut shell, the moss, the fallen feather
are placed exactly right where they belong,
then so am I
~even when I might rather be elsewhere~
even when I could get stepped on,
even when I am broken apart,
even when I would rather hide in a hole,
even when exactly right is feeling exactly wrong.

I’m placed right here, watching where I step
for reasons beyond my understanding:
indeed – a simple peasant
asked to serve a royal purpose.

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to stoop so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so much work left to do
But so much You’d already done

O God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
O God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
And I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days
~Rich Mullins

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All Here is Well…

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

And into nights when bats were on the wing
Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared
From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. 

~Seamus Heaney from “The Barn”

The barn is awake,
There is no mistake,
Something wonderful is happening here.
Yellow panes glowing, it begins snowing.
Over rafters a hoot owl takes flight.
A safe place to dwell—all here is well— when we’re in the barn at night.
~Michelle Houts from “Barn at Night”

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

~Ted Kooser “Flying at Night”

The night barn is a type of beacon as darkness falls.
Light falls through the cracks to guide our footsteps.
It becomes protection from wind and rain and snow.
It provides creatures comfort so their keepers can sleep soundly.
It is safe and warm – full of steaming breath and overall contentment.
It is a kind of sanctuary: a cathedral sans stained glass grandeur or organ hymns.

Yet the only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

An illuminated night barn happens within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God. There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure: all is well here.

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Here Under This Sky

I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill from Winter: Tonight: Sunset

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.

It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings.

It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying too, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some of us more prepared than others to move on, as if our readiness has anything to do with the timing.  Once, when our small church lost one of its most senior members to metastatic cancer, he announced his readiness once the doctor gave him the dire news (he liked to say he never bought green bananas as he wasn’t sure he’d be around to use them), but God had different plans and kept him among us for several years beyond his diagnosis.

Each day I too get a little closer to the end, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing. I will be far out of the park, far beyond here.

Not a moment, not a sunrise, not a sunset, and not a word to waste.

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Lifted From the Water

I couldn’t let it drown. I ripped off a piece
of my sandwich bag, lifted it to safety.
Its little legs reached behind its back
to stroke its wings dry.
I, too, have stretched my legs
in strange positions. Is this a leap?
What did you expect? For me to let the bug
just be a bug. To leave it alone
when it already planned on dying.
To reach out and not imagine myself the God
I wish would lift me from the water.
~Daniella Toosie-Watson “The Bug”

You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20a

There is a well known story with a number of variations, all involving a scorpion that stings a good-souled frog/turtle/crocodile/person who tries to rescue it from drowning. Since the sting dooms the rescuer and as a result the scorpion as well, the scorpion explains “to sting is in my nature”. In one version, the rescuer tries again and again to help the scorpion, repeatedly getting stung, only to explain before he dies “it may be in your nature to sting but it is in my nature to save.”

This is actually a story originating from Eastern religion and thought, the purpose of which is to illustrate the “dharma”, or orderly nature of things. The story ends perfectly for the Eastern religions believer even though both scorpion and the rescuer die in the end, as the dharma of the scorpion and of the rescuer is realized, no matter what the outcome. Things are what they are, without judgment, and actualization of that nature is the whole point.

However, this story only resonates for the Christian if the nature of the scorpion is forever transformed by the sacrifice of the rescuer on its behalf. The scorpion is no longer its own so no longer slave to its “nature” – no longer just a scorpion with a need and desire to sting whatever it sees. It has been “bought” through the sacrifice of the Rescuer. It no longer is “just” a bug, planning on drowning.

So we too are no longer our own,
no longer the helpless victim of our nature
no longer the stinger
no longer the stung
no longer who we used to be before we were rescued.

We are bought at a price beyond imagining.

And our nature to hurt, to punish, to sting, even to die – shall be no more.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15: 55

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Ragged Hopes

How granular they feel—grief and regret, arriving, as they do,
in the sharp particularities of distress. Inserting themselves—
cunning, intricate, subversive—into our discourse.

In the long night, grievances seem to multiply. Old dreams
mingling with new. Disappointment and regret bludgeon
the soul, your best imaginings bruised, your hopes ragged.

Yet wait, watch. From the skylight the room is filling with
soft early sun, slowly sifting its light on the bed, on your head,
a shower of fine particles. How welcome. And how reliable.

