God’s Gardener

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Grandma Kittie grew flowers–lots of them.  Her garden stretched along both sides of the sidewalk to her old two story farm house, in window boxes and beds around the perimeter, in little islands scattered about the yard anchored by a tree, or a piece of driftwood, a gold fish pond or a large rock.  Wisteria hung like a thick curtain of purple braids from the roof of her chicken coop, and her greenhouse, far bigger than her home, smelled moist and mossy with hanging fuschia baskets.  For her it was full time joy disguised as a job: she sold seedlings, and ready-to-display baskets, and fresh flower arrangements.  She often said she was sure heaven would be full of flowers needing tending, and she was just practicing for the day when she could make herself useful as a gardener for God.

Visiting Grandma was often an overnight stay, and summer evenings in her yard were heavy with wafting flower perfume.  One of her favorite flowers–indeed it was so hardy and independent it really could be considered a weed–was the evening primrose.  It was one of a few night blooming plants meant to attract pollinating moths.   Its tall stems were adorned by lance shaped leaves, with multiple buds and blooms per stem.  Each evening, and it was possible to set one’s watch by its punctuality, only one green wrapped bud per stem would open, revealing a bright yellow blossom with four delicate veined petals, a rosette of stamens and a cross-shaped stigma in the center, rising far above the blossom.  The yellow was so vivid and lively, it seemed almost like a drop of sun had been left on earth to light the night.  By morning, the bloom would begin to wither and wilt under the real sunlight, somehow overcome with the brightness, and would blush a pinkish orange as it folded upon itself, ready to die and drop from the plant in only a day or two, leaving a bulging seed pod behind.

I would settle down on the damp lawn at twilight, usually right before dusk fell, to watch the choreography of opening of blossoms on stem after stem of evening primrose.  Whatever the trigger was for the process of unfolding, there would be a sudden loosening of the protective green calyces, in an almost audible release.  Then over the course of about a minute, the overlapping yellow petals would unfurl, slowly, gently, purposefully, revealing their pollen treasure trove inside.   It was like watching time lapse cinematography, only this was an accelerated, real time flourish of beauty, happening right before my eyes.  I always felt privileged to witness each unveiling as Grandma liked to remind me that few flowers ever allowed us to behold their birthing process.  The evening primrose was not at all shy about sharing itself and it would enhance the show with a sweet lingering fragrance.

Grandma knew how much I enjoyed the evening primrose display, so she saved seeds from the seed pods for me, and helped me plant them at our house during one of her spring time visits.   I remember scattering the seeds with her in a specially chosen spot, in anticipation of the “drops of sun” that would grace our yard come summertime.  However, Grandma was more tired than usual on this particular visit, taking naps and not as eager to go for walks or eat the special meals cooked in honor of her visit.  Her usually resonant laughing brown eyes appeared dull, almost muddy.

The day she was to return home she came into the kitchen at breakfast time, wearily setting down her packed bags.  She gave me a hug and I looked at her, suddenly understanding what I had feared to believe.  Something was dreadfully wrong.  Grandma’s eyes were turning yellow.

Instead of returning home that day, she went to the hospital.  Within a day, she had surgery and within two days, was told she had terminal pancreatic cancer.  She did not last long, her skin becoming more jaundiced by the day, her eyes more icteric and far away.  She soon left her earthly gardens to cultivate those in heaven.

I’ve kept evening primrose in my garden ever since.  Grandma is inside each bloom as it unfolds precipitously in the evening, she wafts across the yard in its perfume.  Her spirit is a drop of sun coming to rest,  luminous,  for a brief stay upon the earth, only to die before we’re ready to let it go.  But as the wilted bloom lets go,  the seeds have already begun to form.

Grandma will grow flowers again–lots of them.

 

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Half a Lifetime Ago

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On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car to head north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family was on its way, and we were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn. A real (sort of) starter farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.

I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, we had new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Thirty three years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, our daughter is in her third year of teaching fourth grade a few hours away and we have a granddaughter growing up in Tokyo.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day.

My husband is happily retired now,  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.  Retirement looms closer for me:  I have never not worked outside the home and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.

There was freedom that rainy Halloween day over three decades ago as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror. I would no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church and serving on various community boards. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty three years and three grown children and one granddaughter later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together, still pregnant with the possibility that life is never truly complete when there is always a new day just around the corner.

 

 

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October

Returning on Foot

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They work with herbs
and penicillin.
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.

…they are only human
trying to fix up a human.
Many humans die.

But all along the doctors remember:
First do no harm.
They would kiss if it would heal.
It would not heal.

If the doctors cure
then the sun sees it.
If the doctors kill
then the earth hides it.
The doctors should fear arrogance
more than cardiac arrest.
If they are too proud,
and some are,
then they leave home on horseback
but God returns them on foot.
~Anne Sexton “Doctors” from The Awful Rowing Toward God.

