The Love of Tasks Gone Past

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Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter
My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able
To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days
When just woven I could keep water
From seeping through
Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave
Dazzled the sunlight with my
Reflection

I grow old though pleased with my memories
The tasks I can no longer complete
Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only
this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end
Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt
That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to
Will hear my whispers

And cuddle
near
~Nikki Giovanni “Quilts”

 

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When I no longer have strength or the usefulness to perform my daily tasks,
piece me up and sew me into a greater whole along with pieces of others who are fading.
We are so much better together,
so much more colorful and bold,
becoming art and function in our fraying state.

Full of warmth and fun
covering all who are sick and sleep and love and cuddle,
and drift off to heaven as the last breath is breathed.

 

 

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~~click each quilt to enlarge and admire the handiwork~~

(thank you again to the quilters displaying their art at the NW Washington Fair in Lynden
(see previous years’ work here and here)

Waiting for Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond

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Perhaps it was his plain talk about the Word of God. Perhaps it was his folksy stories tying that Word to our lives. Perhaps it was because he was, like the rest of us, so fully a flawed and forgiven human being. Pastor Bruce Hemple ministered to thousands over his lifetime of service, yet the simple act of climbing the steps up to the pulpit at Wiser Lake Chapel was nearly impossible for him.

Bruce had one leg. The other was lost to an above the knee amputation due to severe diabetes. He wore an ill-fitting prosthetic leg that never allowed a normal stride and certainly proved a challenge when ascending stairs. He would come early to the sanctuary to climb the several steps to the chair behind the pulpit so he would not have to struggle in front of the congregation at the start of the service. As we would enter to find our pew seats, he would be deep in thought and prayer, already seated by the pulpit.

He often said he knew he was a difficult person to live with because of his constant pain and health problems. His family confirmed that was indeed true, but what crankiness he exhibited through much of the week evaporated once he was at the pulpit. Standing there balanced on his good leg with his prosthesis acting as a brace, he was transformed and blessed with clarity of thought and expression. His pain was left behind.

He came to our church after many years of military chaplaincy, having served in Korea and Vietnam and a number of stateside assignments. He liked to say he “learned to meet people where they were” rather than where he thought they needed to be. His work brought him face to face with thousands of soldiers from diverse faiths and backgrounds, or in many cases, no faith at all, yet he ministered to each one in the way that was needed at that moment. He helped some as they lay dying and others who suffered so profoundly they wished they would die. He was there for them all and he was there for us.

One of his memorable sermons came from 2Kings 5: 1-19 about the healing of the great warrior Naaman who was afflicted with leprosy. Pastor Bruce clearly identified with Naaman and emphasized the message of obedience to God as the key to Naaman’s healing. Like Naaman, no one would desire “Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond” but once Naaman was obedient despite his pride and doubts, he was cured of the incurable by bathing in the muddy Jordan River.

Even upon his retirement, Bruce continued to preach when churches needed a fill in pastor, and he took a part time job managing a community food and clothing bank, connecting with people who needed his words of encouragement. He was called regularly to officiate at weddings and funerals, especially for those without a church. He would oblige as his time and health allowed.

His last sermon was delivered on a freezing windy December day at a graveside service for a young suicide victim he had never known personally. Pastor Bruce was standing at the head of the casket and having concluded his message, he bowed his head to pray, continued to bend forward, appeared to embrace the casket and breathed his last. He was gone, just like that.

He was not standing up high at the pulpit the day he died. He was obediently getting muddy in the muck and mess of life, and waiting, as we all are, for the moment he’d be washed clean.

 

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To Labor and Not Seek Reward

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And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
~Seamus Heaney “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

 

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Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

~St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity

 

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Heaney shifts from the literal (if “imagined”) physical world to the metaphysical and symbolic. In the midst of burnout and mental detachment, Kevin is somehow returned to and reconnected with his calling at a level deeper than conscious thought. Indeed, in the span of one brief line break, it is as though he has become indistinguishable from his life’s mission itself: he is “mirrored clear” in the pure, deep waters of an empathetic love for the “network of eternal life” into which he is presently and vitally “linked.”

The way Heaney constructs the next two lines calls attention to the paradox of mindfulness he illuminates. Kevin “prays,” which perhaps most immediately suggests that he entreats God to help him “labour and not to seek reward.” But after the stanza break, Heaney reveals that this prayer is not at all what the reader might have expected; Kevin’s prayer is not conscious because he is no longer conscious in the workaday-world way. Rather, Kevin’s is

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

When he can no longer muster the energy to think of the life entrusted to him, his own delights and discomforts in fostering that life, or even the original life force (here, the “river”) that led to his vocation, it is as if a kind of autonomic spirituality kicks in to complement the compassionate detachment with which—or in which—he holds the blackbird. Body and soul and work are one.
~Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA from “Mindfulness and Seamus Heaney” from JAMA’s
A Piece of My Mind, Aug.1, 2017

 

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…we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensible…

…if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

 

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Missing the Knock on the Door

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When a great moment knocks on the door of your life,
it is often no louder than the beating of your heart,
and it is very easy to miss it.
~Boris Pasternak

 

 

 

Years ago, a young woman I’d been treating for depression for several weeks in my clinic called unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon and canceled an upcoming appointment for the following Monday and did not reschedule. The receptionist sent me a message as is our policy for patients who “cancel and do not reschedule”. It gave me a bad feeling that she was turning her back on her treatment plan and I was uneasy about the upcoming weekend without knowing what was going on with her.

