A Change of Heart

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
~Robert Frost “Dust of Snow”

All those with whom I speak these days
wish things could be different~
nothing feels right, rights feel like nothing,
everyone sadly angry and angrily sad.

Friends no longer speaking to friends,
families divided,
opinions expressed and dismissed.

This virus is doing more damage
than it was ever designed to do.
It simply wants to replicate itself,
yet along with its RNA,
we have allowed it to sow
discord, distrust, discouragement
into our cells as well.

There is no vaccine
for the stubbornness of heart
ailing us now;
we resist protective measures,
act as if all is normal
when a quarter million are dead
and more are dying.

This infection of the spirit
will far outlast the virus
by spreading through the generations,
eroding relationships, splitting human bonds,
and withering our love for one another.





How is Your Life?

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.


Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?


It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.


Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.


I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”

Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.

So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.

So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?

I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?

When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.

Please tell me how you are.

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.

This Tranquil Dust

I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world still is alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.

~William Stafford, “Time for Serenity, Anyone?” from Even in Quiet Places

We are, as breathed on dust, called into the service and company of another, called to do work other than our own. This creature, formed of dust, is entrusted with the garden, with all the animals, and with all living things. Our creatureliness binds us to the role of steward, friend, and companion of all other creatures who share our fragility.
~Walter Brueggemann from “Remember You Are Dust”

As a physician, I am reminded daily of the fragility of our bodies and minds, this breathed-on dust of us, especially now as a mere novel virus has immobilizes the world’s population.

As a farmer, I dwell compatibly with the dust I’m entrusted to steward.  I carry it around under my fingernails, on my boots, my skin smudged in unexpected ways and places as I go about my chores and tasks.  The dust of the barnyard wilderness clings to me, not wanting to let go of one of its own as I return indoors.  Sunbeams in our house swirl with released dust motes given new life through solar energy, each mote a source of fragile strength, tranquil beauty, complex simplicity.  Such joyful dust dance makes me reluctant to get out the dust rags and cleaning solutions.

As a child of the Creator, I am well aware of the cleansing needed in this grimy, desperately soiled world.  The dustiest parts of me lie far deeper than my shedding skin — the breathed-on dust that innervates, circulates and motivates me.

God sent His Son to be the dust rag I sorely need;  I cling to Him as He comes to clean house.

Nature’s Scream

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
~Edvard Munch
describing his inspiration for his famous painting
“The Scream”

I get the sense there are now millions of people who just want to scream about the situation the world is in. In my telehealth visits with my patients whose worlds have been turned upside down in the last two months – plans canceled, jobs lost, schooling disrupted, finances uncertain, social support only through screens – I hear the words “overwhelmed,” “isolated,” “frustrated,” in addition to their usual “depressed” and “anxious.” Labeling these feelings “normal” just doesn’t seem to cut it. They want life to feel normal again and don’t want to accept that normal is a moving target and things won’t ever be quite the same again.

They don’t know what’s next for them and neither do I, but we are living it out, one day at a time, all in the same rocking bouncing (perhaps sinking) boat together.

I know Mr. Rogers always counseled to “look for the helpers” when something scary and unpredictable happens, and it is gratifying to see the immense support being given to the thousands of workers who are doing just that – at great personal risk. Even grocery store clerks are no longer unsung heroes but have become the real deal and I never fail to thank them when I go get my one week food supply.

There are other great efforts to make us smile together such as John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” reports on Youtube and the worldwide participation in Facebook’s “View from my window” page. Zoom Virtual Choirs and Orchestras are entertaining us and late night TV hosts are broadcasting from their own bedrooms.

In our angst, we may forget that nature itself is full of its own powerful emotions, and this year is no different. I’ve read somewhere the high pitched sound of sap rising in trees in the spring is like a shriek beyond our capacity to hear. The sound of a bud growing, bulging and eventually unfolding must be like an exhalation of relief. Seeds and bulbs erupting through the soil surely groan and mutter in their strain.

Nature has also yielded mutated viruses attaching with vigor to a new host’s cells, and if we had microscopic microphones, the release of the duplicated RNA packets from a decimated living host cell probably sounds a bit like a scream as all the other cells prepare for a deadly virus on the move. It is like the Revolutionary War all over again in microcosm.

