Watching the Birds Watching Me

I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad not [to] be downcast. When you are so sad that you ‘cannot work’ there is always a danger fear will enter in and begin withering around.

A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.
~Maeve Brennan in a letter to writer Tillie Olsen

My window is a book of birds.
I draw back the curtains
and there they all are,
scribbling their lives in the trees.

Bird in the holly tree,
invisible mentor,
your cheerful philosophy
is a glittering chain of light
slung between us,
drawing me ever closer
to the source of your joy.

The silver thread of your song
guides me through the dark
as surely as the night
I first heard you,
improvising on a theme
of beauty and truth
in the holly tree out there.

~Hugo Williams from “Birdwatching”

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

The windows are dressed in feathers where the birds have flown against them,
then fallen below into the flowers where their bodies lie grounded, still,
slowly disappearing each day until all that is left are their narrow, prehensile bones.

I have sat at my window now for years and watched a hundred birds
mistake the glass for air and break their necks, wondering what to do,
how else to live among them and keep my view.
Not to mention the sight of them at the feeder in the morning,
especially the cardinal in snow.

What sign to post on the sill that says, “Warning, large glass window.
Fatal if struck. Fly around or above but not away.
There are seeds in the feeder and water in the bath.
I need you, which is to say, I’m sorry for my genius as the creature inside
who attracts you with seeds and watches you die against the window
I’ve built with the knowledge of its danger to you. 
With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants:
the sight of you, the sight of you.”

~Chard deNiord, “Confession of a Bird Watcher” from Interstate

I made the terrible faux pas of running out of suet and bird seed this week. My little feathered buddies fly up to the feeders by our kitchen window and poke around the empty trays, glance disparagingly in my direction, then fly away disheartened. There is no free lunch today.

I am no birder; I don’t go out looking for birds like the serious people of the birding community who keep a careful list of all they seen or hear. I don’t even track every species that comes to visit my humble offerings here on the farm nor do I recognize the frequent visitors as individuals. I just enjoy watching so many diverse sizes, colors and types coming together in one place to feast in relative peace and cooperation and I’m the hostess.

Birds are my visual and tangible reminder that the good Lord provides, buoyed by the help of hospitable humans who set out irresistible treats next to big windows. These delightful creatures have such autonomy and genuine glee in their daily existence until they forget their boundaries and slam headlong into invisible glass, too often falling to the ground for good. Then the farm cats are gleeful.

I know all about the warnings to stop doing communal bird feeding: spreading bird diseases too easily among multiple species who come together to feast, attracting vermin and assisting their burgeoning population growth, assisting predators like my aforementioned farm cats in their decimation of the wild bird population, encouraging wild birds to ignore their usual migration urge to seek better feeding/breeding climates so they often die prematurely.

As a trained scientist in animal behavior, I understand it all. As a human observer seeking to enjoy feathered friends during long gray winter days, I ignore it all.

Pardon me now, as I better head to the farm store to replenish my bird feasting stash. See you all later.

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Here’s My Hand

How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

~William Stafford “Friends” from The Way It Is

I initially started writing online almost twenty years ago to a group of friends, most that I had met in real life, but some of whom I only knew from afar. It felt like I was writing a letter but without the pen, paper, envelopes and stamp.

Now I write to over 22,000 people every day. A few of you I know well, some I’ve only met once, most of you I will never have the privilege to know personally. Some of you have written to me privately (some with pen and paper, stamp and envelope!) to tell me more about your lives and how the thoughts I send along each day make a difference to you.

I know the power and love found in a hand-written letter. Someone I have known for nearly 50 years still writes to her friends – Jane Goodall was my teacher and mentor. When she gave me the opportunity to work with her in Africa in the 1970s, it changed my life in ways I still am discovering. Most remarkably, she has written to me on a number of occasions and I treasure those notes. Her familiar pen written by her familiar hand comforts me.

