In the juggle of job, geography, child-rearing, art, sometimes the only quiet is at the kitchen table, a pot of tea, perhaps a bowl of custard, a visitor. The conversation—a fine visible thread one or the other occasionally pulls tight—stretches from Ireland to Alaska, culture to creature, mad experience to dizzy present. How to best sew the dream? The question follows the line we daily stitch: the journey inside. On the stove water steams. Another pot suffices. ~Ken Waldman,”Irish Tea” from The Secret Visitor’s Guide
Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone…
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. Everything is waiting for you. ~David Whyte from “Everything is Waiting for You”
Many of us are feeling conversation-deficient right now. I know I am; even as a confirmed introvert, I struggle with the desire to stay comfortably internal when instead I need a good chat to discover through careful listening what others are thinking and saying.
Typed words on a screen or handwritten on a piece of paper, or confined to a muted box in a zoom meeting, or spontaneous telephone conversations just don’t do it.
We need a pot of tea, a mug of coffee, a scone or piece of fruit placed in front of us, and a couple of hours to trace the threads of our lives and see where they connect. We build a tapestry of friendship together, sorting through the colors and themes and blending what we can where we are able.
A conversation doesn’t have to be profound nor have an agenda. Sitting together with the patchwork of the world’s swirling events is reason enough. You choose the fabric, I’ll thread the needle and we’ll sew a dream of a better world.
When we stitch with our words, the good in you is sewn together with the good in me – a solid seam reinforced and everlasting.
All men die. Not all men really live. ~William Wallace
Life — the temptation is always to reduce it to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is THE mystery.
After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. “It is life.”
Have you wept at anything during the past year? Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty? Have you thought seriously about the fact that someday you are going to die?
More often than not, do you really listen when people are speaking to you, instead of just waiting for your turn to speak? Is there anybody you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer yourself?
If your answer to all or most of these questions is no, the chances are that you’re dead. ~Frederick Buechner from Listen to Your Life
I like mysteries if they are neatly solved between two book covers or contained within 90 minutes on a TV show.
Mysteries that don’t neatly resolve? Not so much. The uncertainty and unknowns can be paralyzing.
I am gifted the opportunity to witness miracles every day and the mystery is that I don’t often recognize them. I’m too “in my own head” to see.
If I weep, which I do more often than is comfortable to admit, am I weeping for something other than myself? If I listen, which I like to think I do well in my profession, but not as well in my personal life, do I really hear the perspective from another life and world view? If I become aware of someone’s suffering, am I willing to become uncomfortable myself to ease another’s pain?
I am being tested in these days of disrupted routines and potential threats to my health and well-being. Do I hunker down defensively or reach out unselfishly to make the best of the days that are left to me?
The mystery of when I will die can’t be solved until that moment comes, and I can’t be paralyzed by that unknown. But the everyday miracles of life are large and small and grand and plentiful and hidden in plain sight. I want to live every moment as their witness.
…It’s true it can make you weep to peel them, to unfurl and to tease from the taut ball first the brittle, caramel-colored and decrepit papery outside layer, the least
recent the reticent onion wrapped around its growing body, for there’s nothing to an onion but skin, and it’s true you can go on weeping as you go on in, through the moist middle skins, the sweetest
and thickest, and you can go on in to the core, to the bud-like, acrid, fibrous skins densely clustered there, stalky and in- complete, and these are the most pungent… ~William Matthews from “Onions”
…I would never scold the onion for causing tears. It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten. How at meal, we sit to eat, commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma but never on the translucence of onion, now limp, now divided, or its traditionally honorable career: For the sake of others, disappear. ~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.
Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal, crystal scales expanded you and in the secrecy of the dark earth your belly grew round with dew. Under the earth the miracle happened and when your clumsy green stem appeared, and your leaves were born like swords in the garden, the earth heaped up her power showing your naked transparency…
…You make us cry without hurting us. I have praised everything that exists, but to me, onion, you are more beautiful than a bird of dazzling feathers, heavenly globe, platinum goblet, unmoving dance of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives in your crystalline nature. ~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”
Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.
This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.
It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:
I weep over the headlines. I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken. I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear. I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.
We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.
Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.
So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.
No, I don’t mean to make you cry as you peel my layers away, gently, one by one, each more tender until you reach my heart. Chop away at me if you must but weep the good tears, the ones that mean we weep for the sake of our meal together: you eating and drinking, and me – consumed.
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. 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. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen. ~Book of Common Prayer
Most days I am overwhelmed with words, whether they come from the radio, TV, podcasts, books, magazines, social media or simply dwelling in my own thoughts. I’m barraged with what to think, how to think, who to believe, who not to believe, and why to think at all.
I’m left desperate for a need for silence, just to quiet myself. All I need is to know what I am to do with this new day, how to best live this moment.
Then I come to the Word. It explains. It responds. It restores. It refreshes. It consoles. It understands. It embodies the Spirit I need far more than I need silence.
The words I seek to hear are far more than Words. They are God Himself.
When a friend calls to me from the road And slows his horse to a meaning walk, I don’t stand still and look around On all the hills I haven’t hoed, And shout from where I am, What is it? No, not as there is a time to talk. I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground, Blade-end up and five feet tall, And plod: I go up to the stone wall For a friendly visit. ~Robert Frost, “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems
We don’t take the time to visit anymore. Human connection is too often via VPN and pixels, chat groups and texts, GIFs and tweets. We’ve lost the fine art of conversation and intently listening, and no one remembers how to write a letter long-hand, fold it into an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it into a mailbox.
No wonder our grandchildren are unsure how to cultivate a relationship like they might a garden: working the soil of another’s life, turning it over and over, fluffing it up, pulling out the unwanted weeds that smother growth, nurturing it with the best fertilizer, planting the seeds most likely to germinate, drenching with the warmth of light and energy, keeping the roots from getting thirsty.
We need to listen; we need to talk; we need to take time; we need to lean on the walls between us and bridge our gaps as best we can.
Just call out to me. I’ll stop what I’m doing, drop my hoe and plod over for a good chin wag. It’s what every good gardener needs to do.
Prick my ears, Lord. Make them hungry satellites, have your way with their tiny bones, teach the drum within that dark to drum again. Because within the hammering of woodpecker is a long tongue unwinding like a tape measure from inside his pileated head, darting dinner from the pine’s soft bark. And somewhere I know is a spider who births a filament of silk and flies it to the next branch; somewhere, a fiddlehead unstrings its violin into the miracle of fern.
Those are your sounds, are they not? Do not deny it, Lord, do not deny me. I do not know those songs. Nor do I know the hush a dandelion’s face makes when it closes, surrenders, then goes to seed. No, I only know the sound my own breath makes as I wish and blow that perfect globe away; I only know the small, satisfactory popping of roots when I call it weed and yank it from the yard. There is a language of all you’ve created. Hear me, please. I just want to be still enough to hear. Right here, Lord: I want to be. ~Nikole Brown from “Prayer to Be Still and Know”
The hardest thing sometimes is to shut up our constant internal monologue long enough to be able to hear all the other voices outside in the world around us.
We just spent a few days with a visiting 13 month old who wanted very much to communicate even though none of his language was understandable to our ears, yet all the appropriate inflections were there. He clearly was speaking sentences, asking questions, making emphatic statements with the rise and fall of his voice, but his baby babble was completely foreign to our grown-up ears. Sometimes I wonder if that is exactly how God hears us: all blather and babble which makes sense to us, but not remotely intelligible.
So I need to shut up and listen to all the subtle language around me and not keep trying to shout it down, grumble it to the ground, or whisper it away. I need the Lord’s still small voice coming from a billion corners of creation to understand who He is and why He gave me — me! — ears to hear.
All night the crickets chirp, Like little stars of twinkling sound In the dark silence.
They sparkle through the summer stillness With a crisp rhythm: They lift the shadows on their tiny voices.
But at the shining note of birds that wake, Flashing from tree to tree till all the wood is lit— O golden coloratura of dawn!— The cricket-stars fade slowly, One by one. ~Leonora Speyer, “Crickets at Dawn” from A Canopic Jar
Most mornings here tend to be gray — primarily unassuming and humble. Sunrise usually happens without much visual fanfare – blink and I miss it.
Instead I listen for morning rather than watch for it.
As summer night sounds fade out, the dawn songs begin. Birds become the harbingers where frogs and crickets let off.
There are a few special days when the light ascends gilded and decides to linger while the whole atmosphere is transformed. The air itself is burnished and shining, and all that is touched turns to gold. Like a stage production about to begin, the curtain rises to the sounds of an overture while a resplendent backdrop is illuminated.
So I wait, a transfixed audience, for the day’s aria to begin.
