This To Come Back To

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He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was;
but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him,
and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.
He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid space
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to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him
and creep home and stay there;
the upper world was all too strong,
it called to him still, even down there,
and he knew he must return to the larger stage.
But it was good to think he had this to come back to,
this place which was all his own,
these things which were so glad to see him again
and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
~Kenneth Grahame, from Wind in the Willows about the Mole and his home at Mole End

 

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A Long Ago January Afternoon

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My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular January day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye — it looks just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the lanes.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and as he tenses, she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I can’t bear to look any longer.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

Somehow I made it home to my apartment, my heart still pounding in my ears.  The phone is ringing, futilely.

I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray for a sleep without dreams.

 

This Morning’s Minion

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I caught this morning morning’s minion…

My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, –the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “The Windhover”

 

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Irreducible Clarity

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If that’s what he means,’ says the student to the poetry teacher, ‘why doesn’t he just say it?’
‘If God is real,’ says the parishioner to the preacher, ‘why doesn’t he simply storm into our lives and convince us?’
The questions are vastly different in scale and relative importance,
but their answers are similar.
A poem, if it’s a real one, in some fundamental sense
means no more and no less than the moment of its singular music and lightning insight;
it is its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity.
A god, if it’s a living one, is not outside of reality but in it, of it,
though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.
Thus the uses and necessities of metaphor,
which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths.
Thus the very practical effects of music, myth, and image,
which tease us not out of reality, but deeper and more completely into it.
~Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

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A Shudder of the Heart

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Follow Breanna and Jim Randall on burmachronicle.com

…you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you.  These will occur in the most unlikely places, and with people for whom your first instinct may be aversion.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own, which is to say, first, that we depend on others for our faith, and second, that the love of Christ is not something you can ever hoard.  Human love catalyzes the love of Christ.  And this explains why that love seems at once so forceful and so fugitive, and why “while we speak of this, and yearn toward it,” as Augustine says, “we barely touch it in a quick shudder of the heart.”
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

This young couple and their unborn child leave for Asia today to serve as long term missionaries to strife-filled Myanmar.  I’ve known them both for over a decade and for the last several months they have stayed at our farm waiting for this day when they had enough funding and support to leave for a place few people visit, and where even fewer would choose to live and raise a family.  Yet off they go, with so many hugs and hopes accompanying them.

Breanna’s family had arrived at our church over ten years ago with three very blonde daughters in tow — Breanna the oldest.  I have watched her grow through her teens into a determined woman of faith, seeking where she might best serve and never leaving a doubt in any of our minds that God would direct her to where she was needed most, whether it was to use her writing or cooking skills, or to share her entrepreneurial spirit to help others plan and execute their own business.

Jim knows Myanmar well, having served as a missionary there for much of the last seven years, learning the language and working on an updated translation of the Burmese Bible.  He first came to our church as part of a small group of local university students who sought a worship home that was steeped in scripture and dedicated to mutual support of the church body, both here and abroad.  He sat at our kitchen table ten years ago and talked about his computer programming major and how he hoped somehow to make a difference in the world with the skills he was learning.   We (and he) could not have imagined his hope would lead him to a rural village in Burma and the challenging itinerant life of a missionary.   He would return to the States occasionally to report on what he was seeing and experiencing, and on his most recent visit home two years ago, there was Breanna in the front row, all grown up and full of questions for him about life in missions.

Ten years ago no one expected these two would find each other.   Yet God has plans for His people that we can never guess at, swerve from nor try to circumvent.  Their love for each other catalyzes the love of Christ in people they reach out to — never hoarding, never shrinking from a call to go to a place unlikely and unappealing.

For those of us they leave behind, it has been a time of farewells and tears and no few “shudders of the heart” as we bid them Godspeed to their new home far away.

For Jim and Breanna, the seemingly endless goodbyes now become hellos as they bring a love so yearned for to new brothers and sisters on the other side of the earth.

 

 

A Homogenized Amalgam

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Let me say finally, that in the midst of the hollering and in the midst of the discourtesy tonight, we got to come to see that however much we dislike it, the destinies of white and black America are tied together. Now the races don’t understand this apparently. But our destinies are tied together. And somehow, we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we’re all going to perish together as fools. …Whether we like it or not culturally and otherwise, every white person is a little bit negro and every negro is a little bit white. Our language, our music, our material prosperity and even our food are an amalgam of black and white, so there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white routes and there can ultimately be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster without recognizing the necessity of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.
~Martin Luther King,Jr.– in one of his last speeches, given at Grosse Point, Michigan high school (near Detroit) to a mostly white and often heckling audience, March 14, 1968

I grew up during the 1960’s in Olympia, Washington, a fair-sized state capitol of 20,000+ people at the time and our city had only one black family.

One.

There were a few Japanese and Korean families, a few Hispanics, but other than the Native American folks from the nearby Nisqually Reservation, our community seemed comprised of homogenized milk. Pretty much plain white.

