To the shepherd herding his flock through the gorge below, it must appear as if I walk on the sky. I feel that too: so little between me
and The Fall. But this is how faith works its craft. One foot set in front of the other, while the wind rattles the cage of the living and the rocks down there
cheer every wobble, your threads keep this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across. ~Matthew Olzmann “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”
I have never walked a rope bridge though I’ve seen one from a distance in Northern Ireland. It swayed far above a rocky gorge, hanging almost miraculously in the air as walkers trekked blithely across.
Not for me, I said.
I feel disoriented and dizzy when the surface beneath my feet sways and moves with the wind and due to my own movement. I make my own wobbling worse with my fear. The rocks below seem menacing; I don’t trust my own ability to navigate over and through them.
Oh, me of little faith. So little between me and The Fall.
Simply crossing a narrow wooden bridge built over a fallen large old-growth tree trunk takes all my courage. I try to focus on my feet taking each step, testing the solid wood beneath me rather than looking down at the rushing water and sharp rocks below.
In the course of life, I have to take steps that feel uncertain and unsupported. I freeze in place, afraid to move forward, reluctant to leave the security of where I am to do what it takes to get safely to the other side.
Yet I need to trust what holds firm for others will hold firm for me.
Christ is the bridge for those like me who fear, who don’t trust their own feet, who can’t stop looking at the taunting and daunting rocks below. He has braided Himself around me to keep me safe, no matter what and no matter where. He’s been here a long time and will always be.
I can step out in that confidence.
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You are alive. It needn’t have been so. It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever. But it is so now.
And what is it like: to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and LIVE IT. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.
It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened. It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again.
When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.
Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.
However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.
It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.
After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.
I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.
From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.
So I nearly wasn’t.
I’m reminded on each birthday: I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am. I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.
This is a truth for us all to cling to.
Each day is a gift to be opened and savored. Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.
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It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs” because people were being crushed by a virus right and left.
I understand this kind of thinking, particularly when “in the moment” tragedies, (like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night) play out real-time in the palm of our hand in front of our eyes and we feel helpless to do anything but watch it unfold.
Those who know me well know I can fret and worry better than most. Medical training only makes this worse. I’m taught to think catastrophically. That is what I have done for a living – to always be ready for the worse case scenario and simply assume it will happen.
Sometimes it does happen and no amount of wishing it away will work.
When I rise, too often sleepless, to face a day of uncertainty as we all do ~ after careful thought, I reach for the certainty I am promised over the uncertainty I can only imagine:
What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong —body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord (and we are comforted by this) but even if it did … even if it did – as awful things sometimes do – we are never abandoned.
He is with us always.
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There is something mysterious about fog. It whispered to Sandburg as it crept into the harbor
on little cat feet. It settles over Admiralty Inlet, a down comforter of relief on a simmering summer day.
It moves in quickly, a cool mist that settles lightly on our faces and arms as we trudge up the hill
toward home. Then the stillness, how it tamps down sound, reminding us to honor silence and drift
through an inner landscape of ideas, enter into the ethereal magic of another world,
as if we were birds soaring in clouds that have come down to enfold us,
quieting the minor furies we create. ~Lois Parker Edstrom from Glint (MoonPath Press, 2019)
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment … a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present… ~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter
~Lustravit lampade terras~ (He has illumined the world with a lamp) The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me; my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter. – Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”
The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the fear that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse.
I tend to forget: the moment just passed can never be retrieved and relived.
Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than the latest viral scourge. I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day. I wish we could be vaccinated to protect us all from our unnamed fears.
I want to say to myself: Stop and acknowledge this moment in time. Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort. Stop fearing the next moment. Just stop. Instead, simply be, now and now and now.
I need to know: this moment, foggy or fine, is mine alone, a down comforter of relief~ this moment of weeping and sharing and breath and pulse and light. I shout for joy in it even when sound is muffled in morning fog. It is to be celebrated. I mustn’t hold back.
