Breaking Through Ice

Walking in February
A warm day after a long freeze
On an old logging road
Below Sumas Mountain
Cut a walking stick of alder,
Looked down through clouds
On wet fields of the Nooksack—
And stepped on the ice
Of a frozen pool across the road.
It creaked
The white air under
Sprang away, long cracks
Shot out in the black,
My cleated mountain boots
Slipped on the hard slick
—like thin ice—the sudden
Feel of an old phrase made real—
Instant of frozen leaf,
Icewater, and staff in hand.
“Like walking on thin ice—”
I yelled back to a friend,
It broke and I dropped
Eight inches in
~Gary Snyder “Thin Ice”

We have witnessed an unprecedented year of spreading infection. Not only have we been outwitted by a wily virus that mutates as needed to further its domination of its hosts and the world, but we stand on a frozen lake pandemic of daily discouragement and ice-cracking political division, not sure where we may safely take our next step.

Viruses depend on us harboring them without us dying promptly so we might infect as many others as possible as quickly as possible. The better we feel while contagious, the better it is for the virus to wreak potential havoc on those around us.

A mask on you and a mask on me helps to block my virus from entering your (as yet) uninfected nose. Similarly, we can both don “masks” to impede the intentional spread of our insistence that one of us is right and the other is wrong. If we don’t attempt to muzzle our disagreements, we’re creating cracks in the tenuous ice beneath our feet.

The trouble with overheated debates in the middle of winter is that we all end up walking on too-thin ice, breaking through and doused by the chilly waters below.

Lord, have mercy on us,
help us see and hear the cracks forming beneath our feet.
Put us on our knees before you, you alone,
humble and aware
of the contagious cracks we perpetuate.

Open or Closed

Although I favor the open mind, I certainly do not advocate that the mind should be so open that the brains fall out.
~Arthur Hays Sulzberger (among others) — New York Times publisher from 1935-1961 from “Freedom of Information” 

Sculpture “Melancholy” in Geneva, Switzerland by Albert György

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 from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two

Few things are as condemning in this day and age than being accused of being closed-minded.  In religion and politics, the most zealous liberals and hard-core conservatives are the least likely to see another point of view, much less tolerate it. They are more than willing to “cancel” anyone who might be bold enough to express another perspective.

On the one hand, when unwilling to consider a differing opinion or world view, it becomes impossible to admit one could be a little bit misinformed or just plain wrong. Some hard-heads are locked so tight because they have intentionally lost the key to ever risk being open.

On the other hand, I know those who are so open-minded, there is nothing left but blank space because common sense has spilled out — whatever feels right, anything goes, no judgment, no boundaries, no barriers, all doors and windows flung ajar with “liberating” breezes coming and going.

It is a terribly empty void to behold when one’s brains have fallen out.

As for me, moderate middle-of-the-road person that I am, I tend to keep a protective helmet on but listen for the knock on the door of my convictions and opinions to see who or what may be there, remaining receptive to some possibility other than what I think I know.

All in all, we should prefer open-hearted over open- or closed-minded.  Although far costlier, Love spilled from a broken Incarnate Heart and flooded the world with undeserved Grace. It will never be closed again.

Sculpture by Albert György Geneva, Switzerland

This Gift of Struggle

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
~Richard Levine “Believe This” from That Country’s Soul

North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up in the morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Today yet another era begins and another ends. However, the struggle continues: there is anguish on one side and relief on the other– just the reverse of four years ago.

I want to believe things will be different and the messes cleaned up without creating new messes. I realize, thanks to human nature, that is a futile hope.

I want to believe that goodness and compassion will thrive again.

So I will pull out the weeds that have taken over in my on back yard and clear the ground for a clean start. I will rewind the clock to help create order out of chaos and experience steadfastness instead of uncertainty.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states may once again survive a leader with many human flaws and failings, just as we’ve survived countless other imperfect leaders.

