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.

You Never Know

What shall I say, because talk I must?
That I have found a cure
for the sick?
I have found no cure
for the sick

but this crooked flower
which only to look upon
all men
are cured. This
is that flower
for which all men
sing secretly their hymns
of praise! This
is that sacred
flower!
~William Carlos Williams from “The Yellow Flower”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat.  Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside.  With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh.  There was dried blood on each big toe. 

It took an hour to do each big toe.  The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters.  They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on.  He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. 

“How is it?”

“It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die.

I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase.
You just never know.

~Richard Selzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor

I know for a while again
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valleyside,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which even I may step
forth and be free.
– Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”

Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do
and who I am meant to serve,
when I wallow in the mud of self-importance
rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~

I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear
and restore hearing
or remove a painful thorn in a thumb
or clip someone’s crippling toenails
so they can step forth in freedom
or I simply sit still as someone
cries out their heart’s pain.

I cling to the crooked flower
of healing and forgiveness I was handed
over forty years ago in order to share
its sacred sweetness.

I’ve been given these tools for a reason
so need to continue to use them.

You just never know.

Between Midnight and Dawn: Man Became Less

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Christ must increase and I must decrease.
~John 3:30

 

By craving to be more, man became less; and by aspiring to be self-sufficing, he fell away from him who truly suffices him.
~Augustine of Hippo, The City of God

Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.
~St. Francis of Assisi

***********************

Humans don’t come by selflessness naturally.  We are survival-programmed to seek what we need from others from the very get-go, whether it is filling up our hunger, having a wet diaper changed, or cuddling for comfort.

And for some, that demand to be first in our tiny universe never changes. Certain presidential candidates seem to suffer from this affliction more than others.

How do we reconcile the paradox of first becomes last and the least becomes first?  We accept the gift of grace from Christ to become less rather than seek more, to give up the all-important self to sacrifice for the life and well-being of the other.

We are overcome.

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During this Lenten season, I will be drawing inspiration from the new devotional collection edited by Sarah Arthur —Between Midnight and Dawn

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

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Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
~Robert Frost “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”
~S.E. Hinton from The Outsiders
Man’s innocence was lost
the moment we chose
knowledge over obedience.
The gold in our creation
sinks to grief as
we make the same mistakes
again and again;
each dawn reenacts our beginnings
and each winter our endings.
Our only salvage is a rescue
borne of selflessness,
an obedience beyond imagining.
He stays gold for us
so we are illuminated.
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