Have you ever noticed how much of Christ’s life was spent in doing kind things – in merely doing kind things? … he spent a great proportion of his time simply in making people happy, in doing good turns to people.
There is only one thing greater than happiness in the world, and that is holiness; and it is not in our keeping. But what God has put in our power is the happiness of those about us, and that is largely to be secured by our being kind to them.…
I wonder why it is that we are not all kinder than we are. How much the world needs it. How easily it is done. How instantaneously it acts. How infallibly it is remembered. ~Henry Drummond from The Greatest Thing in the World
Sure on this shining night Of star made shadows round, Kindness must watch for me This side the ground. The late year lies down the north. All is healed, all is health. High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole. Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone Of shadows on the stars.
My father’s treehouse is twenty three years old, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100+ year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time.
The dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My father, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.
The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.
His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.
I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had a open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.
Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as a main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident. It remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled as I look out my window. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.
The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 16 years, they’ve raised five children there. The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me. This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.
I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.
Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go.
Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture, orchard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood, It shall be no trespassing If I come again some spring In the grey disguise of years, Seeking ache of memory here. ~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”
From the road, each of the two small farms where I grew up in western Washington state look nothing like they did in my childhood. When I drive past now, whether on Google Earth virtual reality or for real , the outbuildings have changed and are unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a simultaneous comfort and disquiet deep in my DNA.
Though my younger brother recently stopped and looked around our long-ago childhood home, and sent me pictures that looked barely recognizable, I have never stopped to knock; instead I have driven slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places. My memories are indeed triggered but feel a bit as if they must have happened to someone else.
One clinic day a few years ago, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see for a medical issue and I realized he now lived in my childhood home over 100 miles away. When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of two different generations. He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home? He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me. He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate — our recollections were so completely disparate.
I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell our current farm ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, fruit picked from an ancient orchard, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words and photos I have harvested here. There will always be that sweet ache of seeking out what might be still familiar on the map of my memory.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Dirge Without Music”
Each Memorial Day weekend without fail,
we gather with family, have lunch, reminisce,
and trek to a cemetery high above Puget Sound
to catch up with our relatives who lie there still.Some for over 100 years, some for less than a decade,
some we knew and loved and miss every day,
others not so much, unknown to us
except on genealogy charts,
their names and dates and these stones
all that is left of them:the red-haired great-grandmother who died too young,
the aunt who was eight when lymphoma took,
the Yukon river boat captain,
the logger and stump farmer,
the unmarried school teacher who hid away an oil well,
the two in-laws who lie next to each other
but could not co-exist in the same room while they lived and breathed.
Yet we know each of these
(as we know ourselves and others)
was tender and kind, though flawed and broken,
was beautiful and strong, though wrinkled and frail,
was hopeful and faithful, though too soon in the ground.
We know this about them
as we know it about ourselves:
someday we too will feed roses,
the light in our eyes transformed into elegant swirls
emitting the fragrant scent of heaven.
No one asks if we approve.
Nor am I resigned to this but only know:
So it is, so it has been, so it will be.
“Comrade General, instead of a decoration, could I go home to see my mother?”
I was sixteen, taking second year high school Russian during the Cold War, partly for the challenge, but mostly to understand better who our “enemy” was. Our teacher assigned us unusual homework one weekend: watch the 1959 Russian movie “Ballad of a Soldier” being broadcast on PBS in 1970. It had English subtitles, but the point of the assignment was to experience the sounds and inflections of native Russian speakers. Although the movie was a fictional story of a Russian soldier’s brief leave from the front during WWII, it complemented a concurrent assignment in our World History class, reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The unforgettable juxtaposition of these two works of art helped me appreciate, in the midst of the nightly news from Vietnam, the terrible cost of war.
Recently, some forty seven years later, I watched this movie again. The tale is a classic “returning home from war” saga with the twist that young Alyosha is only on a brief leave granted by a compassionate general rewarding the front line soldier for an extraordinary act of bravery. Alyosha asks only to return to his home village to fix the leaking roof of his mother’s home. Given the extraordinary difficulties of war time travel in an economically struggling country, as well as the challenges and people he ends up meeting along the way, his time home ends up being only a few precious minutes before he has to turn around and return to the front. He only has enough time to hug his mother, and say goodbye one last time, never to return again.
