Had I not been awake I would have missed it, A wind that rose and whirled until the roof Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore
And got me up, the whole of me a-patter, Alive and ticking like an electric fence: Had I not been awake I would have missed it
It came and went too unexpectedly And almost it seemed dangerously, Hurtling like an animal at the house,
A courier blast that there and then Lapsed ordinary. But not ever Afterwards. And not now. ~Seamus Heaney “Had I Not Been Awake”
It is very still in the world now – Thronged only with Music like the Decks of Birds and the Seasons take their hushed places like figures in a Dream – ~Emily Dickinson from an envelope poem fragment
My dreams have been exceptionally vivid recently, not scary but seemingly real. I’ll awake suddenly, surfacing out of deepest sleep to take a breath of reality and remind my brain that I’m still in bed, in a dark hushed room, my husband solid and warm beside me. All is well. I lie awake, reorienting myself from dream world to my world and ponder the hazy neuro-pathways in-between.
If I had not been awake after my dreams, I would have missed the night sounds of coyotes howling in the fields around the farmhouse, the chorus of peepers in the wetlands, the trickling waterfall in our koi pond, the clicking of the owls flying overhead, the sudden gust of wind that shakes the windows, the pelting of heavy rain.
So much still happens when I am asleep to the world, numb and inattentive. Even so, when dreams wake me, I find myself alive and listening, electrified by the awareness of everything around me.
Suddenly, nothing is ordinary because everything is. I am the most unordinary ordinary of all.
There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves. ~Will Rogers
Learning is a universal human experience from the moment we take our first breath. It is never finished until the last breath is given up. With a lifetime of learning, one would think eventually we should get it right.
But we don’t. We tend to learn the hard way especially when it comes to matters having to do with our (or others’) health.
As physicians in training, we “see one, do one, teach one.” That kind of approach doesn’t always go so well for the patient. As patients, we like to eat, drink, and live how we wish, demanding what interventions we want only when we want them – this also doesn’t go so well for the patient. You’d think we’d know better, but as fallible human beings, we may impulsively make decisions about our health without actually using our heads (is it evidence-based or simply an anecdotal story about what “worked” for someone else?).
The cows and horses on our farm need to touch an electric fence only once when reaching for greener grass on the other side. That moment provides a sufficient learning curve for them to make an important decision. They won’t try testing it again no matter how alluring the world appears on the other side. Humans are smarter sentient beings who should learn as quickly as animals but unfortunately don’t. I know all too well what a shock feels like and I want to avoid repeating that experience. Even so, in unguarded careless moments of feeling invulnerable (it can’t happen to me!), and yearning to have what I don’t necessarily need, I may find myself reaching for the greener grass (or another cookie) even though I know better. I suspect I’m not alone in my surprise when I’m jolted back to reality when I continually indulge myself and climb on the scale to see the results.
Many great minds have worked out various theories of effective learning, but, great mind or not, Will Rogers confirms a common sense suspicion: an adverse experience, like a “bolt out of the blue,” can be a powerful teacher. As clinicians, we call it “a teachable moment.” None of us want to experience a teachable moment — none of us, and we resent it when someone points it out to us.
When physicians and patients learn the hard way, we need to come along aside one another rather than work at cross-purposes.
Imagine you wake up with a second chance: The blue jay hawks his pretty wares and the oak still stands, spreading glorious shade. If you don’t look back, the future never happens. How good to rise in sunlight, in the prodigal smell of biscuits – eggs and sausage on the grill. The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page. Come on, shake a leg! You’ll never know who’s down there, frying those eggs, if you don’t get up and see. ~Rita Dove “Dawn Revisited” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks
When I was a kid, summer mornings were simply delicious – I loved the smell of breakfast being prepared while I unfolded and stretched my growing legs under the covers, lazily considering how to take on the dawn.
Each new day felt like another chance, a clean slate, a blank page ready to be filled with the knowledge gained from the mistakes made the day before, the urgency of today’s needs, and the hope for grace tomorrow.
Now I’m the one cooking up a breakfast of words and pictures, trying to lure others from their beds with the fragrance of another day, another chance, another opportunity.
There is life to be lived; the whole sky is yours. Time’s a-wasting. Time to get up.
Brushy fencerows are in a sense a gift from man to nature — at least if, after the posts are dug in and the fence stapled to the posts, nature is given some free reign. Birds sitting on the fence and posts will pass undigested seeds in their droppings. Some of these seeds of blackberry, wild cherry, elderberry, bittersweet, sassafras, mulberry, and unfortunately, in some areas, multiflora rose, will take root in the loose soil around the posts and later in soil dug up by woodchucks. Chipmunks scurrying along the fence will bring and bury acorns and hickory nuts, while the wind will deliver dandelion, milkweed, and thistle seeds — all ingredients for a healthy fencerow. ~David Kline from Great Possessions
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.