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After three weeks of hot weather and drought, we’ve had a week of cold and rain, just the way it ought to be here in the north, in June, a fire going in the woodstove all day long, so you can go outside in the cold and rain anytime and smell the wood smoke in the air.
I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter’s house helping her expand their garden by at least ten times. We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.
I got to quit earlier than Nadine. She told me I’d done enough and that I should go get a beer and lie down on the chaise lounge and cheer her on, which is what I did.
All this made me remember my father forty years ago helping me with my garden. My father’s dead now, and has been dead for many years, which is how I’ll be one of these days too. And then Nadine will help her child, who is not yet here, with her garden. Old Nadine, aching and sore, will be in my empty shoes, cheering on her own.
So it goes. The wheel turns, generation after generation, around and around. We ride for a little while, get off and somebody else gets on. Over and over, again and again. ~David Budbill “Seventy-Two Is Not Thirty-Five” from Tumbling toward the End.
June is not supposed to be like this.
It is typically cool and rainy during these first few weeks of summer. June is an impossible month to hold outdoor weddings as we discovered a year ago. We celebrated our daughter and son-in-law’s wedding amid chilly breezes and sprinkles, avoiding a downpour.
Yet if it had been this year we would have all baked and sweated to a golden melting crust sitting in the full sun.
Yesterday we reached 106 F here in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest. I am scanning the weather forecast for any hint of rain (none) and am celebrating the prediction of mid-80s temperatures (hopefully soon). I once thought 85 to be intolerably hot.
It all is a matter of perspective when considering how things “ought” to be.
Wild temperature fluctuations and weather extremes are not new to this earth, but they certainly seem more frequent, causing more damage and suffering among all earth dwellers, whether plant or animal. We expect natural predictable cycles in the seasons and in the passing of one generation to another — a smooth replacement plan as older gives way to the younger.
This is how it ought to be. Yet it isn’t always so. Sometimes not even close.
We’ll remember 2020 and early 2021 as months of pandemic that sucked the life and joy from so many of us. Now the crazy heat index of June 2021 is effectively distracting us from a dwindling risk of COVID infection to consider instead the immediacy of how to avoid overheating ourselves, our animals and our gardens/crops.
It is always something in this life of peril and worry.
That is just how it is, rather than how it ought to be.
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Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant; and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy. ~Mark Twain
Today I will wrap up 45 years of uninterrupted training and doctoring. Most of that time, I have worried I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake.
Maybe no one has noticed. These days we call it the “impostor” syndrome. Mark Twain knew all about currant cake and how easy it was for a fly to blend into its batter.
Even while bearing three children and going through a few surgeries myself, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time. This is primarily out of my concern that, even after a few weeks, I would forget all that I’ve ever known. In fact, half of what I learned in medical school and residency over forty years ago has evolved, thanks to new discoveries and clarifying research. I worried if I were to actually to step away from doctoring for an extended time, then return to see patients again, I would be masquerading as a physician rather than be the real thing. A mere fly among the currants palmed off on the unwary.
If being truly honest, those who spend their professional lives providing medical care to others always share this concern: if a patient only knew how much we don’t know and will never know, despite everything we DO know, there would really be no trust left for us at all.
Of course, some say, didn’t the COVID pandemic prove our ignorance? Physicians started at Ground Zero with a novel virus with unclear transmissibility and immense potential to wreak havoc on the human body … or cause no symptoms whatsoever. We had no collected data to base prevention or treatment decisions: would masks just protect others or would they only protect ourselves, or maybe they protect both? Could a common inexpensive anti-inflammatory/antimalarial drug be beneficial or would a parasitic wormer medication be somehow effective to fight the devastation of the virus?
Effective treatments are still being sought all these months later; others have been debated, studied and discarded as worthless.
Or would this pandemic finally resolve thanks to effective yet controversial public health mandates while rapidly distributing highly effective vaccines developed from many prior years of carefully performed research?
