The Importance of Doing Nothing

He thought of all the time he wasted
being good. Clutched by the guilt
of excellence. Polite.
Well-trained. But when
the long summer afternoons came,
too hot to move
from the window fan, scent
of vapor rising
from water jackets, he found pleasure
in doing the nothing that had no regrets–
wasted afternoons
under the Wisteria vine when no one
was watching. Aroma thick
as a breeze on his shoulder.
Thinking of women constantly, forgetting
to water the chickens
in the barn. He was beginning to feel
the release of duty, to feel
what it’s like to feel.
Demands waiting like barking dogs
at the periphery. His good intention
to visit the sick woman
falling aside
as he listened to the rattle of starlings
in the rafters––discovering that strange lightness
of the body. And the new importance
of oak branches
where they separate from the trunk.
How far out the leaves
begin to spread.
The startling arrangement
of moss
like whiskers without discipline.
The long plains of earth
reaching to the clouds
behind the back yard fence.
How the ground pushes back when you walk.

~David Watts, M.D. – “Another Side of Transgression” from Having and Keeping

Decades of demands and responsibilities become a falling-down fence line with no end in sight. Having been raised an obedient person with a heightened sense of obligation about constantly fixing what needs repair, I’ve done what I could, where I could, when I could, how I could, though too often ineffective in my efforts.

I’ve always moved from task to task to task – life’s string of fence posts held wires that always needed stretching and patching and straightening. By continually working, I hoped I too would remain standing and functional.

It’s clear the fence isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. It has served a purpose, as have I. Now I wander along the fencerow, focusing on the walk and the view rather than searching out every little thing which is leaning or loose or gaping.

This walk feels good, lighter, almost cushiony, almost like rolling with joy in the freedom of it. I’m ambling along for no particular reason at all, which is almost intoxicating.

I think I’ll get used to the importance of doing nothing whatsoever.

A new Barnstorming book is available for order here:

An Exuberant Soul

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. With a pencil and two

Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. 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. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
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 “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

photo by Gary Herbert
photo from army.mil

This is the season for graduations and commencements to the next phase of life, when students move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and over thirty two 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 their hearts so they can pull it out when it is most needed?

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

As a former school board member, I watched our 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 health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably bumpy.

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

And now, this year, I find I am “graduating” as well, moving away from a regular clinic work schedule to whatever waits for me next. I cleaned out my desk yesterday, carrying the detritus of three decades back home with me, including a packed-away glass “tear drop” I somehow earned ten years ago for “exceptional effort.” All I really remember about that time in my professional life are the shed tears that award acknowledged unbeknownst. It was a fitting symbol for what I had been through during a hard year.

I’m not exactly climbing on a bus with my lunch packed to go to summer camp, but it feels a bit similar as I enter this new phase. I’m nervous, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m exuberant, so much like all the graduates I’ve seen commence over the years.

And best of all for me, summer camp is right here on the farm, peanut butter sandwiches included.

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here:

The Fly in the Currant Cake

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

Today I will wrap up 45 years of uninterrupted training and doctoring. Most of that time, I have worried I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake. 

Maybe no one has noticed. These days we call it the “impostor” syndrome. Mark Twain knew all about currant cake and how easy it was for a fly to blend into its batter.

Even while bearing three children and going through a few surgeries myself, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time.  This is primarily out of my concern that, even after a few weeks, I would forget all that I’ve ever known. In fact, half of what I learned in medical school and residency over forty years ago has evolved, thanks to new discoveries and clarifying research. I worried if I were to actually to step away from doctoring for an extended time, then 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.

If being truly honest, those who spend their professional lives providing medical care to others always share this concern: 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 trust left for us at all.

Of course, some say, didn’t the COVID pandemic prove our ignorance? Physicians started at Ground Zero with a novel virus with unclear transmissibility and immense potential to wreak havoc on the human body … or cause no symptoms whatsoever. We had no collected data to base prevention or treatment decisions: would masks just protect others or would they only protect ourselves, or maybe they protect both? Could a common inexpensive anti-inflammatory/antimalarial drug be beneficial or would a parasitic wormer medication be somehow effective to fight the devastation of the virus?

Effective treatments are still being sought all these months later; others have been debated, studied and discarded as worthless.

Or would this pandemic finally resolve thanks to effective yet controversial public health mandates while rapidly distributing highly effective vaccines developed from many prior years of carefully performed research?

During the past 16 months, your next door neighbor, or the loudest tweet on Twitter proclaimed more expertise than the average medical professional and definitely had a stronger opinion. At least we doctors knew how much we didn’t know and how much was simply guess work based on experience, good intentions and hopeful prayer. Gradually, while lives were lost, including too many of our own, real data began to trickle in so decisions could be made with some evidence backing them. But even that data continues to evolve, day by day, as authentic medical evidence always does.

