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.



It’s Time for Swinging to be Done

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.
~Ted Kooser “Porch Swing in September” from Flying at Night

It is hard to just let go and let life move on, as it will do on this day’s transition to autumn, whether with us or without us.

We build our little lives so carefully; we plan and choreograph and anticipate, and all it takes is a creaky swing (or a measly little virus) to pull it to shreds.

So we rebuild, strand by strand, in the conviction that we still belong here even when everything around us is changing and will pay no attention to how we’re left hanging.

We keep trying.
We keep believing.
We keep wanting to make the world a little more beautiful.

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.

Dragging Summer Away

August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
Expected,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a match flame
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.
Elizabeth Maua Taylor
“August”

August is rushing by in its anxiousness
to be done with this summer of upheaval:
too many tears and too much tragedy.

The sky in weeping empathy
leaves a quick moist kiss on our cheeks,
dripping bedazzled.

It won’t last;
we know these dangling drops will fade
in the heat of the moment.

This wilted, withered summer won’t leave easy
~dragged away still kicking~
we’ll wave it goodbye, blowing our kisses in the air.

Listening for Hoof Beats

Every night, no matter where I am
when I lie down, I turn
my back on half the world.

At home, it’s the east I ignore,
with its theatres and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.

But when I’m on the road
in some hotel’s room 213 or 402
I could be pointed anywhere,

yet I hardly care as long as you
are there facing the other way
so we are defended in all degrees

and my left ear is pressing down
as if listening for hoof beats in the ground.

~Billy Collins “Sleeping on My Side” from Whale Day and Other Poems

It seems amazing we can actually sleep at all, knowing all the hazards out there beyond the bedroom walls

– whether it is pandemic viral particles floating in the air, or pollution from wildfires, or ozone layer depletion or “the-big-one-any-moment” earthquake, or an errant nuclear missile launch, or bands of roving bandits –

it is a wonder we can quiet our minds at all.

When I was about 8 years old, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I didn’t sleep for several days, fearful if I slept, then the world would end and me with it, without even knowing the bomb had hit. Somehow, my staying awake saved the world from destruction and no one, not one single person, ever thanked me for it.

There is always so terribly much to fear if you really think about it. We are constantly lying with our ears to the ground, listening for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wondering how close they have come to our bedside.

These days I take comfort in knowing I don’t always need to be on high alert. I know, in fact, His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over me.

So I can sleep.

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”

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.

Unimaginable Promises

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.
~Anne Porter “A Short Testament” from Living Things.

When the night’s darkness lingers,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I dwell within my own persistent winter,
knowing I too often fail to do
what is needed
when it is needed.

How I look inward
when I need to focus beyond myself.
How I muffle my ears
to unhear supplicating voices.
How I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

The wintry soul
is a cold and empty place.

I appeal to God
who dwells not only within my darkness,
but unimaginably promises
His buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will indeed arise from my bare winter branches.
He will bring me out of the night.

Not Alone in the Dark

“If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
—G.K. Chesterton

shuksan622194

It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
Where a man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cures
Where hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Where time begins to fade
And age is welcome home

It’s the season of eyes meeting over the noise
And holding fast with sharp realization
It’s the season of cold making warmth a divine intervention
You are safe here you know now

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you

It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you
~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”

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I have heard the same message
from several patients:
they feel so alone
so in the dark,
so afraid
and weighted down
they would rather
choose to end their life~

yet not believing
in God means
jumping from
the pain of living
into
…nothing at all…

(feeling nothing
being the 
point
of ceasing
to be)

Perhaps they can’t imagine
this God who loves
doubters too sore afraid
of His caring enough to die
to assure
no one ever
becomes
nothing.

A Bright Sadness: Quickened

I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the fallen leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall–the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
~Christina Rossetti from “A Better Resurrection”

I remember panicking as a small child when my mother would help me put on or take off a sweater with a particularly tight turtleneck opening, as my head would get “stuck” momentarily until she could free me.  It caused an intense feeling of being unable to breathe or see – literally shrouded.  I was trapped and held captive by something as innocuous as a piece of clothing.

That same feeling still overwhelms me at times when I’m frozen in a winter of my flaws and deficiencies, bruised and fallen in my struggles to be freed.

My only hope for salvage is a new life quickening within me.  There is no freedom without spring sap flowing, His life blood rising in what is left of my dried husk.

And rise it shall — the confining shroud of discouragement discarded and cast aside.

Now that it is spring once again,  I can breathe free, quickened.