So Gradual the Grace

Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

…<Dickinson’s Further in Summer is> one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.
~N.Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom, and lay bare her poverty.
Poor middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!

~Helen Hunt Jackson “August”

On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer insect droning – doomed to extinction by oncoming winter – is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves. As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike cicadas and crickets, become all too aware we too are descending.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

The poem “August” by Helen Hunt Jackson has similar themes without the acknowledgement of grace. Helen was a childhood friend of Dickinson, and she comments on August heralding the coming silence of the winter of our lives.

Yet the written Word is not silent; the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the summer, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone. The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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Postpone Until Monday

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”
I asked, “you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”


The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.


In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
“Okay,” he agreed.

~Ellen Bass “Phone Therapy” from Mules of Love

Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  We must breathe, we must stay afloat to save the drowning. Too often,  sacrificing our self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty plus years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work never got easier, only harder and heavier to carry.

I saw suicidal patients every day and am immensely grateful I myself have never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours when we should be resting our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to our own anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned those many years ago:
to save another life, I must first preserve my own.

Your bleeding heart, in your hands –
It’s been there a while you’re just now noticing –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to attend to –

Your bleeding heart, let it go –
You feel like it’s hopeless, but you never know –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to mend
~Kim Taylor
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Walking Over the Threshold

I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life — thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.

And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

A decade ago, someone I respected told me that my writing reflects a “sacramental” life —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains me as God’s eternal grace and gift.

I allow that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to write here.

It is all too tempting to emphasize the sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I share here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, through forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

I feel so unworthy — in fact, threshed to pieces most days, incapable of thinking of anything but how I feel reduced to fragments. Perhaps those fragments can be like the droplets coming from a farm sprinkler at sunset, sparkling and golden despite waning light, bringing something essential to anyone feeling dry, parched and dusty.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free
.

Only then we can walk each other home.

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The Porch as “In-between”

The cat calls for her dinner.
On the porch I bend and pour
brown soy stars into her bowl,
stroke her dark fur.
It’s not quite night.
Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky.
Above my neighbor’s roof, a transparent
moon, a pink rag of cloud.
Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there’s a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.
Everything is just as I’ve left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
~Dorianne Laux “On the Back Porch” from Awake

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.
~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”

If just for a moment,
when the world feels like it is tilting so far
I just might fall off,
there is a need to pause
to look at where I’ve been
and get my feet back under me.

The porch is a good place to start:
a bridge to what exists beyond
without completely leaving the safety of inside.

I am outside looking square at uncertainty
and still hear and smell and taste
the love that dwells just inside these walls.

What could we want more
than to be missed if we were to step away
and taken from this life?

Our voice, our words, our heart, our touch
never to be replaced,
its absence a hole impossible to fill?

When we are called back inside to Love
that made us who we are,
may the “in between” of
time spent on the porch,
be left more beautiful because we were part of it.

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Prayer at Dusk For a Weeping World

At dusk, everything blurs and softens.
From here out over the long valley,
the fields and hills pull up
the first slight sheets of evening,
as, over the next hour,
heavier, darker ones will follow.

Quieted roads, predictable deer
browsing in a neighbor’s field, another’s
herd of heifers, the kitchen lights
starting in many windows. On horseback
I take it in, neither visitor
nor intruder, but kin passing, closer
and closer to night, its cold streams
rising in the sugarbush and hollow.
Half-aloud, I say to the horse,
or myself, or whoever: let fire not come
to this house, nor that barn,
nor lightning strike the cattle.
Let dogs not gain the gravid doe, let the lights
of the rooms convey what they seem to.

And who is to say it is useless
or foolish to ride out in the falling light
alone, wishing, or praying,
for particular good to particular beings,
on one small road in a huge world?
The horse bears me along, like grace,

making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken. For up, out of
the inscrutable earth, have come my body
and the separate body of the mare:
flawed and aching and wronged. Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston, "Riding Out at Evening"


photo by Emily Vander Haak

On this, my 68th birthday, I pray for the world as if I am carried by the grace of a horse who bears not only me but all burdens as well. I am a bird who embraces the air that lifts its wings, tenderly holding to its breast the weeping world.

I have seen much goodness in seven decades, sometimes through tears of sorrow; I hope to see much more before I’m done.

