An Audience of Terminal Patients

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Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

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You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions, and songs–your truth, your version of things–in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.

~Anne Lamott in a recent TED Talk

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I began to write after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying, albeit more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers and my camera lens to others dying around me.

My good friend, Sara, who I’ve known and loved half my life, is fighting for her life in an all day cancer surgery today, having fought a chronic disease and a totally different cancer once before and won.  She knows well the hard cost of winning even when the odds aren’t good,  yet still has a courage in her to fight once again.

That will to fight is heavy on my mind today.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some more imminent than others, some of us more prepared to move on, as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I too get a little closer, so I write and share photos of my world in order to hang on awhile longer.  Each day I must detach just a little bit, leaving a small trace of my voice and myself behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no moment or picture or word to waste.

 

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Why Do We Bother?

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Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins “Morning”
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Dawn is a new gift every day,
even if the shortest night was sleepless,
and the longest day won’t return for another year.We get up
to see just what might happen
as you never know what might be
just over the horizon
as we round the solstice corner
to face the darkening.That’s why we bother.

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A Twittering World

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Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning…

…Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
~T. S Eliot from Burnt Norton (1936) part of Four Quartets

 

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Eliot didn’t have birds or future tweets of the 21st century in mind when he wrote Burnt Norton in 1936.  He was far more concerned about the concept of time and redemption, using the analogies of a garden, a graveyard, and most disturbingly, a subway train of empty-souled people traveling under London in the dark.  Only the present matters as the past cannot be changed and the future remains unknown, trusting the reassurance and salvation of Logos, the source of  the natural and creative order of all things.   Only God Himself remains outside of the constraints of time and place.

Perhaps Eliot predicted the unknowable future.  It now is a “twittering world” in a way that Eliot, critical of dehumanizing technology of his time,  somehow was prescient enough to foresee.

When birdsong begins on our farm in mid-June at 4 AM in the apple, cherry, chestnut, and walnut trees outside our bedroom windows, I am brought face to face, eyes and ears wide open, with the immediate present, distracted from the distraction of my dreams by the distraction of wakening to music of the created order among the branches,  amid dew-laden blooms and cool morning air.

Once the birds settle into routine conversation after twenty minutes of their loudly tweeted greetings of the day,  I sit down bleary-eyed at my computer to enter the twittering world of technology, too often filled with fancies, or meanness, or completely empty of meaning.

Yet, I’m determined.  Not here will darkness be found on this page, if I can keep it at bay.

No darkness here.

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photo by Harry Rodenberger

A Deep But Dazzling Darkness

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There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
             See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!
~Henry Vaughn from “The Night”

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Wandering the evening farm,
I feel the darkness rising within me,
more than see or hear
the settling of birdsong,
the clicks and whoosh of owls overhead
the rise of coyote calls.

It is in the horizon’s firelight,
the slowing of my pulse,
and the depth of my breaths.

I let it come over me,
the deep descent,
this most dazzling dusk.

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Supposing It Didn’t

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“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne

 

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It is the final week of a very long academic year and tension is running high.

Among those students to whom I provide care,
there are many who dwell deeply in “what if?” mode,
immobilized in their anticipation of impending disaster.

I understand this line of thinking,
particularly in this day and age of
“in the moment” tragedy
played out real-time in the palm of our hand
and we can’t help but watch as it unfolds.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes it worse.
It teaches one to think catastrophically.
That is what I do for a living,
to always be ready for the worse case scenario.

When I rise, sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do at times~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

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“Supposing it didn’t” — He says to reassure us.

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The Dearest Freshest Deep Down Things

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THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”

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Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

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Today, when we feel we are without hope,
when the bent world reels in blood and violence,
when faith feels frail,
when love seems distant,
we wait, stilled,
for the moment we are lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in our hearts deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings
we are His dearest, freshest
in this moment
and eternity.

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Fully Sufficient

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There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
Marilynne Robinson in Gilead

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There are a thousand thousand people on any given day who cannot think of one sufficient reason to live this life.
There are a few thousand who will decide this is their last day.
There are a few who say goodbye.

It is enough for me to find just one reason to live today.
It is enough for me to help someone else find just one reason today.
One is enough.
Fully sufficient.

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