That doesn’t stop all the “quack” flies out there from climbing into the batter pretending to be currants. With so much rapidly changing medical information at everyone’s fingertips, who needs a trained physician when there are so many other resources – sketchy and opportunistic though they may be – for seeking health care advice?

Even so, I am convinced most patients really do care that doctors share the best information they have available at any point in time. None of us who are doctoring wants to be the “fly” in the batter of health care.

As I meet with my last patient today, I know over forty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for the subtle 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 hardly discernible extra heart sound, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base.  These are things I am privileged to see and hear and about which I make decisions together with my patients.  What I’ve done over four decades has been no masquerade; out of my natural caution, I am not appearing to be someone I am not.  This is what I was trained to do and have done for thousands of days and many more thousands of patients during my professional life, while passing a comprehensive certification examination every few years to prove my continued study and changing fund of knowledge.

The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough that an unwary patient might gobble it down to their ultimate detriment. I know I’ve not been that doctor. I’ve been the real thing all these years for my patients, even if I’ve seemed a bit on the tart side at times, yet offering up just enough tang to be exactly what was needed in the moment and in the long term.

And someday, hopefully not too soon, I will die happy having done this with my life.

My ID photo from my first year of medical school 1976
45 years later…

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

We Lean Lest We Fall

Today we both fell.

Eventually balance moves
out of us into the world;
it’s the pull of rabbits
grazing on the lawn
as we talk, the slow talk
of where and when,
determining what
and who we will become
as we age.

We admire the new plants
and the rings of mulch you made,
we praise the rabbits eating

the weeds’ sweet yellow flowers.

Behind our words the days
serve each other as mother,
father, cook, builder, and fixer;
these float like the clouds
beyond the trees.

It is a simple life, now,
children grown, our living made
and saved, our years our own,
husband and wife,

but in our daily stride, the one
that rises with the sun,
the chosen pride,
we lean on our other selves,
lest we fall
into a consuming fire
and lose it all.
~Richard Maxson, “Otherwise” from  Searching for Arkansas

Our days are slower now, less rush, more reading and writing, walking and sitting, taking it all in and wondering what comes next.

I slowly adapt to not hurrying to work every other day, looking to you to see how I should parcel out each moment. Should I stay busy cleaning, sorting, giving away, simplifying our possessions so our children someday won’t have to? Or should I find some other kind of service off the farm to feel worthy of each new day, each new breath?

It is an unfamiliar phase, this facing a day with no agenda and no appointments. What comes next is uncertain, as it always has been but I didn’t pay attention before.

So I lean lest I fall. I breathe lest I forget how.

The Lapse of Time

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener.
So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.
We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and
took advantage of every accident that befell us.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.
~Henry David Thoreau from “Simplicity” in Walden.

I’m completely unskilled at doing nothing and have no idea how to go about it.

There is no continuing education course or training in it. I can’t get credit hours for accumulating guilt about wasting time — I get antsy at the mere thought of inactivity. Simply watching the hours pass makes me itchy for productivity.

So I’m practicing at nothing whatsoever this summer, just to see if I’m really cut out for it. I’ve read up on “how to rest”: connecting to nature, taking a break from being responsible, choosing not to be helpful and just remaining still and to be content to watch what is around me. Except for the nature part, I’m an utter failure otherwise.

It starts to feel like work to not work.

Even Thoreau ended up writing down and then publishing his meandering thoughts. Sounds like work to me.

Time for a nap.

Electrified With Morning

Video by Harry Rodenberger
Video by Harry Rodenberger

One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day…
~Aristotle from The Nicomachean Ethics

God gives every bird his worm,
but He does not throw it into the nest. 
~Swedish Proverb

You wake wanting the dream
you left behind in sleep,
water washing through everything,
clearing away sediment
of years, uncovering the lost
and forgotten. You hear the sun
breaking on cold grass,
on eaves, on stone steps
outside. You see light
igniting sparks of dust
in the air. You feel for the first
time in years the world
electrified with morning.

You know something has changed
in the night, something you thought
gone from the world has come back:
shooting stars in the pasture,
sleeping beneath a field
of daisies, wisteria climbing
over fences, houses, trees.

This is a place that smells
like childhood and old age.
It is a limb you swung from,
a field you go back to.
It is a part of whatever you do.
~Scott Owen “Arrival of the Past”

The beginning of summer brings back early childhood memories of waking early in the morning with no plans for the day other than just showing up.

As a kid, I was never bored with so many open-ended hours before me; the air felt electric with potential adventures, whether it was building a tree fort, bushwhacking a new trail in the woods, searching out killdeer nests in the field, catching butterflies, or watching a salamander sunning itself for hours. The possibilities felt infinite and I was free as a bird to go looking for what the day had to offer.

