The Ultimate Good for All

First I shake the whole Apple tree, that the ripest might fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.
~Martin Luther

The apple is the commonest and yet the most varied and beautiful of fruits… A rose when it blooms, the apple is a rose when it ripens. It pleases every sense to which it can be addressed, the touch, the smell, the sight, the taste; and when it falls in the still October days it pleases the ear [when] down comes the painted sphere with a mellow thump to the earth, towards which it has been nodding so long.

<Dear apple>, I think if I could subsist on you or the like of you, I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never be feverish or despondent. So far as I could absorb or transmute your quality I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmth and contentment around.
~John Burroughs from The Apple

Lo! Sweetened with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
~Lord Tennyson from “The Lotos-eaters”

An election day in a free country can seem like a free-for-all, with the most vocal citizens shouting their personal opinions far and wide, whether through letters to the editor, reams of ads arriving in the mailbox or by email, roadside signs and bumperstickers, and, most obnoxious of all, robo-call phone texts at all hours of the day or night. Despite all the promotion of one candidate or negative attacks on an opponent, every voter, even the smallest and meekest, has the opportunity today to have their say, quietly and alone– a pas de deux between the ballot box and them.

This particular free-for-all has now lasted for months. There is nearly a universal desire to just get it done, shaking the electoral apple tree so hard that ripe and bruised and bitter and green all fall to the ground. We then settle in to cope with whatever harvest we have reaped with our votes. Sometimes we get near-perfect fruit; other times we get rotten to the core. All too often there is a worm or two in the mix.

Somehow, we’ve got to cooperate to make palatable sauce from all those apples falling at our feet, trying to pare out and discard what spoils the whole pot.

Some citizens vote down party lines only; the quality of the candidate matters not — as long as they have the right party affiliation and platform. Other citizens turn over every leaf in detailed scrutiny of each candidate’s history and qualifications, voting based primarily on individual characteristics.

Sadly, it can seem like few running for office are worthy choices to represent a country founded on the principles of religious freedom and escape from the tyranny of government in the lives of citizens. We are indeed a confused and far too angry people, divided and divisive, all shaking the American tree for all its worth to see what’s in it for us, threatening the life of the tree itself.

After I complete and seal up my ballot, I pray this election day will be a day when we set the differences aside and work together to make the best applesauce possible, blending all the different viewpoints in a “cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived” mixture, shedding warmth and contentment around for the ultimate good of all.

Now that’ll be the day…

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Being in the Driver’s Seat

I heard an old man speak once,
someone who had been sober for fifty years,
a very prominent doctor.
He said that he’d finally figured out a few years ago
that his profound sense of control,
in the world and over his life,
is another addiction and a total illusion.
He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seat of cars,
in those car seats that have steering wheels,
with grim expressions of concentration on their faces,
clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car
to do whatever it is doing,
he thinks of himself
and his relationship with God:
God who drives along silently,
gently amused,
in the real driver’s seat.

~Anne Lamott from Operating Instructions

We want to steer life in the way we want it to go:
our plans, our timing, our chosen destination,
our hopes and dreams matter first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly the road ceases to look familiar and we don’t seem to be going the direction we intended.

Who is doing the driving anyway?

We are under the illusion that we are in control:

Sadness and hopelessness, frustration and anger stem from discouragement over our lack of control over where we are headed. We feel there is no turning back, unable to see the road signs to another path to a different future.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness and helplessness especially among children and young adults – their path is murky, their debts too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim.

Relinquishing control by giving up the driver’s seat is not in our nature. We want to be seen as competent and feel as though we are prepared to be the captain of our fate.

Instead we need to give up our carefully planned-out life to the God who created us and has it all planned for us.

We turn over the steering wheel saying: may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.

Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword:
You are there to plug the bleeding hole.

And I will follow wherever you steer me.

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Too Many Missing Pieces

Adrift in the liberating, late light
of August, delicate, frivolous,
they make their way to my front porch
and flutter near the glassed-in bulb,
translucent as a thought suddenly
wondered aloud, illumining the air
that’s thick with honeysuckle and dusk.
You and I are doing our best
at conversation, keeping it light, steering clear
of what we’d like to say.
You leave, and the night becomes
cluttered with moths, some tattered,
their dumbly curious filaments
startling against my cheek. How quickly,
instinctively, I brush them away.
Dazed, they cling to the outer darkness
like pale reminders of ourselves.
Others seem to want so desperately
to get inside. Months later, I’ll find
the woolens, snug in their resting places,
full of missing pieces.

~Jennifer O’Grady “Moths” from White.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
~John Stuart Mill from On Liberty

I recently discovered my favorite wool sweater has several holes thanks to a past moth invasion. The moths were feasting while I was simmering in frustration at the state of the world.

