I Wonder What I Owe

At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.

The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers

with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep

my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging

how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?

Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nests of stars

on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.
~Joyce Sutphen “On the Shortest Days” from Modern Love & Other Myths.

While spending my day at my desk talking to faces on a screen,
as I will today and every day,
the names and stories and symptoms change every half hour.
I sometimes glance up and out my window to the world beyond,
concerned not to break eye contact.

I want to say:
don’t you know this darkness surrounding you won’t last,
while this day is fading
you can turn on the light that you were given
to find your way out of this.

I wonder if I owe it to you to tell you
when I was young and afraid and away from home
I didn’t believe the light was there either,
or it wouldn’t turn on, or it burned out so I
I felt swallowed by the darkness.

Then someone gave me a ladder to climb out
and lit my light so I could see where I was going.

Here I am now,
handing you a working light and a sturdy ladder
and telling you how to use them.



In Our Hollowness

There is a day that comes when you realize
you can’t bake enough bread
to make things turn out right, no matter
how many times you read Little House on the Prairie
to your children. There aren’t enough
quart jars to fill with tomatoes
or translucent slices of pear to keep you
from feeling unproductive. There is no bonfire
that burns orange enough in the chill October night
to keep your mind from following the lonesome
howls and yips of the coyotes concealed
by darkness in the harvested cornfield
just beyond the circle of your fire.

And when you step away from your family and fire,
into the dark pasture and tip your head back,
feel the whole black bowl of sky
with its icy prickles of stars, its swath of Milky Way,
settle over you, you know that no one
and everyone is just this alone on the Earth
though most keep themselves distracted enough
not to notice. In your hollowness
you open your arms to God because no one else
is enough to fill them. Eternity
passes between and no one knows this but you.

The hum of their conversation, the whole world, talking.
When it is time, you turn, grasp the woodcart’s handle,
pull it, bumping behind you across the frosty grass,
up the hill to the house, where you
step inside cubes of light, and begin to do ordinary things,
hang up coats, open and close drawers,
rinse hot chocolate from mugs. And you are still
separate, but no longer grieving bread.
~Daye Phillippo “Bread” from The Exponent. Vol. 124 – No 75 (May 3, 2010)

Try as I might, there aren’t enough chores to do, nor meals to make, nor pictures to take or words to write to distract me from the emptiness that can hit in the middle of the night. We each try to find our own way to make the world feel right and good, to give us a sense of purpose for getting up each morning.

Yet life can be harsh. I hear regularly from my patients who fight a futile struggle with pointlessness. Hours, days and years are hollow without loving and meaningful relationships with each other, but especially with our Creator.

My work here is simple: to find meaning in routine and the rhythm of the seasons with a desire to leave behind something that will last longer than I will. In those moments of feeling hollowed-out, I am reminded that God-shaped hole is just as He created it. God knows exactly what I need— I rise like leavened bread becoming more than I could ever be without Him.

The ordinary in me is filled by the extraordinary.

Nature’s Scream

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
~Edvard Munch
describing his inspiration for his famous painting
“The Scream”

I get the sense there are now millions of people who just want to scream about the situation the world is in. In my telehealth visits with my patients whose worlds have been turned upside down in the last two months – plans canceled, jobs lost, schooling disrupted, finances uncertain, social support only through screens – I hear the words “overwhelmed,” “isolated,” “frustrated,” in addition to their usual “depressed” and “anxious.” Labeling these feelings “normal” just doesn’t seem to cut it. They want life to feel normal again and don’t want to accept that normal is a moving target and things won’t ever be quite the same again.

They don’t know what’s next for them and neither do I, but we are living it out, one day at a time, all in the same rocking bouncing (perhaps sinking) boat together.

I know Mr. Rogers always counseled to “look for the helpers” when something scary and unpredictable happens, and it is gratifying to see the immense support being given to the thousands of workers who are doing just that – at great personal risk. Even grocery store clerks are no longer unsung heroes but have become the real deal and I never fail to thank them when I go get my one week food supply.

There are other great efforts to make us smile together such as John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” reports on Youtube and the worldwide participation in Facebook’s “View from my window” page. Zoom Virtual Choirs and Orchestras are entertaining us and late night TV hosts are broadcasting from their own bedrooms.

