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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Dawn on our Darkness: Frost Arrests the Beauty

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

~Dr. Rowan Williams “Advent Calendar”

He arrives when we are at our loneliest
and most discouraged,
a flash of brilliance,
an emergence of new life
when all seems hopeless, dead and dying.

He arrives to comfort and console us
with His Words and reminder:
all is not lost
all is not sadness

There is work yet to be done.

Even now, after all we’ve been through-
even now, as we are shrouded with new hope
and arrested by His beauty.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman

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Let’s See What Happens…

“Hello, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
~A.A. Milne from Winnie the Pooh

There are days when I am just weary of the status quo and would like to pretend I’m not me just to see what happens.

…not have the same worries,
same bad habits,
same aches and pains,
same overwhelming obstacles.
It might be quite refreshing.

But if I pretended I wasn’t me, I’m sure I would end up having a whole new set of problems, anxieties and fears that would rightfully belong to someone else.

I think I’ll stick with what I know and who I am. After all, I have it pretty good, and that is more than enough for me.

And besides, I kinda want to see what happens… just being me.

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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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Forgive Me

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

~William Carlos Williams “This is Just to Say…”

Who needs forgiveness
when more plums
hang heavy
in the orchard

dotted with dew
glistening
in the spare pink light
of dawn

so ripe
and so inviting as
their golden flesh
warms with the risen sun.

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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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Days Continuing Hot

In the ordinary weather of summer
with storms rumbling from west to east
like so many freight trains hauling
their cargo of heat and rain,
the dogs sprawl on the back steps, panting,
insects assemble at every window,
and we quarrel again, bombarding
each other with small grievances,
our tempers flashing on and off
in bursts of heat lightning.
In the cooler air of morning,
we drink our coffee amicably enough
and walk down to the sea
which seems to tremble with meaning
and into which we plunge again and again.
The days continue hot.
At dusk the shadows are as blue
as the lips of the children stained
with berries or with the chill
of too much swimming.
So we move another summer closer
to our last summer together—
a time as real and implacable as the sea
out of which we come walking
on wobbly legs as if for the first time,
drying ourselves with rough towels,
shaking the water out of our blinded eyes.

~Linda Pastan, “The Ordinary Weather of Summer” from Carnival Evening: New and Select Poems 1968-1998

I grew up near Puget Sound and only a couple hours from the Washington Pacific Ocean coastline. Our annual trips to the ocean were early morning clamming harvests, usually returning home by noon to process the bounty we had dug up at the shore. Vacations at the beach were a few days spent in a rented cabin at Birch Bay on Puget Sound (now Salish Sea) or on Camano Island. These were short stays, usually no more than two or three nights but it gave our family a chance to live together in a different way.

It wasn’t easy for a family of five to sleep in a tiny two bedroom cabin with very little privacy – we siblings easily got on each other’s nerves as we teased each other or played hyper-competitive card or board games or futilely tried to distance ourselves from one another. We didn’t understand that these few summers in the 60’s were the last opportunities we would spend time together simply to “play”. Storms were on the horizon, our tempers flared when the weather was hot and humid. We had no awareness time was slipping through our fingers.

How this family time at the beach affected my parents is something I can only guess. Their marriage was on shaky ground ten years prior to their separation and divorce, even though we children were oblivious to it at the time. Whether being forced out of their routine was helpful or made their tensions worse, I don’t know. I do know quarreling children, small living quarters and sweaty temperatures can be a challenging combination.

Something about our current heat wave this week places me back to those hot nights in the beach cabins, unable to fall asleep due to a combination of itchy sweat and the world pressing down on me. The crankiness of those family vacations tends to infect my words and attitudes all these decades later.

Although the literal and figurative storms of those years have long since blown over, I still remember the musty smell of those beach cabins that had seen so many different families come and go over the decades, some thriving while others were wobbly and struggling to stay glued together. To the cabins that housed them, they looked all alike. But they weren’t. Only time would tell how well they weathered the storm.

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Seeing It Through

I wanted you to see what real courage is,
instead of getting the idea
that courage is a man
with a gun in his hand.
It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,
but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

~Harper Lee from To Kill A Mockingbird

I know. It’s all wrong.
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.

Because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.

Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.

But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Samwise Gamgee to Frodo in The Two Towers

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live
taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton from “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy

This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

What courage it takes to step out one’s front door these days.

I never know where I might be swept off to
or what I might be swept into.

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems the world is cast in nothing but shadow,
I am reminded I too am part of a great story
and the plot progression is, by necessity, a mystery.

While the darkness seems to never end,
I will pass through shadows and feel great fear,
I will be asked to do things that threaten my well-being
because it is the right thing to do for another.

Yet we are promised Light and Joy at the end of this epic story.
There is still good in the world and it is worth fighting for.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off too.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Bilbo to Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings

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Making the Best of What Remains

What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it…

For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
~Kazuo Ishiguro from The Remains of the Day

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint you can on it.
~Danny Kaye

Every moment is a fresh beginning.
~T.S. Eliot

I am ashamed to admit I squander time looking back,
yearning for a day that has long since passed,
tossing off these present precious hours
as somehow not measuring up to what came before.

Even when I believe things will never change,
they will, and I will. 

There have been over thirty-six years
of such days in this farm country,
one flowing gently after another,
and every single one have been exactly what I’m looking for.

I shall toss my heart ahead and set out after it,
each moment a fresh beginning and blank canvas,
making the best of what remains of my day.

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A Darkened Path

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden in the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.
I must feel my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
follow a darkened road nearly straight, all the way Home.

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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