During the past 16 months, your next door neighbor, or the loudest tweet on Twitter proclaimed more expertise than the average medical professional and definitely had a stronger opinion. At least we doctors knew how much we didn’t know and how much was simply guess work based on experience, good intentions and hopeful prayer. Gradually, while lives were lost, including too many of our own, real data began to trickle in so decisions could be made with some evidence backing them. But even that data continues to evolve, day by day, as authentic medical evidence always does.
That doesn’t stop all the “quack” flies out there from climbing into the batter pretending to be currants. With so much rapidly changing medical information at everyone’s fingertips, who needs a trained physician when there are so many other resources – sketchy and opportunistic though they may be – for seeking health care advice?
Even so, I am convinced most patients really do care that doctors share the best information they have available at any point in time. None of us who are doctoring wants to be the “fly” in the batter of health care.
As I meet with my last patient today, I know over forty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for the subtle signs and symptoms that no googled website or internet doc-in-the-box can discern. The avoidance of eye contact, the tremble of the lip as they speak, the barely palpable rash, the hardly discernible extra heart sound, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base. These are things I am privileged to see and hear and about which I make decisions together with my patients. What I’ve done over four decades has been no masquerade; out of my natural caution, I am not appearing to be someone I am not. This is what I was trained to do and have done for thousands of days and many more thousands of patients during my professional life, while passing a comprehensive certification examination every few years to prove my continued study and changing fund of knowledge.
The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough that an unwary patient might gobble it down to their ultimate detriment. I know I’ve not been that doctor. I’ve been the real thing all these years for my patients, even if I’ve seemed a bit on the tart side at times, yet offering up just enough tang to be exactly what was needed in the moment and in the long term.
And someday, hopefully not too soon, I will die happy having done this with my life.
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My mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, was born 101 years ago today in the lonely isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington. She drew her first breath in a two story white house located down a long poplar-lined lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills.
She attended a one room school house until 8th grade, located a mile away in the rural countryside, then moved in with her grandmother “in town” in Rosalia to attend high school, seeing her parents only a couple times a month.
It was a childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart – her only sibling, an older brother, was busy helping their father on the farm. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.
Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.
She nearly died at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her life-long, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith, letting go at age 88 after fracturing a femur, breaking her will to continue to live.
As a young woman, she was ready to leave the wheat farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.
Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation after their divorce years later, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.
As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.
She never did stop worrying until the last few months. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she gave up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became much more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.
I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight-laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected at times but safe nonetheless, under her wings.
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These are the essentials of what Jesus asks. Basic, simple, gentle, emphatic, encouraging. So why don’t I follow through? Why do I hand myself over to anxiety and fear? Why do I fail at what should be so simple? He knows I need reminders. He knows I am weak. So He says it again: don’t forget this. Remember me. I will remember. I will remember You.
1 Matthew 6:26. See also Luke 12:24, “Consider the ravens.” 2 Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27. 3 “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). Norris uses the King James translation here. 4 This stanza is a series of Jesus’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7, King James; also Luke 11:9). 5 Matthew 7:13-14; also Luke 13:23-24. 6 Matthew 6:25, 31; Luke 12:22, 29. 7 Matthew 7:1; Mark 4:24; Luke 6:37-38. 8 Matthew 7:6. 9 Matthew 8:13. 10 “Do not be afraid” – a frequent command by Jesus; for example, Matthew 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10. 11 The healing of Jairus’s daughter: “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41; also Luke 8:54). 12 The healing the widow’s only son; Luke 7:14. 13 The healing of the man with the withered hand: Matthew 12:13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11. 14 Jesus’s healing the paralyzed man: Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26. 15 Jesus’s command to the ocean: Mark 5:39; also Matthew 8:26; Luke 8:24. 16 Jesus to his disciples in Gethsemane: “Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me” (Matthew 26:46; Mark 14:42). 17Jesus’s two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; also Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). 18 Matthew 18:21-22; Luke 17:4.
