How exactly good it is to know myself in the solitude of winter, my body containing its own warmth, divided from all by the cold; and to go separate and sure among the trees cleanly divided, thinking of you perfect too in your solitude, your life withdrawn into your own keeping –to be clear, poised in perfect self-suspension toward you, as though frozen. And having known fully the goodness of that, it will be good also to melt. ~Wendell Berry “The Cold” from New Collected Poems
It is too easy to find comfort in solitude in yet another waning pandemic winter, with trust and friendship eroded, to stay protected one from another by screens and windows and masks.
Standing apart can no longer be an option as we long for reconnection; the time has come for the melt, for a re-blending of moments full of meals and singing and hugs.
We’ll find our way out of the cold. We’ll find our way to trust. We’ll find our way back to one another.
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Did you find everything you were looking for?Julie, the magenta-haired
checkout girl, asks, and no, I think, I didn’t find inner peace, or answers to
several questions I’ve been mulling, like are we headed for nuclear war and
does the rest of the world think America has gone bonkers and also, by the way,
I could not find the tofu bacon, and the chocolate sorbet shelf was empty
(I did find canned pumpkin in aisle four) but I am silent and smile at Julie who
seems to know what I’m thinking anyway so I hold back and muse on the view
of the bay this morning when we walked the dog and the parsnip soup we’ll
make for dinner and realize that total fulfillment probably jades the senses and
the bagger asks if I’d like help today carrying my groceries out to the car. ~Thomas R. Moore, “Finding Everything” from Red Stone Fragments
He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager. He greeted me like a long-lost daughter, as if we both came from the same world, someplace warmer and more gracious…
…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning, coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register which were still and always filled with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens. Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs, these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water and he returned my change, beaming as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees, as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow, and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips. This old man who didn’t speak English beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death so that when I emerged from his store my whole cock-eyed life – what a beautiful failure ! – glowed gold like a sunset after rain. ~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”
During these two years of COVID-time precautions, grocery shopping has been an extra ordeal for both the shoppers and the store workers. We remain hidden behind our masks – both the ones mandated by state regulations to be covering our faces, as well as the ones we usually hide behind while out and about in polite society.
This week as I shopped in one of our local grocery stores, I witnessed a particularly poignant scene. As I waited my six foot distance in the check out line, the older man ahead of me was greeted by the young cashier with the standard “Did you find everything you were looking for?” He looked at her from behind his mask and his eyes were obviously smiling as she scanned his groceries. He responded with: “I looked for world peace on your shelves, but it must have been sold out…”
She stopped scanning and looked directly at him for the first time, trying to discern if she misunderstood him or if he was mocking her or what. “Did you try Aisle 4?” she replied and they both laughed. They continued in light-hearted conversation as she continued scanning and once he had paid for his order and packed up his cart, he looked at her again.
“Thank for so much for coming to work today – I am so grateful for what you do.” He wheeled away his groceries and she stood, stunned, watching him go.
As I came up next, I looked at her watering eyes as she tried to compose herself and I said to her: “I’ll bet you don’t hear that often enough, do you?” She pulled herself together and shook her head, trying to make sense of the gift of words he had bestowed on her.
“No – like never,” she said as she scanned my groceries. “How could he possibly have known that I almost didn’t come to work today because it has been so stressful to be here? People are usually polite, but lately more and more have been so mean and refusing to put on their masks when I ask them to. No one seems to care about how others are feeling any more.”
She brushed away a tear and I paid for my groceries, and told her:
“I hope the rest of your work day is as great as that last customer. You’ve given me everything I was looking for today…”
And I emerged from the store feeling like I had scored a pot of gold like a sunset after rain.
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Morning without you is a dwindled dawn. ~Emily Dickinsonin a letter to a friend April 1885
Over the years, the most common search term bringing new readers to my Barnstorming blog is “dwindled dawn.”
I have written about Emily Dickinson’s “dwindles” on a number of occasions before when I miss having a house full of our three children, now spread far with families of their own. Even so, I had not really been diagnosed with a serious case myself until the last two years of COVID-time.
I am clearly not the only one. “Dwindles” have spread across the globe during the COVID pandemic more quickly than the virus.
There really isn’t a pill or other therapy that works well for dwindling. One of the most effective treatments is breaking bread with friends and family all in the same room, at the same table, lingering over conversation or singing together in harmony, because there really is nothing more vital for us to do.
Just being together is the ultimate cure.
Maybe experiencing friend and family deficiency will help us understand how crucial we are to one another. Sadly, due to the pandemic, too many are now gone forever, lost to further gatherings together. It is high time to replenish the reservoir before we all dwindle away to nothing.
So if you are visiting these words for the first time because you too searched for “dwindled dawn” — welcome to Barnstorming. We can stave off the dwindles by joining together in our shared isolation.
Because mornings without you all diminishes me. I just want you to know.
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Here is a story to break your heart. Are you willing? This winter the loons came to our harbor and died, one by one, of nothing we could see. A friend told me of one on the shore that lifted its head and opened the elegant beak and cried out in the long, sweet savoring of its life which, if you have heard it, you know is a sacred thing., and for which, if you have not heard it, you had better hurry to where they still sing. And, believe me, tell no one just where that is. The next morning this loon, speckled and iridescent and with a plan to fly home to some hidden lake, was dead on the shore. 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 “Lead” from New and Selected Poems
Why shouldn’t we go through heartbreaks?
