If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain. ~Emily Dickinson
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. …. in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. ~Philippians 2: 1-4
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4: 1-3
By wearing a mask…
If I can stop one person from infection, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease another’s worry, Though masking goes against the grain, Or help a divided country be Restored to health again, I shall not live in vain.
Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking? ~Paul Hardingfrom Tinkers
What persists indeed?
There are times when all appears to be perishing, especially in this dying time of year when the world is drying and burning up around us, blowing smoke hundreds of miles like a giant overhead dust storm soiling the air.
Each breath reminds us that we are mere ashes.
The obituary pages predominate in the paper, accompanying an overload of ongoing cases of contagious illness, bad news, riots and a pandemic of angry rhetoric.
All appears to be perishing with no relief or hope.
Waning light and shortening days color my view like the haze in the sky painting a sunset blood red. This darkness is temporary and inevitably is helpless; it can never overcome the Light of all things made.
Life persists in the midst of perishing because of the cataclysm of a loving and bleeding God dying as sacrifice on our behalf.
Nothing, nothing can ever be the same – He remains here with us through this. We only need to call His name.
God goes where God has never gone before. ~ Kathleen Mulhern in Dry Bones
I don’t know if you ever saw a doubt. In fact, I doubt you did. They’re shape shifting little shadows and they’re more than often hid.
You could hear them on the whirling winds, that whistled through the farm. You could feel them in your stomach or brush the goosebumps of your arm.
You’d hear them giggling in the corners, in the darkness of the night. They’re the wobble in the voice that claims that things will be all right.
And the little doubts got larger, until they no longer hid in holes. They now lived out amongst them and they slipped into their souls.
I know good times are coming back. I know the sun will rise. I know the hard earth soon will soften, and plants will bloom before our eyes.
There will be colour in the meadows and the river will unfreeze. But if we’re to move beyond this moment then these fiendish doubts must leave.
We need hopeful stories more than ever, we should tell them till we’re blue. We should tell them till we look outside and see that they’ve come true.
And the doubts that wreak such havoc, they were nowhere to be seen. And the fear they’d brought forth with them felt so much like a dream.
So remember, little sister, take courage with you when you sleep. For tomorrow we might all need it, for the little doubts that creep. ~Tomos Roberts from “Doubts that Creep”
These days doubt is more epidemic than the COVID virus.
No one trusts anyone to tell the truth any longer and truth itself is up for grabs. Experts are suspect, while government agencies and their spokespersons surely must be part of a larger conspiracy.
It’s an “every man for himself” attitude with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
You can see where doubts leave us: we end up in a wintry forsaken place that looks, feels and frankly, is hopeless.
The most recent weeks have been difficult as most students start school at home again rather than in classrooms and no one is happy about it. Churches have been meeting online or outside and will need to make a difficult transition to limited indoor worship services that won’t feel familiar. Businesses continue to suffer the effects of people having less income to spend, and unwillingness to spend on anything but essentials.
A pandemic virus wreaks havoc with society but stories sowing doubts and mistrust are far more damaging. Rather than working together for solutions, we as a society have become more divided and divisive than ever.
When I speak with those whose well-being I care deeply about, yet who don’t trust my opinion or any medical opinion for that matter, my voice wobbles with concern. If I, as a caring friend and physician for forty years can’t be trusted, then whom will they trust?
A virus doesn’t give a rip what our politics are – it is an equal-opportunity opportunist seeking which cell to invade next. “Going viral” is yet another real life lesson in exponential multiplication, whether a packet of RNA or a social media meme or youtube link sowing mistrust and discord as it is shared millions of times and spreads with our help and consent.
We can’t allow creeping doubts to metastasize into a hopelessness cancer that is terminal.
We need hopeful stories, now more than ever. We need to take courage with us when we lay ourselves down to sleep, and dream the dreams of a better day on the horizon. We need truth that is not up for grabs to the highest bidder but is steadfast, transparent and … true.
Until then, we all should keep our masks on to stop the spread and protect others. It surely can’t hurt.
Try as I might to hold fear and suffering to the periphery of my vision, it is difficult to keep them there; like a morning fog clutching at the ground, bad news creeps out and covers everything, distorting truth and color and light, yet so seductive by softening the rough edges until reality hits.
Maybe I can turn away Maybe it won’t reach me Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.
Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day, too weak in the knees to do anything. The trouble that lies beyond this hill touches us all.
I kneel in silent witness: to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness to cover us.
O gather up the brokenness And bring it to me now The fragrance of those promises You never dared to vow
The splinters that you carry The cross you left behind Come healing of the body Come healing of the mind
And let the heavens hear it The penitential hymn Come healing of the spirit Come healing of the limb
Behold the gates of mercy In arbitrary space And none of us deserving The cruelty or the grace
O solitude of longing Where love has been confined Come healing of the body Come healing of the mind
O see the darkness yielding That tore the light apart Come healing of the reason Come healing of the heart
O troubled dust concealing An undivided love The heart beneath is teaching To the broken heart above
Let the heavens falter Let the earth proclaim Come healing of the altar Come healing of the name
O longing of the branches To lift the little bud O longing of the arteries To purify the blood
And let the heavens hear it The penitential hymn Come healing of the spirit Come healing of the limb ~Leonard Cohen “Come healing”
We are all in need of healing, none more so than those who have been affected by the pandemic, either dealing themselves with the illness and its long-lasting effects, or grieving the untimely loss of family and friends.
There is need for healing in relationships, either because of too much proximity or not nearly enough due to quarantine.
There is need for a sense of purpose without a schedule of regular employment or schooling to occupy our days.
There is need for healing for the wrongs we do, intentionally or unintentionally.