By the time I was ten, I began to work to earn money to make my dream (owning my own horse) come true – picking berries, weeding gardens, babysitting neighbor kids. The work routine started early as dreams don’t happen without striving for them.

Now for the first time in 55 years, I awake knowing life has changed in the night: I don’t have a schedule and don’t need to show up to a job. The long summer days I thought were gone and forgotten have been here all along, just now uncovered again.

I can go back to those days of electrifying potential open-ended hours, just to simply show up to the moments before me.

I stand here, mouth open, ready to be fed.

A Little Away From Everywhere

I wonder about the trees.

Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.
~Robert Frost from “The Sound of Trees”

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
Al little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.
~Mary Oliver from “A Dream of Trees” from New and Selected Poems

As I wind down my work load, for once sharing the calls at night, and allowing others to manage the day time urgencies,

I wonder if
I shall have less to say,
and whether I will become less myself.

A life of non-stop doctoring means having little time for anything else.
Soon I will have time and time to spare.

I wonder about the trees
and how
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.

Get On With Work or Take It Slow

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Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
~Rachel Hadas from “The End of Summer”
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In observance of Labor Day:
I did not grow up in a household that took time off.  Time was redeemed by work, and work was noble and honorable and proved we had a right to exist.
Vacation road trips were rare and almost always associated with my father’s work.  When he came home from his desk job in town, he would immediately change into his farm clothes and put in several hours of work outside, summer or winter, rain or shine, light or dark.
My mother did not work in town while we were children, but worked throughout her day inside and outside the house doing what farm wives and mothers need to do: growing, hoeing, harvesting, preserving, washing, cleaning, sewing, and most of all, being there for us.
As kids, we had our share of chores that were simply part of our day as our work was never done on a farm. When we turned twelve, we began working for others: babysitting, weeding, barn and house cleaning, berry picking.  I have now done over 52 years of gainful employment – there were times I worked four part-time jobs at once because that was what I could put together to keep things together.
The thought of “retirement” is anathema for me but that time will come for me when I am ready to take it slow. I know I’ve missed out on much of life being a “nose to the grindstone” person.
I wish there had been more times I had taken a few moments to be more like the cows I see meandering, tranquil and unconcerned, in the surrounding green pastures. Part of every day now I pull myself away from the work to be done, the work that is always calling and staring me in the face, and try a different way to redeem my time: to notice, to record, to observe, to appreciate beauty that exists in the midst of chaos and cataclysm and neverending portents of war.
Life isn’t all about non-stop labor, yet we get on with our work because work is about showing up when and where we are needed. Not being cows, we may feel we have no choice in the matter. Just maybe, like cows, we can manage to slow down,  watch what is happening around us, and by chewing our cud, keep contemplating and digesting whatever life feeds us, the sweet and the sour.
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Their Hands Swinging Together

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Light shone from the back of her eyes.
He had a broad, deep laugh
that could hold anyone in its bowl of sound.
They didn’t speak of the inevitable.
Were amazed by the fire that burned in their bodies.
Had you seen their hands swinging
together down the street at dusk you’d swear
they were children walking this earth.
~Kathleen Wakefield  “They Began Late”
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To Dan, on his 65th birthday:

 

A pass of the blade leaves behind
rough stems, a blunt cut field of
paths through naked slopes and
bristly contoured hollows.

Once swept and stored, the hay is
baled for a future day, and grass’ deep roots
yield newly tender growth,  tempted forth
by warmth and summer rain.

A full grassy beard sprouts
lush again, to obscure the landscape
rise and fall, conceal each molehill,
pothole, ditch and burrow.

I trace this burgeoning stubble with gentle touch,
fingertips graze the rise of cheek, the curve of upper lip
and indent of dimpled chin with long-healed scar, the stalwart jaw,
a terrain oh so familiar that it welcomes me back home.

 

 

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Your Face is My Heart

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I talk to you as I talk to my own soul,” he said, turning me to face him. 
“And …” he whispered, “your face is my heart.”
~Diana Gabaldon from Dragonfly in Amber

 

 

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Today, Dan celebrates his retirement from public service as an attorney – over 37 years working for county government.  He will pack up his books and pictures from his office in boxes and bring them home.

This man, by my side for nearly forty years since meeting while in graduate school, and my husband for 37 years, leaves behind a legacy of well-considered and sound legal advice, maintaining integrity as a trusted resource for colleagues and the public while managing to remain above the inevitable politics.  He has an archival brain which the county will mightily miss, as not all knowledge resides in file folders and hard drives and cloud servers.

His family, the farm and I are the beneficiaries of this retirement from professional life, as well as the several boards he serves and the church we attend.  This is not a man who will retreat to a quiet life: he has many plans, much work that calls him and more education to pursue.  It is the start of his next life of service.

This face is my heart and it is my privilege to wake up next to my kindred soul every morning.

 

View More: http://karenmullen.pass.us/gibson-order