It is up to we the people to keep our own yards weed-free, and not allow them to take over — ever again.

Love Mingled With Grief

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf,

“and so do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide.
All we have to decide
is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The world is indeed full of peril,
and in it there are many dark places;
but still there is much that is fair,
and though in all lands
love is now mingled with grief,
it grows perhaps the greater.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

Not a single one of us chose this – living and working and schooling and worshiping with restrictions — unable to easily share meals with friends and family, feeling estranged from those who have previously been a support during trials in the past.

Yet here it is:

We can’t simply wish these hard times away.
It is up to us what we do in response.

Do we puddle and want to disappear?
Do we get angry and look for someone/anyone to blame?
Do we leave it up to God and quietly wait for His plans to unfold?
Do we grab hold of this unprecedented opportunity to reconnect in unique ways and so expand, rather than contract, our community?

Yes. All of those. Sometimes all in the same day.

We are all in different places about how to manage this.
On the days I want to hide, someone is trying to pull me out into the light. On the days I feel angry, no one will listen to my rant.
On the days I have a “bright” idea to try something new that I’m sure everyone else will endorse, God tells me to just sit back and wait on Him.

The waiting for normalcy feels interminable. And normal won’t ever be the same again.

It is overwhelming to be tasked with loving one another while grieving the loss of what once was. Love no longer is cheap or superficial: a Sunday handshake and sideways hug. We can’t even see each other’s smiles behind our masks. We have to actually talk to and listen to one another. It is now the hard work of true fellowship, listening compassionately to the complaints of others even when we don’t agree and can’t possibly empathize.

We all know the grieving process takes its own time – it can’t be rushed nor can it be wished away. It takes us on a path we never wanted to travel to a destination we never wanted to visit. And so it is with the losses we are feeling now. We don’t know where we’re heading, or how far we must go, or who will travel with us and who is bailing out now or who will die before we get there. But for those who decide it is best to journey together, we can pick each other up when another falters.

This is love in the time of COVID,
love in the time of grief,
love in the time of political divisiveness,
love in the time of pleading with God to change things.

And He has. We have become the change.

Wherever you are, my love will keep you safe
My heart will build a bridge of love across both time and space
Wherever you are, our hearts still beat as one
I hold you in my dreams each night until your task is done
Light up the darkness my wondrous star
Our hopes and dreams, my heart and yours, forever shining far
Light up the darkness my prince of peace
May the stars shine all around you
May your courage never cease

Wherever I am, I will love you day by day
I will keep you safe, cling on to faith, along the dark dark way
Wherever I am, I will hold on through the night
I will pray each day, a safe return, will look now through the light
Light up the darkness my wondrous star
Our hopes and dreams, my heart and yours, forever shining far
Light up the darkness my prince of peace
May the stars shine all around you
May your courage never cease
Courage never cease

Balancing Upon a Broken World

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.

~Amy Lowell, “September, 1918” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell

Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer
asking that today be the start of healing
rather than conflict and hostility and pain,
that the barbaric destruction of yesterday
transform to reconciliation and understanding–

no more angry mobs,
no more inciting speeches,
no more windows bashed,
no more doors breached,
no more explosives hidden away,
no more conspiracies hatched,
no more untruths believed as gospel…

no more rising infection counts
no more overflowing ICUs
no more mounting deaths…

Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer
to seek only
to celebrate the sunrise
to watch the clouds glide past
to praise God in His heaven
to watch His Light slowly replenish itself
after weeks – no, months – no, years – no, decades
of darkness,

to take out this one day and taste it
and find that it is good,
especially in the midst of deprivation
then put it away for self-keeping
to share when and if I find someone else
as hungry for grace and mercy as I am,

so as to balance myself somehow
in the beauty of this world while
teetering on its brokenness?

I am not the only one.

I know I am not.

