It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness … suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. ~Wendell Berry from “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” in Standing By Words
Who among us knows with certainty each morning what we are meant to do that day or where we are to go?
Or do we make our best guess by putting one foot ahead of the other as we were taught until the day is done and it is time to rest?
For me, over four decades, I woke baffled each day that I was allowed to eavesdrop on heartbeats, touch tender bellies, sew up broken skin, set fractured bones, listen to and through tears.
I woke humbled with commitment and duty to keep going even when too tired, to offer care even when rejected. to keep striving even if impeded.
Doing that work, I learned that obstacles will slow but cannot stop the cascade of love and hope over the rocks of life.
My days overflow with the uncertainty of what comes next: finding my real work is to wade in deep, tumbling over the barriers and still keep singing.
Simply keep singing.
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My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old farm house on that land where several generations of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung
their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you know when your family has lived close to the earth: things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have
enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.
I may walk the streets of this century and make my living in an office but my blood is old farming blood and my true self is underground like a potato.
I have taken root in my grandfather’s fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees. ~Faith Shearin from “Fields”
It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.
A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.
My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!
Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme, Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine, Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain, For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well, For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel, There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee, There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me, Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again, Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock, I wish her safe landing, without any shock, If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea, I will always remember, your kindness to me, Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again
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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.
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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”
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.