So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum in painted quiet and concentration keeps pouring milk day after day from the pitcher to the bowl the World hasn’t earned the world’s end. ~Wisława Szymborska “Vermeer” trans. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak
I am struck by the expression of so much widespread hopelessness: the earth is being destroyed by humanity. Our continued existence is causing the world’s end.
This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve felt such desperation about our relationship with the world. It happened long ago when we chose to eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree and as a result were banned from the Garden. It happened with the plague when careless exposures wiped out entire villages. It happened when our wars left behind no living thing, leaving the ground itself cinders. It happened with the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust as missiles remain pointed at each other.
Still the sun rises and the sun sets, day after day. We don’t know for how much longer. Only God knows as God put us here with a plan.
So we continue to pour the milk as a sacrament: quietly, with great concentration, as that is the work we do, day after day. We still milk the cows and raise the wheat for bread and conceive children and raise them up as best we can. As long as we continue to do the work of the Garden, even while we dwell outside it, we are not causing the apocalypse. It is God’s world, after all, and all that is in it.
A hill, a farm, A forest, and a valley. Half a hill plowed, half woods. A forest valley and a valley field.
Sun passes over; Two solstices a year Cow in the pasture Sometimes deer
A farmhouse built of wood. A forest built on bones. The high field, hawks The low field, crows
Wren in the brambles Frogs in the creek Hot in summer Cold in snow
The woods fade and pass. The farm goes on. The farm quits and fails The woods creep down
Stocks fall you can’t sell corn Big frost and tree-mice starve Who wins who cares? The woods have time. The farmer has heirs. ~“Map” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain.
We have now passed from the season when our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold. In June, the cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass. During the summer months, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM. So many hours of light to work with!
I yearn for the coming dark rainy days to hide inside with a book.
Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call our names, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be prepared for winter. It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this. It’s just that nothing we do is enough. Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially. The fences always need fixing.
Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.
We spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be. We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful. Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe. We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 35 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year. Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents. We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup. The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything. We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses. Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.
And our house would always stay clean.
Dream on. Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes. I know ours is. Yet here we be and here we stay.
It’s home. We’ve raised three wonderful children here. We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields. We breathe clean air and hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven. Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm. I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality. Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older. Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.
We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between. This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime. ~Ray Bradbury from Fahrenheit 451
At last the entire family stood, like people seeing someone off at the rail station, waiting in the room.
“Well,” said Great-grandma, “there I am, I’m not humble, so it’s nice seeing you standing around my bed. Now next week there’s late gardening and closet-cleaning and clothes-buying for the children to do. And since that part of me is called, for convenience, Great-grandma, won’t be here to step it along, those other parts of me called Uncle Bert and Leo and Tom and Douglas, and all the other names, will have to take over, each to his own.”
Somewhere a door closed quietly.
… she saw it shaping in her mind quietly, and with serenity like a sea moving along and endless and self-refreshing shore.
Downstairs, she thought, they are polishing the silver, and rummaging the cellar, and dusting in the halls. She could hear them living all through the house.
“It’s all right,” whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. “Like everything else in this life, it’s fitting.”
And the sea moved her back down the shore. ~Ray Bradbury “Great-Grandmother” from Dandelion Wine
Esther learned young how to work and she never forgot, still working up until the last few days of her long life.
Today she is sweeping up, wiping down counters and washing the dishes in a corner of heaven, after baking cookies and putting a soup on to simmer, to be sure everyone up there is well-fed and feels welcome.
She grew up on a remote farm in South Dakota where survival meant the whole family pitched in to help. When she married Pete and headed west to Washington, the work never let up: six sons, a small farm, a construction business to help manage, working as a caretaker privately and in a nursing home, taking on the mission of coordinating a large Sunday School ministry in our small church back over fifty years ago and never leaving.
Esther touched everything and everyone in this life, leaving a bit of herself behind in all of us. She’ll stay plenty busy in the next life.
She wasWiser Lake Chapel for over half her life, along with her husband Pete who passed from chronic leukemia over a decade ago. Their son Wes took on many of Pete’s carpentry and building maintenance duties at church, but then he too lost a fight with acute leukemia.
Esther persevered despite these heartbreaking losses, a tenacious testament to the power of the Spirit in one woman’s life. She had more artificial joints in her body than her own joints, some replaced twice. Her heart tried to fail any number of times, most recently after a trip to Europe she made earlier this year, by herself, to visit her missionary son. She never stopped driving. She never stopped walking even though every step took immense effort paid in pain. She came to every church service, morning and night and mid-week, usually with something fresh-baked in her hand. If soup was needed for a meal on short notice, she could make it happen in an hour from what she stored away in her freezer. She was a self-appointed clean-up crew, wheeling her walker from table to sink to counter to trash can and back again.
Every new great-grandbaby and every new Chapel baby had a hand-made Esther quilt, complete with her hand-painted pictures and the details of the birthday and birthweight printed on it. She made hundreds over her lifetime.
Esther’s family is a large exuberant and glory-filled group of sons and daughter-in-laws and grands and great-grands who reflect who she and Pete were to them, to our church and the greater community. They are a legacy left on earth, to keep up the good work and gratitude-filled worship, to never ever give up, no matter how tough life can be.
Thank you, Esther, for changing us all so profoundly we won’t ever be the same as we were before you touched us; you left us all so much better than before. Now I believe we all are just a little bit like you.
And most of all, thanks for 90-plus years of your loving labor on the Lord’s behalf. The soup is on the stove in memory of you.
My summer of “no doctoring” finishes today. I return to part-time clinical work tomorrow; a new beginning is on the way.
I am readying myself.
I consider how it will feel to put the stethoscope back on and return to spending most of my daylight hours in window-less rooms. Several months of freedom to wander and wonder will be tough to give up.
However, when I meet my first patient of the day, I’m “all in.” Someone is needing my help more than I need time off. The wind has shifted, it is time to migrate back to the work I was called to do over forty years ago.
Still I will look for beautiful things where I can find them, knowing that even though they don’t last, they will always be well worth the weeping.
There comes the strangest moment in your life, when everything you thought before breaks free— what you relied upon, as ground-rule and as rite looks upside down from how it used to be.
Your heart’s in retrograde. You simply have no choice. Things people told you turn out to be true. You have to hold that body, hear that voice. You’d have sworn no one knew you more than you.
How many people thought you’d never change? But here you have. It’s beautiful. It’s strange. ~Kate Light from “There Comes the Strangest Moment” inOpen Slowly
This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.
Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.
Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being,… ~Omid Safi from The Disease of Being Busy
Now that I have officially committed to reduce to part-time clinic work nine months out of the year with summers off, I’m struggling with the strangeness of waking up with no job to go to. I’m no longer paid to be busy. It feels a bit like I’m vigorously treading water but with no destination in mind other than to stay afloat. Maybe that’s enough to just move and breathe but until I get my feet on this new uncertain ground, I won’t make much progress.
With no little trepidation, I have decided this is the time to start backing off from all-consuming clinic responsibilities, knowing I was becoming less effective due to diminishing passion and energy for the work. I’ve worked in some capacity for over fifty years, throughout school and graduate school. Not working feels, well… very strange. It makes me question who I really am and how not leaving home for a job changes me. I can barely remember who I was before I became a physician.
So here I am — changing — whether it is taking on new color or shape, exercising a different part of my brain, or simply praying I will make good use of this time to do something as worthwhile as what I have been doing.
And once again my days … will be … strangely beautiful.
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.