If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. ~ Thomas MertonfromMy Argument with the Gestapo
As a patient waiting to see my health care provider, I would adapt Merton’s template of personal revelation this way:
If you want to know who I am, ask me not about my insurance plan, or what is my current address, or whether I have a POLST on file, or whether I have signed the Notice of Privacy Practice, or whether I’ll accept a message on my phone — but ask me what I am most concerned about, in detail, ask me what I think is causing my symptoms and what I think is keeping me from eating healthy, exercising regularly, and choosing moderation in all things so that I can live fully for the thing I want to live for.
As a physician in the midst of a busy clinic day, I struggle to know who my patients are beyond their standard medical history and demographics. One of my goals in our primary care clinic, now sixteen years into electronic medical record (EMR) use, is to create a way for our patients to provide their personal history online to us via their password secured web portal. These are the questions our clinic staff may not have opportunity to ask or record during clinic visits. Having the patient personally document their social history and background for us to have in the chart –in essence, telling us their story in their own words–can be very helpful diagnostically and for individualizing the best treatment approach for each unique individual.
There needs to be an “About me” section in the EMR that would contain biographical and personal history information the patient could provide online via writing or video.
Tell us about yourself This is your own personal history in your own words to be added to your electronic medical record in the folder “About Me”. You can edit and add information at any time via this secure patient portal to update it.
We want to know your story. Only you can tell us what you think is most important for us as your health care providers to know about you. We may not always have the time to ask and document these detailed questions in a brief clinic visit, so we are asking for your help.
Why do we want to know your non-medical background as well as medical background?
We evaluate a patient’s symptoms of concern but we also are dedicated to helping our patients stay healthy life long. To assist us in this effort, it is very helpful to know as much about you as possible, in addition to your past medical history. It is crucial also to understand your family background and social history. We want to know more about your personal goals, and what you think may be preventing you right now from living fully for the things you consider most important to you.
This is your opportunity to tell us about yourself, with suggested questions below that you can consider answering. This information is treated as a confidential part of your medical record, just like all information contained in your record. You can add more at any time by returning to this site.
1) Tell us about your family—who raised you and grew up with you, and who currently lives with you– including your racial/ethnic/cultural heritage. If relevant, tell us whether you have biological beginnings outside of your family (e.g. adopted, egg donation, surrogate pregnancy, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization) Provide information on any illnesses in your biologic family.
2) List the states or countries you have lived in, and what countries outside the U.S. you have lived in longer than a month. Have you served in the military or another government entity, like the Peace Corps?
3) Tell us about your educational and job background. This could include your schooling or training history, paid or volunteer work you’ve done. What are your hobbies, how do you spend your leisure time, what are your passions and future goals. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
4) Tell us about your sexual orientation and/or gender preference.
5) Tell us about your current emotional support system—who are you most likely to share with when things are going very well for you and especially when things are not going well.
6) Tell us about your spiritual background, whether you are part of a faith or religious community and if so, how it impacts your life.
7) Tell us what worries you most about your health.
8) What would you have done differently if you could change things in your life? What are you most thankful for in your life?
9) What else do you feel it is important for us to know about you?
Thank you for helping us get to know you better so we can provide medical care that best meets your unique needs.
As our clinic is moving to an updated EMR, I’m interested in hearing feedback from patients and health care providers. What additional questions would you want asked as part of personal history documentation in a medical record?
Electronic medical records allow us, as never before, the ability to share information securely between patients and their health care providers. Patients want to tell us their story and we want to know more about them.
It is time we asked them and truly listen to what they have to say.
Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.
…Listening to great music, or reading great literature, an inner rhythm is detected and the heart rejoices, and a light breaks which is none other than God’s love shining through all of creation. ~Malcolm Muggeridge from his lecture “Christ and the Media”
For Lent this year, each day will be devoted to a story Jesus told –his parables–
to help each of us “get the message” in a way we might not otherwise.
Whether about a lost coin, a wandering sheep, a light hidden from view,
or a hypercritical older brother: the parable told is about me and choices I make.
Every day is filled with stories told
and I feel too rushed to listen,
to take time for transformation
by what I see or feel or hear,
no matter how seemingly
small and insignificant.
When I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:
A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.
An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
An old barn roof awaiting repair
has gaps torn of fierce winds,
allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside
what once was safe and secure,
a sanctuary exposed to storms.
I am looking.
I am listening.
Getting the message.
Badly in need of repair.
To be changed, transformed,
and to become part
of the story being told.