Although the story focuses on a son’s determination to get home to his mother, it also allows a view of war’s permanent damage to bodies and minds, as well as the toll of war time separation on relationships. There seems little sense of hopeful future for the characters in this story, so the immediacy of what they experience takes on greater significance.
Alyosha meets a young woman on the train and their evolving connection offers a glimpse of a potential love that can transcend the ugliness of war. They part not even knowing how to find each other again, after having spent precious few hours in conversation. Acknowledging that lack of future hope is the most painful of all; there is no ability to make plans with confidence, no sense of a long life stretching ahead like the dusty road leading from his village that reaches endless to the horizon.
I remember sitting in my childhood home, watching this movie as a teenager with so little life experience at that point. Tears streamed down my face, touched forever by the tender story of a man made too old by war and hardship for his young years and his simple desire to once again hug his mother. This Russian soldier did not feel like an enemy to me. This felt like someone I could easily love and hold on to–as a brother, someday as a cherished husband, eventually as a precious son. Years later I would identify with the role of the mother with moistening eyes, watching my children leave our home, heading down that long endless road to their own uncertain futures.
On this day — May 26 — what would have been my mother’s 98th birthday — I have the simple desire to once again hug my mother and feel her tender love. The wrenching moments of saying goodbye as I left home remain my precious bittersweet memories of her, even as my own road now grows shorter.
There will come a time, in our forever home, when there will be no more goodbyes, I’ll never have to let go of her and neither of us will walk away to an uncertain future.
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.
“Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.”
I am easily lost in a horizon of blue mountains
or a vivid sky with clouds
or the innards of a blue iris~
these are landscapes in my mind
forever beyond my reach,
where I can never go,
but dwell nevertheless
simply by opening my eyes to see,
my heart forgets me not
my soul, once lost, now found.
Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time.
Let it be.
Unto us, so much is given.
We just have to be open for business. ~Anne Lamott from Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers
I have the privilege to work in a profession where astonishment and revelation awaits me behind each exam room door.
In a typical clinic day, I open that door up to thirty plus times, close it behind me and settle in for the ten or fifteen minutes I’m allocated per patient. I need to peel through the layers of each person quickly to find the core of truth about who they are and why they’ve come to clinic that day.
Sometimes what I’m looking for is right on the surface: in their tears, in their pain, in their fears. Most of the time, it is buried deep, often beneath a scar I must search to find. I need to wade through the rashes and sore throats and coughs and headaches and discouragement to find it.
Once in awhile, I actually do something tangible to help right then and there — sew up a cut, lance a boil, splint a fracture, restore hearing by removing a plug of wax from an ear canal.
Often I find myself giving permission to a patient to be sick — to take time to renew, rest and trust their bodies to know what is best for a time.
Sometimes, I am the coach pushing them to stop living sick — to stop hiding from life’s challenges, to stretch even when it hurts, to get out of bed even when not rested, to quit giving in to symptoms that are to be overcome rather than become overwhelming.
Always I’m looking for an opening to say something a patient might think about after they leave my clinic — how they can make different choices, how they can be bolder and braver in their self care, how they can intervene within their own finite timeline to prevent illness, how every day is just one thread in the larger tapestry of their lifespan.
Each morning I rise early to get work done at home before I actually arrive at my desk at work, trying to avoid feeling unprepared and inadequate to the volume of tasks heaped upon each day. I know I will be stretched beyond my capacity, challenged by the unfamiliar, the unexpected and will be stressed by obstacles thrown in my way. I know I will be held responsible for things I have little to do with, simply because I’m the one who often acts as decision-maker.
It is always tempting to go back to bed and hide.
Instead of hiding, I go to work as the exam room doors need to be opened and the layers peeled away. I understand the worry, the fear and the pain because I have lived it too. I know the limitations of a body that wants to consume more than it needs, to sleep rather than go for a walk, to sit rather than stand.
Even now in my seventh decade of life, I am continually learning how to let it be, even if it is scary. It is a gift perhaps I can share.
No matter what waits behind the exam room door, it will be astonishing to me.
I’m grateful to be open for business. The Doctor is In.