In Humility and Love

So if there is any encouragement in Christ,
any comfort from love,

any participation in the Spirit,
any affection and sympathy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind,
having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
…. in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests,
but also to the interests of others.
~Philippians 2: 1-4

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling
to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness,
with patience,
bearing with one another in love,
eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4: 1-3

Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21:25

By my wearing a mask during these difficult times,
it conveys the message that your well-being matters to me;
it tells our children and grandchildren
they must look out for others
even when it is uncomfortable,
teaching the next generation
following rules and regulations matters
as everyone doing what is right in their own eyes
never turns out well
as we become blind to others.

If I can stop one person from being infected,
I shall not have lived in vain~
If I can ease another’s risk,
though masking goes against the grain~
If I can help a divided church
suffering from resistance, judgment and shaming
be restored to spiritual health again~

I shall not live in vain.

Unseen Nest

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.
~Tess Gallagher “Choices” from Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems.

Am I capable of such tenderness,
such recognition of the well-being of others,
by saving the nest
and all future potential nests
rather than exercise my freedom
to have an unimpeded world view
when and where I want it?

I must not forget:
my right to choose
can only mean
choosing to do right
by those who have no choice.

Married to Cinnamon and Sugar Happily Ever After

The kitchen is sweet with the smell of apples,
big yellow pie apples, light in the hand,
their skins freckled, the stems knobby
and thick with bark, as if the tree
could not bear to let the apple go.
Baskets of apples circle the back door,
fill the porch, cover the kitchen table.

My mother and my grandmother are
running the apple brigade. My mother,
always better with machines, is standing
at the apple peeler; my grandmother,
more at home with a paring knife,
faces her across the breadboard.
My mother takes an apple in her hand,

She pushes it neatly onto the sharp
prong and turns the handle that turns
the apple that swivels the blade pressed
tight against the apple’s side and peels
the skin away in long curling strips that
twist and fall to a bucket on the floor.
The apples, coming off the peeler,

Are winding staircases, little accordions,
slinky toys, jack-in-the-box fruit, until
my grandmother’s paring knife goes slicing
through the rings and they become apple
pies, apple cakes, apple crisp. Soon
they will be married to butter and live with
cinnamon and sugar, happily ever after.
~Joyce Sutphen, “Apple Season” from Coming Back to the Body.

I liked how the starry blue lid
of that saucepan lifted and puffed,
then settled back on a thin
hotpad of steam, and the way
her kitchen filled with the warm,
wet breath of apples, as if all
the apples were talking at once,
as if they’d come cold and sour
from chores in the orchard,
and were trying to shoulder in
close to the fire. She was too busy
to put in her two cents’ worth
talking to apples. Squeezing
her dentures with wrinkly lips,
she had to jingle and stack
the bright brass coins of the lids
and thoughtfully count out
the red rubber rings, then hold
each jar, to see if it was clean,
to a window that looked out
through her back yard into Iowa.
And with every third or fourth jar
she wiped steam from her glasses,
using the hem of her apron,
printed with tiny red sailboats
that dipped along with leaf-green
banners snapping, under puffs
of pale applesauce clouds
scented with cinnamon and cloves,
the only boats under sail
for at least two thousand miles.
~Ted Kooser “Applesauce”

Politics is applesauce.
~Will Rogers

Yesterday was applesauce-making day on our farm. The number of windfall apples lying on the ground is exponentially increasing, so I could put off the task no longer. The apple trees in our orchard are primarily antique varieties rarely grown any longer. I selected Spitzenburgs, a favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson, a Baldwin or two, some Pippins, a few Kings, and some Dutch Mignons, a russet apple undistinguished in appearance, not at all pretty, and easy to pass by for something more showy.

It took no time at all to fill several large boxes. Sadly, some apples were beyond hope; they lay rotting, half consumed by hornets, slugs, deer, raccoons and other critters so I let them be.