In 1970, a white Olympia High School graduation student speaker caused a controversy resulting in numerous parents walking out of the ceremony she called our town a “white racist ghetto” in her speech. It was the first time I’d heard someone other than Martin Luther King, Jr. actually crack a previously unspoken barrier using only words. What she said caused much anger, but the ensuing debate in the newspaper Letters to the Editor, around lunch counters at the five and dime, and in the churches and real estate offices made a difference. Olympia slowly, in recognition at being called out for racism, began to open its social and political doors to people who weren’t white.

Heading to college in California helped broaden my white and limited point of view, but in the 70′s there were still few diversity admissions initiatives, so it was still a mostly white campus. Living in Africa to study wild chimpanzees in Africa in 1975, I experienced being one of two whites traveling among hundreds of very dark skinned Tanzanians on trains and boats in the interior of the country. I became the one gawked at, viewed as an oddity, pointed at by small children who were frightened, amused and perplexed by my appearance, and so constantly felt out of place. I did not belong. Yet I was treated graciously, with hospitality, although always a curiosity.

Returning to the Northwest meant blending in with homogenized white milk again. Although there was some minimal diversity in my medical school class (even women constituted less than 25% of my class of 1980), it wasn’t until I was in family practice residency at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Group Health Cooperative Hospital that I began to experience the world in technicolor. I joined a group of doctors in training that included an African American activist from the east coast, a Kiowa Indian, several of Jewish background, a son of Mexican immigrants, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Japanese American, someone of Spanish descent, and a Yupik Eskimo. Not only was I challenged to articulate how I perceived our inner city patients’ cultural, racial, religious, ethnic and sexual minority context, but I witnessed how much more effectively my colleagues and teachers worked with patients who looked or grew up like them. It was such a foundational experience that I was drawn to a medical practice in a Group Health Rainier Valley neighborhood clinic. There I saw patients who lived in the projects that lined Martin Luther King Way, struggling to overcome poverty and social fragmentation, clustered together in diverse little knots of extended family within a few square miles. There were many ethnic groups: African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, Ashkenazi Jews, Middle East Muslims, Russian immigrants and some Catholic Italian families who spoke broken English. I delivered babies who would grow up learning languages and traditions from every corner of the globe. It was a wide world of diversity that walked into my exam rooms, enriching my life in ways I had never imagined.

I found that white milk, nurturing as it was, was not a reflection of everything the world had to offer and pretty bland all on its own.

When I married and we were starting our own family, we made the decision to move north near my husband’s home community of Lynden, a town of Dutch dairy farming immigrants. We planned to own our own farm to raise our children in a rural setting just as both of us had been raised. There was significant adjustment necessary once again even adapting to a primarily Caucasian community. I am not Dutch even though I am as white and tall as the Frieslanders (some of my ancestry is from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, right across the Holland border).  I still didn’t belong.

I didn’t have the same cultural or church background to fit in easily in my new home. The color of my skin no longer made me noticeable, but the difference in rituals, the language quirks and traditions stood out. In other words, the milk looked just as white, (maybe skim versus whole or 2%), but varied significantly in taste (were the cows just let out on grass??)

Even with those apparent differences, our rural community has transformed over the last twenty six years since we moved here. We have two growing Native American sovereign nations within a few miles, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, along with increasing numbers of migrant Hispanic families who work the seasonal berry and orchard harvest, many of whom have settled in year round. My supervisors where I work are African American. Our close proximity to the lower mainland of British Columbia has brought Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong immigrants to our area, and East Indians immigrate to our county in large extended families, attracted by affordable farmland. A rural corner grocery only a few miles from our farm was built and managed by Sikhs who have stocked the shelves with the most amazing array of Indian spices and Mexican chili sauce, with Dutch peppermints and licorice thrown in for good measure.

Our children have grown up rural but, as adults, have become part of communities even more varied. Nate teaches multiracial students in an international high school in Tokyo, Japan and married Tomomi a year ago. Ben just finished two years as a Teach for America high school math teacher on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and married to Hilary, they are a racial  minority in their mostly black neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut.   Lea is completing her Education Degree with a Spanish emphasis and spent last semester attending a variety of Hispanic churches in the Chicago area.  Our children are privileged to work within the kaleidoscope of humanity and our family is blessed to be multiracial.

Homogenized means more than just uniformity. It is a unity of substance, a breaking down of barriers so there is no longer obvious separation.  Martin Luther King, Jr. called it amalgam — a mixture that yields something stronger than the original parts.   I call what has happened in my life a homogenized amalgam.  I am still all white on the outside — I can’t change that —  but strive to break down barriers that separate me from others who live, work and worship around me who will enrich my life.    It can’t help but improve the flavor.

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Bare Abundance

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My sorrow’s flower was so small a joy
It took a winter seeing to see it as such.
Numb, unsteady, stunned at all the evidence
Of winter’s blind imperative to destroy,
I looked up, and saw the bare abundance
Of a tree whose every limb was lit and fraught with snow.
What I was seeing then I did not quite know
But knew that one mite more would have been too much.
~Christian Wiman from Once in the West: Poems

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Our weakest branch strains to bear
summer’s bounty without breaking –
too soon comes winter’s heavy burden –
such pruning sorrow leaves us gaping,
allowing the strongest to remain to fruit.

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