The Smell of Water

At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. 

While walking the sloping hillside of our farm,
if I listen carefully,
I can hear trickling under the snow.
I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water;
as a hidden and mysterious melt happens.
Thawing under my feet-
as winter drains away,
spring is on the move.

I witness that which I have no control over,
this subtle softening of frozen ground-
unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart
as I too begin to thaw and melt
through the miracle of flowing grace
into whatever comes next.


Under This Sky

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill “Winter: Tonight: Sunset”
 from While We’ve Still Got Feet

I strive to remember, each day,
no matter how things feel,
no matter how tired or distracted I am,
no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick
over the state of the world or the state of my soul:

it is up to me to distill my gratitude
down to this one moment of beauty
that will never come again.

One breath,
one blink,
one pause,
one whispered word:
wow.

Watching the Weather

When it snows, he stands
at the back door or wanders
around the house to each
window in turn and
watches the weather
like a lover.

O farm boy,
I waited years
for you to look at me
that way. Now we’re old
enough to stop waiting
for random looks or touches
or words, so I find myself
watching you watching
the weather, and we wait
together to discover
whatever the sky might bring.
~Patricia Traxler “Weather Man”

My farm boy always looked at me that way,
and still does —
wondering if today will bring
a hard frost,
a chilly northeaster,
a scorcher,
or a deluge,
and I reassure him as best I can,
because he knows me so well
in our many years together:
today, like every other day,
will always be partly sunny
with some inevitable cloud cover
and always a possibility of rain.

Pause for the Parable

Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
~Malcolm Muggeridge

Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.

If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.

Peaches and Cream

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise” from Otherwise

We become complacent in our routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The small distinct blessings of an ordinary day become lost in the rush of moving forward to the next experience, the next task, the next responsibility.

The reality is there is nothing ordinary about this day – it could be otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry in the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. She reminds us that we don’t need a terminal diagnosis to understand the blessings of each ordinary moment.

So I look around longingly at the blessings of my life that I don’t even realize, knowing that one day, it will be otherwise. I dwell richly in the experience of these moments, these peaches and cream of daily life, as they are happening.

Think of the Frost

It’s easy to love a deer
But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees
Love the puddle of lukewarm water
From last week’s rain.
Leave the mountains alone for now.
Also the clear lakes surrounded by pines.
People are lined up to admire them.
Get close to the things that slide away in the dark.
Be grateful even for the boredom
That sometimes seems to involve the whole world.
Think of the frost
That will crack our bones eventually.
~Tom Hennen “Love for Other Things” from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems

Some people complain that this constricted life — due to pandemic COVID limitations and the restrictions placed upon us — is boring.

Nothing to do, no places to go, no people to see.

Yet I haven’t been bored – not even for a minute. There is so much to see and do right in my own backyard which I rarely had time to observe and appreciate previously. Rather than spending 6-8 hours a week in my car commuting, I’m gifted that time to work at my desk, do chores on the farm, walk with the dogs, and muse about how things have changed.

One person’s boredom is another person’s liberating freedom.

But we have it easy compared to those whose jobs can’t be done from home. We can grow our own food here, but that isn’t an option for those living in a high rise. We can isolate and still maintain our connections virtually with our friends and family. I know I am blessed with options.

This COVID-tide will end eventually and our stack of responsibilities will resume, but I’m wiser than I was before. I don’t need to live life at break-neck speed. I don’t need constant entertainment and novel experiences. No longer do I need to feel indispensable because it is so completely obvious that I’m not.

I didn’t need this virus to remind me of my mortality and my shortening days on earth, yet it has.

Our time here is too brief to waste even a minute. So I live each moment to the fullest, knowing it will never come again.

To Be Seen and Heard

If we want to support each other’s inner lives,
we must remember a simple truth:
the human soul does not want to be fixed,
it wants simply to be seen and heard.

If we want to see and hear a person’s soul,
there is another truth we must remember:
the soul is like a wild animal –
tough, resilient, and yet shy.

When we go crashing through the woods
shouting for it to come out so we can help it,
the soul will stay in hiding.
But if we are willing to sit quietly
and wait for a while,
the soul may show itself.
~Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach

I tend to be a crash-through-the-woods kind of person, searching out those in hiding needing help whether they want it or not. Part of this is my medical training: I’m not subtle, I can be brash and bold as I go where no one else wants to go.

Friends have reminded me this actually isn’t helpful much of the time and certainly doesn’t translate well in non-clinical settings. They have a good point. Undoing what I’ve learned isn’t easy, but I’m trying.

Before I trained in clinical medicine, I knew how to blend into my surroundings, to simply wait and listen and take note of what I observe. I never would have been part of a research team observing wild chimpanzee behavior without being born with that skill. The wild and shy around me eventually did show themselves, but it took time and patience and a willingness to let things happen without my making it happen.

I’m trying to relearn what I knew intuitively fifty years ago and unlearn what I was trained to do forty years ago as a “fix-it” clinician. It helps when people remind me to tone it down, back off and simply “be.”

I just might see and hear and understand more than I ever have before.

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.

Through the Knothole

Her elbow rested here
a century ago.
This is the field

she looked upon,
a mad rush of wheat
anchored to the barn.

What her thoughts were,
the words she penned
are driven into the grain,

its deep tide crossing
under my hand. She breathes
through the knothole.

Outside, the wind
pushes the farm
down an ally of stars.
~Wyatt Townley, “The Oak Desk” from The Afterlives of Trees

J.R.Tolkien’s writing desk at the Wade Center at Wheaton College

A writing desk is simply a repurposed tree; the smoothly sanded surface of swirling grain and knotholes nourish words and stories rather than leaves and fruit.

I can easily lose myself in the wood, whether it is as I sit at a window composing, or whether I’m outside walking among the trees which are merely potential writing desks in the raw.

Museums often feature the writing desks of the famous and I’ve seen many over the years – it is thrilling to be able touch the wood they touched as they wrote – gaze at the same grain patterns they saw as the words gelled, and feel the worn spots where elbows rested.

Though my little desk won’t ever become a museum piece, nor will my words ever be famous, I am grateful for the tree that gave me this place to sit each morning, breathing deeply, and praying that I will share worthy fruit.

The Feeling of Being Watched

We must have known,
Even as we reached
Down to touch them
Where we’d found them
 
Shut-eyed and trembling
Under a straw bale
In the haymow, that
She would move them
 
That night under cover
Of darkness, and that
By finding them
We were making certain
 
We wouldn’t see them again
Until we saw them
Crouching under the pickup
Like sullen teens, having gone
 
As wild by then as they’d gone
Still in her mouth that night
She made a decision
Any mother might make
 
Upon guessing the intentions
Of the state: to go and to
Go now, taking everything
You love between your teeth.
~Austin Smith “Cat Moving Kittens”

I’ve never known a farm cat who doesn’t hold something back in their loyalty to their human. They are never “all in” like a dog who lavishes love without thought or hesitation.

Cats live at a bit of a remove here, particularly if they grew up without being regularly handled and cuddled.

I don’t mind our barn cats’ autonomy and self-sufficiency as they need those characteristics when they live independently outside rather than as part of furniture in the house with us. They must view the rest of the world with some suspicion and caution, viewing things from afar with their keen eyes rather than leaping in without thinking.

As I go about my day on the farm, moving from shed to barn to garage to house, I have the distinct feeling of being watched. The reality is — they could run this place on their own if they needed to — and they do.

photo by Nate Gibson