I do think a little screaming is in order.

So I remind myself and my patients: anxiety is normal. Discouragement is normal. But so is our need to scream out loud every once in awhile – even if all that comes out is the sound of silence.

Edvard Munch “The Scream”

He Sees Us As We Are: Petals on a Bough

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
~Ezra Pound “In a Station of the Metro”

All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.
1Peter 1:24-25

We won’t be visiting Japan this spring as we have the past several years – we were there over Christmas to meet a new grandson and with the specter of coronavirus has dampened any desire to travel. There are millions of people there and here wondering how this new reality will impact their daily lives. It already has: the store shelves are bare of basic necessities as nervous families stockpile.

In the past, during our time in Tokyo, we are overwhelmed by the sea of faces — each man, woman and child with a place to go to work or school, a place to return home to, a bed to rest upon. Millions pass through the same place in one day and each person, each hair on their head, is cared for and counted by God.

Yet, we are like the transient flowers, reminded again by the emergence of a potentially lethal viral protein packet: we are mortal, each of us, in our clinging like petals to a wet bough – the word of the Lord, our Creator. Only then we become more than apparition.  We bloom where God has planted us.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

An Opened Palm of Offering

These woods
on the edges of a lake
are settling now
to winter darkness.
Whatever was going to die
is gone —
crickets, ferns, swampgrass.
Bare earth fills long spaces of a field.
But look:
a single oak leaf
brown and shining
like a leather purse.
See what it so delicately offers
lying upturned on the path.
See how it reflects in its opened palm
a cup of deep, unending sky.
~ Laura Foley, “The Offering” from Why I Never Finished My Dissertation

Winter still has us in its chilly grasp for another four weeks. We feel caught up in its wintry web as viruses continue to swirl among us despite efforts to monitor and quarantine, and we wonder when our own turn will come.

The natural world, its joys and its threats, has always had the upper hand. We are dumbfounded, never quick enough to catch on to its tricks and sly mutations, unprepared to respond in the moment.

Like a withering leaf soon to become dust, we offer up what we can when we can: our reflection of the light, our hope of better things to come, our gift of beauty back to a despairing world.

Winter never has the last word.

Preparing the Heart: Fighting the Long Defeat

sunset112315

 

He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings

 

bakersunset92716

lonefirt

It is only 10 days before we bid farewell to autumn and accept the arrival of the winter solstice signaling the long slow climb back to daylight. This giving-way to the darkness has felt like a defeat we may never recover from.

Yet the sunset becomes a startling send-off for fall, coloring Mt. Baker and surrounding an almost full moon with purple in the eastern sky. Our farm, for a deceptive few minutes, appears rosy and warm in crisp subfreezing weather. Then all becomes gray again, and within an hour we are shrouded in thick fog which ices the asphalt as darkness fell.  It becomes a challenge to avoid the deep ditches along our country roads, with the white fog line being the critical marker preventing potential disaster.

The ever present evening fog this time of year cloaks and smothers in the darkness, not unlike the respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses that have hit many households hard this week. Plenty of people have been vomiting, feverish, coughing and snuffling, unable to leave the bathroom or see past the ends of their swollen noses, as if the fog descended upon them in an impenetrable gray cloud. It is an unwelcome reminder of our vulnerability to microscopic organisms that can defeat us and lay us low in a matter of hours, just as a sudden freezing fog can lure us to the ditch. We are forced to stay put, our immune systems fighting back at a time when there are dozens of responsibilities vying for attention in preparation for the holidays. Little gets accomplished other than our slow wait for healing and clarity–at some point the viral fog will dissipate and we can try climbing back into life and navigating without needing the fog lines as guides.

Ditches have been very deep for some folks recently, with the diagnosis of cancers and devastating surgeries swallowing up their light and joy. Despite profound losses and pain, people courageously continue to fight, climbing their way out of the darkness to the light.

The day’s transition to night becomes bittersweet: these bright flames of color herald our uneasy future sleep after fighting the long defeat on this soil.

The sun “settles” upon the earth and so must we.

