That Pivoting Ear

wwudeer1

ahmama

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”

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wwudeer2

Oh little one
to have been born this week in June
thirty four years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon
gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing in a thicket:
a memory that makes me question
if you were real,
but you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee,
but stay to find out.

wwudeer2

 

 

A Salt Water Cure

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…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

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The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has middle age.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition and that’s my excuse.

A few years ago I read a fascinating article about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witness many tears every day in my office, and not tears of joy.  These are tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients will describe having a “break down” by which they mean uncontrollable crying.  It is one of the first-mentioned symptoms they want relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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The Vaccination Conundrum

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It is proof of MMR immunity season again.  Students entering school this fall are being asked to prove they have been fully vaccinated against Mump, Measles (rubeola) and Rubella infection as well as other routine immunizations in order to be allowed to enroll.  A small but significant and vehement minority insist they should be allowed a personal exemption from the requirement that the majority willingly comply with.

Concerned, caring parents make the decision every day to forego life-saving immunity by refusing to vaccinate their children, truly believing they are doing the right thing. They do not perceive an imminent risk to their child from the older contagious diseases despite their resurgence in developed countries like the U.S., focusing instead on the low—or often non-existent but ballyhooed—risks of vaccinations.

These are parents—most of them well-educated and on both ends of the political spectrum—who refuse to vaccinate their children, thereby denying a consensus of scientific evidence and increasing the risk for further outbreaks. “Oh my God. Wealthy, white, liberal enclaves are at risk!” declares Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee, mocking the anti-vaccine bloggers and activists. So too at risk are some conservative Christian church communities where vaccination rates are low.

As clever the satire may be, I can’t bring myself to laugh or crack a smile. Now in my 60s, I remember the illnesses brought on by these diseases before vaccines. As a physician, I’ve seen cases of them coming back with fatal consequences.

Maybe some of us have forgotten or are too young to realize the severity of these conditions. Healthcare providers who haven’t had firsthand experience with these contagious diseases don’t always think of them when confronted with classic signs and symptoms. But it’s only been a little over 50 years since vaccinations became routine for childhood killers like tetanus, diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, and pertussis, or whooping cough. Americans growing up before then had no choice but to suffer through childhood infectious diseases as they quickly spread through a community.

Most of us survived our illnesses, rewarded for our affliction with permanent natural immunity. Others suffered lifelong consequences: paralysis from polio, deafness from rubella, sterility from mumps. Some did not survive at all. My father nearly died at age 41 from a case of the mumps I brought home from school. As an infant, my sister-in-law almost didn’t pull through when she turned blue from pertussis infection.

Today, I’ve seen healthy people develop encephalitis and pneumonia from chicken pox. A fit college student in my practice died of influenza within a week of the start of his symptoms. Our university clinic just diagnosed a case of mumps during a local outbreak.  Our herd-immunity for many vaccine-preventable conditions has been waning, as reports of pertussis, measles, mumps, and chicken pox reemerge, in affluent countries with robust health care systems.

Parents who opt to leave their children unvaccinated contribute to the recent outbreaks. Well-meaning American parents are convinced they are doing the best thing by protecting their children from potentially rare and often unproven vaccine side effects. Some Christian parents claim vaccine risks are unwarranted, since God will provide the needed immunity if their children gets sick.

Most cases originate overseas, so it’s especially critical that Americans be vaccinated when traveling outside the U.S., even to Europe. (Those who serve in mission fields are particularly vulnerable, and I’ve found it interesting that previously unvaccinated Christians are more than willing to accept immunizations when they know for certain they will be exposed.)

As a physician of faith, I tell parents God indeed provides immunity. But as we’ve seen over millennia, it comes by very real suffering through a potentially fatal disease. In our modern society, God grants us everyday miracles, both pharmacologic and surgical, including the potential of long-lasting immunity in the form of a vial of vaccine. I don’t think these parents would deny insulin for their child newly diagnosed with diabetes, nor would they fail to strap their child into a car seat before starting the ignition. Vaccines are instruments of prevention, too, given to our healthy youngsters in order to keep them (and others) healthy.

“I’m concerned that so many people seem willing to let others carry the supposed burden of vaccination so that they don’t have to,” wrote Rachel Marie Stone in a Her.meneutics post several years ago. “To me, that’s a failure of the commandment to love our neighbors: our infant neighbors, our elderly neighbors, and our immune-compromised neighbors.”

When I was vaccinated for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) at the age of 4 months in 1954, my mother wrote in my baby book: Up most of the night with fever 104.5 degrees, a good “take” for the vaccine. She was relieved that it had made me sick, as it meant that my stimulated immune system would keep me safe if exposed to those killer diseases that were so common in the 1950s. Our society doesn’t think about immunizations as we did back then and thankfully a febrile reaction like that would be unusual due to significant changes in how today’s more effective vaccines are formulated.

