Naming Your Hopelessness

Instead of depression,
try calling it hibernation.
Imagine the darkness is a cave
in which you will be nurtured
by doing absolutely nothing.
Hibernating animals don’t even dream.
It’s okay if you can’t imagine
Spring. Sleep through the alarm
of the world. Name your hopelessness
a quiet hollow, a place you go
to heal, a den you dug,
Sweetheart, instead
of a grave.
~Andrea Gibson “Instead of Depression” from You Better Be Lightning

We didn’t say fireflies
but lightning bugs.
We didn’t say carousel
but merry-go-round.
Not seesaw,
teeter-totter
not lollipop,
sucker.
We didn’t say pasta, but
spaghetti, macaroni, noodles:
the three kinds.
We didn’t get angry:
we got mad.
And we never felt depressed
dismayed, disappointed
disheartened, discouraged
disillusioned or anything,
even unhappy:
just sad.
~Sally Fisher “Where I Come From”  from Good Question.

…if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful.. .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy.. .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses.
~Lisa Feldman Barrett from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….
We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

If there is anything I came to understand over the decades I served as a primary care physician, it is that every person experiences painful emotions that make them miserable, making it even more difficult to share with others. Sometimes those feelings build up such pressure that they leak out of our cells as physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tightness, stomach upset, hypertension. Other times they are so overwhelming we can no longer function in a day to day way – described clinically as rage, panic, mood disorder, depression, self-destructive, suicidal.

Somehow we’ve lost permission to be sad.
Just sad. Sometimes unbearably, hopelessly sad.
 
Sadness happens to us all, some longer than others, some worse than others, some deeper than others. What makes sadness more real and more manageable is if we can say it out loud — whatever ‘sad’ means to us on a given day and if we describe our feelings in detail, explaining to others who can understand because they’ve been there too, then they can listen and help.

Painful emotions don’t always need a “fix” in the short term, particularly chemical, but that is why I was usually consulted. Alcohol, marijuana and other self-administered drugs tend to be the temporary anesthesia that people seek to stop feeling anything at all but it can erupt even stronger later.

Sometimes an overwhelming feeling just needs an outlet so it no longer is locked up, unspoken and silent, threatening to leak out in ways that tear us up and pull us apart.

Sometimes we need a healing respite/hibernation, with permission to sleep through the world’s alarms for a time. At times, medical management with antidepressants can be incredibly helpful along with talk therapy.

It helps to find words to express how things felt before this sadness, where you are now in the midst of it and where you wish you could be rather than being swallowed by sorrow. Healing takes time and like anything else that is broken, it hurts as it repairs. Armed with that self-knowledge and some gentle compassion, tomorrow and the next day and the next might feel a little less hopeless and overwhelming.

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A Broken and Contrite Heart

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart
Psalm 51:17

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians: 6-12, 16

The great mystery of God’s love is that we are not asked to live as if we are not hurting, as if we are not broken. In fact, we are invited to recognize our brokenness as a brokenness in which we can come in touch with the unique way that God loves us. The great invitation is to live your brokenness under the blessing. I cannot take people’s brokenness away and people cannot take my brokenness away.  But how do you live in your brokenness? Do you live your brokenness under the blessing or under the curse? The great call of Jesus is to put your brokenness under the blessing.
~Henri Nouwen from a Lecture at Scarritt-Bennett Center

Every day, as the sun goes down,
I pause, broken, remembering how often
I messed up that day, in big and small ways.
I’m cracked open, my mistakes illuminated,
weighing down my heart, impossible to forget.
Yet, as I pray for mercy, there follows a peacefulness,
as my errors are blotted out.

My slate, one more time, is wiped clean.

This ceramic pot is meant specially for our kitchen table — handmade by a friend using the abstract artistry of mane hairs from our farm’s Haflinger horses burnt onto the sides.  But it hit the floor and broke into many pieces, looking completely beyond repair.

