Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

We resist the arrival of the evening of our lives. I wish I could remain forever sunshiny, vital and irreplaceable, living each moment of the day with the energy I feel with the morning light. But I know that the forward momentum of time inevitably will wind me down to sunset.

The poet Jane Kenyon learned this at far too young an age, diagnosed and beginning treatment for leukemia before turning fifty. I thought of Jane’s poem above when I learned today of the death of a courageous local nurse in her thirties who survived six years of treatment for metastatic cancer after being diagnosed only a few months after the birth of her first and only child. She and her family and medical team tried to postpone her evening coming for as long as possible, knowing God ultimately counts our days.

This week, her evening has come. God comforts those who weep with the loss of this remarkable loving wife, mother, daughter – a woman who trusted her heavenly Father for all the things she needed.

We all are created in the image of a God who remembered to rest. We are not alone in our need to catch our breath.

So let evening come, as it will – there is no stopping it – allowing our lungs to be filled with the loving breath of God, our Creator. To Him, we are most definitely irreplaceable.

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Dancing with Grief

The Palace of Holyroodhouse – The Queen’s residence in Edinburgh, Scotland

The missing-ness of it all surfaced again
I asked, “Grief, do you have anything new?”
“No, but you do.”

I suspect this will be our dance
You lead; I age.
~Jordan Sleed “Our Dance”

“Melancholie” sculpture by Albert Gyorgy in Switzerland – photo credit unknown

...my whole life, whether it be short or long, will be devoted to your service.
~Elizabeth in a speech on her 21st birthday

I don’t consider myself a monarchist, nor have I carefully tracked the comings and goings of the British Royal Family over my nearly seventy years of life, being a mere youngster compared to the Queen. But like many others around the world yesterday, I was moved to learn of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, only two days after she held an audience (looking very much alive with her broad smile and signature handbag) with the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Now she has moved on from us, her name and life relegated forever to the history books.

How can I possibly weep and feel grief for the passing of someone I never met, nor could have ever aspired to meet?

This is the strange way of grief — it dances with us throughout our lives, leading us into dark corners we don’t expect to visit. I am grieving for someone who was not born to be queen yet was thrust onto an international stage for 70 years of her life. When she was called to it, she did not shrink from the duty nor did she give up when it became overwhelmingly hard. She made a promise to her people and she delivered on that promise.

I did have an opportunity to speak once with someone who knew the Queen very well and who met with her regularly during her last several decades. He had nothing but great admiration for her character, perseverance, faith and love of family and country.

She was the real deal. And anyone who loves corgis and ponies is exactly my cup of tea.

I believe God welcomed her home with open arms just as He embraces the least of us into His Light – to God, we are all royalty, serving with humility and a duty of honor.

Art by Eleanor Tomlinson
Art by Eleanor Tomlinson

Bring us, O Lord God,
at our last awakening into the house and gate of heav’n:
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light,
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of thy glory and dominion,
world without end. Amen.
~John Donne

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Softening to an Evening Gray

Now that summer’s ripen’d bloom
Frolics where the winter frow n’d,
Stretch’d upon these banks of broom,
We command the landscape round.

Nature in the prospect yields
Humble dales and mountains bold,
Meadows, woodlands, heaths-and fields
Yellow’d o’er with waving gold.

On the uplands ev’ry glade
Brightens in the blaze of day;
O’er the vales the sober shade
Softens to an ev’ning gray.
~John Cunningham from “The Landscape”

Betty with children Carol, Barbara and Joe
the renovated farm house
the “egg” house where produce was kept cool
On the porch in Spring Valley in the Palouse – me at age two with Nancy holding my baby brother Steve along with the Schmitz cousins – Joe, Barbara and Carol

My Aunt Betty Buchholz Schmitz lived for most of her 102 years in landscapes that could be summer-rich with golden crops yet in winter, harsh, bleak and empty. She weathered it all with hard work, grace and an innate sweetness born of her faith.

She was carried away last week to her true home to join my mother’s brother, Albert, and so many family and friends who had gone before her, including my mother who always felt blessed to call Betty her sister through marriage.

I remember Aunt Betty from my earliest days as we would make an annual summer visit to our cousins in Spring Valley, a tiny place with train tracks and a grain elevator in the middle of the rolling hills of the Palouse country of eastern Washington. I felt such a surge of excitement as we entered the long poplar-lined driveway that we could see from the road from far away.

