A Gentle Occasion

when I turned two

Getting older:

The first surprise: I like it.
Whatever happens now, some things
that used to terrify have not:


I didn’t die young, for instance. Or lose
my only love. My three children
never had to run away from anyone.


Don’t tell me this gratitude is complacent.
We all approach the edge of the same blackness
which for me is silent.


Knowing as much sharpens
my delight in January freesia,
hot coffee, winter sunlight. So we say


as we lie close on some gentle occasion:
every day won from such
darkness is a celebration.
~ Elaine Feinstein, “Getting Older” from The Clinic, Memory

when I turned 6

It is a privilege to turn 65 today, celebrating the unofficial end of middle age and the beginning of senior citizen discounts and elder status. I’m pleased to make it this far relatively unscathed.

When I was an early grade school kid, I worried about everything: whatever could happen would happen – in my imagination. My parents would perish in an accident while I was at school. My dog would get lost and never come home. I would get sick with a dread disease that only afflicts one in a million children, but I would be that one.

The worries went on and on, often keeping me awake in the night and certainly ensuring that I had stomach aches every morning so my mother would keep me home from school where life felt safer. Our pediatrician, who saw me much more regularly than was actually necessary, would look at me over his glasses with a gentle penetrating gaze, put his hands on my shoulders as I squirmed about on the noisy paper on his exam table, and tell me for the umpteenth time I was 110% healthy so there was nothing I needed to worry about. I now try to instill this confidence in my own patients, thanks to that good man.

But I knew I needed to worry; somehow the worry was a talisman that kept the awful darkness of bad stuff away, things like nuclear bombs and polio outbreaks and earthquakes. That is a heavy load for a little kid to carry, making sure everything stays right with the universe. None of it ever happened in my sheltered little life so I must have been doing something right!

Thankfully, by the time I turned nine, I finally learned to coexist with the inherent risks of daily life, as I realized I, in fact, wasn’t in control of the universe. We lived okay through a 6.3 earthquake. We lived through a 114 mph windstorm that took out the power for a week. We lived through my grandpa dying. Later on I lived through some hard stuff that is painful to even recall so I’d rather not.

Growing older means realizing that bad stuff will happen, and it is usually survivable yet the reality is: life on earth itself isn’t survivable. I’ve seen and experienced plenty of traumatic things over 65 years, and have seen how heroic people can be in the worst possible situations. I’ve even been a bit heroic when I needed to be. But I’ve learned my confidence can’t be in myself or anyone else, and rests in Someone who really is in charge of the universe and who knows all that was, is and will be.

Oh, I still worry. It is hard to stop when it is deeply engrained in my DNA, having descended from a long line of worriers. My children are not grateful for that genetic gift to them. I’m sure my grandchildren won’t thank me either.

Yet, every day I snatch back from that darkness is reason for celebration, and today is no different.

Nearly 24,000 days under my belt of celebrating being here.
Hoping for more gentle occasions like this one.

It’s a great day to be alive.

Catch the Sunset

All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust
out of the trailer truck into the chute.
From time to time he’s clambered down to even
the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust.
Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.

I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff
he says, stripping nude in the late September sun
while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked
with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks.
I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn

no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses
burst through when snow avalanches off the roof.
Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his,
horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces.
Fifty years married, he’s safely facetious.

No garden pump that’s airbound, no window a grouse
flies into and shatters, no ancient tractor’s
intractable problem with carburetor
ignition or piston, no mowers and no chain saws
that refuse to start, or start, misfire and quit.
..

…then he says
let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset
and off we go, a couple of aging fools.

I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot
less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”

When I pull open the barn doors
every morning
and close them again each evening,
as our grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears,
rumble grumble back a response.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm over
two long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open and close the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
sunrises and sunsets that keep coming,
as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.


Returning Home

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
~George Moore

I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown.  I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations.  There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can.   It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go.  Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.

And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did.  To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgment, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.

I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty.  But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.

There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home.    There was no way to know until I went away,  searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time.  There was no leaving after all, not really.