It is back on our table, repaired with love and care by another friend, using nothing more than copious amounts of Elmer’s Glue.  This is the glue of every child’s school desk, the glue of every mother’s junk drawer, the glue of every heart that needs mending.  Elmer’s is not the gold of the Japanese art of kintsugiwhere broken vessels are repaired with precious metals, creating an object even more valuable and beautiful than before, with streaks and tracks of gold highlighting their shattered history.

Yet this ceramic is now even more precious to me. Someone we love cared deeply enough to make it in the first place, and another we love cared deeply to repair it, making it more beautiful and blessed in its brokenness, highlighting ragged pieces made whole again.

Someone made us.
Someone repairs us when we fall apart.
Someone blesses our brokenness with a glued-together beauty that makes us whole.

Therefore do not lose heart…


~Allegri’s Miserere — setting of Psalm 51

Translation:
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offenses.

Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight:
that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.

Behold, I was shaped in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.

Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness:
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.

Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.

O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and establish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health:
and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.

For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.

O be favorable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness,
with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.

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To Keep From Being Forgotten

I like to stroll the graveyard in the middle of town
With my friend Anne, though we seldom agree
On what an epitaph we happen to read implies.
I’m inclined to find the one-line gravestone,
Dr. Noah Vedder, M.D., as sadly comic.
If we can’t take our money into the dark,
I read it as saying, at least we can take our titles.
But Anne, whose sympathies are aroused
More quickly than mine, reads it more darkly
As confessional. Here is the man’s admission
That he saw himself as a better doctor
Than he was a friend, or father, or husband,
A better listener in his office than at home.

If his kin were responsible for the inscription,
Its terseness, I say, may suggest they were moved
More by duty than they were by love.
But for her, its terseness seems to imply
Their painful acknowledgment that no praise
Inscribed on the stone would keep their friend
From being forgotten soon after they would be.
And behind this truth she hears a protest:
If the world were fair, he wouldn’t be sentenced
To endless retirement but allowed to practice,
In a life beyond this one, the profession he loved.

What use would a doctor be, I ask, in a realm
Where bodies are laid aside? But for her the point is
That those who knew him were certain that if
Such a realm existed and a doctor were called for there,
He’d volunteer, glad to hold office hours
And glad after hours to visit patients
Too sick to leave home,
However modest the streets they lived on,
However winding and poorly lit.

~Carl Dennis “At the Graveyard with Anne”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

We physicians can be an arrogant lot in our devotion to our profession above all else in our lives – I’ve known a few who wear their M.D. title full-time like a banner and shield to prove their expertise.

The only time the label M.D. is relevant is on a name tag in a clinical setting and often it doesn’t even make a difference there. We do what we can with what knowledge we possess from our training, as limited as it is. There is so much that we don’t know and don’t understand.

Even so, there are many altruistic physicians who give of themselves 24 hours a day for their lifetime. Some would gladly continue their healing efforts long after they have become dust, yet those skills are no longer needed. In heaven, all are already healed.

Our healing comes from beyond our expertise, from a balm that can never be prescribed. We have a Great Physician who never forgets us, even when we are crushed and mourning, when all seems hopeless with our wounds so incredibly deep.

We are not forgotten.

Every face is in you, every voice,
Every sorrow in you.
Every pity, every love,
Every memory, woven into fire.
Every breath is in you, every cry,
Every longing in you.

Every singing, every hope,
Every healing, woven into fire.
Every heart is in you,
Every tongue, every trembling in you,
Every blessing, every soul,
Every shining, woven into fire.
~Michael Dennis Browne

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Carry On

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on
~Jordan St. Cyr

There are so many who are weary right now:
-refugees who have walked for miles to reach safety, with no idea where to go next.
-hopeful immigrants who seek a new life and a new start, but bogged down in government process and paperwork
-those who are struggling to stay alive in the midst of debilitating illness, both physical and mental
-those who have given of themselves to care for those who struggle
-those who have lived many years and now feel ready to be taken home, yet wake again to a new day
-those whose faith feels beaten down by the loss of community and congregational consolation during two years of pandemic anger and disagreement
-those who mourn deeply for those they have lost.

God knows our grief. God knows our weary bodies and minds need rest and restoration. God knows the struggle as He too walked this weary road, too often alone.