~Luci Shaw “Sorrow”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

~ Mary Oliver “The Uses of Sorrow” from Thirst

We are given a box full of darkness
by someone who loves us,
and we can’t help but open it
and weep.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
we will inevitably hand off
this gift to others whom we love.

Opening the box
allows the Light in
where none existed before.
Light pours into our brokenness.

Sorrow ends up shining through our tears:
we reach out from a deep well of need.
Because we are loved so thoroughly,
we too love deeply beyond ourselves.

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Collecting Slants of Light

I like the slants of light; I’m a collector.
That’s a good one, I say…
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

 
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

 
We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.
..
~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from 
The More Difficult Beauty

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when attempting to move a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would ever want in a hay barn.

Thanks to late afternoon winter light, I could scramble among the bales without worry.

It seems as I age I have been running into more dark holes. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the loads which need carrying. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

Yet another slant of light for my collection…

The Light always returns so I can climb out of any dark holes that want to swallow me whole.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
~Emily Dickinson

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A New Definition of Greatness

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air
– however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
from The Douglas Letters

Be careful whom you choose to hate.
The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough,
if you could but see it,
to melt you into jelly.

~Leif Enger from Peace Like a River

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. 
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct” from A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons spoken over sixty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as we flounder in flaws and brokenness. To often we resist considering others before ourselves, to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Today we unite in shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreements,
shed for the injustice that results in senseless emotional and physical violence,
shed for our inability to hold up one another as a holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns today, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes the tears away from the remarkable and beautiful faces of all people — as all are created in His image.

Naming Your Hopelessness

Instead of depression,
try calling it hibernation.
Imagine the darkness is a cave
in which you will be nurtured
by doing absolutely nothing.
Hibernating animals don’t even dream.
It’s okay if you can’t imagine
Spring. Sleep through the alarm
of the world. Name your hopelessness
a quiet hollow, a place you go
to heal, a den you dug,
Sweetheart, instead
of a grave.
~Andrea Gibson “Instead of Depression” from You Better Be Lightning

We didn’t say fireflies
but lightning bugs.
We didn’t say carousel
but merry-go-round.
Not seesaw,
teeter-totter
not lollipop,
sucker.
We didn’t say pasta, but
spaghetti, macaroni, noodles:
the three kinds.
We didn’t get angry:
we got mad.
And we never felt depressed
dismayed, disappointed
disheartened, discouraged
disillusioned or anything,
even unhappy:
just sad.
~Sally Fisher “Where I Come From”  from Good Question.

…if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful.. .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy.. .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses.
~Lisa Feldman Barrett from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….
We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

If there is anything I came to understand over the decades I served as a primary care physician, it is that every person experiences painful emotions that make them miserable, making it even more difficult to share with others. Sometimes those feelings build up such pressure that they leak out of our cells as physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tightness, stomach upset, hypertension. Other times they are so overwhelming we can no longer function in a day to day way – described clinically as rage, panic, mood disorder, depression, self-destructive, suicidal.

Somehow we’ve lost permission to be sad.
Just sad. Sometimes unbearably, hopelessly sad.
 
Sadness happens to us all, some longer than others, some worse than others, some deeper than others. What makes sadness more real and more manageable is if we can say it out loud — whatever ‘sad’ means to us on a given day and if we describe our feelings in detail, explaining to others who can understand because they’ve been there too, then they can listen and help.

Painful emotions don’t always need a “fix” in the short term, particularly chemical, but that is why I was usually consulted. Alcohol, marijuana and other self-administered drugs tend to be the temporary anesthesia that people seek to stop feeling anything at all but it can erupt even stronger later.

Sometimes an overwhelming feeling just needs an outlet so it no longer is locked up, unspoken and silent, threatening to leak out in ways that tear us up and pull us apart.

Sometimes we need a healing respite/hibernation, with permission to sleep through the world’s alarms for a time. At times, medical management with antidepressants can be incredibly helpful along with talk therapy.

It helps to find words to express how things felt before this sadness, where you are now in the midst of it and where you wish you could be rather than being swallowed by sorrow. Healing takes time and like anything else that is broken, it hurts as it repairs. Armed with that self-knowledge and some gentle compassion, tomorrow and the next day and the next might feel a little less hopeless and overwhelming.

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