So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here.  Even now when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.

At almost 65, my head now rests easy on the pillow.

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
— Mary Oliver from “Lead”
from New and Selected Poems

The Bird That Feels the Light


Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
~Rabindranath Tagore

...then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.

Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone. 
~Mary OliverA Thousand Mornings

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

What does it say about me that in the darkness of December mornings, I yearn for the early sunrises of June but once I’m firmly into the June calendar, it no longer is so compelling?  It confirms my suspicion that I’m incapable of reveling in the moment at hand, something that would likely take years of therapy to undo.  I’m sure there is some deep seated issue here, but I’m too sleep deprived to pursue it.

My eyes popped open this morning at 4:17 AM, spurred by vigorous birdsong in the trees surrounding our farm house.  There was daylight sneaking through the venetian blinds at that unseemly hour as well.  Once the bird chorus starts, with one lone chirpy voice in the apple tree by our bedroom window, it rapidly becomes a full frontal onslaught symphony orchestra from the plum, cherry, poplar, walnut, fir and chestnut.   Sleep is irretrievable.

This might be something I would ordinarily appreciate but last night nearby pastures roared past midnight with the house-shaking rumble of heavy tractors and trucks chopping and hauling fresh green grass destined for silage.

Only a few months ago I remember wishing for early morning birdsong when it seemed the sun would never rise and the oppressive silence would never lift.  I conveniently forget those mornings years ago when we had a dozen young roosters who magically found their voices very early in the morning a mere 10 weeks after hatching.  Nothing before or since could match their alarm clock expertise after 4 AM.  No barbecue before or since has tasted as sweet.

So I remind myself how bad it can really be and today’s backyard birdsong is a veritable symphony in comparison.

Even so, I already need a nap, yet a full day of clinic awaits. Ah, first world problems of a farmer/doctor/sleep-deprived human.

Suds in the Sink

She rarely made us do it—we’d clear the table instead—
so my sister and I teased that some day
we’d train our children right and not end up like her,
after every meal stuck with red knuckles,
a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us:
gummy plates in water greasy
and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.                               
Or did she guard her place at the window?
Not wanting to give up the gloss of the magnolia,
the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder.
First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.
~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women

Even the mundane task of washing dishes by hand is an example of the small tasks and personal activities that once filled people’s daily lives with a sense of achievement.
~B.F. Skinner, behavioral psychologist

I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.

What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?

Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?

No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.

The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.

Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.

It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…

For Every Hurt

oakleafhydrangeabug
 
 
Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they   
plop into water.
 
Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up. 
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.
~Amy Gerstler  from “In Perpetual Spring

Try as we might to find common ground with those so unlike ourselves, it is the differences we focus on despite our efforts to understand and befriend. Whether it is cranky politicians sparring in the headlines, or the perpetual struggle between weak and strong, we miss seeing Creation’s intended balance all around us.

We can dwell compatibly, lion and lamb, without one becoming a meal for the other. Indeed, prey transforms the predator.

Even the barbed and bloody thistle releases its seeds in the cushion of thistledown, drifting gently where the wind will take it next, at once forgiven for the scars it inflicted.

May I strive to be comforting rather than prickly, healing rather than inflicting, wherever I may land.

The Great Reward of Service

In great deeds, something abides. 
On great fields, something stays. 
Forms change and pass; 
bodies disappear; 
but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. 
And reverent men and women from afar, 
and generations that know us not and that we know not of, 
heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, 
shall come to this deathless field, 
to ponder and dream; 
and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, 
and the power of the vision pass into their souls. 
This is the great reward of service. 
To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ,

–to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal.

~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889

For Memorial Day 2019~

~standing in gratitude and reverence for the few
who have suffered great loneliness and loss
to secure the future and well-being of many,
including unknown generations to come…

I hear the mountain birds
The sound of rivers singing
A song I’ve often heard
It flows through me now
So clear and so loud
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

It’s carried in the air
The breeze of early morning
I see the land so fair
My heart opens wide
There’s sadness inside
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand
…forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”