Sleeping in the Cold

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All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
~William Carlos Williams “Winter Trees”

 

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Winter seems less complicated than other seasons until the wind blows brutal and the ice glaze is an inch thick and snow bends branches to the ground to the point of snapping a tree in half. It is no longer a quiet gentle sleeping time but can take a tree down,  unaware,  in the night, the crack and crash of branches like gunshots hunting down innocent prey.

The clean up has begun, the remnants lying waiting on the ground and the naked trunks scarred.

Despite such devastation, the buds still swell, readying for the complexity of spring.

 

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Seen Through at a Glance

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whenever you mark a horse, or a dog,
with a peculiarly mild, calm, deep-seated eye,

be sure he is an Aristotle or a Kant,
tranquilly speculating upon the mysteries in man. 

No philosophers so thoroughly comprehend us as dogs and horses.
They see through us at a glance.
But there is a touch of divinity ….
and a special halo about a horse…

~Herman Melville from Redburn: His First Voyage

 

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There are some animals (and people) who will not look you in the eye.  It may be a reluctance to appear too bold, as direct eye contact can imply, or it may be a reluctance to expose too much of their own inner world and feelings.

Because eyes don’t lie.

But when you can empty yourself into another being’s eyes and feel both understanding and understood, that is a touch of divinity at work.  The eye is a mirror, a gazing ball and a collecting pool, and we reveal,  reflect and absorb when we really take the time and gather the courage to look deeply into one another.

 

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A Pure Bright Blaze

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In the gloaming
when death comes
clearly into view
as the horizon
of life’s landscape,
the call is to illumination,
to focus the shining darts
of life’s lessons
as a magnifying glass
focuses rays of light.
The task of middle age
is to dispose
of the extraneous,
to focus desire’s flickering
until it flames
at the incendiary point
of an undivided heart
and makes of love
a pure, bright blaze
before a falling night.
~Bonnie Thurston  “Late Vocation”by Paraclete Press
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In my third trimester of life, I try to find a focal point in all I do and the blaze that arises warm and illuminating from that magnifying glass, yet does not incinerate.
God shows me how in every sunset light.
His Love glows bright and pure, but like the burning bush it never is reduced to ash;
it is permanent even as our night falls.
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My Favorite Day

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“‘What day is it?’, asked Winnie the Pooh.
‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet.
‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.”
~A.A. Milne from The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

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Saturday is usually everyone’s favorite day of the week: it’s usually sleep-in day, catch-up day, play-hard day, enjoy-everything-about-it day.

Yup, me too.

A day to meander, gaze off into the horizon, acknowledge one’s blessings and then fall asleep blissful in the food bowl.

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Saturday is the one day of the week I keep unplanned from start to finish with no particular choreography or have-to places to go.

Just a day to be.

I know Pooh and Piglet are right.  Any day is our favorite day simply because it is Today: a new start, a time to celebrate, an undeserved gift of time to be unwrapped the moment our eyes open in the morning.

Today. A time to be.

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The Plainest of Ash

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What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

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This dust left of man:

earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell the significance
of how we were made of dust
and the dust we will leave behind.

Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into this, us,
the plainest of ash.

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We therefore commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;

in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life,
through our Lord Jesus Christ;

who shall change our vile body,
that it may be like unto his glorious body…

~Committal service from The Common Book of Prayer

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What I know for sure is this: We come from mystery and we return to mystery. I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from, so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.

And I know this, too: Standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.
~Parker Palmer “On the Brink of Everything

 

The Mountain Called Her By Name

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Devi and father Willi
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Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

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The ripple effect from Nanda Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

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To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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