In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world? just to hear his sister promise, An unfinished wing of heaven, just to hear his brother say, A house inside a house, but most of all to hear his mother answer, One more song, then you go to sleep. How could anyone in that bed guess the question finds its beginning in the answer long growing inside the one who asked, that restless boy, the night’s darling? Later, a man lying awake, he might ask it again, just to hear the silence charge him, This night arching over your sleepless wondering, this night, the near ground every reaching-out-to overreaches, just to remind himself out of what little earth and duration, out of what immense good-bye, each must make a safe place of his heart, before so strange and wild a guest as God approaches. ~Li-Young Lee “Nativity”
“What’s wrong with the world?” asked The Times of famous authors. “Dear Sir, I am. “ Yours, G.K. Chesterton
I’m not ashamed that I still ask the hard questions, just as I did when I was a child, lying in bed, fearful in the dark. Some call it a lack of faith: if I truly believed, I would trust completely, so asking such questions would be “out of the question.”
Yet God throughout scripture encourages questions, listens to lament, isn’t intimidated by uncertainty and weakness. He waits patiently for His people to make their hearts a safe place for Him to dwell – a place of wings and songs and awe and worship – even when resounding with questions.
My heart is a womb where our strange and wild God seeks to reside in this world. “Why me?” I ask, pondering yet another hard question in the dark. “Why not you?” comes His response: a question for which He awaits my answer.
Coffee in one hand leaning in to share, listen: How I talk to God.
“Momma, you’re special.” Three-year-old touches my cheek. How God talks to me.
While driving I make lists: done, do, hope, love, hate, try. How I talk to God.
Above the highway hawk: high, alone, free, focused. How God talks to me.
Rash, impetuous chatter, followed by silence: How I talk to God.
First, second, third, fourth chance to hear, then another: How God talks to me.
Fetal position under flannel sheets, weeping How I talk to God.
Moonlight on pillow tending to my open wounds How God talks to me.
Pulling from my heap of words, the ones that mean yes: How I talk to God.
Infinite connects with finite, without words: How God talks to me. ~Kelly Belmonte “How I Talk to God”
I don’t always realize I am constantly in a dialogue with God, but He knows and He hears. He talks back to me but I’m not always hearing Him.
Whenever I’m occupied with the daily-ness of life and am thinking “if only” this or that could be different, I’m telling God I know better. He lets me know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that He made the world, He knows what comes next and I don’t.
If I get impatient or irritable rather than grateful and awed, I’m talking like a petulant child wanting my way. When God gifts me with a moment of color in the sky or a golden light across the landscape, I need to pause, waiting in my personal wilderness, and remain wordless.
The Infinite is trying to talk to the finite. I am only asked to listen.
You heard my voice, I came out of the woods by choice Shelter also gave their shade But in the dark I have no name So leave that click in my head And I will remember the words that you said Left a clouded mind and a heavy heart But I am sure we could see a new start So when your hopes on fire But you know your desire Don’t hold a glass over the flame Don’t let your heart grow cold I will call you by name I will share your road But hold me fast, hold me fast ‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer And hold me fast, hold me fast ‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer I wrestled long with my youth We tried so hard to live in the truth But do not tell me all is fine When I lose my head, I lose my spine So leave that click in my head And I won’t remember the words that you said You brought me out from the cold Now, how I long, how I long to grow old So when your hope’s on fire But you know your desire Don’t hold a glass over the flame Don’t let your heart grow cold I will call you by name I will share your road But hold me fast, hold me fast ‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer And hold me fast, hold me fast ‘Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under And I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under The skies I’m under Source: LyricFindSongwriters: Benjamin Walter David Lovett / Edward James Milton Dwane / Marcus Oliver Johnstone Mumford / Winston Aubrey Aladar Marshall