Flat Affect

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.
~Don Thompson October

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

We’re in a time of seasonal abundance but our emotions are spent from containment through lock-down, shelter-in, social distancing, zoom-in and zoom-out.

As I meet with my patients via a televisit, I try to read their faces and find that along with the flatness of our screens, our emotions are flat too. My usual gentle humor to lighten things up becomes pointless – it is hard to elicit smiles these days. On the other hand, there no longer is a need for abundant tissues for tearful conversations because no one will weep on screen. There may be a hint of emotion in a catch in a voice, but I have yet to see anyone actually cry in two months of telehealth conversations. That would be too vulnerable – somehow being on camera suggests we need to put the actor-mask on, be expression-less, strong and invulnerable. And somehow my patient knows I can’t reach out as I would in an exam room, literally and verbally, to reassure them I’m present and listening. I’m not really present on a screen even though I’m listening.

And while out in society, we must literally hide ourselves behind a mask that conceals our smiles as well as our grim-faced frowns.

So our social and clinical interactions are as flat as the screens they play out on.

We need some unchecked tears about now, as well as endless belly laughs. Perhaps there will be a reawakening to the range of emotions we have taken for granted before finding ourselves in this time of restraint and restriction.

As we reintegrate and reunite, slowly, carefully and compassionately, let us re-experience in 3-D what we have been missing in our virtual meetings: tears that accompany joyous reunion as well as the lament of all we’re lost during this time.

Please pass the tissues.

Cleansing Tears

We human beings do real harm.
History could make a stone weep.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

As humankind was created with the freedom to choose our own way, we tend to opt for the path of least resistance with the highest return.

Hey, after all, we’re human and that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.

No road less traveled on for most of us–instead we blindly head down the superhighway of what’s best for #1, no matter what the means of transportation, what it costs to get there, how seedy the billboards or how many warning signs appear, or where the ultimate destination takes us.

History is full of the piled-high wrecking yards of demolition remnants from crashes along the way.

It’s enough to make a stone weep.

Certainly God wept.

And He wept even after creating man in His own image, emphatically declaring our creation good, even knowing how everything was going to turn out.

Despite the harm we continue to cause, despite our suffering too many crashes along the way, we are declared good only because His breath remains full within us while His tears never fail to wash us clean.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: The Storm Within

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

This past month’s storms have been tumultuous on the outside:
heavy winds toppling a large tree into our friends’ bed room at midnight narrowing missing the bed in which they slept, unexpected regional snowfall, torrential showers, dark threatening clouds on the horizon.

Yet March’s storms are not limited to just the weather:
hundreds of thousands of people sickened by a virus that can kill within days or simply be spread by unwitting asymptomatic people, businesses shut down, hospitals and clinics overwhelmed, hoarding behavior resulting in shortages of products addressing basic needs.

And storms inside my cranium:
at times I feel fearful for myself and my extended family living far away, my words fly out too quickly, my anxiety mixes with frustration, my tears spill too easily, I am immobilized by limitations on where I can go and who I can visit.

This past month and the months to come may well be filled with continued hardship, but I won’t blame the calendar for what has happened. I am not so easily excused from responsibility.  I end up lying awake at night with regrets, wondering if I should be doing more than just telemedicine from home, yet wanting to hide myself and my M.D. degree under a rock until this unending storm blows over.

While the storm rages on, a miracle of grace is happening in many places:
generous people are making a difference in small and large ways all around the world. Some take enormous personal risks to take care of strangers and loved ones. Some work endless hours and when they come home, they remain isolated to avoid contaminating their families.

Such grace only happens when the storm is confronted head on by the brilliant light of sacrifice, when the heaviest most threatening clouds begin to weep from illumination that creates a rainbow dropped from heaven.

So we know God cries too. 
His wept tears light the sky in a promise of salvation.
He assures us of this because He won’t leave us in the darkness:
His Light will prevail and this storm too shall pass.

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

The Crumbling Air

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

There are mornings surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen nor heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
the air crumbling down around me,
its rich manna becoming the ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.

God is Weeping

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “The Rainy Day”

People who grow up in the Pacific Northwest suffer from peculiar climate-related disorders unique to only to us.   This deserves a page in the next version of the DSM — the diagnostic psychiatric manual:  we in the PNW don’t feel 100% normal unless it is raining.  We love weather like we’re having right now – full on gray and full on wet with threats of northeast winds and snow.

In fact, we born and bred web-footers can feel downright depressed when it is sunny all the time.  We groan inwardly when yet another day dawns bright instead of gray, we start to look longingly at accumulating clouds,  and we get positively giddy when morning starts with a drizzly mist.

It’s difficult to say what exactly is at work in brain chemistry in cases like this.  It is the opposite effect of classically described Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosed especially in those transplants from more southerly climates who get sadder and slowed down with darker days and longer nights.   In people like me, born a stone’s throw from Puget Sound, the more sunlight there is, the more doldrums I feel:  desolaration (desolation from too much solar exposure).   The grayer the day, the wetter the sky–> a lightening of the heart and the spirit:  precipilicity (felicity arising from precipitation).

Like most northwesterners, I have low Vitamin D levels even in the summer.  It just isn’t seemly to expose all that skin to UV light.

So I celebrate the profound relief of a rainy day, thank you.   There would be no internal conflict about feeling compelled to go outside to work up a sweat and soak up the elusive sun rays.   There would only be the cozy invitation to stay inside to read and write and sleep.

