Turning Darkness into Light: Cloistered Immensity

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives,
there must be a wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us enough so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

Some Could, Some Could Not Shake Off Misery…

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 102 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries and ensure tomorrows for all.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to acknowledge the misery endured by soldiers.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for their safe return home to family and futures.
~teaching the next generation about the sacrifices that have been made by men and women on their behalf.

Remembrance of our veterans should also encourage us as foot soldiers in our current battle with a virus. In this fight, we are called to sacrifice our preferences, our comfort and our personal liberties for the good of the whole.

We have generations of selfless role models to look to for inspiration:
we individually endure a measure of misery today in order to preserve countless tomorrows for all.

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.

Life is The Mystery

All men die. Not all men really live.
~William Wallace

Life — the temptation is always to reduce it to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is THE mystery.

After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. “It is life.”

Have you wept at anything during the past year?
Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
Have you thought seriously about the fact
that someday you are going to die?

More often than not,
do you really listen when people are speaking to you,
instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?


Is there anybody you know in whose place,
if one of you had to suffer great pain,
you would volunteer yourself?


If your answer to all or most of these questions is no,
the chances are that you’re dead.

~Frederick Buechner from  Listen to Your Life

I like mysteries if they are neatly solved between two book covers or contained within 90 minutes on a TV show.

Mysteries that don’t neatly resolve? Not so much. The uncertainty and unknowns can be paralyzing.

I am gifted the opportunity to witness miracles every day and the mystery is that I don’t often recognize them. I’m too “in my own head” to see.

If I weep, which I do more often than is comfortable to admit, am I weeping for something other than myself? If I listen, which I like to think I do well in my profession, but not as well in my personal life, do I really hear the perspective from another life and world view? If I become aware of someone’s suffering, am I willing to become uncomfortable myself to ease another’s pain?

I am being tested in these days of disrupted routines and potential threats to my health and well-being. Do I hunker down defensively or reach out unselfishly to make the best of the days that are left to me?

The mystery of when I will die can’t be solved until that moment comes, and I can’t be paralyzed by that unknown. But the everyday miracles of life are large and small and grand and plentiful and hidden in plain sight. I want to live every moment as their witness.

When Even the Ground Gives Way

The grace of God means something like:
Here is your life.
Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
I am with you.
~Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking in Beyond Words

What is it that goes on within the soul,
that it takes greater delight if things it loves are found
or restored to it than if it had always possessed them?

…The storm tosses seafarers about
and threatens them with shipwreck:
they all grow pale at their coming death.
Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly,
just as they had feared exceedingly.

Or a dear friend is ill.…
All those who long to see him in good health

are in mind sick along with him.
He gets well again,

and although he does not yet walk with his former vigor,
there is joy such as did not obtain before when he walked well and strong.…
everywhere a great joy is preceded by a greater suffering.
~Augustine of Hippo from Confessions

The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something undone.

Today’s edges
are so sharp
they might cut
anything that moved.

~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”

(written 19 years ago today on the evening of 9/11/01 – with the ongoing events of this year, I find I need to remind myself yet again)


Tonight was a moment of epiphany in my life as a mother and farmer. This world suddenly feels so uncertain after the horrific and tragic events today, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly.  I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.

For me, the routine is tucking the horses into bed, almost as important to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until the horses are fed and their beds prepared.

My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.

Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar, chestnut and maple leaves carpeting the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge,  no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.

I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I see them breathe a big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in the same space.  My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary where peace and calm is restored, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.

Then comes my own restoration of returning to the sanctuary of our house, feeding my human family and tucking three precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable within our walls, comforting us in the midst of devastation and tragedy elsewhere.   Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.

I’ll continue to search for these moments of restoration whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope.  I need a quiet routine to help remind me how blessed we are to be here to wake each morning to regroup, renew and restore when it seems even the ground has given way.

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

Try as I might to hold fear and suffering
to the periphery of my vision,
it is difficult to keep them there;
like a morning fog clutching at the ground,
bad news creeps out and covers everything,
distorting truth and color and light,
yet so seductive by softening the rough edges
until reality hits.

Maybe I can turn away
Maybe it won’t reach me
Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.

Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day,
too weak in the knees to do anything.
The trouble that lies beyond this hill
touches us all.

