Waiting in Wilderness: A Time of Treading Life

This is the wilderness time,
when every path is obscure
and thorns have grown around the words of hope.

This is the time of stone, not bread,
when even the sunrise feels uncertain
and everything tastes of bitterness.

This is the time of ashes and dust,
when darkness clothes our dreams
and no star shines a guiding light.

This is the time of treading life,
waiting for the swells to subside and for the chaos to clear.

Be the wings of our strength, O God,
in this time of wilderness waiting.
– Keri Wehlander from “600 Blessings and Prayers from around the world” compiled by Geoffrey Duncan

He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
Psalm 91:4

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness,
is like being commanded to be well when we are sick,
to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst,
to run when our legs are broken.
But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless.
Even in the wilderness- especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.   
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember:Uncollected Pieces

I usually think of wilderness as a distant peak far removed from anything or anyone.  From my farmhouse window on a clear day, I can see a number of distant peaks if the cloud cover moves away to reveal them.

Or perhaps the wilderness is a desolate plain that extends for miles without relief in sight.

Wilderness is also found in an isolated corner of my human heart. I keep it far removed from anything and anyone. During my televisit computer work,  I witness this wilderness in others, many times every day.

A diagnosis of “wilderness of the heart” doesn’t require a psychiatric manual: 
there is despair, discouragement, disappointment, lack of gratitude, lack of hope. 
One possible treatment to tame that wilderness is a covenantal obedience to God and others. It reaches so deep no corner is left untouched.

There come times in one’s life, and this past year especially, when loving God as commanded seems impossible. We are too broken, too frightened, too ill and too wary to trust God with faith and devotion.  We are treading life simply to stay afloat.

During this second Lenten pandemic, God’s love becomes respite and rescue from the wilderness of my own making. He is the sweet cure for a bitter and broken heart.

Waiting in Wilderness: Heaven and I Wept Together

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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

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~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”

foggyfield
photo by Nate Gibson

I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
and its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine.
Against the red throb of its sunset heart,
I laid my own to beat
And share commingling heat.

Rise, clasp my hand, and come.
Halts by me that Footfall.
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ah, Fondest, Blindest, Weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest.
Thou dravest Love from thee who dravest Me.

~Francis Thompson from “The Hound of Heaven”

supermoonbarn

My days are filled with anxious and sad patients,
one after another after another. 
They sit in front of their screen
and I in front of mine,
so close yet so far from each another –
a wilderness of unexpressed emotions.

They struggle to hold back the flood from brimming eyes.  
Each moment, each breath, each heart beat overwhelmed by questions: 
How to take yet another painful breath of this sad life?  must there be another breath?  
Must things go on like this in fear of what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the knowledge
that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse. 
There is no recognition of a moment just passed
that can never be retrieved and relived.  
There is only fear of the next and the next
so that now and now and now is lost forever.

Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than any viral pandemic.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish there was a vaccine to protect us all from our unnamed fears in the wilderness.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop this moment in time.
Stop and stop and stop.
Stop expecting this feeling must be “fixed.”
Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be
in the now and now and now.

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
and stop holding them back.

Stop me before I write,
out of my own anxiety over you,
yet another prescription
you don’t really need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

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To Be Seen and Heard

If we want to support each other’s inner lives,
we must remember a simple truth:
the human soul does not want to be fixed,
it wants simply to be seen and heard.

If we want to see and hear a person’s soul,
there is another truth we must remember:
the soul is like a wild animal –
tough, resilient, and yet shy.

When we go crashing through the woods
shouting for it to come out so we can help it,
the soul will stay in hiding.
But if we are willing to sit quietly
and wait for a while,
the soul may show itself.
~Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach

I tend to be a crash-through-the-woods kind of person, searching out those in hiding needing help whether they want it or not. Part of this is my medical training: I’m not subtle, I can be brash and bold as I go where no one else wants to go.

Friends have reminded me this actually isn’t helpful much of the time and certainly doesn’t translate well in non-clinical settings. They have a good point. Undoing what I’ve learned isn’t easy, but I’m trying.

Before I trained in clinical medicine, I knew how to blend into my surroundings, to simply wait and listen and take note of what I observe. I never would have been part of a research team observing wild chimpanzee behavior without being born with that skill. The wild and shy around me eventually did show themselves, but it took time and patience and a willingness to let things happen without my making it happen.

I’m trying to relearn what I knew intuitively fifty years ago and unlearn what I was trained to do forty years ago as a “fix-it” clinician. It helps when people remind me to tone it down, back off and simply “be.”

I just might see and hear and understand more than I ever have before.