It’s lonely being far away, and a friend. But here is my hand. I hope you will continue to take what I offer here and find it comforting.

giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications

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The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

Go north a dozen years
on a road overgrown with vines
to find the days after you were born.
Flowers remembered their colors and trees
were frothy and the hospital was


behind us now, its brick indifference
forgotten by our car mirrors. You were
revealed to me: tiny, delicate,
your head smelling of some other world.
Turn right after the circular room


where I kept my books and right again
past the crib where you did not sleep
and you will find the window where
I held you that morning
when you opened your eyes. They were


blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate
they would later become. You were gazing
into the world: at our walls,
my red cup, my sleepless hair and though
I’m told you could not focus, and you


no longer remember, we were seeing
one another after seasons of darkness.

~Faith Shearin, “Sight” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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Born Broken

Man is born broken.
He lives by mending.
The grace of God is glue.
~Eugene O’Neill
from Act 4, Scene 1 – The Great God Brown

None of us can “mend” another person’s life, no matter how much the other may need it, no matter how much we may want to do it.

Mending is inner work that everyone must do for him or herself. When we fail to embrace that truth the result is heartbreak for all concerned.

What we can do is walk alongside the people we care about, offering simple companionship and compassion. And if we want to do that, we must save the only life we can save, our own.
~Parker Palmer writing about Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting

their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – –

– determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver “The Journey”

We are born hollering and suddenly alone,
already aware of our emptiness
from the first breath,
each tiny air sac bursting
with the air of our fallen world~
air that is never enough.

The rest of our days are spent
filling up our empty spaces
whether alveoli
or stomach
or synapses starving for understanding,
still hollering in our loneliness
and heart
broken.

So we mend ourselves
through our walk with others
also broken,
we patch up our gaps
by knitting the scraggly fragments
of lives lived together.
We become the crucial glue
boiled from gifted Grace,
all our holes
somehow made holy.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here:

The Fly in the Currant Cake

Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant;
and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy.
~Mark Twain

Today I will wrap up 45 years of uninterrupted training and doctoring. Most of that time, I have worried I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake. 

Maybe no one has noticed. These days we call it the “impostor” syndrome. Mark Twain knew all about currant cake and how easy it was for a fly to blend into its batter.

Even while bearing three children and going through a few surgeries myself, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time.  This is primarily out of my concern that, even after a few weeks, I would forget all that I’ve ever known. In fact, half of what I learned in medical school and residency over forty years ago has evolved, thanks to new discoveries and clarifying research. I worried if I were to actually to step away from doctoring for an extended time, then return to see patients again, I would be masquerading as a physician rather than be the real thing. A mere fly among the currants palmed off on the unwary.

If being truly honest, those who spend their professional lives providing medical care to others always share this concern: if a patient only knew how much we don’t know and will never know, despite everything we DO know, there would really be no trust left for us at all.

Of course, some say, didn’t the COVID pandemic prove our ignorance? Physicians started at Ground Zero with a novel virus with unclear transmissibility and immense potential to wreak havoc on the human body … or cause no symptoms whatsoever. We had no collected data to base prevention or treatment decisions: would masks just protect others or would they only protect ourselves, or maybe they protect both? Could a common inexpensive anti-inflammatory/antimalarial drug be beneficial or would a parasitic wormer medication be somehow effective to fight the devastation of the virus?

Effective treatments are still being sought all these months later; others have been debated, studied and discarded as worthless.

Or would this pandemic finally resolve thanks to effective yet controversial public health mandates while rapidly distributing highly effective vaccines developed from many prior years of carefully performed research?

During the past 16 months, your next door neighbor, or the loudest tweet on Twitter proclaimed more expertise than the average medical professional and definitely had a stronger opinion. At least we doctors knew how much we didn’t know and how much was simply guess work based on experience, good intentions and hopeful prayer. Gradually, while lives were lost, including too many of our own, real data began to trickle in so decisions could be made with some evidence backing them. But even that data continues to evolve, day by day, as authentic medical evidence always does.