Be at ease, be comforted, put down the heavy burden and rest. We can celebrate, with chorus and gifts, the arrival of brilliant light in our lives. Instead of darkness overcoming us, our lives become illuminated in glory and grace.

The Son has settled among us.

 

Sure on this shining night of star-made shadows round,
kindness must watch for me this side the ground,
on this shining night, this shining night

The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth,
hearts all whole
The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth, hearts all whole
Sure on this shining night,
sure on this shining, shining night

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars
Sure on this shining night, this shining night
On this shining night, this shining night
Sure on this shining night
~from James Agee’s poem

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum.
Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio:
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum
Alleluia

 

snowyweed

snowycloudmountain

Stretched Thin

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

It is not supposed to happen while taking vacation days from work.  I’m supposed to be well-rested, eager to return to work and ready for the next challenge.  Instead, some viral crud has collided with my immune system and won;  I’ve spent the last 24 hours with chills, fever, muscle aches and no appetite.   I was thinking my strange dreams and overwhelming laziness over the previous two days was just the real “me” coming out while on vacation, but now I know it was the real virus instead.

I try to go at 100 miles per hour in my professional and personal life to get everything done, rarely taking breaks as I feel I’ll never regain the momentum needed.  I’m finding that approach to life can’t be sustained, either because my body can’t do it any longer, or more likely, my brain doesn’t easily stretch that thin any longer.    I’m realizing there may a steady pace that is sustainable and I need to find it.  Right now that pace is from bed to bathroom to computer and back to bed.  I hope to aim for a little more adventure tomorrow.

When I am stretched too thin–when tears flow easy–it is time to slow down and taste the bread and not worry about buttering it.

It is time for the body to be restored by the Body.

A Febrile Ceasefire

flu-virus

Flu viruses rank up there with mosquitoes, rats, and slugs as creatures of questionable value to the Planet Earth.    I realize there is a reason for all things at all times, but how I managed to invite one of these little RNA stuffed darlings  into my nasopharynx is a mystery.  I was washing my hands to the point of being red and raw and wearing a N100 mask when in contact with hundreds of coughing feverish patients.  It still happened.  It outsmarted sanitizer, respiratory barriers, and social distancing.  So now on day three of fever and general misery, I bow in homage to the virus that lays millions low.  Misery does not love company.

Viruses do tend to have an equalizing effect on society.  They are no respecters of social status –one nose and set of lungs is as good as another.  However, the fact that thousands of deaths occur annually due to these little creatures is significant.  You’d think a virus would know better than to kill its own host, but some hosts can’t take the onslaught of cytokines and inflammatory response.   It is still pre-H1N1 vaccine in most parts of the world, and some of the antiviral medications have little effect, so it becomes an outright virus vs. host battle.  That’s what it feels like: a Lord of the Rings-Orks against the Elves and the Dwarves-onslaught happening in every muscle of my body.  I’d forgotten about some of those muscles.  Some haven’t made themselves known for decades, probably not since my last influenza, or when I tried taking a yoga class in my twenties.

So my only physiological response is fever.  This isn’t necessarily a bad response, as some studies suggest that a hot host is not a hospitable host to many viruses.  We’re not nearly as tolerant of fevers as we used to be.  A recent study has shown that giving a dose of Tylenol to children before or after their routine immunizations, to help decrease pain and fever, actually blunts the immune response so they don’t make as much antibody, which is the whole point of the vaccination to begin with.  So there may actually be need for fever in certain circumstances.  In my lovely 50’s era baby book, my mother noted in 1955 that my 6 month shot was a “good take” because I spiked a 104 degree fever, signaling a good immune response to the vaccine.  That was one way the doctors calmed down nervous mothers about brand new vaccines.  Fever is a “good” sign.  Nowadays, that kind of fever after a vaccination would be enough for a trip to the ER and potentially a law suit.

If there is anything I’ve learned in 30 years of doctoring, it’s that the pathogens continue to be smarter than modern medicine no matter what weapons, chemical or otherwise, we come up with next to arm ourselves.  Thankfully, we have immune systems that are remarkably effective for most things, but the fight required to win the war with a virus is not for the faint hearted.  It is a down and dirty trench and barbed wire battle field.

Just right now, it feels like time for a ceasefire…