Here’s My Hand

How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

~William Stafford “Friends” from The Way It Is

I initially started writing online almost twenty years ago to a group of friends, most that I had met in real life, but some of whom I only knew from afar. It felt like I was writing a letter but without the pen, paper, envelopes and stamp.

Now I write to over 22,000 people every day. A few of you I know well, some I’ve only met once, most of you I will never have the privilege to know personally. Some of you have written to me privately (some with pen and paper, stamp and envelope!) to tell me more about your lives and how the thoughts I send along each day make a difference to you.

I know the power and love found in a hand-written letter. Someone I have known for nearly 50 years still writes to her friends – Jane Goodall was my teacher and mentor. When she gave me the opportunity to work with her in Africa in the 1970s, it changed my life in ways I still am discovering. Most remarkably, she has written to me on a number of occasions and I treasure those notes. Her familiar pen written by her familiar hand comforts me.

It’s lonely being far away, and a friend. But here is my hand. I hope you will continue to take what I offer here and find it comforting.

giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications

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The Silence of a Dying God

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day”

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands so much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

The Ultimate Good for All

First I shake the whole Apple tree, that the ripest might fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.
~Martin Luther

The apple is the commonest and yet the most varied and beautiful of fruits… A rose when it blooms, the apple is a rose when it ripens. It pleases every sense to which it can be addressed, the touch, the smell, the sight, the taste; and when it falls in the still October days it pleases the ear [when] down comes the painted sphere with a mellow thump to the earth, towards which it has been nodding so long.

<Dear apple>, I think if I could subsist on you or the like of you, I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never be feverish or despondent. So far as I could absorb or transmute your quality I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmth and contentment around.
~John Burroughs from The Apple

Lo! Sweetened with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
~Lord Tennyson from “The Lotos-eaters”

An election day in a free country can seem like a free-for-all, with the most vocal citizens shouting their personal opinions far and wide, whether through letters to the editor, reams of ads arriving in the mailbox or by email, roadside signs and bumperstickers, and, most obnoxious of all, robo-call phone texts at all hours of the day or night. Despite all the promotion of one candidate or negative attacks on an opponent, every voter, even the smallest and meekest, has the opportunity today to have their say, quietly and alone– a pas de deux between the ballot box and them.

This particular free-for-all has now lasted for months. There is nearly a universal desire to just get it done, shaking the electoral apple tree so hard that ripe and bruised and bitter and green all fall to the ground. We then settle in to cope with whatever harvest we have reaped with our votes. Sometimes we get near-perfect fruit; other times we get rotten to the core. All too often there is a worm or two in the mix.

Somehow, we’ve got to cooperate to make palatable sauce from all those apples falling at our feet, trying to pare out and discard what spoils the whole pot.

Some citizens vote down party lines only; the quality of the candidate matters not — as long as they have the right party affiliation and platform. Other citizens turn over every leaf in detailed scrutiny of each candidate’s history and qualifications, voting based primarily on individual characteristics.

Sadly, it can seem like few running for office are worthy choices to represent a country founded on the principles of religious freedom and escape from the tyranny of government in the lives of citizens. We are indeed a confused and far too angry people, divided and divisive, all shaking the American tree for all its worth to see what’s in it for us, threatening the life of the tree itself.

After I complete and seal up my ballot, I pray this election day will be a day when we set the differences aside and work together to make the best applesauce possible, blending all the different viewpoints in a “cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived” mixture, shedding warmth and contentment around for the ultimate good of all.

Now that’ll be the day…

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Another World Waiting For Me

If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.

~Joseph Mills from “If Librarians Were Honest”

This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
       wood floor
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
       too short
              For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big

In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
       a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips.
~Nikki Giovanni "My First Memory (of Librarians)"


There’s a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one had opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

~Charles Simic “In the Library” from The Voice at 3am 

Perhaps in another life and another time, I would have chosen to become a librarian. Some of my best hours/days/weeks/years were spent in old musty buildings among stacks of books towering over me. I believed in the power contained within the covers and could hear the cacophony of voices that oozed from those shelves.