It is just human nature to want others to think and believe as I do and when they don’t, I’m befuddled, flummoxed and can feel downright pissy about it. I’m trying to rehabilitate myself but some days I suffer a set-back.

I read an article in the New York Times today that I found infuriating in its conclusion that maternal instinct is only a myth created by men. The headline was so offensive to me that I initially couldn’t finish the article. I just got angrier the second time through. I was like a moth to a flame shining bright: I found the article so irresistible to read because I disagreed so strongly. There were holes everywhere in the writer’s arguments claiming mothering is a male-self serving myth – like so many other hot button issues today, this was an opportunity for “woke” points to be made and non-woke points (like mine) being gaslit.

Unfortunately, this has become the way of modern discourse.

On further reflection, I realize my own point of view also is chock-full of moth-eaten holes if submitted to the scrutiny of irritable New York Times readers with a different life experience and world view. Instead, I wish there could be an opportunity for a sit-on-the-front-porch-in-waning-August discussion about what really matters in this life, leaving the porch light on for disoriented and misguided moths of public opinion to beat themselves silly. We could commit ourselves to ongoing relationship despite our disagreements, rather than an insistence controversial topics should be avoided between consenting adults.

Yet my energy for argument has ebbed as I age while the general public penchant for cruelty grows.

My holey sweater will never be the same, nor is my peace with seeking truth among the opinions of the world.

In retrospect, the moths who found my sweater had the better meal.

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Whispering Words of Wisdom: Let It Be

Aspire to decency. Practice civility toward one another. Admire and emulate ethical behavior wherever you find it. Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail ­as you surely will, adjust your lives, not the standards.
Ted Koppel

Ten years ago during this week in August, my clinical work was routine and ordinary but took a quick turn when I got a message from the media director at my university that a 14 month old medical opinion article I’d written for the student newspaper and then posted as a regular contributor on www.kevinmd.com was suddenly being quoted on the Huffington Post, Salon.com and other websites.  

Within hours, over a dozen media websites were citing “A War on Pubic Hair”

The original article was written as one in a series of opinion pieces on medical issues pertinent to college students requested by the student newspaper. I wrote it in spring 2011 after draining my umpteenth staph bacteria genital abscess due to the increasingly common practice of cosmetic removal of pubic hair. I felt the students needed to understand the hazards of what they were doing and hoped I could spare the next patient from experiencing an infection so painful and potentially serious.

So it went viral, over a year after it was written, all in a matter of hours. I was being quoted as if I had just been interviewed by these news agencies, which I had not, and they began feeding wrong information to each other: I was identified as “a leading British physician” since the first media report originated in the U.K.  One British site actually asked permission to reprint the original article, which I appreciated so that my words could not be taken out of context, but they attached a photo of me to the article lifted from my family picture on my personal blog.

Soon my personal cell phone started to ring in the middle of the night and my email in-box filled up. Messages from Europe, South America and all over the U.S. came in with requests for interviews, wanting me to elaborate in more detail on my very “provocative” point of view. I said no to every one of them even though some were respectable agencies, like the BBC, because I’d said all I had to say on this particular subject. I did not want my long career to be reduced to my defense of pubic hair or my life motto to read “Leave it alone!” Indeed I can hold my head up and be proud to tell my grandchildren someday that I actually turned down the Playboy Channel.

The online comments on the articles rapidly reproduced themselves, numbering in the thousands, with many hostile to my perspective and saying so in the most mean and inflammatory ways possible, citing my age, my looks and obvious lack of sex appeal as showing I lacked credibility in this subject. I dared to question the point of a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry spawned by the even bigger multi-billion dollar porn industry, and no one was going to let me get away with it unscathed.

Civility has become even more endangered on the internet in the intervening ten years so I believe I actually got off easy at the time. Human beings lack accountability for their words and actions while hiding behind anonymous comments on media websites and blogs. It is easy to attack, lie, threaten, and bully when it is only words on a screen directed at someone you don’t know and will never meet. Decency and civility are lost forever when the standards for moral and ethical behavior disappear in a fog of pixels and bytes.

It has taken some time and distance for me to consider whether I did the right thing writing about a medical issue no one else would touch at the time. The “bare” trend has definitely waned over the last decade yet plenty of people still engage in the practice, although the recent sexual spread of the monkey pox virus is making some think twice about it.

If I managed to convince someone to put away the razor, stop the waxing, and respect their body as nature intended it to be, maybe I did the right thing after all.

After all – I shared whispered words of wisdom:
Let it be…

Cartoon by Clay Bennett
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A Heart I Cannot Fathom

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.

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.

