Naming Your Hopelessness

Instead of depression,
try calling it hibernation.
Imagine the darkness is a cave
in which you will be nurtured
by doing absolutely nothing.
Hibernating animals don’t even dream.
It’s okay if you can’t imagine
Spring. Sleep through the alarm
of the world. Name your hopelessness
a quiet hollow, a place you go
to heal, a den you dug,
Sweetheart, instead
of a grave.
~Andrea Gibson “Instead of Depression” from You Better Be Lightning

We didn’t say fireflies
but lightning bugs.
We didn’t say carousel
but merry-go-round.
Not seesaw,
teeter-totter
not lollipop,
sucker.
We didn’t say pasta, but
spaghetti, macaroni, noodles:
the three kinds.
We didn’t get angry:
we got mad.
And we never felt depressed
dismayed, disappointed
disheartened, discouraged
disillusioned or anything,
even unhappy:
just sad.
~Sally Fisher “Where I Come From”  from Good Question.

…if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful.. .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy.. .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses.
~Lisa Feldman Barrett from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….
We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

If there is anything I came to understand over the decades I served as a primary care physician, it is that every person experiences painful emotions that make them miserable, making it even more difficult to share with others. Sometimes those feelings build up such pressure that they leak out of our cells as physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tightness, stomach upset, hypertension. Other times they are so overwhelming we can no longer function in a day to day way – described clinically as rage, panic, mood disorder, depression, self-destructive, suicidal.

Somehow we’ve lost permission to be sad.
Just sad. Sometimes unbearably, hopelessly sad.
 
Sadness happens to us all, some longer than others, some worse than others, some deeper than others. What makes sadness more real and more manageable is if we can say it out loud — whatever ‘sad’ means to us on a given day and if we describe our feelings in detail, explaining to others who can understand because they’ve been there too, then they can listen and help.

Painful emotions don’t always need a “fix” in the short term, particularly chemical, but that is why I was usually consulted. Alcohol, marijuana and other self-administered drugs tend to be the temporary anesthesia that people seek to stop feeling anything at all but it can erupt even stronger later.

Sometimes an overwhelming feeling just needs an outlet so it no longer is locked up, unspoken and silent, threatening to leak out in ways that tear us up and pull us apart.

Sometimes we need a healing respite/hibernation, with permission to sleep through the world’s alarms for a time. At times, medical management with antidepressants can be incredibly helpful along with talk therapy.

It helps to find words to express how things felt before this sadness, where you are now in the midst of it and where you wish you could be rather than being swallowed by sorrow. Healing takes time and like anything else that is broken, it hurts as it repairs. Armed with that self-knowledge and some gentle compassion, tomorrow and the next day and the next might feel a little less hopeless and overwhelming.

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Dawn on Our Darkness: Taking an Uncertain Step

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden by the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.

I’m feeling my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be,
the symbol of our salvation.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
safely follow a darkened road made nearly straight,
all the way Home.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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.

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Let’s See What Happens…

“Hello, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
~A.A. Milne from Winnie the Pooh

There are days when I am just weary of the status quo and would like to pretend I’m not me just to see what happens.

…not have the same worries,
same bad habits,
same aches and pains,
same overwhelming obstacles.
It might be quite refreshing.

But if I pretended I wasn’t me, I’m sure I would end up having a whole new set of problems, anxieties and fears that would rightfully belong to someone else.

I think I’ll stick with what I know and who I am. After all, I have it pretty good, and that is more than enough for me.

And besides, I kinda want to see what happens… just being me.

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The Unbroken Dark

Now you hear what the house has to say.
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you’ve learned how to ignore.

But now you must listen to the things you own,
all that you’ve worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,

the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
~Dana Gioia, “Insomnia” from 99 Poems: New and Selected. 

The almost disturbing scent
of peonies presses through the screens,
and I know without looking how
those heavy white heads lean down
under the moon’s light. A cricket chafes
and pauses, chafes and pauses,
as if distracted or preoccupied.