I am grateful, so very grateful to have lived these years learning how love can heal, how tears are dried, and how the only thing that lasts forever is God’s covenant to carry us with grace through it all.

photo by Brandon Dieleman
photo by Brandon Dieleman
video of juvenile bald eagle by Peter Tamminga (down the road from our farm)

Whilst the world is weeping, let us do our bit.
We have the time to sympathise, to listen and to sit.
No needless thoughts, of the things we cannot do.
But appreciate all the good bits and look at them anew.
 
The warmth and comfort of our homes, the food we have to eat.
The family and friends we have, although we cannot meet.
The village that we live in, and the community we share.
So precious to us right now, so sit and think and care.
 
Whilst the world is full of sadness, anxiety and pain,
It’s hard to imagine our lives ever carefree again.
But nothing lasts forever, the clouds will always clear.
Let’s heal the world with love, so the sunshine can appear.
~Sandra Rickman “Whilst the World is Weeping”

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Gray Things Made Golden

Whence comes Solace?—Not from seeing
What is doing, suffering, being,
Not from noting Life’s conditions,
Nor from heeding Time’s monitions;
But in cleaving to the Dream,
And in gazing at the gleam
Whereby gray things golden seem.

II

Thus do I this heyday, holding
Shadows but as lights unfolding,
As no specious show this moment
With its irised embowment;
But as nothing other than
Part of a benignant plan;
Proof that earth was made for man.

~Thomas Hardy “On a Fine Morning”

Earth was made for man

We tend to forget our original task of caring for the Garden we were placed within. Soiling our own nest, we can’t abandon this place for another greener, brighter, happier planet. Of all the planetary options in this infinite universe, we were placed right here and here we remain.

Our solace is that all that ordinarily seems gray gleams golden in the Light that shines down on our shadows. Even when the news is dismal, and the pain is great, and history seems to keep repeating itself despite our best efforts, our Creation is purposeful and preserved through divine sacrifice.

The solace of gray shadows turns to gold.

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Softening to an Evening Gray

Now that summer’s ripen’d bloom
Frolics where the winter frow n’d,
Stretch’d upon these banks of broom,
We command the landscape round.

Nature in the prospect yields
Humble dales and mountains bold,
Meadows, woodlands, heaths-and fields
Yellow’d o’er with waving gold.

On the uplands ev’ry glade
Brightens in the blaze of day;
O’er the vales the sober shade
Softens to an ev’ning gray.
~John Cunningham from “The Landscape”

Betty with children Carol, Barbara and Joe
the renovated farm house
the “egg” house where produce was kept cool
On the porch in Spring Valley in the Palouse – me at age two with Nancy holding my baby brother Steve along with the Schmitz cousins – Joe, Barbara and Carol

My Aunt Betty Buchholz Schmitz lived for most of her 102 years in landscapes that could be summer-rich with golden crops yet in winter, harsh, bleak and empty. She weathered it all with hard work, grace and an innate sweetness born of her faith.

She was carried away last week to her true home to join my mother’s brother, Albert, and so many family and friends who had gone before her, including my mother who always felt blessed to call Betty her sister through marriage.

I remember Aunt Betty from my earliest days as we would make an annual summer visit to our cousins in Spring Valley, a tiny place with train tracks and a grain elevator in the middle of the rolling hills of the Palouse country of eastern Washington. I felt such a surge of excitement as we entered the long poplar-lined driveway that we could see from the road from far away.

My Palouse family lived in the farm house where my mother and uncle were born – a magical place of two stories with an enclosed staircase and many rooms, a huge basement, a sleeping porch for summer, a working windmill, as well as numerous outbuildings that contained everything Palouse wheat and lentil farmers needed to survive. The house was nestled in a small vale between the surrounding hills, to protect it from chill winter winds and stay cool in the shadows on blazing hot summer days.

Betty was a woman who was soft-spoken, always humble and eager to lend herself wherever needed. She cooked and baked huge meals, and used a wringer-washer and clothesline for never-ending loads of farm laundry. Her home was warm and welcoming with true heart-felt hospitality, even decades later after she moved to a house “in town” – a metropolis with just a few hundred neighbors.