That doesn’t stop all the “quack” flies out there from climbing into the batter pretending to be currants. With so much rapidly changing medical information at everyone’s fingertips, who needs a trained physician when there are so many other resources – sketchy and opportunistic though they may be – for seeking health care advice?

Even so, I am convinced most patients really do care that doctors share the best information they have available at any point in time. None of us who are doctoring wants to be the “fly” in the batter of health care.

As I meet with my last patient today, I know over forty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for the subtle signs and symptoms that no googled website or internet doc-in-the-box can discern.  The avoidance of eye contact, the tremble of the lip as they speak, the barely palpable rash, the hardly discernible extra heart sound, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base.  These are things I am privileged to see and hear and about which I make decisions together with my patients.  What I’ve done over four decades has been no masquerade; out of my natural caution, I am not appearing to be someone I am not.  This is what I was trained to do and have done for thousands of days and many more thousands of patients during my professional life, while passing a comprehensive certification examination every few years to prove my continued study and changing fund of knowledge.

The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough that an unwary patient might gobble it down to their ultimate detriment. I know I’ve not been that doctor. I’ve been the real thing all these years for my patients, even if I’ve seemed a bit on the tart side at times, yet offering up just enough tang to be exactly what was needed in the moment and in the long term.

And someday, hopefully not too soon, I will die happy having done this with my life.

My ID photo from my first year of medical school 1976
45 years later…

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Four Seasons

Autumn

Winter is an etching,
spring a watercolor,
summer an oil painting

and autumn a mosaic of them all.
~Stanley Horowitz
, a poem in Readers’ Digest Nov. 1983

Winter
Winter

L’Inverno (Winter)
Opus 8, No. 4, in F minor

I. Allegro non molto–
Frozen and trembling in the icy snow,
In the severe blast of the horrible wind,
As we run, we constantly stamp our feet,
And our teeth chatter in the cold.
II. Largo–
To spend happy and quiet days near the fire,
While, outside, the rain soaks hundreds.
III. Allegro–
We walk on the ice with slow steps,
And tread carefully, for fear of falling.
Symphony, If we go quickly, we slip and fall to the ground.
Again we run on the ice,
Until it cracks and opens.
We hear, from closed doors,
Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds in battle.
This is winter, but it brings joy.

~Vivaldi (Winter poem)

Spring
Spring
Spring
Spring

La Primavera (Spring)
Opus 8, No. 1, in E Major

I. Allegro–
Festive Spring has arrived,
The birds salute it with their happy song.
And the brooks, caressed by little Zephyrs,
Flow with a sweet murmur.
The sky is covered with a black mantle,
And thunder, and lightning, announce a storm.
When they are silent, the birds
Return to sing their lovely song.
II. Largo e pianissimo sempre–
And in the meadow, rich with flowers,
To the sweet murmur of leaves and plants,
The goatherd sleeps, with his faithful dog at his side.
III. Danza pastorale. Allegro–
To the festive sound of pastoral bagpipes,
Dance nymphs and shepherds,
At Spring’s brilliant appearance.

~Vivaldi (Spring poem)

Summer
Summer
Summer
Summer

L’Estate (Summer)
Opus 8, No. 2, in G minor

I. Allegro non molto–
Under the heat of the burning summer sun,
Languish man and flock; the pine is parched.
The cuckoo finds its voice, and suddenly,
The turtledove and goldfinch sing.
A gentle breeze blows,
But suddenly, the north wind appears.
The shepherd weeps because, overhead,
Lies the fierce storm, and his destiny.
II. Adagio; Presto–
His tired limbs are deprived of rest
By his fear of lightning and fierce thunder,
And by furious swarms of flies and hornets.
III. Presto–
Alas, how just are his fears,
Thunder and lightening fill the Heavens, and the hail
Slices the tops of the corn and other grain.
~Vivaldi (Summer poem)

