My life is not this steeply sloping hour, in which you see me hurrying. Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree;
I am the rest between two notes, which are somehow always in discord because Death’s note wants to climb over— but in the dark interval, reconciled, they stay there trembling. And the song goes on, beautiful. ― Rainer Maria Rilkefrom “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”
On Monday mornings I often feel I’m stuck immobilized in the spot in the middle between discordant notes.
There is on one side of me the pressure of catch-up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side is the anticipated demand of the coming week of stressful work I am committed to doing. Before I arrive to work, I dwell uneasily in dead center between the unknown ahead and the known behind.
This moment of rest in the present, this trembling broken Now, is my moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended.
This Monday morning I allow myself an instant of silence and reflection before I surge full bore into the week, knowing that on my journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes, just as I do when I play, unprepared, at the piano.
But it can be beautiful nevertheless.
Even the least harmonious notes seek reconciliation within the next chord. I now move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life.
Trembling, still trembling.
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God keep my jewel this day from danger; From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger. From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire. From the horns of the cows going home to the byre. From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her. From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger. From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar. From evil red berries that wake her desire. From hunting the gander and vexing the goat. From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat. From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping; May God have my jewel this day in his keeping. ~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child
This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child. When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears. I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.
And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for four precious grandchildren who live too far away from us. I do this because I can’t not do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.
May I be changed by my prayers.
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. ~C.S. Lewis
Sleep child upon my bosom, It is cosy and warm; Mother’s arms are tight around you, A mother’s love is in my breast; Nothing shall disturb your slumber, Nobody will do you harm; Sleep in peace, dear child, Sleep quietly on your mother’s breast.
Sleep peacefully tonight, sleep; Gently sleep, my lovely; Why are you now smiling, Smiling gently in your sleep? Are angels above smiling on you, As you smile cheerfully, Smiling back and sleeping, Sleeping quietly on my breast?
Do not fear, it is nothing but a leaf Beating, beating on the door; Do not fear, only a small wave Murmurs, murmurs on the seashore; Sleep child, there’s nothing here Nothing to give you fright; Smile quietly in my bosom, On the blessed angels yonder.
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A second crop of hay lies cut and turned. Five gleaming crows search and peck between the rows. They make a low, companionable squawk, and like midwives and undertakers possess a weird authority.
Crickets leap from the stubble, parting before me like the Red Sea. The garden sprawls and spoils.
Cloud shadows rush over drying hay, fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine. The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod brighten the margins of the woods.
Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts; water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.
The cicada’s dry monotony breaks over me. The days are bright and free, bright and free.
Then why did I cry today for an hour, with my whole body, the way babies cry?
A white, indifferent morning sky, and a crow, hectoring from its nest high in the hemlock, a nest as big as a laundry basket … In my childhood I stood under a dripping oak, while autumnal fog eddied around my feet, waiting for the school bus with a dread that took my breath away.
The damp dirt road gave off this same complex organic scent.
I had the new books—words, numbers, and operations with numbers I did not comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled by use, in a blue canvas satchel with red leather straps.
Spruce, inadequate, and alien I stood at the side of the road. It was the only life I had. ~Jane Kenyon, “Three Songs at the End of Summer” from Collected Poems.
The first day back to school isn’t always the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently, especially adjusting to classrooms and masking after a year of remote learning for so many. Some will be return to the routine tomorrow: school buses will roar past our farm brimming with young faces under fresh masks, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs amid a fair amount of dread and anxiety.
I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups. Even as a good learner and obedient student, I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom; the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with one another, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something and someone more than who we were before.
Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful. Two of my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as veteran teachers.
For the first time in over thirty years, I won’t have yet another “first day” or new students under my care — it all feels new and unfamiliar yet again.
So I take a deep breath on this foggy Labor Day morning and am immediately taken back to the anxieties and fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes, waiting for the schoolbus on a drippy wooded country road.
She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I became after all those years of schooling, hidden somewhere under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and hurting and stretching — but I do remember her well.
Like every student starting a new adventure tomorrow, she could use a hug.
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Light splashed this morning on the shell-pink anemones swaying on their tall stems; down blue-spiked veronica light flowed in rivulets over the humps of the honeybees; this morning I saw light kiss the silk of the roses in their second flowering, my late bloomers flushed with their brandy. A curious gladness shook me. So I have shut the doors of my house, so I have trudged downstairs to my cell, so I am sitting in semi-dark hunched over my desk with nothing for a view to tempt me but a bloated compost heap, steamy old stinkpile, under my window; and I pick my notebook up and I start to read aloud and still-wet words I scribbled on the blotted page: “Light splashed…”
I can scarcely wait till tomorrow when a new life begins for me, as it does each day, as it does each day. ~Stanley Kunitz “The Round”
It is too easy to be ground to a pulp by the constant irritations of the day – my aggravations are too easily expressed, my worries never seem to wane – all of it sucks gladness out of me. When my feelings become four-dimensional and surround and drown me, I lose all perspective on what got me out of bed to begin the day.
God is in these intricate details, whether the splash of light on a petal or the smell of rotting compost; it is my job to notice this. It is tempting to look past His ubiquitous presence in all things, to seek out only the elegant grandeur of creation and bypass the plain and smelly and homely. Yet even what lacks beauty from my limited perspective is worthy of His divine attention.
He knows the value and purpose of each thing He created, including me and the things that aggravate me no end.
The time has come to be refreshed and renewed even when surrounded by decay. His care is revealed in the tiniest way. He is worthy of my attention because I am constantly worthy of His.
If I rise early enough, I can see each new day’s light splash everything awake. By the time I come in to sit down to record my words and photos, I’m thoroughly washed with a fresh dawn. I can scarcely wait to take on what this day will bring.
A new life begins for me, as it does each day, as it does each day.
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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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