Although a pioneer in the sense of living remotely with minimal conveniences, Betty and her brother Kenneth became pioneers in the 1960’s living donor kidney transplant program, as one of the first successful transplants. This must have required immense courage and stamina from a farm mother of three children, yet she was able to give her brother years of life that he otherwise would not have had.

Over the years, Betty sent cards and letters of encouragement to me in between our occasional visits to see her. She was the kind of aunt that modeled how I wanted to be and I have too often fallen short of her example.

I hoped to see Betty this summer, having missed visits over the last two years of COVID restrictions in her assisted living facility. Instead I will look for her smiling face and listen for her warm voice amid a lengthening list of beloved family and friends when I am called home some day myself.

I’ll see you again, Betty, in the glades of those rolling hills and the shadowed softened vales of the valleys. You will hold out your hand and make sure I feel at home there, just as you did for me during your century here.

Palouse fields
Poplar-lined driveway to the Schmitz farm

I Know Why I’m Here

my mother wants me to
go to college

the closest she has ever been
is this
the dorm

her father had needed her
to dig the potatoes
and load them into burlap bags

but here she is
leaving her daughter

on the campus in the city time to go

we go to the parking lot

old glasses thick graying hair
she is wearing a man’s shirt
has to get back to the job

we stand beside her Ford and it is
here she undoes the buckle of the watch
and holds it out to me

my father’s watch
keeping good time for him
and then for her

she says she knows I will
need a watch to get to class
we hug and she gets in

starts the car
eases into traffic
no wave

the metal of the back of the watch

is smooth to my thumb
and it keeps for a moment
a warmth from her skin.
~Marjorie Saiser from “She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm” from 

I Have Nothing To Say About Fire

When I decided to attend college out of state, to a campus I had never seen before, my mother decided she couldn’t handle the goodbye in a strange place, so sent me on a two day drive with my dad. She was a very emotional person and he wasn’t, so he got the job of dropping me off.

It was a quiet car ride with only my dad and myself together. I think we both dreaded the upcoming parting moments.

When the moment came – my things scattered chaotically about my dorm room, marijuana smoke haze filling the dorm hallway and noise everywhere with loud music and the partings of students and parents – I looked at him with foreboding and desperation at this foreign environment to which I must learn to adapt. His eyes filled with tears — the first time in 18 years I had seen him cry — and he said “you know what you are here for,” hugged me tight and turned around and left.

My father didn’t give me anything but those parting words, but they still ring in my ears every day whenever I am feeling somewhat desperate, even now fifty years later.

It was a rough start at college for me, homesick as I was, in an unsupportive unstructured dorm environment. I came home at Thanksgiving that quarter and didn’t return until the following fall. But I finished strong and never looked back. You can’t go home again, not really.

Now I know what I am here for.

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A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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The One Who Sees and Knows

Yesterday,
running slowly
in the gravel
I saw
a tiny bird
feathered pulsating globe
of white and gray
on its back
black pinprick eyes
pointing up to the sky.
I stooped down
closely
to peer.
We stared at one another—
creature to creature—
for a small eternity.
I scooped him
into my hands
and placed him gently
an offering
upright
onto the grass
whispering
a prayer to the One
who sees
and knows
each one
every sparrow
and every sorrow.
~Karen Swallow Prior “Creature to Creature”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.  Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Luke 12: 6-7

Typically, I hear sparrows more than see them most of the year. They are shy little birds and fly away any time I approach them. But during the winter months when the northeast arctic winds are blowing, they cling to the rose bushes beneath my bird feeders, fluffed up to try to stay warm, buffeted about by the breeze, just trying to stay alive. Singing is the last thing on their little minds.

This is when we need each other the most; the sparrow is hanging on the best it can to make it to spring and so am I, seeking to nurture some small part of Creation in order to keep simmering my hope for the future. Although there is no sparrows’ song lilting in the air during the coldest months, I know it will return.

So I sing for them.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for Heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Refrain

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Let not your heart be troubled,
His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth,
But one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted,
Whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing,
When hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him,
From care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Lyrics by Civilla Martin

ot one sparrow is forgotten,
E’en the raven God will feed;
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need.
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father,
In Thy mercy have a share?
And through faith and prayer, my Mother,
Merit Thy protecting care?

                Shaker Hymn (Canterbury Shakers Hymnal, 1908)
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