Libraries are heaven for introverts like me who might never see the world except through others’ eyes and words.

I never studied well in a library as I was constantly lured off to discover something new and more exciting than whatever it was I was supposed to read. As a rule, I would search for the most remote carrel in the building, if only to reduce my desire to explore some dark corner and find a book that had not been touched in decades, just waiting for me to pull it down and open it up.

It was a library that led me to drop band class to take a high school forensics where I made it to nationals in interpretive reading. A library introduced me to Stanford University and its libraries encouraged me to apply for wild chimpanzee research in Tanzania. Later in medical school, the medical library stacks fostered my passion for family medicine. Once I was in clinical practice, my library time was limited to specific research for particular patients, but once I became a mother, I took our children regularly to our local library, just to see them delight in picking through the shelves as I once did.

Now I take our grandchildren, who consider the local small town library nearly as wonderful as the nearby play park. The librarian knows them and reserves books she thinks they would love (unicorns and fire engines).

I have too many unread books waiting for me at home to justify checking out books for myself. Still, I know there are many worlds yet to explore; I have so little time left to discover them all. I know I still can be changed…

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A Love for Lightness

…I have been younger in October
than in all the months of spring
walnut and may leaves the color
of shoulders at the end of summer
a month that has been to the mountain
and become light there
the long grass lies pointing uphill
even in death for a reason
that none of us knows…

my love is for lightness
of touch foot feather
the day is yet one more yellow leaf
and without turning I kiss the light
by an old well on the last of the month
gathering wild rose hips
in the sun
~W. S. Merwin from “The Love of October”

A wind gusts through shedding branches
stripping them bare
and carrying the leaves to fields
far away, to a diverse gathering
they have never known before:
chestnut, cherry, birch, walnut, apple, alder,
maple, parrotia, pear, oak, poplar, cottonwood
suddenly all sharing the same fate and grave,
each wearing a color of its own,
falling, falling, soon to blend with others.

There is an exquisite lightness in letting go
of all that feels familiar and safe,
for reasons none of us can actually comprehend.

Can’t help “falling” in love and falling in leaf…

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Taking a Moment to Thank the Light

Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.
~Siegfried Sassoon from “Break of Day”

We grow older along with our horses – as we near seventy, our oldest mare is thirty years old. None of us, horses or humans, have to climb in the harness to pull the heavy loads of our former work lives.

During these October days, as the horses feel the morning sun on their withers and the green blades under their feet, they scan the pasture for the sweetest tender patch to munch in the fields they know and love so well. They nap more now than in their younger years, taking breaks to let their heads hang relaxed and nodding, their tails slowly swishing at flies.

To be honest, I nap and nod more now as well.

They remind me to borrow the calm of the pasture to balance the noise and misery always present in the morning headlines. Carrying that calm to my decades of work as a physician was an essential survival skill. I remembered how peace and light intentionally descended to a troubled earth in sore need of healing.

A new day’s sunlight breaks fresh each morning and sinks gently and quietly beneath the horizon each evening. All things I love are within my sight; happiness and contentment do grow, like the grass beneath my feet, thanks to the Light.

And I am glad, so very glad that it is good.

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Vines Running Wild

Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle,
cracked ice crunching in pails,
the night that numbs the leaf,
the duel of two nightingales,
the sweet pea that has run wild,
Creation’s tears in shoulder blades.
~Boris Pasternak

Here are sweet-peas, on tip-toe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all about with tiny rings.
~John Keats
from I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill

Sweet peas and pumpkins are strange neighbors on the table
Usually separated by weather and season,
one from late spring,
the other from mid-autumn,
truly never meant to meet.

Yet here they are, side by side,
grown in the same soil
through the same weeks,
their curling vines entwined.

A few dropped sweet pea seeds
forgotten in the summer weeds;
eventually swelled and thrived,
now forming rich autumn blooms
gracing a harvest table
with bright pastels and spring time fragrance.