Our hardships are meager compared to the plagues of the past but they are nevertheless real and undeserved, so we pray for relief, we pray for grace and mercy, we pray for healing of mind, body and spirit.
Even a tiny blue forget-me-not blossom reminds us: we need to seek the fragrance of promises made and harvest the fruit of promises kept.
God does not make promises to please us, like a politician in an election year. He keeps promises because He knows we need to believe they will happen according to His plan— He forgets-us-not because we are the troubled dust upon which He has blown sweet and fragrant breath.
Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions, beneath our religion or lack of it, we are all vulnerable both to the storm without and to the storm within. ~Frederick Buechner – from Telling the Truth
We are so complicit and compliant in pleasant and peaceful appearance, sitting in silence allowing our inner storm to stay well hidden; if called and compelled to face wrongs boldly, the tempest can no longer be contained. Silence in the face of evil must itself be shattered, even the rocks will cry out, as our storm spills forth speaking the truth.
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We all are feeling the unpredictability of the state of the climate all around us:
heavy damaging winds, devastating hale storms, thunder and lightening, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud, horrible forest fires.
Protests, violence, conspiracy theories, people distrusting and disrespecting others, name-calling, and plenty of deafening silence.
And inside my own cranium:
words that fly out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire of the state of the world today.
I have no excuse for acting like moody March, October, December and August within a span of a few hours. I should not be so easily forgiven or unburdened. I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storms inside and outside blow over.
But in the midst of all the extremes, while the pandemic, the climate change, the racial injustice storms keep raging, a miracle is wrought: it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.
God cries too. His wept tears light the sky in a promise of forgiveness while we tear each other apart. He assures us: this storm too will pass.
He assures us because He knows all too well our desperate need for it.
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, Whether I walk city streets, Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water, Or stand under trees in the woods, Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love, Or sit at table at dinner with the rest, Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon, Or animals feeding in the fields, Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air, Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright, Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring; These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, Every cubic inch of space is a miracle, Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same, Every foot of the interior swarms with the same. Every spear of grass — the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them…
Everywhere I turn, there is a miracle in the making. I know this deep in my bones, even when our days on this earth are short. I turn my camera to try to preserve it; I search for words to do it justice.
The strange miracle is that we are here at all: in an instant we are formed in all our unique potential, never having happened before and never to happen again—to become brain and heart and skin and arms and legs. We were allowed to be born, a miracle in itself in this modern age of conditional conception.
Now precious lives are being prematurely lost in this pandemic of spreading virus as well as the societal pandemic of divisiveness, when we need unified meeting of the minds more than anything else. I am trying not to get infected: a mask may cover my face and my hands can be washed, but how do I shield my ears and eyes from the barrage of words and images that spread distrust more effectively than a cough or sneeze?
The strangest miracle of all is that we are still loved, corrupted as we are. We are still offered salvage, undeserving as we are. We are still gifted with the miracle of grace until our last breath.
I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one … I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. ~Maya Angelouon her 70th birthday, citing a quote from Carl Buehner
I learned from my mother how to love the living, to have plenty of vases on hand in case you have to rush to the hospital with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole grieving household, to cube home-canned pears and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point. I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know the deceased, to press the moist hands of the living, to look in their eyes and offer sympathy, as though I understood loss even then. I learned that whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came. I learned to believe I had the power to ease awful pains materially like an angel. Like a doctor, I learned to create from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once you know how to do this, you can never refuse. To every house you enter, you must offer healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself, the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch. ~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”
Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it and how to ease pain, not become one. We don’t always get it right though, and dads can do it better.
Showing up with food is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food; bringing along a cake is simply the icing.
This is a good reminder that as a doctor, my usefulness has tended to depend on another’s suffering. No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job. I can only hope that someday that might be the case. What a world it would be, especially as now suffering is universal.
And then I can still be a mom and grandmom even if there is no more doctor work to be done: ….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake and shown up with it…
What shall I say, because talk I must? That I have found a cure for the sick? I have found no cure for the sick but this crooked flower which only to look upon all men are cured. This is that flower for which all men sing secretly their hymns of praise! This is that sacred flower! ~William Carlos Williams from “The Yellow Flower”
The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat. Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside. With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh. There was dried blood on each big toe.
It took an hour to do each big toe. The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters. They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on. He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes.
“How is it?” “It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die.
I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase. You just never know. ~Richard Selzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor
I know for a while again the health of self-forgetfulness, looking out at the sky through a notch in the valleyside, 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 even I may step forth and be free. – Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”
Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do and who I am meant to serve, when I wallow in the mud of self-importance rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~
I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear and restore hearing or remove a painful thorn in a thumb or clip someone’s crippling toenails so they can step forth in freedom or I simply sit still as someone cries out their heart’s pain.
I cling to the crooked flower of healing and forgiveness I was handed over forty years ago in order to share its sacred sweetness.
I’ve been given these tools for a reason so need to continue to use them.
In every encounter we either give life or drain it. There is no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity or we diminish it. The success or failure of a given day is measured by the quality of our interest and compassion toward those around us. ~Brennan Manningfrom Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging
Forty years ago this week I graduated with an M.D. degree from the University of Washington and began a lifetime of trying to be life-giving rather than life-draining to others.
There have been times when I’ve failed miserably, my interest waning and my compassion fatigued.
But like tracing the path of a spiral from inside to outside, I continue to try to reach farther and encompass more with each step I take in the time I have left, remembering the dignity of each person I meet and being worthy of their time and trust.
May this young woman who embarked so enthusiastically on the physician journey so many decades ago never forget, after so much seasoning, what it took to get there and what it means to continue to be worthy.