Yet He carried on then and carries on today and will be there alongside us tomorrow.

Carry on. Someday we will make it home.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on

You keep on giving
But every day this world just keeps on taking
Your tired heart is on the edge of breaking
Carry on

Weary traveler, restless soul
You were never meant to walk this road alone
It’ll all be worth it so just hold on

Weary traveler
You won’t be weary long
No more searching

Heaven’s healing’s gonna find where all the hurt is
When Jesus calls we’ll lay down all our heavy burdens
Carry on
Someday soon we’re gonna make it home

Neon lights flickering
Outside the cafe
Ice on the windshield
Stars in a black sea
On a winter road
Flurries of snow
I’m ready to go

Past farmhouse and pasture
Our voices together
Rise to the drumming
Of big-rigs and trailers
Long hours to daylight
A rumbling bus
Our bed and our board

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

In the towns off this highway
The people are kind
They welcome us in
I sing in their church halls
Old hymns and prayer songs
With lifted hearts
We rejoice in the Lord

I long for my family
And friends to remind me
Of where I have been
And where I am going
And where I come from

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Small Broken Things

Praise to the Lord of the small broken things,
who sees the poor sparrow that cannot take wing.
who loves the lame child and the wretch in the street
who comforts their sorrows and washes their feet.

~Johanna Anderson

God uses broken things.
It takes broken soil to produce a crop,
broken clouds to give rain,
broken grain to give bread,
broken bread to give strength.
It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.
~Vance Havner

We yearn for perfection,
to be flawless and faultless,
unblemished,
aiming for symmetry,
straight and smooth.

Life serves up something far different.

In the beginning,
we were created unblemished,
image bearers of perfection.
No longer.
Now we bear witness to brokenness
with shattered lives, fragile minds and frail bodies.
It is our vulnerability and need for healing
that stand out now.

To restore
our lost relationship with Him,
God applies the glue of grace
to seal our cracks
and heal our bustedness.

He breaks Himself
to mend us,
to glue us firmly in place,
bound to Him
forever.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Praise to the Lord of the small broken things,
who sees the poor sparrow that cannot take wing.
who loves the lame child and the wretch in the street
who comforts their sorrows and washes their feet.

Praise to the Lord of the faint and afraid
who girds them with courage and lends them His aid,
He pours out his spirit on vessels so weak,
that the timid can serve and the silent can speak.

Praise to the Lord of the frail and the ill
who heals their afflictions or carries them till,
they leave this tired frame and to paradise fly.
to never be sick and never to die.

Praise him, O praise Him all ye who live
who’ve been given so much and can so little give
our frail lisping praise God will never despise-
He sees His dear children through mercy-filled eyes.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

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To Break Your Heart

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing.,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
~Mary Oliver “Lead” from New and Selected Poems

Why shouldn’t we go through heartbreaks?

…if through a broken heart
God can bring His purposes to pass in the world,
then thank Him for breaking your heart.
~Oswald Chambers from “Ye are not your own” from My Utmost for the Highest

These last two years have seen an epidemic of heart-break.

Due to hospital visitor restrictions, thousands of loved ones have died of COVID without family by their side, deprived of the solace of hearing familiar voices and being touched by familiar hands. A weary and over-worked health care team can only do so much in their efforts to comfort and console when so many patients are losing their battle with the virus at the same time. Although nurses and doctors have always been witnesses to the cries of the dying and the weeping of the grief-stricken, that is usually together at the bedside.

An iPad screen isn’t the same for those saying good-bye forever.

For all the advances of our modern society – through technology and communication and the development of medical miracles – people still die and others still grieve and weep over their loss. We’re not used to dying happening with such frequency to those who have no business dying in the first place. We assume death rates exceeding birth rates happens only in third world countries beset with drought or plague.

Not any more.

So my heart is tender – for those lost, for those left behind, for those trying their best to save lives when they are weary and ill themselves, for the irony of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths when the preventive measures available to us all are so clear-cut.

If anything, a breaking heart is an open invitation for the solace of a God who himself had no business dying in the first place, but did. He cried out in a long, sweet savoring of his life and ours, saving us in the process.