…if through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart. ~Oswald Chambers from “Ye are not your own” from My Utmost for the Highest
These last two years have seen an epidemic of heart-break.
Due to hospital visitor restrictions, thousands of loved ones have died of COVID without family by their side, deprived of the solace of hearing familiar voices and being touched by familiar hands. A weary and over-worked health care team can only do so much in their efforts to comfort and console when so many patients are losing their battle with the virus at the same time. Although nurses and doctors have always been witnesses to the cries of the dying and the weeping of the grief-stricken, that is usually together at the bedside.
An iPad screen isn’t the same for those saying good-bye forever.
For all the advances of our modern society – through technology and communication and the development of medical miracles – people still die and others still grieve and weep over their loss. We’re not used to dying happening with such frequency to those who have no business dying in the first place. We assume death rates exceeding birth rates happens only in third world countries beset with drought or plague.
Not any more.
So my heart is tender – for those lost, for those left behind, for those trying their best to save lives when they are weary and ill themselves, for the irony of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths when the preventive measures available to us all are so clear-cut.
If anything, a breaking heart is an open invitation for the solace of a God who himself had no business dying in the first place, but did. He cried out in a long, sweet savoring of his life and ours, saving us in the process.
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By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines —
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches —
They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind —
Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined — It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of entrance — Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted they grip down and begin to awaken ~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”
I ask your doctor of infectious disease if she’s read Williams he cured sick babies I tell her and begin describing spring and all she’s looking at the wall now the floor now your chart now the door never heard of him she says but I can’t stop explaining how important this is I need to know your doctor believes in the tenacity of nature to endure I’m past his heart attack his strokes and now as if etching the tombstone myself I find I can’t remember the date he died or even the year of what now are we the pure products and what does that even mean pure isn’t it obvious we are each our own culture alive with the virus that’s waiting to unmake us ~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”
It is the third January of a pandemic of a virus far more tenacious than we have proven to be, it continues to unmake us, able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight while too many of us stubbornly remain unchanged by this, clinging to our “faith over fear” and “my body, my choice” and “lions, not sheep” and “never comply” — because self-determination must trump compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.
We defend the freedom to choose to be vectors of a contagion that may not sicken us yet fills clinics, hospitals and morgues.
William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician, would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now to fight this scourge. William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet, would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation when faced with a worthy viral opponent.
So what happens now?
Starting with this third pandemic winter, with our souls in another deep freeze, covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill, a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken – tender buds swelling, bulbs breaking through soil, being called forth from long burial in a dark and cold and heartless earth.
Like a mother who holds the mystery of her quickening belly, knowing we nurture other lives with our own body, we too can be hopeful and marveling at who we are created to be.
She, and we, know soon and very soon there will be spring.
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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.
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The talkative guest has gone, and we sit in the yard saying nothing. The slender moon comes over the peak of the barn.
The air is damp, and dense with the scent of honeysuckle. . . . The last clever story has been told and answered with laughter.
With my sleeping self I met my obligations, but now I am aware of the silence, and your affection, and the delicate sadness of dusk. ~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems
As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:
There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.
This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.
It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.
Walking in February A warm day after a long freeze On an old logging road Below Sumas Mountain Cut a walking stick of alder, Looked down through clouds On wet fields of the Nooksack— And stepped on the ice Of a frozen pool across the road. It creaked The white air under Sprang away, long cracks Shot out in the black, My cleated mountain boots Slipped on the hard slick —like thin ice—the sudden Feel of an old phrase made real— Instant of frozen leaf, Icewater, and staff in hand. “Like walking on thin ice—” I yelled back to a friend, It broke and I dropped Eight inches in ~Gary Snyder “Thin Ice”
We have witnessed an unprecedented year of spreading infection. Not only have we been outwitted by a wily virus that mutates as needed to further its domination of its hosts and the world, but we stand on a frozen lake pandemic of daily discouragement and ice-cracking political division, not sure where we may safely take our next step.
Viruses depend on us harboring them without us dying promptly so we might infect as many others as possible as quickly as possible. The better we feel while contagious, the better it is for the virus to wreak potential havoc on those around us.
A mask on you and a mask on me helps to block my virus from entering your (as yet) uninfected nose. Similarly, we can both don “masks” to impede the intentional spread of our insistence that one of us is right and the other is wrong. If we don’t attempt to muzzle our disagreements, we’re creating cracks in the tenuous ice beneath our feet.
The trouble with overheated debates in the middle of winter is that we all end up walking on too-thin ice, breaking through and doused by the chilly waters below.
Lord, have mercy on us, help us see and hear the cracks forming beneath our feet. Put us on our knees before you, you alone, humble and aware of the contagious cracks we perpetuate.
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.
Chunky and noisy, but with stars in their black feathers, they spring from the telephone wire and instantly
they are acrobats in the freezing wind. And now, in the theater of air, they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising; they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again; and you watch and you try but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it with no articulated instruction, no pause, only the silent confirmation that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin over and over again, full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, even in the leafless winter, even in the ashy city. I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots trying to leave the ground, I feel my heart pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings. ~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move;they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.
To where has flown our mercy and tenderness? We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.
We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes.
We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.
The sound of silence is muffled weeping.
There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing