The Wobble in the Voice

I don’t know if you ever saw a doubt.
In fact, I doubt you did.
They’re shape shifting little shadows
and they’re more than often hid.


You could hear them on the whirling winds,
that whistled through the farm.
You could feel them in your stomach
or brush the goosebumps of your arm.


You’d hear them giggling in the corners,
in the darkness of the night.
They’re the wobble in the voice
that claims that things will be all right.


And the little doubts got larger,
until they no longer hid in holes.
They now lived out amongst them
and they slipped into their souls.


I know good times are coming back.
I know the sun will rise.
I know the hard earth soon will soften,
and plants will bloom before our eyes.

There will be colour in the meadows
and the river will unfreeze.
But if we’re to move beyond this moment
then these fiendish doubts must leave.

We need hopeful stories more than ever,
we should tell them till we’re blue.
We should tell them till we look outside
and see that they’ve come true.

And the doubts that wreak such havoc,
they were nowhere to be seen.
And the fear they’d brought forth with them
felt so much like a dream.

So remember, little sister,
take courage with you when you sleep.
For tomorrow we might all need it,
for the little doubts that creep.

~Tomos Roberts from “Doubts that Creep”

These days doubt is more epidemic than the COVID virus.

No one trusts anyone to tell the truth any longer and truth itself is up for grabs. Experts are suspect, while government agencies and their spokespersons surely must be part of a larger conspiracy.

It’s an “every man for himself” attitude with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

You can see where doubts leave us: we end up in a wintry forsaken place that looks, feels and frankly, is hopeless.

The most recent weeks have been difficult as most students start school at home again rather than in classrooms and no one is happy about it. Churches have been meeting online or outside and will need to make a difficult transition to limited indoor worship services that won’t feel familiar. Businesses continue to suffer the effects of people having less income to spend, and unwillingness to spend on anything but essentials.

A pandemic virus wreaks havoc with society but stories sowing doubts and mistrust are far more damaging. Rather than working together for solutions, we as a society have become more divided and divisive than ever.

When I speak with those whose well-being I care deeply about, yet who don’t trust my opinion or any medical opinion for that matter, my voice wobbles with concern. If I, as a caring friend and physician for forty years can’t be trusted, then whom will they trust?

A virus doesn’t give a rip what our politics are – it is an equal-opportunity opportunist seeking which cell to invade next. “Going viral” is yet another real life lesson in exponential multiplication, whether a packet of RNA or a social media meme or youtube link sowing mistrust and discord as it is shared millions of times and spreads with our help and consent.

We can’t allow creeping doubts to metastasize into a hopelessness cancer that is terminal.

We need hopeful stories, now more than ever. We need to take courage with us when we lay ourselves down to sleep, and dream the dreams of a better day on the horizon. We need truth that is not up for grabs to the highest bidder but is steadfast, transparent and … true.

Until then, we all should keep our masks on to stop the spread and protect others. It surely can’t hurt.

To Revel in Rays of Light

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter.
I feel no obligation to deal with politics.
I do feel a responsibility to society.
A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy;
true, not false; lively, not dull;
accurate, not full of error.
He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world;
he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.
Much writing today strikes me

as deprecating, destructive, and angry.
There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger.
But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion,
their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.

I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad:
one role of the writer today is to sound the alarm.
The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late,
and not much is being done.
Instead of carting rocks from the moon,
we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.
…I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer
if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle,
to accept the warming rays of the sun,
and to report them, whenever,
and if ever, they happen to strike me.

~E.B. White 1969 (on writing)

It becomes tiresome always feeling angry
about what it is happening in the world,
feeling that everything, even a virus,
has been made political.
I’m done with reading and writing nothing but words of frustration,
but will rail against the meanness that surrounds us,
and push back the bully
to seek out a balance of perspective and insight.

When I need to feel something other than mad,
I’ll walk as far as I can go,
look up, revel in the gift of rays of light
and bask in their warmth and promise.

I will accept what the sun has to offer
and tell about it
so that my anger drains away
like so much waste flushed down a pipe,
never to be seen again.

Only the Strength We Have

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Weighing” from The Beauty

So many right now feel they have no more left to give;
so much has been asked, so much sacrificed,
the scale feels broken, forever out of balance.

Yet more strength is needed, more requested,
and somehow in some way,
the scale steadies, rebalances
because of that extra effort.

We can’t give up now.
We need each other to give a little more
try a little harder
go a little farther
smile behind the mask
while showing our smile above the mask.

It only takes a little love
to balance out all the rest.

from “Feats of Strength” by Tom Otterness at Western Washington University

Stalking the Gaps Together

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The gaps are the thing.
The gaps are the spirit’s one home,
the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean
that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound.
The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower

to see the back parts of God;
they are fissures between mountains

and cells the wind lances through,
the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.


Go up into the gaps.
If you can find them;
they shift and vanish too.
Stalk the gaps.
Squeak into a gap in the soil,
turn, and unlock
—more than a maple—
a universe.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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I think there is a yawning gaping separation threatening us right now.

I feel a fissuring gap in my life. People who have eaten at our table, shared our home, who we have worshiped alongside – are now estranged, no longer trusting. This separation is buoyed by the chill wind of politics blowing bitterly where once there was warmth and nurture and caring.

We disagree.

We no longer understand one another. We no longer listen to one another.
The argument has become more important than the connection.

How can we even allow these gaps between us to develop?
How do we fill these fissures with enough of ourselves
so something new and vital can grow?
How can we stalk the gaps together, knowing how we are all exposed?

Not one of us has the corner on the Truth; if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we cower together for safety in the cracks of this world, watching helplessly as the backside of God passes by too holy for us to gaze upon. He places us there together for our own good. I see you there alongside me.

We are weak together. We are dependent together. We need each other.

Only His Word – nothing else –
can fill the open gaping hollow between us.
His Grace is great enough
to fill every hole
bridge every gap
bring hope to the hopeless
plant seeds for the future
and restore us wholly to each other.

Let it be so. Oh please let it be.

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August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a white New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending. Not only are the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires, but the streets are filled with protesters and counter-protesters who loot and shoot rather than meet to ask questions, and our future is filled with the uncertain timeline of ongoing pandemic destruction as nature has the upper hand yet again. 

There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who shall emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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The Storm Inside and Out

Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions,
beneath our religion or lack of it,
we are all vulnerable both to the storm without
and to the storm within.
~Frederick Buechner – from Telling the Truth

We are so complicit and compliant
in pleasant and peaceful appearance,
sitting in silence allowing
our inner storm to stay well hidden;
if called and compelled to face wrongs boldly,
the tempest can no longer be contained.
Silence in the face of evil
must itself be shattered,
even the rocks will cry out,
as our storm spills forth
speaking the truth.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We all are feeling the unpredictability of the state of the climate all around us:

heavy damaging winds, devastating hale storms, thunder and lightening, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud, horrible forest fires.

Protests, violence, conspiracy theories, people distrusting and disrespecting others, name-calling, and plenty of deafening silence.

And inside my own cranium:

words that fly out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire of the state of the world today.

I have no excuse for acting like moody March, October, December and August within a span of a few hours. I should not be so easily forgiven or unburdened. I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storms inside and outside blow over.

But in the midst of all the extremes, while the pandemic, the climate change, the racial injustice storms keep raging, a miracle is wrought:
it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.

God cries too. His wept tears light the sky in a promise of forgiveness while we tear each other apart.
He assures us: this storm too will pass.

He assures us because He knows all too well our desperate need for it.

Fighting a Harder Battle

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
~Plato

Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.

I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.

In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.

Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.

Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.

At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.

The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.

She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.

I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.

She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.

And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.

 

A Listening Walk

I took the dog and went to walk
in the auditorium of the woods,
but not to get away from things.
It was our habit, that was all,
a thing we did on summer days,
and much there was to listen to.
A slight wind came and went
in three birches by the pond.
A crow uphill was going on
about the black life it led,
and a brown creeper went creeping up
a brown trunk methodically
with no record of ever having
been understood by anyone.
A woodpecker was working out
a deep hole from the sound of it
in a stand of dead trees up there.
And then a jay, much put upon,
complained about some treachery
it may or may not have endured,
though most are liars anyway.
The farther in, the quieter,
till only the snapping of a stick
broke the silence we were in.
The dog stood still and looked at me,
the woods by then already dark.
Much later, on the porch at night,
I heard the owl, an eldritch thing.
The dog, still with me, heard it too,
a call that came from where we’d been,
and where we would not be again.
~John Foy, “Woods,” from Night Vision

photo of brown creeper from American Bird Conservancy
photo of stellar jay from allaboutbirds.org
photo by Ken Schults for National Audubon Society

We live near fields and woods so the evening walks we take with the dogs are listening walks. There is always plenty to hear.

It is an immense relief to hear something other than the talking heads on TV or podcasts. The voices we hear in the woods are unconcerned about upcoming elections, pandemics or the state of the economy.

I listen for the sound of breezes rustling the tree branches, the crunch of sticks and dry leaves under my boots, and more often than not, the woodpeckers tapping away at tree trunks, eagles chittering from the treetops, and unseen owls visiting back and forth from their hidey-holes.
The red-tailed hawks scream out warnings as they float from tree top to tree top, particularly upset that we’ve brought along the corgis into their territory.

So, like the outside world, this woods has its own talking heads and drama, but I know who I will listen to and where I prefer to hang out if given a choice. I understand I’m only a visitor to their world and will be invited back only as long as we tread softly.

Until next time then, until next time.

All Things Glad and Flourishing

Spring flew swiftly by, and summer came;
and if the village had been beautiful at first,
it was now in the full glow and luxuriance of its richness.
The great trees, which had looked shrunken and bare in the earlier months, had now burst into strong life and health;
and stretching forth their green arms over the thirsty ground,
converted open and naked spots into choice nooks,
where was a deep and pleasant shade
from which to look upon the wide prospect,
steeped in sunshine, which lay stretched out beyond.
The earth had donned her mantle of brightest green;
and shed her richest perfumes abroad.
It was the prime and vigour of the year;
all things were glad and flourishing.”
~ Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist 

Despite a pandemic,
despite economic hardship,
despite racial tensions and in-the-street protests,
despite political maneuvering and posturing:

life is green and flourishing and vigorous
even when we feel gray and withered and weakened.

May we not forget why we are here.
May we never forget our calling and purpose
to steward the earth and care for one another.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

With great power there must also come great responsibility
~The “Peter Parker Principle” from Spiderman Comics (1962)

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:48
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This line, the final conclusion to the parable of the wise and faithful servant has become a modern mantra – thanks to Spiderman, the Supreme Court, Winston Churchill, President Obama and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Yet no one actually quotes the entire New Testament parable itself that ends with this very concept.

The story Jesus tells in Luke 12: 42-48 makes us wince, just as it is meant to:

42 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.4“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

The same story as told in the gospel of Matthew ends with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Somehow that part is left out of Spiderman’s story and is a bit too close to home for those in power and those with immense wealth — like Peter Parker, we know all too well the reality of just how fragile and weak we really are despite our perceived Spidey powers.

We don’t have a choice in the matter if we want to live in Him as Christians, identifying by name with the Son of God who gave up everything for us.

We owe much when to us much has been given. U.S. Presidents can learn from the wisdom of Spiderman, remembering Who actually spoke it first.