He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
~Robert Frost from “Mending Fences”
I maintain, in my haphazard and often ineffectual way, our farm’s wood rail and hot wire fences to keep the horses confined, preventing them from wandering into the adjacent orchard, corn field, or most risky of all, the road. As utilitarian as a fence is for that purpose, the fence row itself is the hospitality center for all sorts of diversity of flora and fauna. It doesn’t repel; it invites.
As one travels in the United Kingdom and across the plains and mountains of North America, old fences are everywhere. Some fences were built painstakingly of stone centuries ago, some of old barbed wire, now falling and decrepit, no longer effective, but still testimony to a determined farmer’s desire to section off his barren land from another’s barren land, or perhaps the requirement borne of the homesteading laws of the time. Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Mending Fences” that a fence spans the balance between man’s sometimes irrational desire for barriers, acknowledging the order that they bring to an uncertain and sometimes unpredictable world that lays beyond our walls.
Political fences continue to exist in many parts of the world today, created primarily out of fear. Indeed, new walls have been proposed, absurdly ridiculous in their scope and expense. Much celebration accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall after its years of imposing testimony to the lack of trust and understanding between people who were once relatives, neighbors and friends. The Great Wall of China still stands, now primarily tourist attraction, no longer serving any other useful purpose other than to illustrate the lengths to which man goes to barricade himself off from others.
So why maintain life’s fences, even if the building and maintaining of these fences seems a futile and foolish task when they are pushed down, blown over in the winds, with trees fallen over them, and overgrown with brush and wild blackberries?
Fences, like rules and laws, define order and structure. They can bite back if they are breached. If crashed and broken, they are hazardous in and of themselves, not withstanding the potential dangers that lay beyond them. Remove them altogether and we risk losing the diversity represented in the fence row itself.
So, in the best of times, we are mending walls out of continuing need for contact with our neighbors. We meet across the barriers to shake hands and visit while we repair the fences together, leaving the barriers standing and strong, and the space in the fence row becomes even more diverse and welcoming. In the worst of times, we fortify and hide behind the walls, making them taller, wider, deeper, creating greater and greater gulfs between us and eventually losing touch forever as the walls themselves deteriorate without the necessary mutual “mending”.
So we must not love walls themselves, but must maintain them with our neighbor. We don’t worship the walls themselves but instead respect the foundation they rest on and the life they protect within the row itself.
We accept such boundaries with humility, recognizing their necessity is due to our own imperfections, as we too are full of prickles and barbs that too easily draw blood when breached.
God is not infinite;
He is the synthesis
of infinity and boundary. ~Coventry Patmore
He chose the boundaries of the finite;
to be helpless as a baby,
to love flawed parents,
to be dusty and tired and tempted,
to be hurt, bleeding, bound by nails,
dead and buried as man,
to await rising as God.
Living and dying within such boundaries as ours
show us His infinite Truth:
He knows what it means
to be finite,
…the freshly plowed fields steam in the night like lakes. The smell of the earth floods over the roads. The field mice are moving their nests to the higher ground of fence rows, the old among them crying out to the owls to take them all. The paths in the grass are loud with the squeak of their carts. They keep their lanterns covered. ~Ted Kooser “Spring Plowing”
If you stand here you can see the barn. You can see it from every point on these two hundred acres, but this spot is the closest.
Here’s a fence post–use your imagination– that used to be a corner post for all the fences on this farm. ~Curtis Bauer from “Imaginary Homecoming”
Standing in certain spots on our farm,
at certain times of day
and certain times of year,I think I can see and be seen
the expanse of sky unending,
touching shadowy hilltop silhouettes.
I become the corner post from which
all boundaries extend,
fencing in the known world from this spot.
I become the barn visible for miles,
though aging and sagging,
still safe haven to all that need to find rest,
a hub for homecoming.
Something is calling to me from the corners of fields, where the leftover fence wire suns its loose coils, and stones thrown out of the furrow sleep in warm litters; where the gray faces of old No Hunting signs mutter into the wind, and dry horse tanks spout fountains of sunflowers; where a moth flutters in from the pasture, harried by sparrows, and alights on a post, so sure of its life that it peacefully opens its wings. ~Ted Kooser “In the Corners of Fields”