 

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Let me not forget how humbling it is
to provide care for a hurting person
and not be certain that what I suggest
will actually work,

to be trusted to recommend the best option
among many~
including tincture of time,
wait and see,
try this or that.

Like other physicians who tumble off
at a full gallop, having lost balance
between confidence and humility,
I sometimes find myself unseated and unsettled,
returning on foot to try again to make a difference.

 

 

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Last Year’s Mistakes Wiped Clean

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That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing… Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.
~Wallace Stegner from Angle of Repose
 
 
 
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Sixteen thousand students have appeared magically overnight on the campus where I’ve worked for three decades.  Unfortunately a record was set for the number who ended up in the emergency room last night due to their celebrating the start of the school year a bit too aggressively.

How is it the start of a new school year can be wistful, jubilant and potentially hazardous all at the same time?  There are always plenty of mistakes to be made and plenty to learn from, though sometimes at tremendous cost.  This is a risky way to start an education.

More than New Year’s Day, the beginning of autumn represents so many turned-over new “leafs”.  We are reminded of this whenever we look at the trees all over our beautiful campus and how their leaves are turning and letting go, seemingly joyful as they make way for the next stage of growth, the slate wiped clean and ready to be scribbled on once again.

Every autumn each emerging adult comes to the university with a similar clean slate, hoping to start fresh, leaving behind what has not worked well for them in the past.  These are our future patients who we hope are open to change because they are dedicating themselves to self-transformation through knowledge and discipline.

It is a true privilege, as a college health doc, to participate in our students’ transition to become autonomous critical thinkers striving to better the world as compassionate global citizens.  Their rich colors deepen when they let go to fly wherever the wind may next take them.

We who remain rooted in place celebrate each new beginning, knowing we nurture the hoped-for transformation…

…as long as we can keep them out of the emergency room.

 

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Get On With Work or Take It Slow

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Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
~Rachel Hadas from “The End of Summer”
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In observance of Labor Day:
I did not grow up in a household that took time off.  Time was redeemed by work, and work was noble and honorable and proved we had a right to exist.
Vacation road trips were rare and almost always associated with my father’s work.  When he came home from his desk job in town, he would immediately change into his farm clothes and put in several hours of work outside, summer or winter, rain or shine, light or dark.
My mother did not work in town while we were children, but worked throughout her day inside and outside the house doing what farm wives and mothers need to do: growing, hoeing, harvesting, preserving, washing, cleaning, sewing, and most of all, being there for us.
As kids, we had our share of chores that were simply part of our day as our work was never done on a farm. When we turned twelve, we began working for others: babysitting, weeding, barn and house cleaning, berry picking.  I have now done over 52 years of gainful employment – there were times I worked four part-time jobs at once because that was what I could put together to keep things together.
The thought of “retirement” is anathema for me but that time will come for me when I am ready to take it slow. I know I’ve missed out on much of life being a “nose to the grindstone” person.
I wish there had been more times I had taken a few moments to be more like the cows I see meandering, tranquil and unconcerned, in the surrounding green pastures. Part of every day now I pull myself away from the work to be done, the work that is always calling and staring me in the face, and try a different way to redeem my time: to notice, to record, to observe, to appreciate beauty that exists in the midst of chaos and cataclysm and neverending portents of war.
Life isn’t all about non-stop labor, yet we get on with our work because work is about showing up when and where we are needed. Not being cows, we may feel we have no choice in the matter. Just maybe, like cows, we can manage to slow down,  watch what is happening around us, and by chewing our cud, keep contemplating and digesting whatever life feeds us, the sweet and the sour.
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Their Exuberant Souls

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Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now. 
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do… 

…Whatever is 
stored in his heart, he can use, now. 
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on.  What he does not have
he can lack…

…Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now…

…Everything that’s been placed in him will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds from “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

 

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This is the season for graduations, when children move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and after nearly thirty years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.

In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into those exuberant hearts so he or she can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving way beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trust they left well prepared.

As a school board member, I watched students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university and college health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road inevitably gets bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.   Only they will know the time to unpack what is within when their need arises.

 

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Heaven-Handling Flung

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Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Carrion Comfort”

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These mounting deaths by one’s own hand
make grim headlines and solemn statistics.

In my clinic, patient after patient says the same thing:

this struggle with life
makes one frantic to avoid the fight and flee
to feel no more bruising and bleed no more,
to become nothing but chaff and ashes.

they contemplate suicide as
they can not recognize the love of
a God who cares enough to
wrestle them relentlessly–
who heaven-handling flung them here by
breathing life into their nostrils

Perhaps they can’t imagine
a God
(who He Himself created
doubters
sore afraid
of His caring
enough to die for us)

so no one
is ever now,
nor ever will be

~nothing~

such darkness
now done
forever.

 

 

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