How to Waste Wisely My Days

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This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle;
wonderful, inscrutable, magical, and more,
to whosoever will think of it.

To awaken each morning with a smile brightening my face;
to greet the day with reverence for the opportunities it contains;
to approach my work with a clean mind;
to hold ever before me, even in the doing of little things,
the ultimate purpose toward which I am working;
to meet men and women with laughter on my lips and love in my heart;
to be gentle, kind, and courteous through all the hours;
to approach the night with weariness that ever woos sleep
and the joy that comes from work well done –
this is how I desire to waste wisely my days.
~Thomas Dekker, 16th century British playwright

 

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I work hard at wasting my days wisely.  Summers are a classic opportunity to waste time and I do – happily – yet there is always a hint of regret that I could have made more of a bright clear morning, a sunny afternoon, or a full-moon night.

Yet how better to waste my days than to find ways for my work to be more joyous, if only through a smile, a shared chuckle, a kind word, a generous gesture.

Waste away, dear days.  The world, after all, is still a miracle and needs someone to notice.

 

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Of Their Own Free Will

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The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                              into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
                                                          some sway, some don’t sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                 the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
              On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer.
~Charles Wright “The Evening is Tranquil, and Dawn is a Thousand Miles Away”

 

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When I stroll in the fields on summer evenings,
the horses raise their heads in greeting,
still chewing, they walk up slowly from pasture
to follow me inside for the night.

They could choose not to leave the field,
to enjoy freedom all night under the stars outside,
yet they choose the walls and doors of the barn,
and joining with me when I call.

Come and go gently, my friends. Come and go gently.

And so will I.

 

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Underneath the stars I’ll meet you
Underneath the stars I’ll greet you
There beneath the stars I’ll leave you
Before you go of your own free will

Go gently

Underneath the stars you met me
Underneath the stars you left me
I wonder if the stars regret me
At least you’ll go of your own free will

Go gently

Here beneath the stars I’m mending
I’m here beneath the stars not ending
Why on earth am I pretending?
I’m here again, the stars befriending
They come and go of their own free will

Go gently
Go gently

Underneath the stars you met me
And underneath the stars you left me
I wonder if the stars regret me
I’m sure they’d like me if they only met me
They come and go of their own free will

Go gently
~Kate Rusby “Underneath the Stars”

 

 

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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A Thoughtful Dripping Muzzle

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Scottish Watering Trough (like many American Troughs, it had a previous life)

 

Belted Galloways in the Galloway region of Scotland

Let the end of all bathtubs
be this putting out to pasture
of four Victorian bowlegs
anchored in grasses.

 

Let all longnecked browsers
come drink from the shallows
while faucets grow rusty
and porcelain yellows.

Where once our nude forebears
soaped up in this vessel
come, cows, and come, horses.

Bring burdock and thistle,
come slaver the scum of
timothy and clover
on the cast-iron lip that
our grandsires climbed over

and let there be always
green water for sipping
that muzzles may enter thoughtful
and rise dripping.
~Maxine Kumin “Watering Trough”

 

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Farmers became the original recyclers before it was a word or an expectation — there isn’t anything that can’t be used twice or thrice for whatever is needed, wherever and whenever, especially far from the nearest retail outlet or farm supply store.

The water troughs on the farm where I grew up were cast-off four-legged bath tubs hauled home from the dump, exactly like the old tub I bathed in when staying overnight at my grandma’s farm house.  She needed her tub to stay put right in the bathroom, never considering an upgrade and remodel; she would never offer it up to her cows.

But there were people who could afford to install showers and molded tubs so out their tubs went to find new life and purpose on farms like ours.

We kept goldfish in our bathtub water trough, to keep the algae at bay and for the amusement of the farm cats. The horses and cows would stand drowsily by the tub, their muzzles dripping, mesmerized by flashes of orange circling the plugged drain.

I often wondered what they thought of sharing their drinking water with fish, but I suspect they had more weighty things to ponder: where the next lush patch of grass might be, how to reach that belly itch,  finding the best shade with fewest flies to take that afternoon nap.

When it comes to sharing a tub, maybe farm animals aren’t that different from their farmer keepers after all:  they both stand dripping and thoughtful alongside the tub, wondering about the next thing to be done, which may well be a well-earned rest.

 

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Radically Amazed

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How beautiful the things are that you did not notice before!
A few sweetclover plants
Along the road to Bellingham,
Culvert ends poking out of driveways,
Wooden corncribs, slowly falling,
What no one loves, no one rushes towards or shouts about,
What lives like the new moon,
And the wind
Blowing against the rumps of grazing cows.
~Robert Bly from “Like the New Moon I Will Live My Life”

 

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Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.  …to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. 
~Abraham Joshua Hershel

 

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Simply driving to work becomes a sacramental act.  This is not the hour long dense traffic commute I tolerated in the city thirty years ago – this is thirty minutes of noticing the expanse of the land against the sky, the light as it banishes the darkness, the harmony of animals existing on the soil.

It is a sacrament to notice “what no one loves, no one rushes towards or shouts about” and never take it for granted.  It is all gift; it is all grace.

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Dusted

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“Bees do have a smell, you know,
and if they don’t they should,
for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”

― Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

 

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I admire the honey bee as pollinator and pollen gatherer simultaneously, facilitating new fruit from the blossom as well as taking away that which will become sweet honey tasting of the spicy essence of the flower touched.

As a physician, I can only hope to be as transformative in the work I do every day.  I carry with me tens of thousands of patients I’ve seen over thirty five years of medical practice.  There is no way I can touch another human being without keeping some small part of them with me – perhaps a memory of an open wound or the residual scar it left behind, a word of sorrow or gratitude, a grimace, a tear or a smile.

Each patient is a flower visited, some still in bud, some in full bloom, some seed pods ready to burst, some spent and wilting and ready to fall away.  Each patient carries a spicy vitality, even in their illness and dying, that is unforgettable and still clings to me. Each patient changes me, the doctor, readying me for the next patient by teaching me a gentler approach, a clearer explanation, a slower leave-taking.  Each patient becomes part of my story, adding to my skill as a healer, and is never to be forgotten.

It has been my privilege to be thoroughly dusted by those I’ve loved and cared for.  I want to carry that on to create something wonderful that reflects the spice of living.

Nothing could smell or taste as sweet.

 

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The World as Wheat

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I tried to paint the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat.
~Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Paul Gauguin
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Ears of Wheat ~ Vincent Van Gogh 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

There is nothing here but wheat, no blade
too slight for his attention: long swaying
brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows,
the hopefulness of early spring. All grass
is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no
gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms,
no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers
roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight.
His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental
concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded
into the underpainting. He let the wind play
through the stems like a violin, turning the surface
liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents.
No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from 
Les Fauves

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I come from this – these green-ripening-to-amber wheat fields.
My mother was born nearly a century ago in a house built in a swale of these Palouse hills, where grain rose prolific each year from the soil.  Her father used horses and harvester over hill and dale to bring in the wheat, and piled it high in the local elevator until the train could pick it up.
My grandfather, grandmother, uncle and my mother are no more, now but dust, yet this land continues to produce and yield without their help.
When I return for a visit, I listen for what Van Gogh must have heard and seen in his own fertile land: the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat, the grain moving in waves across the landscape, the complexity of color of each individual stalk blending together to become an unending carpet undulating over the earth.
Yet to really take it in and not be overwhelmed, (to get out of the weeds, so to speak), I go high on the butte to see the world as wheat from above.  I then can imagine God’s own view of our grassy flesh which withers and fades away, as we shrivel in the sun and fall – yet the harvest of His Word endures forever.
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