The Water’s Fine

Always in acknowledgment of Father’s Day, I pull out a particular photo album that chronicles my father’s 1968 backyard project.   This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his full time desk job. It consumed most of his weekend waking hours.  He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished a year later.

Henry Polis 1968

My father departed this soil nearly 24 years ago, having completed umpteen “projects” in his spare time.  A swimming pool built by hand for his family was undoubtedly the most remarkable.   No matter what it was, Hank Polis dove right in to whatever he decided to accomplish.

In the very bottom, installing a drain
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands.  He did use our little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full.   He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the graceful curves. The cement was poured by a cement truck, but the sidewalks were all self-mixed in our own little cement mixer that ran off a small engine.  The tile that lined the top of the pool was all hand grouted and placed, square by square.  The pumphouse/changing room was built alongside.

I was in a hurry for it to be done…

I turned 14 that summer, not truly understanding how extraordinary an effort this was, but simply accepting it as another “dad” project like any other he finished through sheer will, stubbornness and a desire to go on to the next challenge.   Now, over 50 years later,  as an adult who is plum tired at the end of an office/clinic work day, I marvel at his energy putting in another four or five hours of physical labor when he came home at night.  No wonder he never suffered from insomnia.

Grouting the tile perimeter

Once the pool was declared finished, a hose ran water for several days, and it took 2 more days to heat it up to a temperature that was survivable.  Then my dad took the first dive in.

The best dive ever…

Once he had taken that first dive, he was happy.  He swam every once in awhile, but was soon onto another project (reconstructing a steel walled gas station that arrived on our farm in piles of panels on the back of a flat bed truck, so that he could have a full size “shop” to work on indoor projects during the winter).  It was sufficient for him to just to be able to say he had done it himself.

As I study the look on my father’s face in these photos, I am startled to see my self looking back at me, like a reflection in the water.  I now realize determination and utter stubbornness can manifest in DNA in different ways.  I have no mechanical skills whatsoever,  but like my father,  I always have a dream I’m pursuing, and I keep at it until it is accomplished.

Thanks Dad for showing me how to dive right into life. 
The water’s been fine.

And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee from “The Gift”


Take the Hand You Know Belongs in Yours

I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them…

…so that when 
we finally step out of the boat 
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted 
to drown you could, 
but you don’t 
because finally 
after all this struggle
and all these years
you don’t want to any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you 
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
~David Whyte from “The Truelove” in The House of Belonging

Yesterday was the wrap-up to my thirtieth academic year working as a college health physician.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.  

Reaching the end of the school year is always poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five (or six!) years,  while we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe.

We weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again, and a few giving up on life itself. They did not take the hand offered to guide them through, even though they tired of drowning.

In my work I have tried to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to simply do no harm.

I can only hold out my hand and wait. 

Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor you, our students, on this day, to confirm your courage stepping out from the safety of the boat — not to drown, never to drown — but wanting to live, wanting to love, wanting to move healthier, better equipped and joyful into the rest of your lives.

Just take the outreached Hand that belongs in yours.


Where Morning Lies

Will there really be a “Morning”?
Is there such a thing as “Day”?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called “Morning” lies!
~Emily Dickinson

You are the future, the immense morning sky
turning red over the prairies of eternity…

You are the meaning deepest inside things
that never reveals the secret of its owner.
And how you look depends on where we are:
from a boat, you are shore, from the shore a boat.
~Rainer Maria Rilke,  from Love Poems to God from the Book of Hours

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

I head to clinic this morning
knowing from now on
my work will feel different after today,
no longer the same ritual,
no longer the same demands.

Mornings will be more resonant, depending on where I am:
from the boat I no longer must be shore,
from the shore I no longer need to row the boat.

I can simply be what the patient needs in the moment
and the patient is all I need.

Amen and amen.


Supposing a Tree Fell Down

“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

It is the final week of a very long academic year and tension is running high.

Among those students to whom I provide care,
there are many who dwell deeply in “what if?” mode,
immobilized in their anticipation of impending disaster.

I understand this line of thinking,
particularly in this day and age of
“in the moment” tragedy
played out real-time in the palm of our hand
and we can’t help but watch as it unfolds.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes it worse.
It teaches one to think catastrophically.
That is what I do for a living,
to always be ready for the worse case scenario.

When I rise, sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do at times~
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” — He says (and thus we are comforted)


The Bird That Feels the Light


Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
~Rabindranath Tagore

...then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.

Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone. 
~Mary OliverA Thousand Mornings

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

What does it say about me that in the darkness of December mornings, I yearn for the early sunrises of June but once I’m firmly into the June calendar, it no longer is so compelling?  It confirms my suspicion that I’m incapable of reveling in the moment at hand, something that would likely take years of therapy to undo.  I’m sure there is some deep seated issue here, but I’m too sleep deprived to pursue it.

My eyes popped open this morning at 4:17 AM, spurred by vigorous birdsong in the trees surrounding our farm house.  There was daylight sneaking through the venetian blinds at that unseemly hour as well.  Once the bird chorus starts, with one lone chirpy voice in the apple tree by our bedroom window, it rapidly becomes a full frontal onslaught symphony orchestra from the plum, cherry, poplar, walnut, fir and chestnut.   Sleep is irretrievable.

This might be something I would ordinarily appreciate but last night nearby pastures roared past midnight with the house-shaking rumble of heavy tractors and trucks chopping and hauling fresh green grass destined for silage.

Only a few months ago I remember wishing for early morning birdsong when it seemed the sun would never rise and the oppressive silence would never lift.  I conveniently forget those mornings years ago when we had a dozen young roosters who magically found their voices very early in the morning a mere 10 weeks after hatching.  Nothing before or since could match their alarm clock expertise after 4 AM.  No barbecue before or since has tasted as sweet.

So I remind myself how bad it can really be and today’s backyard birdsong is a veritable symphony in comparison.

Even so, I already need a nap, yet a full day of clinic awaits. Ah, first world problems of a farmer/doctor/sleep-deprived human.

A Flock of Colours

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.
~John O’Donohue from “Beannacht

We all will stumble, bearing the bruises and scars of our fall.
We all waken to gray days when there seems no point in going on.
We all can be sucked into the darkest thoughts,
tunneling ever more deeply.

In those moments, those days, those months,
may we be wrapped tightly in love’s cloak of invisibility:
and darkness swallow us no longer~
we follow a brightening path of light and color,
with contentment and encouragement,
our failing feet steadied,
the gray kaleidoscoped,
the way to go illuminated with hope.

May our brokenness be forever covered in such blessings.


Not Forgotten

Our memories are, at best, so limited, so finite, that it is impossible for us to envisage an unlimited, infinite memory, the memory of God. It is something I want to believe in: that no atom of creation is ever forgotten by him; always is; cared for; developing; loved. 
~Madeleine L’Engle from The Summer of the Great-Grandmother

…a friend told me a story about a little girl who wanted time alone with her infant brother. Her parents were suspicious of her motives. What if she did something to harm the baby? The big sister was so persistent that her mom and dad finally decided to allow her ten minutes alone with him in his room. After they closed the door, they listened quietly. They felt chills when they heard their daughter say,
“Baby tell me what heaven is like. I’m starting to forget.”
~Sue Shanahan from “Fresh from Heaven”

He of strength and hope,
of infinite memory and everlasting love:
He knows us down to our very atoms ~~
even we who are weak, broken, and undeserving.
He causes us to burst into bloom
in remembrance of having been in His presence.