Turning Darkness Into Light: Because…

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Gaudete
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever…
Gaudete
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Gaudete
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Gaudete
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Gaudete
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Gaudete
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.
~Brad Reynolds from “Gaudete”

Perhaps it is the nature of what I do, but I never lack for opportunities for rejoicing even when I may not realize it. Every day, whether it is on the farm, within my family or in my doctoring, I am witness to wonders that can bring me to my knees.

I can find joy in dozens of ordinary daily events, whether it is a well-painted sunrise or sunset, a sprightly lichen on an ancient tree, a spontaneous note of encouragement, or a patient’s smile when they are find relief from their symptoms.

Why should I pay particular attention to the little things when this bleak year threatens to extend beyond the turn of the calendar page?

Because the little things can be extraordinary .

Because I don’t want to miss an opportunity to say so.

God loves to hear our rejoicing in the Gift He has given.

Here I am again, every day, trying to do my part.

A Garland of Melancholy

The melon shades of leaves
will soon rust and fall gently
to layers of rest and forgetting,
like sunken poems, unusual love,
and grave silence after the crows.


The black walnut tree trembles down
its mysterious spheres to sleep darkly,
to pulse with memory of heartwood.


Old roses are paling with grace
in this air of ruining tomorrows.
Autumn again, and all the years
twisting a garland of melancholy.

~Tim Buck, “Autumn” from VerseWrights Journal

The beauty around me is dying. It becomes harder to find vibrance and life in my surroundings in the volatility of deep autumn: a high wind warning is on the horizon in a few hours and we face a long winter as the uncontrolled pandemic continues unabated.

Those facts alone are enough to make me wander about the farm feeling melancholic. Even more than the loss of mere leaves and the fading of blooms is the reality of so many afflicted and infected people whose season for dying will come too soon.

Woe to us who are more concerned about our inconvenience and discomfort today than the months of ruined tomorrows for millions.

Lest it be forgotten in our bitterness – the promise of healing and renewal is also on the horizon.

May I listen for the pulse deep within the heartwood of each person with whom I have differences; my love for them must not fade nor wither but grow more graceful, more forgiving, more vibrant and beautiful by the day.

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.



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…

How You Made Them Feel

I’ve learned that even
when I have pains, I don’t have to be one …
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.
~Maya Angelou
on her 70th birthday, citing a quote from Carl Buehner

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know

the deceased, to press the moist hands

of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer

healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”

Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it and how to ease pain, not become one.  We don’t always get it right though, and dads can do it better.

Showing up with food is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food;  bringing along a cake is simply the icing.

This is a good reminder that as a doctor,
my usefulness has tended to depend on another’s suffering.
No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job.
I can only hope that someday that might be the case.
What a world it would be, especially as now suffering is universal.

And then I can still be a mom and grandmom
even if there is no more doctor work to be done:
….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake and shown up with it…

You Never Know

What shall I say, because talk I must?
That I have found a cure
for the sick?
I have found no cure
for the sick

but this crooked flower
which only to look upon
all men
are cured. This
is that flower
for which all men
sing secretly their hymns
of praise! This
is that sacred
flower!
~William Carlos Williams from “The Yellow Flower”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat.  Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside.  With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh.  There was dried blood on each big toe. 

It took an hour to do each big toe.  The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters.  They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on.  He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. 

“How is it?”

“It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die.

I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase.
You just never know.

~Richard Selzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor

I know for a while again
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valleyside,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which even I may step
forth and be free.
– Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”

Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do
and who I am meant to serve,
when I wallow in the mud of self-importance
rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~

I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear
and restore hearing
or remove a painful thorn in a thumb
or clip someone’s crippling toenails
so they can step forth in freedom
or I simply sit still as someone
cries out their heart’s pain.

I cling to the crooked flower
of healing and forgiveness I was handed
over forty years ago in order to share
its sacred sweetness.

I’ve been given these tools for a reason
so need to continue to use them.

You just never know.

Giving Life or Draining It

In every encounter we either give life or drain it. There is no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity or we diminish it. The success or failure of a given day is measured by the quality of our interest and compassion toward those around us.
~Brennan Manning
from Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging

Forty years ago this week I graduated with an M.D. degree from the University of Washington and began a lifetime of trying to be life-giving rather than life-draining to others.

There have been times when I’ve failed miserably, my interest waning and my compassion fatigued.

But like tracing the path of a spiral from inside to outside, I continue to try to reach farther and encompass more with each step I take in the time I have left, remembering the dignity of each person I meet and being worthy of their time and trust.

May this young woman who embarked so enthusiastically on the physician journey so many decades ago never forget, after so much seasoning, what it took to get there and what it means to continue to be worthy.