The Reddening Light

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”
from The Singing

Oh little one
who was to have been born this week in June
thirty eight years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon.

Gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing soundlessly into a thicket:
so long ago it makes me question
if you were real,
until my heart clenches again at the memory.

But you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee this time,
but stay to find out.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Absorbing the Shock

There are three kinds of men.
The ones that learn by reading.
The few who learn by observation. 
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.
~Will Rogers

Learning is a universal human experience from the moment we take our first breath.  It is never finished until the last breath is given up.  With a lifetime of learning, one would think eventually we should get it right.

But we don’t.  We tend to learn the hard way especially when it comes to matters having to do with our (or others’) health.

As physicians in training, we “see one, do one, teach one.”   That kind of approach doesn’t always go so well for the patient.   As patients, we like to eat, drink, and live how we wish, demanding what interventions we want only when we want them – this also doesn’t go so well for the patient.  You’d think we’d know better, but as fallible human beings, we may impulsively make decisions about our health without actually using our heads (is it evidence-based or simply an anecdotal story about what “worked” for someone else?).

The cows and horses on our farm need to touch an electric fence only once when reaching for greener grass on the other side.  That moment provides a sufficient learning curve for them to make an important decision.  They won’t try testing it again no matter how alluring the world appears on the other side.   Humans are smarter sentient beings who should learn as quickly as animals but unfortunately don’t.  I know all too well what a shock feels like and I want to avoid repeating that experience.  Even so, in unguarded careless moments of feeling invulnerable (it can’t happen to me!), and yearning to have what I don’t necessarily need,  I may find myself reaching for the greener grass (or another cookie) even though I know better.   I suspect I’m not alone in my surprise when I’m jolted back to reality when I continually indulge myself and climb on the scale to see the results.

Many great minds have worked out various theories of effective learning, but, great mind or not, Will Rogers confirms a common sense suspicion: an adverse experience, like a “bolt out of the blue,” can be a powerful teacher.  As clinicians, we call it “a teachable moment.”  None of us want to experience a teachable moment — none of us, and we resent it when someone points it out to us.

When physicians and patients learn the hard way, we need to come along aside one another rather than work at cross-purposes.

It just might help absorb the shock.

Turning Darkness into Light: Dust Made Manifest

Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age 
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it’s something that 
My mother told me

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.
~Anne Porter  from “Susanna”

photo by Andrea Nipges

So many people lie in a hospital bed these days, all alone
and fearful, wondering what could happen next,
waiting for the tide to turn and move them back to the shore
or sweep them out into the arms of their Creator forever.

We tend to forget the love of the One who made us,
including our funny looking feet, our anxieties,
the crooked teeth, the wrinkles, the scars, the split ends —

We see only our imperfections and frailty
when our Creator sees dust made manifest
in His image.

He loves us even when we do not love ourselves,
as we hide our flaws and cover up our vulnerable nakedness.

He loves every inch
because we are His opus,
a masterpiece,
so He became one of us.

He knew exactly what He was doing
and even now,
in the midst of our loneliness,
He knows exactly what He is doing
with the dust that still swirls around us.

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.

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.

Because You Matter to Me…

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.

I wear a mask because you matter to me…

The Wobble in the Voice

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.

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

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.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



Flat Affect

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.
~Don Thompson October

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

We’re in a time of seasonal abundance but our emotions are spent from containment through lock-down, shelter-in, social distancing, zoom-in and zoom-out.

As I meet with my patients via a televisit, I try to read their faces and find that along with the flatness of our screens, our emotions are flat too. My usual gentle humor to lighten things up becomes pointless – it is hard to elicit smiles these days. On the other hand, there no longer is a need for abundant tissues for tearful conversations because no one will weep on screen. There may be a hint of emotion in a catch in a voice, but I have yet to see anyone actually cry in two months of telehealth conversations. That would be too vulnerable – somehow being on camera suggests we need to put the actor-mask on, be expression-less, strong and invulnerable. And somehow my patient knows I can’t reach out as I would in an exam room, literally and verbally, to reassure them I’m present and listening. I’m not really present on a screen even though I’m listening.

And while out in society, we must literally hide ourselves behind a mask that conceals our smiles as well as our grim-faced frowns.

So our social and clinical interactions are as flat as the screens they play out on.

We need some unchecked tears about now, as well as endless belly laughs. Perhaps there will be a reawakening to the range of emotions we have taken for granted before finding ourselves in this time of restraint and restriction.

As we reintegrate and reunite, slowly, carefully and compassionately, let us re-experience in 3-D what we have been missing in our virtual meetings: tears that accompany joyous reunion as well as the lament of all we’re lost during this time.

Please pass the tissues.

Spreading Infection

Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection.

If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire:
if you want to be wet you must get into the water.
If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life,
you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. 

They are not a sort of prize which God could,
if He chose, just hand out to anyone.
They are a great fountain of energy and beauty

spurting up at the very centre of reality.
If you are close to it, the spray will wet you:

if you are not, you will remain dry.

Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?
Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?

~C.S. Lewis- Mere Christianity

As society becomes more divided about how to manage continued COVID pandemic spread with new long-term medical complications among young and old — I wonder what is it that is truly infecting us aside from a tiny packet of RNA?

We are willing to believe almost anything without verification if it suits our previously held viewpoints; we can’t discern truth from fiction if it appears in a youtube video or a clickable headline.

The forces of evil are using a virus to divide and conquer good and well- meaning people who become infected without realizing it, spreading a contagion of suspicion, distrust and conspiracy theories.

Out of caution, as I’ve done for forty years inside the walls of my clinic, I now glove and mask outside the clinic to prevent me from inadvertently infecting others. Just as it has been during my whole professional career, taking those precautions doesn’t infringe on my rights nor does it harm me. It simply shows my careful consideration for others around me. Yet, more than ever, I am unwillingly exposed to the sad reality of this fallen fragile world through the angry words and deeds of others.

Instead, I want to be infected and contagious with the reality of God. I seek out the life-saving vaccination of God’s Word: eternal, unchanging and 100% effective.

If I’m to be contagious to others, let it be because I’m overwhelmed with the Spirit, not dangling helplessly by a mere thread in a pandemic spread of suspicion and distrust.