A Dwindled Dawn

Morning without you is a dwindled dawn.
~Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend April 1885

Adjusting to our children being grown and moved away from home took time: for months, I instinctively grabbed too many plates and utensils when setting the table, though the laundry and dishwasher loads seemed skimpy I washed anyway, the tidiness of their bedrooms was frankly disturbing as I passed by.

I need a little mess and noise around to feel that living is actually happening under this roof and that all is well. That quarter century of raising children consisted of nonstop parenting, farming, working, playing – never finding enough hours in the day and hardly enough sleep at night. It was a full to overflowing phase of life.

Somehow, life now is too quiet, and I am dwindling.

Though now I know:
despite missing our children here, they have thrived where planted.
And so must I.

Each morning is new, each dawn softens the void, and each diminishing moment becomes a recognition of how truly blessed life can be.

Everyday Life

If your everyday life seems poor to you,
do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator
there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life– I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed:  she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant work.

Some things haven’t changed, even fifty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, accusing my life of being poor or unfair, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is a life to be lived and almost always something to say about it.

So Pressed for Time

Now a decade after her death, I’m still slowly sorting through my mother’s packed up possessions stored in one of our farm outbuildings. Some boxes I am not ready to open, such as the 30 months of letters written by my newlywed father and mother while he fought in several bloody island battles as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. Other boxes contain items from too distant an era to be practical in my kitchen, such as the ones labeled “decorative teacups” or “assorted tupperware bowls without lids”.

But I do open the boxes of books. My mother was a high school speech teacher during those war years, and she had a good sense of a classic book, so there are always treasures in those boxes.

Recently I found the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.

It was an amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over.

Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull out one to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.

Here were my perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the fifty-five-years-older me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.

I am so pressed for time, becoming more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father have blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside, a long ago far away summer afternoon of flower gathering to be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not so far off future.

An Advent Paradox: In From Out

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Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.
~Luci Shaw “Descent” from Accompanied By Angels

 

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The Lord brings death and makes alive;
    he brings down to the grave and raises up.
~1 Samuel 2: 6 from the Song of Hannah

 

 

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Hannah’s prayer describes the Lord in all His paradox of reversals:
the strong are broken
those who stumble strengthened,
the satisfied end up working for food
the hungry become filled,
the barren woman bears children
the mother of many pines away,
the poor and needy are lifted up to sit with princes.

He humbles and exalts–we have read the stories of how the Lord uses such reversals to instruct and inspire His people.

Yet nothing Hannah says is as radical and unprecedented as being brought down to the grave and then raised up, the Lord causing death and making alive.   This makes no sense.  Once in the grave, there is no escape.  Death cannot be reversed like the weak becoming strong, the hungry filled, the barren fertile, the poor enriched.

Hannah sings that this will indeed happen, just as the other reversals happened.  It would take centuries, but her prayer is fulfilled in the child born to Mary, who lives and dies and lives again in the greatest reversal of all.

There can be no greater mystery than a God who chooses to walk the earth as a man among the poor, the needy, the helpless, the sick, the blind, the lame, the wicked, the barren, the hungry, the weak.

There can be no greater reversal than God Himself dying–put away down into the grave– and then rising up, glorious, in the ultimate defeat of darkness and death.

Hannah already knew this as a barren woman made full through the blessing of the Lord, choosing to empty herself by giving her son back to God.

Mary knew this as a virgin overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, choosing to empty herself by bearing, raising and giving her Son back to the Father.

The angels knew this, welcoming the Son of God to a throne in a manger as He is born to bring light to the darkness, and peace to a torn and ruptured world.

We know this too.   We are the weak, the hungry, the poor, the dying filled completely through the love and sacrifice of the Triune God, and so give ourselves up to Him.

In from out, from down to up.  It can be done.  And He has done it.

 

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Have you heard the sound of the angel voices
ringing out so sweetly, ringing out so clear?
Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?

Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
to the humble shepherds who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness,
like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night.
He is come in joy, like the sun at morning,
filling all the world with radiance and with light.

He is come in love as the child of Mary.
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing ‘Peace on earth’.

He will bring new light to a world in darkness,
like a bright star shining in the skies above.
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations,
when he comes to reign in purity and love.

Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming.
Let the heavens answer with a joyful morn:
Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
Hear the angels singing, ‘christ is born’
~John Rutter “Angels’ Carol”

 

We Will See What We Can Do

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I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.
~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”

 

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I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic.  “We’ll see,”  he said.  “We will see what we can do.”

So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.

When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

Fifty three years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu.  He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid.  I haven’t forgotten.

 

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Going Home to Mother

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“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.

 

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When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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