In our angst, we may forget that nature itself is full of its own powerful emotions, and this year is no different. I’ve read somewhere the high pitched sound of sap rising in trees in the spring is like a shriek beyond our capacity to hear. The sound of a bud growing, bulging and eventually unfolding must be like an exhalation of relief. Seeds and bulbs erupting through the soil surely groan and mutter in their strain.

Nature has also yielded mutated viruses attaching with vigor to a new host’s cells, and if we had microscopic microphones, the release of the duplicated RNA packets from a decimated living host cell probably sounds a bit like a scream as all the other cells prepare for a deadly virus on the move. It is like the Revolutionary War all over again in microcosm.

I do think a little screaming is in order.

So I remind myself and my patients: anxiety is normal. Discouragement is normal. But so is our need to scream out loud every once in awhile – even if all that comes out is the sound of silence.

Edvard Munch “The Scream”

He Sees Us As We Are: Called to Transformation

…difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: 
With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters from Prison

.…you mustn’t be frightened … if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?
~Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet

Every day I see young adult patients who are so consumed by anxiety they become immobilized in their ability to move forward through the midst of life’s inevitable obstacles and difficulties.  They become so mired in their own overwhelming feelings, so distracted by their symptoms, they can’t sleep or eat or think clearly.  They self-medicate, self-injure and self-hate.  Being unable to nurture themselves or others, they wither like a young tree without roots deep enough to reach the vast reservoir that lies untapped beneath them. 

In epidemic numbers, some decide to die, even before life really has fully begun for them.

I grieve for them in their distress, my heart breaks daily.   My role is to help find healing solutions, whether it is counseling therapy, a break from academic and work pressures, or a medicine that may give some form of relief.  Yet I know all too well the ultimate answer is not as simple as the right prescription.

We who are anxious must depend upon a Creator who does not suffer from attention deficit disorder and who is not distracted from His care for us even when we turn away in worry and sorrow.  We magnify our difficult circumstances by staying so tightly into ourselves, unable to look beyond our own eyelashes.  We are called to be transformed, to reach higher and deeper, through prayer, through service to others, through acknowledging there exists a power greater than ourselves.

So we are called to pray for ourselves and for others,  and in doing so, we disable anxiety and fear as they meld into gratitude and grace.  

No longer withering, we drink deeply of the well, finally able to thrive.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

It feels like falling.
It feels like rain.
Like losing my balance
Again and again.
It once was so easy;
Breathe in, breathe out.
But at the foot of this mountain,
I only see clouds.

I feel out of focus,
Or at least indisposed
As this strange weather pattern
Inside me takes hold.
Each brave step forward,
I take three steps behind.
It’s mind over matter –
Matter over mind.

Slowly, then all at once.
A single loose thread
And it all comes undone.

Where there is light,
A shadow appears.
The cause and effect
When life interferes.
The same rule applies
To goodness and grief;
For in our great sorrow
We learn what joy means.

I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it.
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it.
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it.
But I will learn to fight, I will learn to fight,
‘Til this pendulum finds equilibrium.

Slowly, then all at once.
The dark clouds depart,
And the damage is done.
So pardon the dust
While this all settles in.
With a broken heart,
Transformation begins.
~Ryan O’Neal – Sleeping at Last “Sorrow”

Don’t Go Too Early

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.
~Galway Kinnell “Wait”
from A New Selected Poems 

If everyone abandons you and even drives you away by force,
then when you are left alone
fall on the earth and kiss it,
water it with your tears,
and it will bring forth fruit
even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.
Believe to the end, even if all people went astray
and you were left the only one faithful;
bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. 
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov

Suicide rates of teenagers in the United States have increased well over 30% since 2009. It is a national epidemic and tragedy.

Based on the anguish of the patients I see every day,
one after another and another,
over and over again I hear
a too-easy contemplation of suicide,
from “It would be easier if I were dead”
or “no one cares if I live or die”,
or “the world would be better off without me”,
or “I’m not worthy to be here”
to “that is my plan, it is my right and no one can stop me”.