I wish vaccines were perfect in their protection and potential side effects, but they aren’t. I wish medications developed for treatment of some of these illnesses were perfectly effective, but we can’t depend on a guarantee of cure once sickened. I wish our immune systems were perfect in their response to exposure to pathogens, but they too fail and people do die. Even though there will never be perfect prevention or treatment, parents in third world countries who have watched their children suffer and die from completely preventable disease will walk miles, for days, to get their children vaccinated when they learn of a mobile health clinic setting up an immunization center. Undeterred by that harsh reality, some in our highly educated society choose to run, not walk, in the opposite direction from much more easily accessible free state-supplied vaccine.

There will always be a new plague to worry about. Even as we eradicated illnesses through vaccine, we watched HIV, SARS, avian flu, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, and MERS infect us. Some countries have seen the return of polio, and we remain concerned over smallpox somehow finding its way out of its lockbox in laboratories.

Given these threats and the new pathogens on the horizon, it remains unwise to refuse safe and effective vaccination. By doing so, we invite the old plagues, these killers of yesteryear, back into our homes, our churches and schools, and inevitably, onto our death certificates.

We can and must do better for our next generation.

 

(an earlier version of this essay was published online three years ago with a significant negative reaction from Christian readers.  It bears repetition because anti-vaccination beliefs continue to be an issue in the midst of current rubeola measles and mumps outbreaks in the U.S.)

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Lift the Farm Like a Lid

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tubtrough

 

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Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
~Norman MacCaig “Summer Farm”

 

johnshens

sunsetdan

missingroof

 

photo by Bette Vander Haak

 

Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.

As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.

Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.

It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded over thirty years ago, along with a husband from a dairy farming background himself, and eventually there followed three children, now grown and flown far from the farm.

Like a once sturdily built barn now sagging and leaning, I too am buffeted by the gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof/lid lifted and pulled off, at times leaving me reeling. More and more now I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations.

If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely can recover from the latest blow. But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.

The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

The barnstorming must happen within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God.

There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.

 

 

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unfurling

An Unblinking Fermata

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roseunfurl

 

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In science
we have been reading only the notes to a poem:

in Christianity
we find the poem itself.

~C.S. Lewis from Miracles

 

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Science fails
to love us,
to reach out and grasp the hand of the dying,
to give hope to the weak and afraid,
to become sacrifice for our sin,
to be our rescue by offering everlasting grace.

Science is merely the end-of-day footnote
to a Word far greater~
an unblinking fermata within
His ultimate symphonic Work.

 

mothwing3

hollyhockred

sunset625171

 

To Dwell in Sovereign Barns

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redbarn

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

The grass so little has to do,—    
A sphere of simple green,   
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain, 
    
And stir all day to pretty tunes        
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap   
And bow to everything; 
    
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—            
A duchess were too common 
For such a noticing.   
    
And even when it dies, to pass    
In odors so divine,    
As lowly spices gone to sleep,        
Or amulets of pine.    
    
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,    
And dream the days away,— 
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
~Emily Dickinson

florabarn

emptyhaybarn

This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores.

Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.

The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.

There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.

The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago.  Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew.

Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.

Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.

A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.

The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.

Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.

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Photo of Aaron Janicki raking hay with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

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A Field To Go Back To

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You wake wanting the dream
you left behind in sleep,
water washing through everything,
clearing away sediment
of years, uncovering the lost
and forgotten. You hear the sun
breaking on cold grass,
on eaves, on stone steps
outside. You see light
igniting sparks of dust
in the air. You feel for the first
time in years the world
electrified with morning.

You know something has changed
in the night, something you thought
gone from the world has come back:
shooting stars in the pasture,
sleeping beneath a field
of daisies, wisteria climbing
over fences, houses, trees.

This is a place that smells
like childhood and old age.
It is a limb you swung from,
a field you go back to.

~Scott Owens “The Arrival of the Past” from Down to Sleep

wisteriabarb2

 

Returning to my mother’s Palouse country to meet again with my aunt and cousins:

(her brother’s widow, now 97, her nieces and nephews–those who still farm and those who wish they still could)

I know these wheat fields lie deep in my DNA and my heart is comforted by the familiarity of the tone and hue of the soil, the freshness of the breezes, the undulation of the grain over the hillsides, the lilt of the meadowlark’s song.

This is always a welcome return home as I feel my mother’s genes rise up within me to greet this family, and know that yes, to this too I belong.

It is a rare and abiding comfort.

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