Here I Am, Still Alive

And that is just the point…
how the world, moist and beautiful,
calls to each of us to make a new and serious response.

That’s the big question,
the one the world throws at you every morning.
“Here you are, alive.
Would you like to make a comment?”
~Mary Oliver

Everyone needs a reminder about the privilege of waking up still alive. Having had that opportunity this morning, I’d like to make a comment.

This has happened at least two times over seven decades, and yesterday provided a third reminder. The common theme is that each involved my driving to work in the morning.

Maybe that alone should tell me something.

Yesterday, my 200,000 + mileage 14 year old hybrid suddenly died while I was going 60 mph on the busy interstate on my way to work. There are not many options for a driver in such a scenario: no power steering to help navigate out of traffic, nothing but coasting to a stop in the safest place available. God’s hand controlled that moment as there was no car to the right of me, so I was able to ease over to an exit that I could roll down, with a spot at the bottom where I could sit with my hazard lights blinking until a very kind policeman pushed me with his car onto a quieter residential side street to wait over two hours for a two truck. Needless to say, I was very late for my clinic day but very grateful to show up at all.

My car awaits diagnosis and prognosis.
I can tell you my diagnosis is “gratefully still alive.
My prognosis is: “still alive enough to make a comment.

My first “dead car in the middle of a busy city street” story was forty years ago during morning rush hour when my ancient Oldsmobile decided to drop its drive train on a rainy steep hill in Seattle as I was driving to my neurology rotation at Harborview Hospital. God’s hand managed to hold my emergency brake in place until a police car with protective flashing lights appeared within seconds to park behind me while streams of highly annoyed traffic passed by. It took a tow truck only 15 minutes to remove me and my car from what could well have been a much bigger mess. Yes, I showed up late and grateful to my work day.

My most dramatic near miss was twenty years ago. I was driving into work on one of our county’s rural two lane roads, going the speed limit of 50 mph, all while in a grumbly mood and wishing I was heading somewhere else on a bright and sunny day.  My mind was busy with the anticipation of my workday when I noticed a slight shift to the right by the driver in the car ahead of me.  It inexplicably moved over the fog line and then suddenly I realized why, in a moment of stark clarity.  A huge empty gravel truck and trailer rig was heading north, moving at the speed limit, the driver seemingly oblivious to the fact his huge trailer was starting to whip back and forth.  As he approached me much too quickly, his trailer was whipping back to the center line, approaching me full force at a ninety degree angle from the truck, filling up the entire lane in front of me.  I had no choice but to run my car off the road into a grassy field to avoid being hit head on by the still attached but runaway trailer.  Only by God’s hand were there no deep ditches, telephone poles or trees at that particular point in the road.  My car dove right into tall grass, which enfolded me, like a shroud of green,  shielding me from a tangle of metal and certain death.  It was a near miss, but a miss nonetheless.

I sat still, gripping the steering wheel, gathering my wits and picking up what was left of my frayed nerves from where they had been strewn, feeling my heart race from the sheer relief of still being alive.

I was able to drive out of the field and happily headed to work to do what I initially planned to do that day, abruptly made aware of the privilege of having a life to live, a job to go to, and a grassy field that rescued me.

It was only later, while calling my husband about what had just taken place, that I cried.  Until then, I couldn’t stop smiling. 

Now, I don’t feel the need for any more such events to remind me to make comments, other than:
Here I am, still alive.

Why Another?

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
~G.K. Chesterton “Evening”

Even on a Monday,
despite so much of the world
suffering,
there is work
that must be done;
I’ve been allowed
this day
to do my best
and maybe as this day dies
there will come, just as miraculous,
another.

Did You Cry?

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift”

Your father enters the poem
early,
storying past
the metal splinter
in your palm.

I set your paternity
—and the poem—
aside,
to reach back for my mother
and try to remember

what kind of day it was
when I played by the barn
where, it is said,
my own father raised pigs
(I do not remember this).

And what kind of day it was
when I found the barn,
door open,
silent

and tried to pluck silver lines
from silver webs
long-left,
then tendered my hand
on noiseless silvered wood

until my palms
were rife with the evidence
of my trying,

and mother
spent the night
with a silver tweezer,
counting as she went…
ninety-eight
ninety-nine
one hundred—

a ritual for my
tears.

And now I wonder,
Li-Young—did you cry,
and who was in the story,
and how many times
have you counted it since,
to forget,
and to remember.