The task of washing, peeling and coring organic apples is time consuming. They require a fair amount of preparation: the bruised spots must be cut out, as well as the worm holes and tracks. The apples are cut to the core and sliced into the simmering pot to be stirred and slowly cooked down to sauce. Before long, before my eyes, together they become a pale yellow mash, blending their varied flavors together. However the smooth sweetness of this wonderful sauce is owed to the Dutch Mignon. It is a sublime sauce apple despite its humble unassuming appearance. Used alone, it would lack the “stand out” flavors of the other apple varieties, but as it cooks down, it becomes a foundation allowing the other apples to blend their unique qualities.

If I’m feeling really homespun, I marry the sublime with cinnamon and sugar, to create something happily ever after.

So it should be with the fellowship of diverse people and so should it be after a painful political season. We are bruised, wormy, but salvageable. We are far better together than we are separate. And through the process, with perhaps a sprinkle of cinnamon and sweetness, we are transformed into something far better than how we began.

The List

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel
up and down the long strident aisles.

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spilling, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.

~Billy Collins “Downpour”

Since the count began, the list of those who have died expands every day in media headlines and increases by the hour on websites dedicated to COVID tracking – –

–only there are no names. We don’t list the names of those who have been lost.

Maybe if there were names of over one million people around the globe that the virus has hastened to take from us, somehow it would matter more. Maybe if we witnessed the suffering that accompanied each case, we would understand this is more than “just like the flu.”

I’ve seen the flu kill the young and healthy, so hearing that comparison doesn’t comfort me or cause me to wave this off as something that will pass as soon as the election results are tallied. Even some health care workers are remarkably nonchalant and dismissive of the virus. I simply don’t understand: after decades of pandemic planning in my work as a medical director/health officer, this is the situation we all dreaded could happen, but knew we needed to be ready for.

I don’t want to see anyone else added to a list that is far longer than it ever should have been and growing by the day. Yet the tallies rise because our very own behavior, modeled from the very top of government, is responsible.

Will anyone someday build a monument listing the names of those who died in this pandemic? No, because there is nothing noble about dying of a virus and the list would be far too long. There is nothing noble about failing to protect others in the name of protecting my own individual liberty and civil rights.

So I wear the mask and so should you. It just might keep me or you or someone we love from being just another number on the list.

Caught in Our Own Careless Wreckage

I believed only air
stretched between the dogwood

and the barberry: another
thoughtless human assumption

sidetracking the best story
this furrow spider knew to spin.

And, trying to get the sticky
filament off my face, I must look,

to the neighbors, like someone
being attacked by his own nervous

system, a man conducting an orchestra
of bees. Or maybe it’s only the dance

of human history I’m reenacting:
caught in his own careless wreckage,

a man trying to extricate himself,
afraid to open his eyes.
~Jeff Worley from Lucky Talk

It was an uneasy feeling opening my eyes this morning, waking up to a world where the election results are still uncertain. We are suspended in a sticky web of our own making and will be for some time, dangling…

Twenty years ago, I woke up not feeling well after a long night of waiting for election results to come in. I thought it was from the tension of not knowing when the outcome would be finalized but no… It ended up being appendicitis that day — my 2000 post-election surgical solution to take my mind off Bush vs Gore. It worked. I simply ceased to care about anything but my own healing, my priorities clarified by post-op recovery.

I’m not looking to resort to that remedy today in Trump vs Biden. I’d like to keep myself out of the ER and the OR and just go about my clinic day as usual. Yet in the dance of human history we badly want to determine who our leaders will be in a clear-cut and clean-cut process, something this campaign season has lacked. So why we would expect clarity now?

Instead, we are covered in a sticky-wickety web, spread all over our faces, unwilling to open our eyes to the reality of our divisive messiness, and attacked by our own nervous systems.

Today, I will open my eyes, take a few deep breaths and I hope you will too. And tomorrow and the next day. And avoid radical surgery if we can.

Maybe the dance is something we can do together — coordinated, cooperative, choreographed, and united — rather than flailing about in our careless wreckage of human history.