My Palouse family lived in the farm house where my mother and uncle were born – a magical place of two stories with an enclosed staircase and many rooms, a huge basement, a sleeping porch for summer, a working windmill, as well as numerous outbuildings that contained everything Palouse wheat and lentil farmers needed to survive. The house was nestled in a small vale between the surrounding hills, to protect it from chill winter winds and stay cool in the shadows on blazing hot summer days.

Betty was a woman who was soft-spoken, always humble and eager to lend herself wherever needed. She cooked and baked huge meals, and used a wringer-washer and clothesline for never-ending loads of farm laundry. Her home was warm and welcoming with true heart-felt hospitality, even decades later after she moved to a house “in town” – a metropolis with just a few hundred neighbors.

Although a pioneer in the sense of living remotely with minimal conveniences, Betty and her brother Kenneth became pioneers in the 1960’s living donor kidney transplant program, as one of the first successful transplants. This must have required immense courage and stamina from a farm mother of three children, yet she was able to give her brother years of life that he otherwise would not have had.

Over the years, Betty sent cards and letters of encouragement to me in between our occasional visits to see her. She was the kind of aunt that modeled how I wanted to be and I have too often fallen short of her example.

I hoped to see Betty this summer, having missed visits over the last two years of COVID restrictions in her assisted living facility. Instead I will look for her smiling face and listen for her warm voice amid a lengthening list of beloved family and friends when I am called home some day myself.

I’ll see you again, Betty, in the glades of those rolling hills and the shadowed softened vales of the valleys. You will hold out your hand and make sure I feel at home there, just as you did for me during your century here.

Palouse fields
Poplar-lined driveway to the Schmitz farm

The Salt Water Cure

The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
~Mary Oliver “I Go Down to the Shore”

photo by Nate Gibson

…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has getting older.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place. These days, it is most often in church, while singing favorite hymns, but I can cry just about anywhere.

These days, simply reading the headlines warrants weeping.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition – my only excuse and I’m sticking to that story.

A few years ago I read about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witnessed many tears every day in my clinical practice, usually not tears of joy.  These were tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients would describe having a “break down” by which they meant uncontrollable crying.  It was one of the first-mentioned symptoms they wanted relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and I remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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Go Help Your Dad

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Pouring the sidewalk by hand
Grouting the tile perimeter
In the very bottom, installing a drain
The best dive ever…

Nearly twenty-seven years ago
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.

This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer,
and returning home asking for forgiveness.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination
could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what you left undone was up to us
to finish for you.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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Seeing It Through

I wanted you to see what real courage is,
instead of getting the idea
that courage is a man
with a gun in his hand.
It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,
but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

~Harper Lee from To Kill A Mockingbird

I know. It’s all wrong.
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.

Because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.

Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.

But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Samwise Gamgee to Frodo in The Two Towers

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live
taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton from “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy

This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

What courage it takes to step out one’s front door these days.

I never know where I might be swept off to
or what I might be swept into.

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems the world is cast in nothing but shadow,
I am reminded I too am part of a great story
and the plot progression is, by necessity, a mystery.

While the darkness seems to never end,
I will pass through shadows and feel great fear,
I will be asked to do things that threaten my well-being
because it is the right thing to do for another.

Yet we are promised Light and Joy at the end of this epic story.
There is still good in the world and it is worth fighting for.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off too.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Bilbo to Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings

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The Presence of Absence

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did… I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.
Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, an aunt who died of lymphoma as a young child, my parents who separated and divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder.

The world as it is remembers the world that was.  The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration.

All in good time.

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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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They Are No More…


    …mourning and great weeping,
weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
from Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

Newtown, CT December 2012
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.

Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.

Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

~Dick Allen “Solace”

In mourning for the families of Uvalde, Texas

There is no comfort for these families.
Their arms ache with emptiness,
their childrens’ beds and pillows cold tonight,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There is no earthly consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving only dust behind,
which is our beginning
and our end.

Christ came to us
for times such as this,
born of the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit.
God bent down to
be cradled in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
to conquer such evil as this –
the slaughter and massacre of innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines His Light through
the darkness of tragic deaths
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation,
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept as this happened yesterday.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our ongoing choice,
a decision made from our beginning,
but we can choose to end it now.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts,
abandon our evil ways
and sin no more.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer just dust,
as we are glued together
by the word and breath and voice
of God forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79