Turn Aside and Look: Remembering the Air of Childhood

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I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in,
because they are apparently too minor and intangible.
The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end.
Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong.
Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought,
and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion.
Or those birthday morning blues.
Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.
Things like that.

~Nina George from The Little Paris Bookshop

 

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A white vase holds a kaleidoscope of wilting sweet peas
captive in the sunlight on the kitchen table while

wafting morning scent of pancakes
with sticky maple syrup swirls on the plate,

down the hall a dirty diaper left too long in the pail,
spills over tempera paint pots with brushes rinsed in jars after

stroking bright pastel butterflies fluttering on an easel
while wearing dad’s oversized shirt buttoned backwards

as he gently guides a hand beneath the downy underside
of the muttering hen reaching a warm egg hiding in the nest

broken into fragments like a heart while reading
the last stanza of “Dover Beach” in freshman English

Just down the hall of clanging lockers
To orchestra where strains of “Clair de Lune” accompany

the yearning midnight nipple tug of a baby’s hungry suck
hiccups gulping in rhythm to the rocking rocking

waiting for a last gasp for breath
through gaping mouth, mottled cooling skin

lies still between bleached sheets
illuminated by curtain filtered moonlight just visible

through the treetops while whoosh of owl wings
are felt not heard, sensed not seen.

Waking to bright lights and whirring machines
the hushed voice of the surgeon asking

what do you see now, what can you hear, what odor,
what flavor, what sensation on your skin

with each probe of temporal lobe, of fornix
and amygdala hidden deep in gray matter

of neurons and synaptic holding bins of chemical transmitters
storing the mixed bag of the past and present

to find and remove the offending lesion that seizes up
all remembrance, all awareness

and be set free again to live, to love, to swoon at the perfume
of spring sweet peas climbing dew fresh at dawn,

tendril wrapping over tendril,
the peeling wall of the garden shed

no more regrets, no more grief
no more sorrow.

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Turn Aside and Look: Full of Darkness

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

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The bright sadness of Lent
is a box full of darkness
given to us by someone who loves us.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
this gift with which we are entrusted
is meant to
hand off to another and another
whom we love just as well.

Opening the box
allows light in
where none was before.
Sorrow shines bright
reaching up
from the deep well
of our loving
and being loved.

Turn Aside and Look: To Laugh and To Cry

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It is in these afflictions, which succeed one another each moment,
that God, veiled and obscured, reveals himself,
mysteriously bestowing his grace in a manner
quite unrecognized by the souls
who feel only weakness in bearing their cross…

~Jean Pierre du Caussade from The Sacrament of the Present Moment

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The past few mornings have been unveiled in snow flurries, mist and fog, tentative spring dawns of freezing air and warming soil trying to break loose from the vise grip of a tired and dying winter.

I am struggling under the load of 14 hour days working with despairing and suicidal people,  in addition to keeping a barn clean and animals and humans fed.  Even sleep is not restful when there is so little time to quiet myself in reflection and gratitude.

I am keenly reminded of my weakness as my strength wanes at the end of a long day, having slipped in the mud while trying to gain traction unloading a couple hundred pounds of manure from the wheelbarrow.  Landing on my backside, my pants soaking through,  I can choose to laugh or cry.

I choose to see the baptism of mud as a sacrament of the present moment,  reminding me of my need for a cleansing grace.

I laugh and cry.

Though obscured from view, God is nevertheless revealed in these moments of being covered in the soil of earth and the waste of its creatures.

He knows I need reminding that I too am dust and to dust shall return.

He knows I am too often wasteful and a failed steward,
so need reminding by landing me amidst it.

He knows I need to laugh at myself,
so puts me right on my backside.

He knows I need to cry,
so sends me those with the saddest stories and greatest needs.

He knows I need Him, always and ever more,
to restore a sacrament of grace evident in the present moment
and every moment to come.

To be known for who I am
by a God who laughs with me,
weeps for me
and groans with pain I have caused~
I will know
no greater love.

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When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
~William Billings

 

Sleeping in the Cold

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All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
~William Carlos Williams “Winter Trees”

 

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Winter seems less complicated than other seasons until the wind blows brutal and the ice glaze is an inch thick and snow bends branches to the ground to the point of snapping a tree in half. It is no longer a quiet gentle sleeping time but can take a tree down,  unaware,  in the night, the crack and crash of branches like gunshots hunting down innocent prey.

The clean up has begun, the remnants lying waiting on the ground and the naked trunks scarred.

Despite such devastation, the buds still swell, readying for the complexity of spring.

 

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The Mountain Called Her By Name

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Devi and father Willi
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Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

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The ripple effect from Nanda Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

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To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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As Time is Forgotten

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Only in sleep I see their faces,
Children I played with when I was a child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
Annie with ringlets warm and wild.

Only in sleep Time is forgotten —
What may have come to them, who can know?
Yet we played last night as long ago,
And the doll-house stood at the turn of the stair.

The years had not sharpened their smooth round faces,
I met their eyes and found them mild —
Do they, too, dream of me, I wonder,
And for them am I too a child?
~Sara Teasdale, 1884 – 1933

 

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Some nights my dreams take me,
like a time traveler,
to those bygone days
when all was simple
and life’s horizons so distant.

Somewhere, sometime,
perhaps in another’s dream,
I am that child again
with goofy grin and freckled face
and in that dream, the horizon,
so near now I can almost touch it,
stretches out forever
as time is forgotten.

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