Between the Lashes of Your Eyes

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches,
give alms to everyone that asks,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem,
and have the richest fluency, not only in its words,
but in the silent lines of its lips and face,
and between the lashes of your eyes,
and in every motion and joint of your body.
~Walt Whitman from his preface to “Leaves of Grass”

Time, in so many ways, has been standing still for us over the last few months, fueled by an unprecedented quarantine and social isolation. We anticipate “when things return to normal” but the reality is there will be no “normal” for those who have lost jobs and businesses and family members or their own robust health since February.

And now society finds itself in the midst of anger and argument, marching and shouting to defend those who have lived for generations with injustice and oppression, and continue to face that reality every day, and the majority of us were oblivious.

“Normal” holds no appeal when “normal” is living under a tyrant’s thumb or dying under a knee.

So how do we approach a change in seasons as we ourselves are irrevocably changed?

What shall we do?

We are our flesh: all colors, flawed and fragile. We must look beyond the lashes of our eyes to see and understand the fluency of the poetry found in our bodies. We, each one of us, deserve the patience of being heard.

This summer will stand on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day will feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet, like the unpredictable length of our fleshy days on earth, it will eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.

That is the “normal” of our existence because summer always, always ends.

Yet another will reappear, somehow, somewhere, someday. The very poetry of our flesh, the very survival of our souls, depends on it. We will then see beyond our own eyelashes.

Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be. We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…

Palmed Off on the Unwary

blackcurrant

Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant;
and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy.
~Mark Twain

Returning to clinic after time off for a summer break, I worry I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake.  Just maybe no one will notice I don’t quite fit back in.

In thirty three years of practice, even after bearing three children and going through several surgeries, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time.  This is primarily out of my fear that, even after a few weeks, I will have forgotten all that I’ve ever known and if I were to actually return to see patients again, I would be masquerading as a physician rather than be the real thing.   A mere fly among the currants palmed off on the unwary.

Those who spend their professional lives taking care of others also share this concern if they are truly honest: if a patient only knew how much we don’t know and will never know, despite everything we DO know, there would really be no need for us at all, especially in this day and age of accurate (and some terribly inaccurate) medical information at everyone’s fingertips.  Who needs a physician when there are so many other options to seek health care advice, even when there are a few flies mixed in?

As I walk back into an exam room to sit with my first patient after my time away, I recall over thirty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for subtlety of signs and symptoms that no googled website or internet doc-in-the-box can discern.  The avoidance of eye contact, the tremble of the lip as they speak, the barely palpable rash, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base.  These are things I am privileged to see and hear and make decisions about together with my patients.  This is no masquerade; I am not appearing to be someone I am not.  This is what I’m trained to do and have done for thousands of days of my life.   No need for the unwary to fear.

The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough to be part of the cake that an unwary patient might gobble down to their ultimate detriment — but not this doctor.  I know I’m the real thing, perhaps a bit on the tart side, but offering up just enough tang to be what is needed.

And I will die happy doing this.

 

 

Stretched Thin

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

It is not supposed to happen while taking vacation days from work.  I’m supposed to be well-rested, eager to return to work and ready for the next challenge.  Instead, some viral crud has collided with my immune system and won;  I’ve spent the last 24 hours with chills, fever, muscle aches and no appetite.   I was thinking my strange dreams and overwhelming laziness over the previous two days was just the real “me” coming out while on vacation, but now I know it was the real virus instead.

I try to go at 100 miles per hour in my professional and personal life to get everything done, rarely taking breaks as I feel I’ll never regain the momentum needed.  I’m finding that approach to life can’t be sustained, either because my body can’t do it any longer, or more likely, my brain doesn’t easily stretch that thin any longer.    I’m realizing there may a steady pace that is sustainable and I need to find it.  Right now that pace is from bed to bathroom to computer and back to bed.  I hope to aim for a little more adventure tomorrow.

When I am stretched too thin–when tears flow easy–it is time to slow down and taste the bread and not worry about buttering it.

It is time for the body to be restored by the Body.

Lenten Reflection–Into the Lives of Others

photo by Josh Scholten

The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.
Thomas Merton

We want to avoid suffering, death, sin, ashes. But we live in a world crushed and broken and torn, a world God Himself visited to redeem. We receive his poured-out life, and being allowed the high privilege of suffering with Him, may then pour ourselves out for others.
Elisabeth Elliot

Much of my professional work as a physician involves helping people avoid suffering. Either I strive to prevent illness, or address symptoms early, or once someone is very sick or injured, try to mitigate the discomfort and misery. Sometimes I am able to help. Too often they are futile efforts. At that point all I can give is myself, caring for my patient as best I can. There is no medication, no physical manipulation or surgery, no magic touch that makes the difference that love can.

In a flawed and broken world, there will be suffering that cannot be prevented. We can run, but we can’t hide. It is avoidance that hurts us most. For some, it is the temporary anesthesia of alcohol or other recreational substances, a burrowing into numbness that prevents feeling anything at all. For others, it is the neverending quest for fulfillment in pleasure, which is transient and hollow, or accumulating material goods, which eventually bore, become obsolete and pile up in landfills.

He poured Himself into us as He suffered. In turn, thus filled, we have ourselves to give.

Nothing else lasts. Nothing else matters.

I’m not sure God wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to love, and be loved. But we are like children, thinking our toys will make us happy and the whole world is our nursery. Something must drive us out of that nursery and into the lives of others, and that something is suffering.
C. S. Lewis