I could have just put on my coat and headed home at the end of that long Friday after a very stressful work week and even more stressful year. I was discouraged about many aspects of the clinic work load and the after-hours responsibilities only seemed to get heavier.  I was frustrated at how ineffectively I was communicating to administrative supervisors about the need for change.  I was ready to quit and walk away.

Instead I decided to call my patient to find out how she was doing.  She didn’t answer her phone. I mulled over my options, looked up her apartment address and drove the few blocks to get there. As I approached her door, I could hear someone moving around in her apartment, but she ignored my knocks and my voice and when I tried the door, it was locked.

So I stayed right there, talking to her through the door for about 15 minutes, letting her know I wasn’t leaving until she opened up the door. I finally told her she could decide to open the door or I would call 911 and ask the police to come to make sure she was okay. She then unlocked the door, tears streaming down her face. She had been drinking heavily, with liquor bottles strewn around on the floor. She admitted an intent to overdose on aspirin and vodka. The vodka was already consumed but the unopened aspirin bottle was in her hand. I was the last person she expected to see at her door.

Miraculously the mental health unit at the local hospital had an open bed. I told my patient that we could save time and hassle by heading over there together right then and there, and avoid the emergency room mess, and the possibility of an involuntary detainment.

She agreed to come with me and be admitted voluntarily for stabilization. I visited the hospital the next day and she greeted me with a hug and thanked me for not giving up on her when she had given up on herself. In sobriety, her eyes were brighter and she was more hopeful. She never expected anyone to care enough to come knock on her door when she was at her lowest point,  and she struggled to answer, as consumed as she was in her own painfully beating heart.

She was astounded and grateful and frankly, by deciding to do what I knew was necessary and right even though it disregarded every workplace policy, so was I.

Four years later, a small card arrived in my clinic mailbox on another most challenging work day from an unfamiliar address two thousand miles away. The name looked vaguely familiar to me but when I opened and read the contents, this time the knock on the door was to get my attention, to focus the beating of my heart on what was most important – not the stresses of my work place — and it was my turn to let tears flow:

 

“Dear Doctor,

I am not sure if you will remember me considering you see a number of patients daily; however, I am a patient whose life you changed in the most positive way. I never truly THANKED YOU for listening to me and hearing my silent words of grief and hearing my cries for help. If it had not been for you, had you not knocked on my door, I would not be writing this letter to you today. I don’t know exactly what to say to the person who saved me from hurting myself fatally. You were a stranger in my life, but a dear friend in my time of need. THANK YOU, for everything that you did for me. You have a permanent place in my heart, you have given my spirit hope, you have reminded me that a life is worth living. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sincerely, L_____”

 

I’m grateful 4 years ago I had the sense to go knock on her door when all she could hear was the beating of her own painful heart. I had the stubbornness to stay put until she responded, and most of all, I’m appreciative for her gracious note letting me know it made a difference. When I needed it the most, she made a difference for me that has kept me on the job all these years later.

She knocked, oh so gently, on my door and I opened it, amazed that someone cared, and found me awash in my own tears.

 

 

An Old Acquaintance

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I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.
~Henry David Thoreau

 

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You can live for years next door to a big pine tree, honored to have so venerable a neighbor, even when it sheds needles all over your flowers or wakes you, dropping big cones onto your deck at still of night. 
~Denise Levertov

 

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I hear you call, pine tree, I hear you upon the hill, by the silent pond
where the lotus flowers bloom, I hear you call, pine tree.
What is it you call, pine tree, when the rain falls, when the winds
blow, and when the stars appear, what is it you call, pine tree?
I hear you call, pine tree, but I am blind, and do not know how to
reach you, pine tree. Who will take me to you, pine tree?
~Yone Noguchi “I Hear You Call, Pine Tree”

 

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Our wet side of the state is not pine tree country — they prefer the dry climate east of the mountains.  Once planted here, however, they take hold and make the best of their wet feet.

The tall pine along our barn driveway must be at least sixty years old — it is starting to look its age, as am I.  Sure, there are some bare branches, a few brown needles, yet it still drops cones in the hope of a future generation of pine seedlings.  The squirrels are too fast and whisk the seeds to their hideaways before they can sprout and take hold.

This old acquaintance of mine, this venerable pine and I, we may sway in the breeze and be bent by ice and snow, but we weather the years together. After all, our roots go deep and our arms reach to the sky.

 

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A Flower That Smiles Back

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Nobody can keep on being angry if she looks into the heart of a pansy for a little while.
~L.M. Montgomery

 

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The world is in sore need of a cure for the grumbles. Just glance (just glance, don’t dwell!) at the headlines.

Fortunately, the cure exists right outside in our back yards, along sidewalks and in vacant lots. A cheerful face is irresistible to all but the crabbiest among us, guaranteed to bring a smile every time.

Beyond the pansy’s obvious superficial charm exists a depth of heart — roots able to thrive in the thinnest of soil, at home among rocks and weeds,  resilient even when tromped on.

We carry its seeds on the tread of our boots in spite of our grumbling and help spread the good news: anger left unfed will dry up and blow away.

And we’re thankful the constant heart of the pansy lasts in all its diversity, generation after generation.  Thriving in some of the toughest, sparest, and most unforgiving places, it still, and always, smiles back.

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Lift the Farm Like a Lid

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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”

 

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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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