A Handful of Dust

lilacsunrise2

 

rootballsam

 

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

~T.S.Eliot from “The Wasteland”

 

rockvine2

 

shadowself

 

We do not want to think of ourselves as the dust we were and the dust we will become.  We are living fully right now; we cast shadows before and behind us depending on the time of day and time of life, mere ephemeral reflections of our presence on earth.

Yet the dust we were and the dust we become is as fearful a thing as our transient shadow.

Dust so cruel~
it reminds us
of what could have been,
how life once rose miraculous
from the dead.

We are nothing but a handful of dust…
until the Creator lifts us up in the palm of His hand, and blows on us.
We breathe and pulse and weep and bleed.

We become more than mere shadow.

We are His, part of his Hand, breath of His breath.

 

jaws

 

birchcatkin

So Then, My Brethren, Live

springlane

 

rainylane2

 

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall,
driving horses, sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty.

To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give him glory too.

He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.
So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from Seeking Peace

 

lookingnorth2

 

Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we must keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend over an hour every day year round through all seasons and weather, carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork and moving manure down this barnyard lane because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes.

In so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship our God with dungfork and slop pail and wheelbarrow.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace that comes alongside me, helping me to live out each day,  pitching the muck and carrying the slop and making me clean again – spring, summer, fall and winter.

Amen.

 

afterthestorm

 

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photo from Emily Vander Haak

Trust All This to be True

tigerpaws

 

eveningrun

 

tony2017

 

snakeskinintact

Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”
belindarose
photo by Emily Vander Haak
beeweed
beeswarm51410
When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who.  They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach with lens in hand.  They fear capture, even within a camera.  They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation.  So much happens that I never see or know about.

I understand:  I fear being captured too.

Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together.  The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.

Only God sees us fully in every moment, witness to our freedom and captivity,  our loneliness and grief, our joy and tears, knowing our best and our worst.
And because He knows us so well, in Him we must trust.
redfinch1
chickadee2
grumpyfinch
tigerbalm
tigernap
photo by Tomomi Gibson

Breathing In and Out

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me?  I can’t
 
turn in any direction
but it’s there.  I don’t mean
 
the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off
 
fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning
 
theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;
 
or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still
 
in the same — what shall I say —
moment.
What I know
I could put into a pack
 
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
 
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
 
and unexplainable.
 
….mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing in and out…
~Mary Oliver from “What is there beyond knowing”
I’m reminded daily about how little I know and understand.  I work with people who are suffering, whose symptoms may fit prescribed diagnostic criteria but yet defy explanation or reason.  They care about what relief I might offer rather than a label that names the illness.
Like so much in medicine, what I witness daily is unexplained and unexplainable.  What I do know I carry with me, small and honorable and shareable.   I offer it up to each patient, one after another:  here is what I think might help.  here is your next step to take.  here is the hope that goes with taking each breath, the next and the next.
Even when standing in the dark, as we all do at times in our life, we just keep breathing.  In and out.  In and out.  We are filled even when empty.

Divine Discontent and Longing

 

 

 

…the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.  All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. 

…Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing…
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

 

 

 

 

It is as true for me as it is for Mole in Grahame’s wonderful story:  I must stray from my comfortable little home to look and wonder at the world around and above me.  Spring drives me forth with awe and longing and discontent more than any season: the light is so different and compelling, the clouds dramatic and ever-changing, the greens never more vivid, the smell of the air perfumed and enticing.

What seems so plain, so ordinary at other times of year, becomes magical and beautiful in the spring;

…maybe, just maybe, so do I.

 

 

 

It Sings in Me

 

 

 

The roofs are shining from the rain,
The sparrows twitter as they fly,
And with a windy April grace
The little clouds go by.

Yet the back yards are bare and brown
With only one unchanging tree–
I could not be so sure of Spring
Save that it sings in me.
–  Sara Teasdale, “April”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frogs plutter and squdge-and frogs beat the air with a recurring thin steel sliver of melody.
Crows go in fives and tens; they march their black feathers past a blue pool; they celebrate an old festival.
A spider is trying his webs, a pink bug sits on my hand washing his forelegs.
I might ask: Who are these people? 
~Carl Sandburg from “Just Before April Came”

 

 

 

And so spring asks:

Who are these people?

Here we are, closing in on mid-April and it has been a week of heavily drifting snowstorms in the Great Lakes and northeast, tornado weather in the south, and blustering wind and rain in the northwest.  I am not so sure of Spring nor is anyone else.

Yet it sings in me.  Yes it sings.

The calendar does not lie, nor does my nose.  The pollen counts are rising despite the rains and as I step outside in early dawn, I can catch the slightest fragrance of just-opening cherry and apple blossoms in the orchard.  Within a week there will be sweet perfume in the air everywhere and the fruit trees become clothed in white puffy clouds of blossom before bursting full into green.

In defiance of the calendar, our oak trees cling stubbornly to their brown bedraggled fall leaves as if ashamed to ever appear naked, even for a week.  In May they will go straight from brown to green without a moment of bare knobby branches.

Even so, it sings in me.  Yes it sings.

A morning bird symphony tunes up ever earlier including the “scree” and chatter from bald eagles high up in the fir trees surrounding our house.  Nesting has begun despite the wet and cold and wind because their nest is the secure home that calls them back, again and again, year after year.

Like them, it sings in me.  Yes it sings.

I rise opening like a bud, I dress my nakedness to cover up my knobbiness, I wander about outside exulting in the free concert, I manage to do chores despite the distractions — this routine of mine which is so unchanging through the calendar days becomes glorious gift and privilege.

Hopefulness sings in me in Spring.  Yes it sings.

 

 

 

Dust Specks of Eden

 

 

 

photo by Josh Scholten

 

Skin was earth; it was soil.
I could see, even on my own skin,
the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit
the morning he made Adam from dirt.
Now, all these generations later,
we people could still see on our skin
the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden.

~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

 

magnified landscape of human skin

 

 

A goodly portion of my work as a physician is spent looking at my patients’ skin.  Most of the time, it is a quick assessment of color, moisture and texture before I go on to concentrate on the chief complaint that brought the patient in.  However, skin concerns frequently are the chief complaint — perhaps as straight forward as an abrasion or laceration, or a puzzling bump, an oozing sore, a total body itch, or an ominous pigmented lesion.

I feel like Sherlock Holmes when I focus on a patient’s outer covering in magnified detail.  I assume the identity of detective, inspector and archeologist all at once, trying to discern what is taking place on or beneath a piece of dermatologic geography.

No matter what the diagnosis or the treatment plan, I’m continually awestruck by the topography of skin.  This supple landscape is made up of trapezoidal specks connected one to another, just like the soil upon which I tread.   Skin cells are in a state of constant renewal, the dead and discarded falling off to rejoin the dust from which it came.

This elaborate matrix of collagen and keratin is the foundation for our scaffolding and our shroud.

His spit provides the superglue: the rivets, the bolts and the nails that bind us together for a lifetime, creating us to be far more than a mere pile of random dust specks.