When I open my eyes to document
my sleeplessness by the clock, a point
of greenish light pulses near the ceiling.
A firefly . . . In childhood I ran out
at dusk, a jar in one hand, lid
pierced with airholes in the other,
getting soaked to the knees
in the long wet grass.

The light moves unsteadily, like someone
whose balance is uncertain after traveling
many hours, coming a long way.
Get up. Get up and let it out.

But I leave it hovering overhead, in case
it’s my father, come back from the dead
to ask, “Why are you still awake? You can
put grass in their jar in the morning.”

~Jane Kenyon from “Insomnia” from Collected Poems

Sleep comes its little while.
Then I wake in the valley of midnight or three a.m.
to the first fragrances of spring which is coming,
all by itself, no matter what
My heart says,
what you thought you have you do not have.
My body says,
will this pounding ever stop?
My heart says:
there, there, be a good student.
My body says:
let me up and out,
I want to fondle those soft white flowers,
open in the night
~Mary Oliver
from A Thousand Morning Poems

Our house does make sounds at night. It has many stories to tell, and does.

I’ve become accustomed to its various voices after almost thirty years sleeping (and too often not sleeping) here, yet hearing new noises are disconcerting – whether thumps that come from the attic, pattering of little feet across the roof, clinking and clunking of the furnace, or inexplicable wild sounds right outside the bedroom window.

Listening in the night reminds me I’m a mere visitor here. The house, the farm, all that surrounds me here remains long after I’m gone. Awake or asleep, I want to spend my time well here; tossing and turning in my thoughts gives me a chance to consider what the house, the land, the the wild and not-so-wild critters outside have to say. The “terrible clarity” of the unbroken dark is often disconcerting and downright frightening.

It is then, and only then – God’s still, small voice breaks the dark.
Always has. Always will.

I will seek You Lord
Search with all my heart till I find You
Waiting patiently
Longing for one word to breath new life
Your words are life

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

Take me to a place
Sheltered from the noise and distraction
Lord be my escape
Open up my heart to whispers of
Your life and love

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice
~Jay Stocker

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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Things That Could Have Happened, But Didn’t

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

When I was five, my father,
who loved me, ran me over
with a medium-sized farm tractor.

I was lucky though; I tripped
and slipped into a small depression,
which caused the wheels to tread

lightly on my leg, which had already
been broken (when I was three)
by a big dog, who liked to play rough,

and when I was nine, I fell
from the second-floor balcony
onto the cement by the back steps,

and as I went down I saw my life go by
and thought: “This is exactly how
Wiley Coyote feels, every time!”

Luckily, I mostly landed on my feet,
and only had to go on crutches
for a few months in the fifth grade—

and shortly after that, my father,
against his better judgment,
bought the horse I’d wanted for so long.

All the rest of my luck has to do
with highways and ice—things that
could have happened, but didn’t.
~Joyce Sutphen, “My Luck” from First Words

at twenty

I understand catastrophic thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies
play out real-time in the palm of my hand
and I feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to first think disastrously.
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 to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do every morning~
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 left on our own to deal with it.



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Loved with a Perfect Love

The grace of God means something like:
“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
~Frederick Buechner from Wishful Thinking

photo by Nate Gibson

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name;
you are mine.


When you walk through the waters,
I’ll be with you;
you will never sink beneath the waves.
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.
When the fear of loneliness is looming,
then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of a stranger,
remember you are precious in my eyes.
You are mine, O my child,
I am your Father,
and I love you with a perfect love.
~Gerard Markland “Do Not Be Afraid”

Most days I depend on discovering beauty
in the most unexpected places.
I am always looking for it.

But when the unexpected terrible happens–
crushes, bleeds and fractures me,
and beauty appears to hide its face,
what I fear most is that
I’ll not ever see beauty in the world again.

We are told in scripture:
the Words written
again and again and again,
-365 times in total-
once for every day of the year:

if only I can truly believe them,
if only I can reassure others so
they reach out and take them to heart

He is here, with us, in this broken world-
do not be afraid
do not be afraid
do not be afraid

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A Voice Like No Other

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to know love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our flowing tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing whatsoever to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
this world without form and void is made whole again.

photo by Nate Gibson

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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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