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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.