We Were All Beautiful Once

Everything in the garden is dead, killed by a sudden hard
freeze, the beans, the tomatoes, fruit still clinging to the
branches. It’s all heaped up ready to go to the compost
pile: rhubarb leaves, nasturtiums, pea vines, even the
geraniums. It’s too bad. The garden was so beautiful,
green and fresh, but then we were all beautiful once.
Everything dies, we understand. But the mind of the
observer, which cannot imagine not imagining, goes on.
The dynasties are cut down like the generations of grass,
the bodies blacken and turn into coal. The waters rise and
cover the earth and the mind broods on the face of the
deep, and learns nothing.
~Louis Jenkins, “Freeze” from Where Your House is Near: New and Selected Poems

This week was our first hard freeze of autumn, following on the heels of the worst flooding in a half century in our county. The land and all that grows here experienced a one-two punch – when the waters pulled back into the streams and rivers, what was left behind looked frozen, soaked and miserable. The people whose homes were devastated are so much more than miserable; they are mudding out by removing everything down to the studs to try to begin again. With hundreds of volunteers and disaster teams helping, there are piles of kitchen appliances, dry wall, carpet and every household item along the main streets of nearby towns, waiting to be hauled off.

Surveying our dying garden is small potatoes in comparison to a flooded town only a few miles away. The memories of how beautiful our garden was a 2-3 months ago is nothing in contrast to the families who lost their stored heirlooms and cherished memories to the muck and mire of deep waters.

But we are a resilient community. We are people of persistence and creativity and there will eventually be beauty again here. Driving on a newly opened road beside the still-surging river where a few days ago several feet of water covered a cornfield, I spotted a trumpeter swan, standing in glorious spotless white, picking her way through the mud-stained cornstalks, hoping to find something of value left behind in the devastation.

There is still hope; it did not wash away. We only need to use our imagination to find it.

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Turning Darkness into Light: Infinite Weight and Lightness

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing…
We can ask for courage, however,
and trust that God has not led us into this new land
only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

______________________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
~Denise Levertov “The Annunciation”

Like most people living in 2020,
I want things to be the way I want them:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then the unexpected happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. There is infinite weight within infinite emptiness.

Only then, as an emptied vessel, can I be filled.

In my forty years of clinical work, I’ve never before seen such an epidemic of hopelessness. Debts seem too great, reserves too limited, foundations too shaky, plans dashed, the future too uncertain.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming event is a model for us all when we are hit by the unexpected.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience reverberates through the ages and to each one of us in our own multi-faceted and overwhelming troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise – all embodied within me.

Let it be.

Even if it pierces my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty;
you are there to plug the bleeding hole, filling me with your infinite light.

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli

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

Hold Fast

The art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.
~Henry Havelock Ellis

…God’s not nonexistent;
He’s just been waylaid
by a host of what no one could’ve foreseen.   

He’s got plans for you

 …it’s true that my Virginia creeper praises Him,   
its palms and fingers crimson with applause,   
that the local breeze is weaving Him a diadem…
~Jacqueline Osherow from “Autumn Psalm”

With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
the feeblest tug brings down
a sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, 
To live is good
but not to live—to be pulled down
with scarce a ripping sound,
still flourishing, still
stretching toward the sun—
is good also, all photosynthesis
abandoned, quite quits. Next spring
the hairy rootlets left unpulled
snake out a leafy afterlife
up that same smooth-barked oak.
~John Updike “Creeper”

The Virginia Creeper vine, its crimson leaves
crawl over the brow of our ancient shed
like a lock of unruly hair or a flowing stream.
This humble building was a small chapel a century ago,
moved from the intersection of two country roads to this raised knoll
for forever sanctuary.

It is befitting that every fall this former church,
now empty of sermons and hymns,
weeps red.

Each winter the stripped bare vine
clings tightly through thousands of “holdfast” suckers.
The glue keeps the vine attached
where no vine has gone before.
Once there, it stays until pulled away;
it becomes an invincible foundation
to build upon in the spring.

Do not despair in this austere winter.
The Lord has plans and will not be moved
or ripped away,
even when His name is removed
from schools or public squares,
He’s holding on, waiting on us,
waiting for the spring
and won’t ever, no never, let go.


Their Exuberant Souls

summergrass

 

begoniabasket1

 

Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now. 
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do… 

…Whatever is 
stored in his heart, he can use, now. 
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on.  What he does not have
he can lack…

…Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now…

…Everything that’s been placed in him will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds from “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

 

vividred

 

wwugrass2

 

orangepetals

 

This is the season for graduations, when children move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and after nearly thirty years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.

In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into those exuberant hearts so he or she can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving way beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trust they left well prepared.

As a school board member, I watched students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university and college health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road inevitably gets bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.   Only they will know the time to unpack what is within when their need arises.