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Where the Field Ends and the Cat Begins

It takes a peculiar vision to be able to detect
Precisely where

The field grasses brushed by blowing
Stars and the odor of spring
In the breath of sweet clover buds
And the star-mingled calls of the toads

In the threading grasses and the paws
Of the clover brushing through the field
Of stars and the star-shaped crickets
In the ears of the sweet grasses
And the tail of the night flicking
Through the calls of the clover and the spring
Stars slinking past the eyes of midnight
And the hour of the field mouse passing
Through the claws of the stars and the brushing
Haunches of the weeds and starry grasses
Threading through the eyes of the mouse
And the buds of the stars calling
With the sweet breath of the field

End
And the cat begins.
~Pattiann Rogers “Finding the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight”

The knock on the door seemed urgent: – “did we know we have an injured cat?” –
the pest control serviceman was spraying the perimeter of our house for carpenter ants and saw our young calico farm cat crawling along the ground in the bushes, unable to use her hind legs.

I grabbed my jacket and a towel to wrap her in, preparing for a quick trip to the vet clinic, but she had vanished by the time I got outside. I searched for an hour in all the likely places Nala typically hangs out but she was no where. I kept an eye out for her every day, calling her, but I never saw her or heard her distinctive voice.

Nine days later, she was on the front porch, thin and weak and hungry, meowing for a meal. She was walking but with still-weakened hind legs and two healing wounds on either side of her lower spine. Something very traumatic had certainly happened, but she had survived, using up several of her nine lives.

As I inspected the wounds, I began to surmise what may have happened:
We have nesting bald eagles who spend time in the high trees around our farm house, watching for wild rabbits or other small prey. This cat is smallish, with plenty of white fur to be easily seen in the tall grass with sharp eagle vision. I suspect she was picked up by eagle talons as a tempting meal, pierced on either side of her spine to carry her away up to a treetop, but feisty as she is, she would have been more trouble than she was worth, so dropped from a significant height, causing a spinal cord contusion and temporary lower leg paralysis.

Little Nala has since recovered completely except for the bald patch scars on either side of her spine. She is a noisy communicator, insistent and bold. I think her loud voice and attitude saved her from becoming a raptor’s lunch.

Not many more lives to go, dear feisty Nala. Spend them well.

photo by Nate Gibson

A book of beauty in words and photography available to order here:

Seeing Clearly

To see clearly,
not needing a drink
or pill or puff
of any pipe
to know I’m alive.
To come home,
peel off sandals
and step onto
the cool tile floor
needing only
the rush of water
over strawberries
I picked myself
and then a knife
to trim the dusty
green heads
from each one,
to watch them
gleam cleanly
in a colander
in a patch of sun
near the sink.
~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.

Can’t relax? Have a drink.
Feeling irritable? Have a smoke.
Can’t wake up? Strong coffee.
Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines.
Can’t sleep? Valium.

I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.

As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.

Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.

No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Finding the Real Thing

I am hardly ever able
to sort through my memories
and come away whole
or untroubled.
It is difficult
to sift through the stones,
the weighty moments and know
which is rare gem,
which raw coal,
which worthless shale or slate.
So, one by one,
I drag them across the page
and when one cuts into the white,
leaves a trail of blood,
no matter how narrow the stream,
then I know
I’ve found the real thing,
the diamond,
one of the priceless gems
my pain produced.
“There! There,” I say,
“is a memory worth keeping.”
~Nikki Grimes “Poems”

I have tucked-away memories that still scratch my tender skin:
when they surface, I tend to bleed at the recollection,
feeling the familiar sting behind my eyelids and upside-down stomach.

Some people work hard to completely bury painful history,
unwilling to allow it back into the daylight to inflict even more harm.

I don’t welcome overwhelming memories back,
but when they come unbidden,
I grant them access only because I know,
as this happened to me long ago,
I will feel the sharp ache of sorrow
when I witness bleeding in another.

I was there too.
I am there with you now.
What happened was real but done.
Its healing leaves behind only
a thin line where the bleeding was.