Strangers Hoping to Meet

A bookstore is for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good––that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
     Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street,
     Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet.

~Garrison Keillor from “November”

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen

I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
~ninth century Irish monk from “Pangur Ban”

Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. That left too little opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.

Now in semi-retirement, I’m trying to rectify that deficit, spending wonderful hours reading books I feel immersed within. As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet these authors in real life, or to interact with them on line. They have become friends on the page as well as in my life. What a miracle of the modern age!

I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. It is a joy to find new friends through my words!

In the summer of 2013, Dan and I wrapped up our Ireland trip with one day in Dublin before flying home. I wasn’t sure I could take in one more thing into my overwhelmed brain but am grateful Dan gently led me to the exhibit of the Book of Kells at Trinity College along with the incredible library right above it.

I needed to see the amazing things of which man is capable. My weariness was paltry compared to the immense effort of these dedicated writers and artists.

The Book of Kells is an intricately illustrated copy of the Gospels from the ninth century, meticulously decorated by Irish monks with quill pens and the finest of brushes. Two original pages are on display at the library and the brief look one is allowed scarcely does justice to the painstaking detail contained in every letter and design.

Upstairs, is the “Long Room” of 200,000 antiquarian books dating back centuries, lined by busts of writers and philosophers. It is inspiring to think of the millions of hours of illuminated thought contained within those leather bindings.

The written word is precious but so transient on earth; it takes preservationist specialists to keep these ancient books from crumbling to dust, lost forever to future generations.

The original Word is even more precious, lasting forever in the hearts and minds of men, and exists everlasting sitting at the right hand of God, never to disintegrate to dust. He is the inspiration for the intricate beauty of the illustrated Gospels we saw that day.

God is the ultimate source of wisdom for civilization’s greatest writers and poets. He alone has turned darkness into light even in man’s most desperate hours. Our weariness dissipates along with the shadows.

God is no stranger to us – He meets us in His Word and our reading is our ladder to Him. In that meeting, we are forever His.

Finally meeting Diana Gabaldon after a long correspondence with her on line
Village Books – Lynden, Washington – our local independent bookstore

A Change of Heart

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
~Robert Frost “Dust of Snow”

All those with whom I speak these days
wish things could be different~
nothing feels right, rights feel like nothing,
everyone sadly angry and angrily sad.

Friends no longer speaking to friends,
families divided,
opinions expressed and dismissed.

This virus is doing more damage
than it was ever designed to do.
It simply wants to replicate itself,
yet along with its RNA,
we have allowed it to sow
discord, distrust, discouragement
into our cells as well.

There is no vaccine
for the stubbornness of heart
ailing us now;
we resist protective measures,
act as if all is normal
when a quarter million are dead
and more are dying.

This infection of the spirit
will far outlast the virus
by spreading through the generations,
eroding relationships, splitting human bonds,
and withering our love for one another.





A Garland of Melancholy

The melon shades of leaves
will soon rust and fall gently
to layers of rest and forgetting,
like sunken poems, unusual love,
and grave silence after the crows.


The black walnut tree trembles down
its mysterious spheres to sleep darkly,
to pulse with memory of heartwood.


Old roses are paling with grace
in this air of ruining tomorrows.
Autumn again, and all the years
twisting a garland of melancholy.

~Tim Buck, “Autumn” from VerseWrights Journal

The beauty around me is dying. It becomes harder to find vibrance and life in my surroundings in the volatility of deep autumn: a high wind warning is on the horizon in a few hours and we face a long winter as the uncontrolled pandemic continues unabated.

Those facts alone are enough to make me wander about the farm feeling melancholic. Even more than the loss of mere leaves and the fading of blooms is the reality of so many afflicted and infected people whose season for dying will come too soon.

Woe to us who are more concerned about our inconvenience and discomfort today than the months of ruined tomorrows for millions.

Lest it be forgotten in our bitterness – the promise of healing and renewal is also on the horizon.

May I listen for the pulse deep within the heartwood of each person with whom I have differences; my love for them must not fade nor wither but grow more graceful, more forgiving, more vibrant and beautiful by the day.

Some Could, Some Could Not Shake Off Misery…

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 102 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries and ensure tomorrows for all.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to acknowledge the misery endured by soldiers.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for their safe return home to family and futures.
~teaching the next generation about the sacrifices that have been made by men and women on their behalf.

Remembrance of our veterans should also encourage us as foot soldiers in our current battle with a virus. In this fight, we are called to sacrifice our preferences, our comfort and our personal liberties for the good of the whole.

We have generations of selfless role models to look to for inspiration:
we individually endure a measure of misery today in order to preserve countless tomorrows for all.

How is Your Life?

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.


Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?


It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.


Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.


I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”

Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.

So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.

So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?

I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?

When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.

Please tell me how you are.

The List

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel
up and down the long strident aisles.

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spilling, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.

~Billy Collins “Downpour”

Since the count began, the list of those who have died expands every day in media headlines and increases by the hour on websites dedicated to COVID tracking – –

–only there are no names. We don’t list the names of those who have been lost.

Maybe if there were names of over one million people around the globe that the virus has hastened to take from us, somehow it would matter more. Maybe if we witnessed the suffering that accompanied each case, we would understand this is more than “just like the flu.”