 

yellowpetals

 

farmroad

 

wwugrass

 

In the Driver’s Seat

farmertheo1

I heard an old man speak once,
someone who had been sober for fifty years,
a very prominent doctor.
He said that he’d finally figured out a few years ago
that his profound sense of control,
in the world and over his life,
is another addiction and a total illusion.
He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seat of cars,
in those car seats that have steering wheels,
with grim expressions of concentration on their faces,
clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car
to do whatever it is doing,
he thinks of himself
and his relationship with God:
God who drives along silently,
gently amused,
in the real driver’s seat.

~Anne Lamott from Operating Instructions

farmertheo4

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.
~C.S. Lewis

 

We want to steer life in the way we want it to go:
our plans, our timing, our chosen destination,
our hopes and dreams matter first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly the road ceases to look familiar and we don’t seem to be going the direction we intended.

Who is driving anyway?

In my work in a University Health Center, I am see an epidemic of an illusion of control:
a tremendous lack of resiliency, an inability to ride the roller coaster of life without panic. One of the most common responses to the unexpected is uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with eating, sleeping, working, studying. A common response to anxiety is to self medicate in any way easily accessible: video games, social media, alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, sex, a friend’s prescription drugs. A little isn’t working so a lot might be better. The anxiety is only compounded and becomes deepening depression.

The sadness and hopelessness, even anger stems from discouragement over our lack of control of circumstances, feeling there is no way out and being unable to find another path to a different future. This leads all too frequently to thoughts of ending one’s life as it seems too painful and pointless to continue, and thankfully more rarely, taking others’ lives at the same time in an attempt to make sure everyone else understands the depth of the pain.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness and helplessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my thirty five years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim.

Relinquishing control by giving up the driver’s seat is not in our nature. We want to be seen as competent and feel as though we are prepared to be the captain of our fate.

Instead we need to give up our carefully planned-out life to the God who created us and has it all planned for us.

We turn over the steering wheel saying: may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.

Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword:
You are there to plug the bleeding hole.

And I will follow wherever you steer me.

centralroadlane

The Color of Redemption

variegation3

 

If you’re white and you’re wrong, then you’re wrong;
if you’re black and you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
People are people.
Black, blue, pink, green –
God make no rules about color;
only society make rules where my people suffer,
and that why we must have redemption and redemption now.
~Bob Marley

variegatedrose

My skin is kind of sort of brownish
Pinkish yellowish white.
My eyes are greyish blueish green,
But I’m told they look orange in the night.
My hair is reddish blondish brown,
But it’s silver when it’s wet.
And all the colors I am inside
Have not been invented yet.
~Shel Silverstein from “Colors” in Where the Sidewalk Ends

variegatedrose1

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck,
and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.
~James Arthur Baldwin

Heart of a Pansy

pansy3

pansy1(pansies pictured are above Bellingham Bay on the Performing Arts Center Plaza at Western Washington University)

Nobody can keep on being angry if she looks into the heart of a pansy for a little while.
~L.M. Montgomery

The world is in sore need of a cure for the grumbles.

Fortunately, it exists right outside in our back yards, along sidewalks and in vacant lots.

A cheerful face is irresistible to all but the crabbiest among us, guaranteed to bring a smile every time.

Beyond the obvious charm exists a depth of heart — roots able to thrive in the thinnest of soil, at home among rocks and weeds,  resilient even when tromped on.

We carry its seeds on the tread of our boots in spite of our grumbling and help spread the good news: anger left unfed will dry up and blow away.

Yet the constant heart of the pansy will last.  It smiles back.

pansy4

pansy2

pansy7

Advent Cries and Sings: May it Be

Leonardo Da Vinci--The Annunciation
Leonardo Da Vinci–The Annunciation

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be as you have said.”
Luke 1: 38

We want it to be the way we want it: our plans, our timing, our hopes and dreams first and foremost.
And then life happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. How are we to respond?

In my work in a University Health Center, I see in young adults a tremendous lack of resiliency, an inability to ride the waves that crash and overwhelm. One of the most common responses to the unexpected is to panic, facing uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with eating, sleeping, working, studying. A common response to anxiety is to self medicate in any way easily accessible: alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, sex, a friend’s prescription drugs. A little isn’t working so a lot might be better. The anxiety is compounded and becomes deepening depression.

The sadness and hopelessness, even anger –is a discouragement stemming from the lack of control of circumstances, feeling there is no way out, being unable to find another path to a different future. This leads too frequently to thoughts of ending one’s life as it seems too painful and pointless to continue, and thankfully more rarely, taking others’ lives at the same time in an attempt to make sure everyone else knows the depth of the pain.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my thirty years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim. They cannot ride the waves without feeling they are drowning. So they look for any way out.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so carefully planned life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages: may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword.
You are there to plug the bleeding hole.

And I will sing through my tears.