I know I’m not alone in this disorder.  Many of us are closet sufferers but would never admit it in polite company.  To complain about sunny days is perceived as meteorologically, spiritually and poetically incorrect.  It is time to acknowledge that many of us are in this wet boat rowing together.

Robert Frost (definitely not a northwesterner) confessed his own case of desolaration in the first stanza of his poem November Guest:

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

And Jack Handey, the satirist, summarizes the real reason for the guilty pleasure of the northwest native in liking rain:

“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’
And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.”

Okay, okay, I guess we’ve been really naughty to have so much rainfall in the last month. We should repent for our misbehavior and eventually God’s tears will dry up and the sun would shine again.

Then again, maybe God likes a good rain and a good cry as much as we do.

A Few Tears at the End of the Year

Let us step outside for a moment
As the sun breaks through clouds
And shines on wet new fallen snow,
And breathe the new air.
So much has died that had to die this year.

Let us step outside for a moment.
It is all there
Only we have been slow to arrive
At a way of seeing it.
Unless the gentle inherit the earth
There will be no earth.
~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”

photo by Nate Gibson

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner
from Beyond Words

I don’t pay close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes when I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out from my tears the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and where I am to be next, so I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.

It mostly has to do with spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays. It is about reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that letting-go part.

We urged and encouraged our children to go where their hearts told them they are needed and called to be, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm.

I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I’m granted the years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren.   They release a fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.

A wise and precious friend once told me that “our tears are God’s tears; to be bereft is the only way to become one with God.

So no kleenex needed with these tears.

I’ll let them flow as I let them go.

To Let it Go

I let her garden go.
let it go, let it go
How can I watch the hummingbird
Hover to sip
With its beak’s tip
The purple bee balm — whirring as we heard
It years ago?

The weeds rise rank and thick
let it go, let it go
Where annuals grew and burdock grows,
Where standing she
At once could see
The peony, the lily, and the rose
Rise over brick

She’d laid in patterns. Moss
let it go, let it go
Turns the bricks green, softening them
By the gray rocks
Where hollyhocks
That lofted while she lived, stem by tall stem,
Blossom with loss.
~ Donald Hall from “Her Garden” about Jane Kenyon

Some gray mornings
heavy with clouds
and tear-streaked windows
I pause melancholy
at the passage of time.

Whether to grieve over
another hour passed
another breath exhaled
another broken heart beat

Or to climb my way
out of deepless dolor
and start the work of
planting the next garden

It takes sweat
and dirty hands
and yes,
tears from heaven
to make it flourish
but even so
just maybe
my memories
so carefully planted
might blossom fully
in the soil of loss.


Melancholia

A fine rain was falling,
and the landscape was that of autumn. 
The sky was hung with various shades of gray,
and mists hovered about the distant mountains –
a melancholy nature. 
The leaves were falling on all sides
like the last illusions of youth
under the tears of irremediable grief. 
Every landscape is, as it were,
a state of the soul,
and whoever penetrates into both is astonished
to find how much likeness there is in each detail.”
~Henri Frederic Amiel from The Amiel Journal

What is melancholy
at first glance
glistens bejeweled
when studied up close.

It isn’t all sadness~
there is solace in knowing:
the landscape and my soul
share an inner world of tears.



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Full of Promises and Tears

Autumn in my part of the world is a season of bounty and beauty. It’s also a season of steady decline—and, for some of us, a slow slide into melancholy. The days become shorter and colder, the trees shed their glory, and summer’s abundance starts to decay toward winter’s death.

I’m a professional melancholic, and for years my delight in the autumn color show quickly morphed into sadness as I watched the beauty die. Focused on the browning of summer’s green growth, I allowed the prospect of death to eclipse all that’s life-giving about fall and its sensuous delights.

Then I began to understand a simple fact: All the “falling” that’s going on out there is full of promise. Seeds are being planted and leaves are being composted as Earth prepares for yet another uprising of green.
~ Parker J. Palmer from On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old

A fine rain was falling, and the landscape was that of autumn. 
The sky was hung with various shades of gray,
and mists hovered about the distant mountains
– a melancholy nature. 
Every landscape is,
as it were,
a state of the soul,
and whoever penetrates into both
is astonished to find how much likeness there is in each detail.
~Henri Frederic Amiel

frontwalnutmist

A melancholic first glance~
rain droplets glisten bejeweled
when studied up close.

It isn’t all sadness~
there is solace in knowing
the landscape and I share
an inner world of change:
both promises
and tears.

As the Light is Just Right

 

The ripe, the golden month has come again…
Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons,
and all things living on the earth turn home again…
the fields are cut, the granaries are full,
the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness,
and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.
The bee bores to the belly of the grape,
the fly gets old and fat and blue,
he buzzes loud, crawls slow,
creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling,
the sun goes down in blood and pollen
across the bronzed and mown fields of the old October.
~Thomas Wolfe

 

Mid-October
dreary
cloud-covered
rain and wind.

An instant at dusk,
the sun broke through,
peeling away the grey,
infusing amber onto
fields and foliage,
ponies and puddles.
The shower spun
raindrops threading
a gold tapestry
through the evening air,
casting sparkles,

casting sparkles,
a sunray sweep of
fairy godmother’s wand
across the landscape.

One more blink,
and the sun shrouded,
the color drained away
the glimmer mulled
into mere weeping
once more,
streaming over
our farm’s fallen face.

Now I know to gently
wipe the teardrops away,
having seen the
hidden magic within,
when the light is just so.

Savoring the tears
of gold that glisten
when the light
is just right.