It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs” because people were being crushed by a virus right and left.
I understand this kind of thinking, particularly when “in the moment” tragedies, (like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night) play out real-time in the palm of our hand in front of our eyes and we feel helpless to do anything but watch it unfold.
Those who know me well know I can fret and worry better than most. Medical training only makes this worse. I’m taught to think catastrophically. That is what I have done for a living – to always be ready for the worse case scenario and simply assume it will happen.
Sometimes it does happen and no amount of wishing it away will work.
When I rise, too often sleepless, to face a day of uncertainty as we all do ~ after careful thought, I reach for the certainty I am promised over the uncertainty I can only imagine:
What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong —body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord (and we are comforted by this) but even if it did … even if it did – as awful things sometimes do – we are never abandoned.
He is with us always.
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We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. ~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Twenty-six years ago today we watched at your bedside as you labored, readying yourself to die and we could not help except to be there while we watched you move farther away from us.
This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:
harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses, harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father, harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods, harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs, harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage, harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, harder than returning home so changed there were no words, harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family, harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power, harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent, harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house, harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying, and returning home forgiven.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you, taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.
So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe, we knew your hard work was complete and what was yet undone was up to us to finish for you.
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In your next letter, please describe the weather in great detail. If possible, enclose a fist of snow or mud,
everything you know about the soil, how tomato leaves rub green against your skin and make you itch, how slow
the corn is growing on the hill. Thank you for the photographs of where the chicken coop once stood,
clouds that did not become tornadoes. When I try to explain where I’m from, people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,
cows drifting across grass. I interrupt with barbed wire, wind, harvest air that reeks of wheat and diesel.
I hope your sleep comes easy now that you’ve surrendered the upstairs, hope the sun still lets you drink
one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss flannel shirts, radios with only AM stations, but there’s a certain kind
of star I can’t see from where I am— bright, clear, unconcerned. I need your recipes for gravy, pie crust,
canned green beans. I’m sending you the buttons I can’t sew back on. Please put them in the jar beside your bed.
In your next letter, please send seeds and feathers, a piece of bone or china you plowed up last spring. Please promise I’m missing the right things. ~Carrie Shipers, “In Your Next Letter” from Cause for Concern
For our children (and now their children) who have left the farm, now living far away:
I want to be sure you are missing the right things about this incredible place.
There is so much about a farm that is worrisome, burdensome, back-breaking and unpredictable. Don’t miss those things.
Miss what is breath-taking, awe-inspiring and heart-swelling.
We miss you more than we can ever say, indeed an intensive “missing” that can’t be expressed in words. So I send this to you and you’ll understand.
To see clearly, not needing a drink or pill or puff of any pipe to know I’m alive. To come home, peel off sandals and step onto the cool tile floor needing only the rush of water over strawberries I picked myself and then a knife to trim the dusty green heads from each one, to watch them gleam cleanly in a colander in a patch of sun near the sink. ~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection
As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.
Can’t relax? Have a drink. Feeling irritable? Have a smoke. Can’t wake up? Strong coffee. Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines. Can’t sleep? Valium.
I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.
As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.
Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.
No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.
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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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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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The talkative guest has gone, and we sit in the yard saying nothing. The slender moon comes over the peak of the barn.
The air is damp, and dense with the scent of honeysuckle. . . . The last clever story has been told and answered with laughter.
With my sleeping self I met my obligations, but now I am aware of the silence, and your affection, and the delicate sadness of dusk. ~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems
As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:
There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.
This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.
It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.
This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue.
The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.
“Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.”