Autumn
Autumn
Autumn

Autumn
Autumn

L’Autunno (Autumn)
Opus 8, No. 3, in F Major

I. Allegro–
The peasants celebrate with dance and song,
The joy of a rich harvest.
And, full of Bacchus’s liquor,
They finish their celebration with sleep.
II. Adagio molto–
Each peasant ceases his dance and song.
The mild air gives pleasure,
And the season invites many
To enjoy a sweet slumber.
III. Allegro–
The hunters, at the break of dawn, go to the hunt.
With horns, guns, and dogs they are off,
The beast flees, and they follow its trail.
Already fearful and exhausted by the great noise,
Of guns and dogs, and wounded,
The exhausted beast tries to flee, but dies.

~Vivaldi (Autumn poem)

I walk this path to stand at the same spot
countless times through the year,
to witness the palette changing
around me.

The Artist chooses His color and technique
lovingly, with a gentle touch for each season.

My life too is painted with richness and variety:
from the bare lines of winter,
to a green emergence of spring,
a summer sweet fruitfulness
and a mosaic crescendo of autumn.

This ever-new pathway extends
beyond the reach of the canvas.


Waiting in Wilderness: Becoming His Cells

The whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—
that we are his fingers and muscles,
the cells of His body
.
~C.S. Lewis
from Mere Christianity

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1Corinthians 12:27

Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes,
you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
~Teresa of Avila

When I am awake in the night to attend to those who are hurting,
some who have been hurt by illness, injury or abuse or
who hurt themselves to escape their hopelessness,
I remember, in my own weariness,
this dear one too is part of His body,
one of the cells
that adjoins the cell that is me,
each of us critical to the life
raised in the body of Christ.

Why have have so many of us Christians forgotten this in the last year?
How can we not care first and foremost for the vulnerable,
for our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
as well as those who we don’t know and don’t yet know Christ,
by doing whatever we can,
whether it is the inconvenience of masking
or accepting the low risk of an effective vaccine,
to shield others and ourselves from potential harm
and end this painful time of pandemic history?

Pastor Tim Keller has said:
Christians are called by God to be living so sacrificially and beautifully that the people around us, who don’t believe what we believe, will soon be unable to imagine the world without us.

Thank you to David French, Michael Luo, and Scott Sauls for their insights into the role of Christ’s church during the pandemic and how we can do better in living out our mandate as the body and cells of Christ.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
bless the dying,
soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous;
and all for your loves sake.
Amen.
~Common Book of Prayer

An Austere Love

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday morning,
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
even when they were angry with one another–
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold and loneliness
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
maybe a little more now.

Take Her Hand

She wakes to gray.
No words to guide the way
toward son. His unfamiliar face seems kind
enough. She nods hello. Just yesterday
she knew his eyes, but now?

This morning’s mind
welcomes the past but not the day. She was
someone: woman who woke at 3:00 to sing
her restless son to sleep, his calm her cause
for celebration. Today the dawn brings

no clarity, yet still the stranger comes
and draws her curtains wide. She thinks outside
is where she left her life: daughters, a son
who meet sunrise without her. Look, the light

is brighter now. The kind man helps her stand.
To see the morning sun, she takes his hand.
~Marjorie Maddox “Alzheimer Aubade”

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Because You Matter to Me…

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
~Emily Dickinson

So if there is any encouragement in Christ,
any comfort from love,

any participation in the Spirit,
any affection and sympathy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind,
having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
…. in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests,
but also to the interests of others.
~Philippians 2: 1-4

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling
to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness,
with patience,
bearing with one another in love,
eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4: 1-3

By wearing a mask…

If I can stop one person from infection,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease another’s worry,
Though masking goes against the grain,
Or help a divided country be
Restored to health again,
I shall not live in vain.

I wear a mask because you matter to me…