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 Hirshfield from “Today, When I Could Do Nothing”

The other day, as I sat down in the grass to take pictures, I felt a tickle at the nape of my neck. I reached up, picked up something, and when I looked to see what it was, I found a tiny ant crushed in my fingers. Suddenly it felt like things were crawling everywhere on me, especially my scalp. I shook out my hair and clothes and found there weren’t any more ants. It was only one very unfortunate defenseless victim who chose the wrong place and time to inhabit me – unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome.

As a child, I was fascinated by the ant hills in the woods and fields of our small farm. I would track yards and yards of ant trails from the busy mounded colonies to tree trunks and other sources of food, watching the single file single-minded insects heading through all sorts of terrain to sustain their community. Having ants crawling on me wasn’t a problem then – they were part of my exploration of creation and sometimes they explored me.

How is your life, I wanted to ask.

Now as an adult, I confess I pay regularly for someone to come to the farm to spray around our house to prevent a resurgence of carpenter ants that threatened our foundation and walls some years ago. It works pretty well so I don’t have to deal with the reality of nature/creation invading my personal space. My wholistic acceptance of my co-existence with ants ends at my front door. No welcome mat for them, thou shalt not trespass.

I don’t seek to fathom their heart or a felt need to find food.

So now our country is embroiled in the polarizing issue of whether to protect the defenseless when they are unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome, especially when it may pose great personal risk to another. Many of those most upset by the judicial decision have a voice to protest today because their mother let them live, even though their conception was unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome. They were not prevented through prophylactic means, they were not squished in an intentional self-defensive move.

They were indeed part of creation.

They are living and whole and as angry and anxious as I was when I thought I was crawling with ants.

How is your life, I want to ask. How is it to feel what you are feeling right now?

I fathom your beating heart and that of a mother’s loving heart of selfless sacrifice.

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A Good Place For Us All to Live

This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.
~ Theodore Roosevelt

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
Tis the star-spangled banner…
~Francis Scott Key – excerpt from the rarely sung second verse

I grew up with a flag pole in our front yard; the American flag was raised every morning by my WWII veteran father and lowered at dusk every evening. This was far more than a ritual for my father; he saw it as his obligation and privilege after the three years he spent as a Marine officer in the South Pacific. He had the freedom, as well as the necessity, to declare our hard-won liberty to any who passed by. The flag was his reminder, a tangible symbol of having fought beneath it, watching others shed blood and die for it.

My father was not one to weep – ever. But his eyes filled up when we visited the original The Star-Spangled banner in its display at the Smithsonian Institute in the 1960s, and again as we stood before the Iwo Jima Memorial Marine flag-raising sculpture. The fact the flag meant so much to him is impressed and imprinted upon me.

He would have been horrified at how the flag is currently misused as a symbol of “my patriotism is more true and pure than yours” — it was displayed like a talisman by the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. The American flag has been through many tough times since it was designed – during my lifetime it was burned as an expression of free speech and ignored when people are asked to recite “The Pledge of Allegiance.”

The flag now seems to be Exhibit A representing our deep divisions rather than our unity.

June 14 (Flag Day) no longer has the impact that it had over a century ago when it was first declared, observing the day in 1777 the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution to create a flag for the new United States. My mother, growing up in the isolation of the Palouse wheat farms in eastern Washington state, would reminisce about Depression-era Flag Day parades, picnics and celebrations in the small farming communities of Waverly and Fairfield. It was a mere warm up for the all-out patriotic gatherings planned for July 4 – indeed a community on display.

As I place our flag out on our porch today, I am honoring it as a symbol of a country which values the freedoms of all people.

May this banner fly proudly for many generations to come.
Here is the proof, through all the dark and contentious nights of our country’s history, that our flag is still here.

Let’s ensure this is a good place for all of us to live in.

The Star Spangled Banner – Smithsonian Institute
Iwo Jima monument – Arlington Cemetery

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They Call It Easing the Spring

“Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine glori”

(translation)
Recently I lived suitable for warfare,
and I soldiered not without glory.

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
   And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
   Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
   Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
   They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
   For today we have naming of parts.
~Henry Reed “Naming of Parts”
(1942)

“Naming of Parts” was a well-known British anti-war poem I memorized for debate class in high school in 1970, reciting it for interpretive reading competitions.

Below is a portion of a 1944 letter sent home to my mother from my father as he served as a Marine company officer in the South Pacific from January 1943 – fall 1945. After he returned home, physically uninjured, I had never seen him with a gun in his hands, and wasn’t aware he even had kept a gun after leaving the Marines. One day, in the early 1970’s, one of our farm’s beef animals was injured so my father, for the first time in thirty years, pulled out a gun from its hiding place to put down the suffering animal. I never saw the gun again and believe my father disposed of it soon after – firing that gun after so many years was too much for him.