Perhaps I too may bloom where I land,
even if ill-timed and out of place,
I might run wild, interwoven, bound to others
who look nothing like me,
encouraged to climb higher,
to blossom bravely,
even in the face of knowing
the killing frost is soon to come.

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Passing Through

Wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges; along the riverbank the candles of the sumacs burn dull red.
It’s the first week of October.
Season of woolen garments taken out of mothballs;
of nocturnal mists and dew
and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs;
of snapdragons having one last fling;
of those frilly ornamental pink-and-purple cabbages that never used to exist, but are all over everywhere now.
~Margaret Atwood
from The Blind Assassin

But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modeled vapor, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jeweled world once more: a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry.
~T.H. White from The Once and Future King

Each day this first week of October, feathered travelers have slipped past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – they are simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh, like the creaking of rusty hinges.

It reminds me how we are all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep. How we spend our days becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same end to the human story of creation/fall/redemption, no matter how we manage to get there.

It is just that life is beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

So let’s unite our wings and voices in joy: we are just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

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Antidote to Bitterness

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come–
~Chinese Proverb

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.


Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.
~Sara Teasdale, featured in “The Wood” in Earth Song

…then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

I need reminding that what I offer up from my heart predicts what I will receive there.

If I’m grumbling and falling apart like a dying vine
instead of a vibrant green tree~~~
coming up empty and hollow with discouragement,
entangled in the cobwebs and mildew of worry,
only grumbling and grousing~~~
then no singing bird will come.

It is so much better to nurture the singers of joy and gladness with a heart budding green with grace and gratitude, anticipatory and expectant.

My welcome mat is out and waiting.

The symphony can begin any time now…

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Too Many Missing Pieces

Adrift in the liberating, late light
of August, delicate, frivolous,
they make their way to my front porch
and flutter near the glassed-in bulb,
translucent as a thought suddenly
wondered aloud, illumining the air
that’s thick with honeysuckle and dusk.
You and I are doing our best
at conversation, keeping it light, steering clear
of what we’d like to say.
You leave, and the night becomes
cluttered with moths, some tattered,
their dumbly curious filaments
startling against my cheek. How quickly,
instinctively, I brush them away.
Dazed, they cling to the outer darkness
like pale reminders of ourselves.
Others seem to want so desperately
to get inside. Months later, I’ll find
the woolens, snug in their resting places,
full of missing pieces.

~Jennifer O’Grady “Moths” from White.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
~John Stuart Mill from On Liberty

I recently discovered my favorite wool sweater has several holes thanks to a past moth invasion. The moths were feasting while I was simmering in frustration at the state of the world.

It is just human nature to want others to think and believe as I do and when they don’t, I’m befuddled, flummoxed and can feel downright pissy about it. I’m trying to rehabilitate myself but some days I suffer a set-back.

I read an article in the New York Times today that I found infuriating in its conclusion that maternal instinct is only a myth created by men. The headline was so offensive to me that I initially couldn’t finish the article. I just got angrier the second time through. I was like a moth to a flame shining bright: I found the article so irresistible to read because I disagreed so strongly. There were holes everywhere in the writer’s arguments claiming mothering is a male-self serving myth – like so many other hot button issues today, this was an opportunity for “woke” points to be made and non-woke points (like mine) being gaslit.

Unfortunately, this has become the way of modern discourse.

On further reflection, I realize my own point of view also is chock-full of moth-eaten holes if submitted to the scrutiny of irritable New York Times readers with a different life experience and world view. Instead, I wish there could be an opportunity for a sit-on-the-front-porch-in-waning-August discussion about what really matters in this life, leaving the porch light on for disoriented and misguided moths of public opinion to beat themselves silly. We could commit ourselves to ongoing relationship despite our disagreements, rather than an insistence controversial topics should be avoided between consenting adults.

Yet my energy for argument has ebbed as I age while the general public penchant for cruelty grows.

My holey sweater will never be the same, nor is my peace with seeking truth among the opinions of the world.

In retrospect, the moths who found my sweater had the better meal.

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