Known and Unknown

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Nature”

I remember being reluctant to go to bed as a child; I could miss something important that the adults waited to do until after I was asleep, or I wasn’t sure that I wanted to turn myself over to my dreams.

I had a period of time when I was in third grade (during the Cuban missile crisis) when I really was terrified to go to sleep, and ended up reading comic books during the night hours, trying to keep myself distracted from whatever fears I harbored. My mother, frantic for sleep herself during this worrisome time, consulted my pediatrician who prescribed orange juice with a tablespoon of brandy – for me, not for her. She was outraged at the thought, being a teetotaler, so bought no brandy for me (or for herself). I eventually got over my sleep issues, but not my worried heart.

The unknown is always more frightening than the known, and the older I got, the more I learned during 24 years of formal education and training, the more I realized I didn’t know. There would be no end to it. Even though I still spend several hours a week reading for required and non-required continuing medical education, I don’t crack the surface of everything that is news in my profession. There is a whole lot that I need to un-learn because it is now proven that it is no longer valid as it originally was over four decades of medical practice.

During the last three months of COVID-19, it is like drinking from several firehoses at once, as data on this previously unknown virus comes piecemeal from countless sources: the studies are rushed and sample sizes are small, conclusions are tentative, often barely peer-reviewed and sometimes disproven the next week by another study. What was considered “fact” a month ago may no longer be so.

So I know I must settle into the reality that there will always be plenty of unknowns, particularly as I reluctantly let go of life’s playthings one by one.

The unknown will always transcend the known on this side of the veil so I appreciate that I am gently led, in faith, to that long-awaited sleep that was so elusive before.

Muddied But Whole

The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.

~Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

I shouldn’t be turning on the heat in the house on a late May morning but there is still an undeniable chill, even at this point in spring. The flowers outside are lush, but we’re still two or three weeks behind our usual bloom schedule.

We’re all impatient to be done with the coldness of a winter that has driven a wedge between people and politics, families and friends, well and ill.

We seek warmth and renewal and hugs and handshakes.

Instead we are asked for patience, to continue to practice the art of waiting for a safe reentry to spring and summer. No one wants to be tossed brutally back to the winter we just crawled away from.

May we emerge together, muddied but whole, ready to face whatever comes next.

Groaning Too Deep for Words

What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty
To end travail and bring to birth
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
And every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall–field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
~Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths” (North Point Press, 1987)
.

We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized…

Yet this terrific human need and burden of the times causes us to see how weak and powerless we are to change this. Then we must see that if we are to advocate change, we must start with ourselves. We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for social injustice, oppression, and the downgrading of others, whether personal or on a broader plane. We must see that a revolution must take place against all that destroys life. This revolution must become a revolution different from any the world has ever seen. God must intervene and lead such a revolution with his Spirit and his justice and his truth.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Romans 8: 22-26

We are groaning in anticipation of what might come next – so many ill, so many lost. What can we make of this, how can we make sense of it?

We could groan together in the hard labor of birthing a newly unified people all facing the same viral enemy. Instead we groan angry and bitter, irritable with one another, wanting to find someone else, anything to blame for our misery.

God willingly pulls our groanings onto Himself and out of us.
He understands even when we are too inarticulate to form the words we want Him to hear.

We must cling tenaciously to the mystery of God’s magnetism
for our weakness and suffering and allow His healing us to begin.

By His Spirit
we will be forever changed
and our groanings will be no more.

The Clarity of Light

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind

The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~John O’Donohue “Beannacht”

So many of us grieve the loss of the way things were
and the loss of the people we loved.

There seems no light at all in the world,
only heaviness of burden, of clouds and sickness.

May God bring back the lightness to our days,
the color back to the gray,
the clarity of purpose throughout generations.

May God be real to us now, cleansing us
from our doubts, our frustrations,
our anger and our impatience
with one another
and with Him.

May God love us
in the midst of our weeping,
cloaked in His Word and His arms.

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.

Springing

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts at night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.
~Robert Frost “A Prayer in Spring”

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

We are wisely warned what may happen in the next few months: a second or third wave of virus, more disruption, more closures, more deaths. There seems no end in sight on this long COVID road. Or perhaps the end is prematurely near for too many.

Thinking so far away to uncertain times ahead, we need to remember the future has always been uncertain; we just aren’t reminded so starkly. Instead we are reminded to dwell in the present here and now, appreciating these quiet moments at home for what they may bestow.

The earth is springing even while our hearts are weary of distancing and isolation. Each breath is filled with new fragrance, the greens startlingly verdant, each blossom heavy with promise.

There is reassurance in this renewal we witness yet again.

This, now, is love springing.
This is His love, reminding us He has not abandoned us.
This is love and nothing else can be as certain as that.

Blooming Impossibly

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

~Li-Young Lee, last stanza of “From Blossoms” from Rose.

… it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

To live as if
death were nowhere in the background:
that is impossible right now
when death is in every headline
and everyone knows someone
who has been lost to the virus.

Yet, to still emerge and blossom,
despite the dryness and drought of pandemic~
this is Christ’s call to us.
 
We are not dying,
but alive in Him,
an amazing impossible flowering.

So I allow my eye to peer through
a dying time such as this,
needing a flotation device
and depth finder
as I’m likely to get lost,
sweeping and swooning
through the inner space
of life’s deep tunnels,
canyons and corners,
coming up for air and diving in again
to journey into exotic locales
draped in silken hues
~this fairy land on a stem~
to immerse and emerge
in the possibilities
of such an impossible blossom.

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.

This Tranquil Dust

I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world still is alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.

~William Stafford, “Time for Serenity, Anyone?” from Even in Quiet Places

We are, as breathed on dust, called into the service and company of another, called to do work other than our own. This creature, formed of dust, is entrusted with the garden, with all the animals, and with all living things. Our creatureliness binds us to the role of steward, friend, and companion of all other creatures who share our fragility.
~Walter Brueggemann from “Remember You Are Dust”

As a physician, I am reminded daily of the fragility of our bodies and minds, this breathed-on dust of us, especially now as a mere novel virus has immobilizes the world’s population.

As a farmer, I dwell compatibly with the dust I’m entrusted to steward.  I carry it around under my fingernails, on my boots, my skin smudged in unexpected ways and places as I go about my chores and tasks.  The dust of the barnyard wilderness clings to me, not wanting to let go of one of its own as I return indoors.  Sunbeams in our house swirl with released dust motes given new life through solar energy, each mote a source of fragile strength, tranquil beauty, complex simplicity.  Such joyful dust dance makes me reluctant to get out the dust rags and cleaning solutions.

As a child of the Creator, I am well aware of the cleansing needed in this grimy, desperately soiled world.  The dustiest parts of me lie far deeper than my shedding skin — the breathed-on dust that innervates, circulates and motivates me.

God sent His Son to be the dust rag I sorely need;  I cling to Him as He comes to clean house.

The Soul Confined

 
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.

It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.

It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.

Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.

Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.

I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.

So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.