Without us all pledging an oath to live life no matter what,
willing to lay ourselves down for one another,
to bridge the sorrow and lead the troubled to the light,
there will be no slowing of this trend.

…when there is no loyalty to life, as stressful and messy as it can be,
…when there is no honoring of the holiness of each created being as weak and frail and prone to helpless hopelessness as we are,
…when there is no resistance to the buffeting winds of life~

please just wait a little longer, only a little longer:
don’t go too early

Light and Cloud-Shadows

.…you mustn’t be frightened … if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?
~Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet

…difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: 
With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters from Prison

Every day I see college students who are so consumed by anxiety they become immobilized in their ability to move forward through the midst of life’s inevitable obstacles and difficulties.  They become so stuck in their own overwhelming feelings they can’t sleep or eat or think clearly, so distracted are they by their symptoms.  They self-medicate, self-injure and self-hate.  Being unable to nurture themselves or others, they wither like a young tree without roots deep enough to reach the vast reservoir that lies untapped beneath them.  In epidemic numbers, some decide to die, even before life really has fully begun for them.

I grieve for them in their distress.   My role is to help find healing solutions, whether it is counseling therapy, a break from school, or a medicine that may give some form of relief.  My heart knows the ultimate answer is not as simple as the right prescription.

We who are anxious must depend upon a Creator who does not suffer from attention deficit disorder and who is not distracted from His care for us even when we turn away in worry and sorrow.  We magnify our difficult circumstances by staying so tightly into ourselves, unable to look beyond our own eyelashes.  Instead we are to reach higher and deeper, through prayer, through service to others, through acknowledging there is power greater than ourselves.

So we are called to pray for ourselves and for others,  disabling anxiety and fear and transforming it to gratitude and grace.   No longer withering, we just might bloom.


Choosing Another Day

right before the moonrise

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
~G.K. Chesterton

Over a dozen times every clinic day
I ask someone:
tell me your thoughts about ending your life…

Even so~~
someone then decides what to reveal
and what not to.

I’m allowed
another day
to do my best
to be present for someone who is unsure~

and perhaps as this day dies
there will come another
when I might help someone
choose
to live another day.

Why are we allowed another day?

Clearing the Fog

 

 

 

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine.

I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.

And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
                               If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.
~Denise Levertov “A Reward” from Evening Train.

 

 

 

~Lustravit lampade terras~
(He has illumined the world with a lamp)
The weather and my mood have little connection.
I have my foggy and my fine days within me;
my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.
– Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”

And so you have a life that you are living only now,
now and now and now,
gone before you can speak of it,
and you must be thankful for living day by day,
moment by moment …
a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…

~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than the flu.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
There should be a vaccination against unnamed fears.

I want to say to my patients and to myself:
Stop now, this moment in time.
Stop and stop and stop.

Stop needing to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be.

I want to say:
this moment, foggy or fine, is yours alone,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.

Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.

Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips
just as rain can clear the fog.
Stop holding them back.

Just be–
be blessed in both the fine and the foggy days–
in the now and now and now.




A Clinging Mist

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My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.
~Robert Frost “My November Guest”

 

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November,
this month of deepening darkening,
transforms itself
to a recounting of gratitude
of daily thanksgiving and blessings~~

it is good to dwell on our gifts,
even so,
it is right to invite Sorrow
to sit in silence with us,
her tears blending with ours.

These dark-dwelled days
of bare stripped branches
feed our growing need
for the covering grace,
the shrouding
of His coming Light.

 

 

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Heaven-Handling Flung

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Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Carrion Comfort”

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These mounting deaths by one’s own hand
make grim headlines and solemn statistics.

In my clinic, patient after patient says the same thing:

this struggle with life
makes one frantic to avoid the fight and flee
to feel no more bruising and bleed no more,
to become nothing but chaff and ashes.

they contemplate suicide as
they can not recognize the love of
a God who cares enough to
wrestle them relentlessly–
who heaven-handling flung them here by
breathing life into their nostrils

Perhaps they can’t imagine
a God
(who He Himself created
doubters
sore afraid
of His caring
enough to die for us)

so no one
is ever now,
nor ever will be

~nothing~

such darkness
now done
forever.

 

 

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