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.
~ Marine Captain Henry Polis (age 22) in a 1944 letter home about the Battle of Tarawa (November 1943)

Henry Polis 1943

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Remember My Chains

Remember my chains. Colossians 4:18

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Hail Lord, loose my chains…
~C.S. Lewis from Prince Caspian

My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
~Charles Wesley

As the cold chains of memory and wrath
Fall from our hearts before we are aware,
Their rusty locks all picked by patient prayer,
Till closed doors open…
~Malcolm Guite from “Peace”

These weeks of Lent are a time for me to remember my chains; they are invisible compared to all the rusty chains everywhere on our farm, but, in truth, are just as restrictive to freedom. 

I’m fettered not only by the chains imposed by the limitations of a selfish society, but primarily by chains I have made myself, needing no help from anyone as I add link after link until I’m completely weighed down and immobilized.

We are bound to our sin as if by chains, locked tight with the key thrown away, pitiful in our imprisonment. Saturation with the gospel and heart-felt prayer are the only keys that will spring the lock, unclasp the chains, unbind our hands and feet, free our souls, loose us to live fully as images of our Creator.

Remember my chains?  How can I forget? I have been handed the key to freedom.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Hope of Peace

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw, Jr.

Can enemies ever learn to love one another? Sometimes they live under the same roof, not always across armored yet porous political borders.

Can hatred be redeemed to grace and acceptance and peace?
What are we teaching children who are kept in barracks as unwelcome interlopers at our own border, or who sleep with their coats as pillows in basements in Ukraine as bombs rain around them?

They learn so young they are unwanted.
They learn so young to fear.
They learn so young to hate.

It is a little Child who will lead them to peace – a child sought out to be murdered by an earthly king who took thousands of innocent lives in the process. He survived in order to give His life for ours – an act He chose – rather than be slaughtered by a paranoid leader.

May this enemy lay down their swords and learn the sacrifice of love.
May the whole earth know the hope for peace through Christ our Lord.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.

May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze
A little child shall lead them all.

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw

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How Else Can We Live?

“Not again,” echoes forth 
as she wails silently 
searching, eyes wide 
in disbelief.

How does a heart 
withstand such pain?
“It cannot,” she sings out
from the deepest place.  

He cries from the corners 
of his eyes, a river of loss 
falling into the cavern of his mouth, 
a brook run backwards 
toward its beginning.

“Where do I put it?” she demands, 
“Where can I put the ache?
I need a shelf where
no one can touch it,”
hitting the highest note.

“I put it in a box covered over 
by life’s wanderings,” he recalls, 
in a remorseful way
in between breaths.

To put it out in the open, 
“audacious at best,”

in unison.

And yet – how else can we live?  

She reaches up to the shelf, 
taking it down, hope and doubt, 
unlocking the door 
to the abandoned house, 

bellowing out, bellowing out.

If Christ is not risen, count 
us the greatest of fools.
~Katie Setterberg “Choir Practice”

There are times when lifting our voices in song is the only way to express what our hearts are feeling, especially now as we witness the distress of the Ukrainian people who are relying on their cultural bonds, their spiritual faith and their trust that good people of the world will support their defense of their culture and their government.

May our voices be raised along with them, today and whenever freedom is threatened in the future. How else can we live?

photo by Jim Randall

One small town
Containing more churches than banks,

A one hundred year old choral society
With a Christmas tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah,

Sixty-some enthusiastic singers recruited without auditions
Through church bulletin announcements

Farmers, store clerks, machinists, students
Middle schoolers to senior citizens

Gather in an unheated church for six weeks of rehearsal
To perform one man’s great gift to sacred music.

Handel, given a libretto, commissioned to compose,
Isolated himself for 24 days, barely ate or slept

Believed himself confronted by all heaven itself
To see the face of God,

And so created overture, symphony, arias, oratorios
Soaring, interwoven themes repeating, resounding

With despair, mourning, anticipation
Renewal, redemption, restoration, triumph.

Delicate appoggiaturas and melismata
Of astounding complexity and intricacy.

A tapestry of sound and sensation unparalleled
To be shouted from the soul, wrung from the heart.

This group of rural people gathers to join voices
Honoring faith foretold, realized, proclaimed.

Ably led by a forgiving director with a sense of humor
And a nimble organist with flying feet and fingers.

The lilting sopranos with angel song,
The altos provide steadfast support,

The tenors echo plaintive prophecy
The base voices full and resonant.

A violinist paints heaven-sent refrain
In parallel duet of counterpoint melody.

The audience sits, eyes closed
As if in oft repeated familiar prayer.

The sanctuary overflows
With thankfulness:

Glory to God! For unto us a Child is born
And all the people, whether singers or listeners, are comforted.

One way to support the people of Ukraine in this crisis is through the
International Red Cross