~L. L. Barkat, “Li-Young Lee’s Splinter” from  Love, Etc.

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I was always crossing the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own child learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter. I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my own flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction.

Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, wanting it our way, not His way, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish, we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away, we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

Like Current Through a Wire

What courage we had,
our infantry stretched across the yard,
no shields, no swords,
no cavalry assembled behind us
calming their nervous mounts.
We had the strength of our arms,
the speed of our legs.
We had our friends and our convictions.
Opposite us, the undulating line
of children drew suddenly straight.
It was early on a summer day
but the larks fell silent.
A high voice
invoked the name Red Rover;
we could not say who said it first.
But righteousness passed through us
like current through a wire.
Or like an inaugural sip of wine
burning in our chests,
something father gave us
over our mother’s earnest
protestations.
~Connie Wanek, “Red Rover” from Rival Gardens

… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

I was a kid born without the necessary courage to enjoy playground games and sports – I was always chosen last as I didn’t have good coordination, I wasn’t fast or strong and I wasn’t physically aggressive. Games like dodge ball and Red Rover were too intimidating as I inevitably got battered and bruised by the other kids.

In Red Rover, that impenetrable line-up of kids found a weak link in me. I could feel the electricity like a current through the linked arms in the line, until it came to me. I became the off switch. Kids knew to choose my arm to break through because I tended to let go rather than have my arm bashed and bruised by some big kid running straight into it.

How have my years of work felt similar? Now well into my seventh decade, I can recall a few times when I’ve chosen to “let go” rather than get bruised. I’ve tried to be strong enough to stand up to the battering that comes with leadership positions and taking unpopular stands. It takes its toll and I regret I’m not strong enough at times. However, there is relief in no longer being connected to the electric current of these times.

What I always liked best about the playground was to simply run and jump and holler and hoot from the joy of being alive, or to just stand and watch what was going on around me without having to be in the center of things. Now decades later, I find myself again standing apart, just watching, grateful I’m no longer part of the line up about to get bashed.

We Are No Longer Alone: Nature Full of Wonder

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Christ is born
Of the virgin Mary,
Rejoice!

It is now the time of grace
That we have desired;
Let us sing songs of joy,
Let us give devotion.

God was made man,
And nature full of wonder;
The world was renewed
By Christ who is King.

~Gaudete hymn

The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.
~G. K. Chesterton

Perhaps it is the nature of what I do, but I never lack for wonder. Every day, whether it is on the farm, within my family or in my doctoring, I witness wonders that bring me to my knees.

I am awed by the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether it is a full harvest moon, a well-timed hug, or a patient’s worry over a nagging headache.

Maybe I’m easily engrossed in what’s around me, but I know that’s not so because I can be as oblivious as the next person when too busy and distracted.

Maybe I’m just plain simple, even if those who know me don’t think so.

Maybe it’s because I try to wake each day feeling immense gratitude for whatever the day will bring so must stay alert to what is hurtling at me.

Maybe I just don’t want to miss a moment, even the miserable ones.…the world deserves more wonder than it gets.

I’m simply doing my part.

We Lean Lest We Fall

Today we both fell.

Eventually balance moves
out of us into the world;
it’s the pull of rabbits
grazing on the lawn
as we talk, the slow talk
of where and when,
determining what
and who we will become
as we age.

We admire the new plants
and the rings of mulch you made,
we praise the rabbits eating

the weeds’ sweet yellow flowers.

Behind our words the days
serve each other as mother,
father, cook, builder, and fixer;
these float like the clouds
beyond the trees.

It is a simple life, now,
children grown, our living made
and saved, our years our own,
husband and wife,

but in our daily stride, the one
that rises with the sun,
the chosen pride,
we lean on our other selves,
lest we fall
into a consuming fire
and lose it all.
~Richard Maxson, “Otherwise” from  Searching for Arkansas

Our days are slower now, less rush, more reading and writing, walking and sitting, taking it all in and wondering what comes next.

I slowly adapt to not hurrying to work every other day, looking to you to see how I should parcel out each moment. Should I stay busy cleaning, sorting, giving away, simplifying our possessions so our children someday won’t have to? Or should I find some other kind of service off the farm to feel worthy of each new day, each new breath?

It is an unfamiliar phase, this facing a day with no agenda and no appointments. What comes next is uncertain, as it always has been but I didn’t pay attention before.

So I lean lest I fall. I breathe lest I forget how.

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.