I kneel in silent witness:
to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness
to cover us.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



The Storm Inside and Out

Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions,
beneath our religion or lack of it,
we are all vulnerable both to the storm without
and to the storm within.
~Frederick Buechner – from Telling the Truth

We are so complicit and compliant
in pleasant and peaceful appearance,
sitting in silence allowing
our inner storm to stay well hidden;
if called and compelled to face wrongs boldly,
the tempest can no longer be contained.
Silence in the face of evil
must itself be shattered,
even the rocks will cry out,
as our storm spills forth
speaking the truth.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We all are feeling the unpredictability of the state of the climate all around us:

heavy damaging winds, devastating hale storms, thunder and lightening, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud, horrible forest fires.

Protests, violence, conspiracy theories, people distrusting and disrespecting others, name-calling, and plenty of deafening silence.

And inside my own cranium:

words that fly out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire of the state of the world today.

I have no excuse for acting like moody March, October, December and August within a span of a few hours. I should not be so easily forgiven or unburdened. I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storms inside and outside blow over.

But in the midst of all the extremes, while the pandemic, the climate change, the racial injustice storms keep raging, a miracle is wrought:
it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.

God cries too. His wept tears light the sky in a promise of forgiveness while we tear each other apart.
He assures us: this storm too will pass.

He assures us because He knows all too well our desperate need for it.

Light on the Path Ahead

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

~Traditional Irish Blessing

The day starts with the promise of beauty lit across the sky and concludes with the same light on the other side of the horizon. Yet everything in between can be darkness with no relief or stark brightness leaving no place to hide.

We can endure both if we endure it together. We can travel this long road if we have each other alongside in case we stumble. We can live out our days in gratitude even through our tears.

God does not leave us to journey alone.

A Thousand Colors

Who would have thought it possible that a tiny little flower could preoccupy a person so completely that there simply wasn’t room for any other thought?
~ Sophie Scholl 
from At the Heart of the White Rose

Little flower,
but if I could understand what you are,
root and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
~  Tennyson

There are days we live⠀
as if death were nowhere⠀
in the background; from joy⠀
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,⠀
from blossom to blossom to⠀
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.⠀

~Li-Young Lee from “From Blossoms”

Summer was our best season:
it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots,
or trying to sleep in the tree house;
summer was everything good to eat;
it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape…

~Harper Lee from “To Kill a Mockingbird

I seek relief anywhere it can be found:
this parched landscape fills
with anger and lashing out,
division and distrust,
discouragement and disparity.

I want to live again as if
death is not in the background of
overflowing ICUs and irrational shootings.

I want to be so preoccupied with the medley of beauty around me,
there can be no room for other thoughts.

I want to understand how God still loves man
even when we turn away.

I want to revel in the impossible possible,
in a variegated kaleidoscope of colors
prepared to bloom bountiful
in an overwhelming tapestry of unity.



An Unchanging Flower


 
Like the small soft unchanging flower
     The words in silence speak;
Obedient to their ancient power
     The tear stands on my cheek.

 
Though our world burns, the small dim words
     Stand here in steadfast grace,
And sing, like the indifferent birds,
     About a ruined place.

 
Though the tower fall, the day be done,
     The night be drawing near,
Yet still the tearless tune pipes on,
     And still evokes the tear.

 
The tearless tune, wiser than we,
     As weak and strong as grass
Or the wild bracken-fern we see
     Spring where the palace was.

~Ruth Pitter “On an Old Poem” from Poems 1926-1966

When I write
a poem, sometimes, there is a kind of daze
that lifts, and I can see
what I couldn’t before, as if my mind
was in a fog, a cloud,
and only wanted

a poem to lift it out. I wanted
the rhythm, just the right
word, the crescendo from whisper to loud
celebration, and found them in the days
of trying poems. And I don’t mind
telling you: poetry has brought complacency

to a (wanted) end, turned upside-down days
aright, settled my unquiet mind,
and allowed me to clearly see.

~Monica Sharman from What Poetry Can Do”

When the world is topsy-turvy
and all seems immersed in fog and cobwebs,
it helps to put down images and words
to clarify and highlight.

Daily I need reminding to stay centered,
daily I acknowledge what makes me weep
and what is worth celebration.

It is a new day to illustrate with words and pictures
what is unchanging in my life:
thank God for a new day,
everyday.