I’ve seen the flu kill the young and healthy, so hearing that comparison doesn’t comfort me or cause me to wave this off as something that will pass as soon as the election results are tallied. Even some health care workers are remarkably nonchalant and dismissive of the virus. I simply don’t understand: after decades of pandemic planning in my work as a medical director/health officer, this is the situation we all dreaded could happen, but knew we needed to be ready for.

I don’t want to see anyone else added to a list that is far longer than it ever should have been and growing by the day. Yet the tallies rise because our very own behavior, modeled from the very top of government, is responsible.

Will anyone someday build a monument listing the names of those who died in this pandemic? No, because there is nothing noble about dying of a virus and the list would be far too long. There is nothing noble about failing to protect others in the name of protecting my own individual liberty and civil rights.

So I wear the mask and so should you. It just might keep me or you or someone we love from being just another number on the list.

Caught in Our Own Careless Wreckage

I believed only air
stretched between the dogwood

and the barberry: another
thoughtless human assumption

sidetracking the best story
this furrow spider knew to spin.

And, trying to get the sticky
filament off my face, I must look,

to the neighbors, like someone
being attacked by his own nervous

system, a man conducting an orchestra
of bees. Or maybe it’s only the dance

of human history I’m reenacting:
caught in his own careless wreckage,

a man trying to extricate himself,
afraid to open his eyes.
~Jeff Worley from Lucky Talk

It was an uneasy feeling opening my eyes this morning, waking up to a world where the election results are still uncertain. We are suspended in a sticky web of our own making and will be for some time, dangling…

Twenty years ago, I woke up not feeling well after a long night of waiting for election results to come in. I thought it was from the tension of not knowing when the outcome would be finalized but no… It ended up being appendicitis that day — my 2000 post-election surgical solution to take my mind off Bush vs Gore. It worked. I simply ceased to care about anything but my own healing, my priorities clarified by post-op recovery.

I’m not looking to resort to that remedy today in Trump vs Biden. I’d like to keep myself out of the ER and the OR and just go about my clinic day as usual. Yet in the dance of human history we badly want to determine who our leaders will be in a clear-cut and clean-cut process, something this campaign season has lacked. So why we would expect clarity now?

Instead, we are covered in a sticky-wickety web, spread all over our faces, unwilling to open our eyes to the reality of our divisive messiness, and attacked by our own nervous systems.

Today, I will open my eyes, take a few deep breaths and I hope you will too. And tomorrow and the next day. And avoid radical surgery if we can.

Maybe the dance is something we can do together — coordinated, cooperative, choreographed, and united — rather than flailing about in our careless wreckage of human history.

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.

The Marvelous Light

 Lord,
              when you send the rain
              think about it, please,
              a little?
      Do
              not get carried away
              by the sound of falling water,
              the marvelous light
              on the falling water.
          I
              am beneath that water.
              It falls with great force
              and the light
Blinds
              me to the light.
~James Baldwin, “Untitled” from Jimmy’s Blues

The good Lord sends what He knows we need even if we don’t know we need it. Then we’re puzzled and not just a little perturbed, especially when it doesn’t fit our plans, our timeline, our desires, our hopes and dreams.

Anyone ask for this year’s chaos and grief? Can I see a show of hands?

No one I know sent up prayers
for a viral scourge to sicken 40 million
and kill over a one million in a matter of months,
or for ever-widening political divides and disagreements,
or increasing distrust and less cooperation between nuclear powers,
or devastating unemployment and economic hardship,
or triggers for riots in the streets,
or being unable to visit my 100 year old aunt in her long term care facility.

Maybe, just maybe,
we are too blinded by the force of this deluge pounding and battering us
to acknowledge the nearly-drowned soaking we bring upon ourselves.

Maybe, just maybe,
the Lord thinks a bit about what He sends,
just as He has done before
and has ever promised to do:
a Light in the midst of the storm,
that Marvelous Light,
if only we would open our eyes enough to see it.

Life is The Mystery

All men die. Not all men really live.
~William Wallace

Life — the temptation is always to reduce it to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is THE mystery.

After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. “It is life.”

Have you wept at anything during the past year?
Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
Have you thought seriously about the fact
that someday you are going to die?

More often than not,
do you really listen when people are speaking to you,
instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?


Is there anybody you know in whose place,
if one of you had to suffer great pain,
you would volunteer yourself?


If your answer to all or most of these questions is no,
the chances are that you’re dead.

~Frederick Buechner from  Listen to Your Life

I like mysteries if they are neatly solved between two book covers or contained within 90 minutes on a TV show.

Mysteries that don’t neatly resolve? Not so much. The uncertainty and unknowns can be paralyzing.

I am gifted the opportunity to witness miracles every day and the mystery is that I don’t often recognize them. I’m too “in my own head” to see.

If I weep, which I do more often than is comfortable to admit, am I weeping for something other than myself? If I listen, which I like to think I do well in my profession, but not as well in my personal life, do I really hear the perspective from another life and world view? If I become aware of someone’s suffering, am I willing to become uncomfortable myself to ease another’s pain?

I am being tested in these days of disrupted routines and potential threats to my health and well-being. Do I hunker down defensively or reach out unselfishly to make the best of the days that are left to me?

The mystery of when I will die can’t be solved until that moment comes, and I can’t be paralyzed by that unknown. But the everyday miracles of life are large and small and grand and plentiful and hidden in plain sight. I want to live every moment as their witness.