Enter Autumn Cautiously

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Enter autumn as you would 
a closing door. Quickly, 
cautiously. Look for something inside 
that promises color, but be wary 
of its cast — a desolate reflection, 
an indelible tint.
~Pamela Steed Hill  “September Pitch”

 

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Today is a rainy gray start to the University’s academic year:  we enter autumn cautiously with no little trepidation about what comes next.

Once we’re on the other side of the closing door, we search for what enriches and envelopes  —  that which is unforgettable and indelible.

May we find the color midst the gray.

 

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Not Just Another Day

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“This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.”
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

 

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This day is the wrap-up to my twenty-eighth academic year working as a college health physician,  the most demanding so far.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.   Reaching this day today is poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five years,  we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe, and we weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again.

In my work I strive to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to courageously do nothing.  It is very difficult for any doctor to choose to do nothing but I vowed in my own graduation ceremony over forty years ago to “First do no harm.”  And I’ve tried hard to live up to that vow.

In a sense I graduate as well on this last day of the school year– only not with cap and gown and diploma in hand.  Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor our students and their families on this day, sharing the blessings from us who work toward the goal of sending them healthier and better equipped and joyful into the rest of their lives.

It is not just another day.

 

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Back to School Fog

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A white, indifferent morning sky,
and a crow, hectoring from its nest
high in the hemlock, a nest as big
as a laundry basket …
                                    In my childhood
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.
 
The damp dirt road gave off
this same complex organic scent.
 
I had the new books—words, numbers,
and operations with numbers I did not
comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.
 
Spruce, inadequate, and alien
I stood at the side of the road.
It was the only life I had.
~Jane Kenyon “Three Songs at the End of Summer”
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Back to school no longer is the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently.  Only a few are starting today: school buses roar past our farm brimming with young faces, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs and a fair amount of dread and anxiety.

I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups.  Even as a good learner and obedient student, I felt I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom, so the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with each other, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something more than who we were.

Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful.  As my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as teachers, and as I prepare for the new students who will soon be under my care, I take a deep breath on a foggy morning and am immediately taken back to the fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes,  waiting for the bus on a wooded country road.

She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I have become, under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and stretching — but I do remember her well. She could use a hug.

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Waking on a June Morning

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Some of the most powerful memories of summer come out of our childhood
when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out
and that summer stretches in front of us as endlessly as the infinities of space.

Everything is different.
The old routines are gone.
The relentless school bus isn’t coming.
The bells will be silent in silent hallways.

And all the world is leafy green,
and will be green,
forever and ever.
~Ray Bradbury

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Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.
~ Harper Lee in Too Kill a Mockingbird

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Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks.  Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick,  or celebrating a holiday or a birthday.  Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.

But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable.  It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons.  Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet it does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.  We let go with reluctance; we feel as if no summer like it will ever come again.

Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday.  Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.

Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect.  We’ve already had a taste.

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Bleeding Hearts

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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 over twenty seven 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 their bleeding 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 health clinic, I wish for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably 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 their heart when their need arises.

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Care and Feeding of a Writer

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Be a good steward of your gifts.
Protect your time.
Feed your inner life.
Avoid too much noise.
Read good books,
have good sentences in your ears.
Be by yourself as often as you can.
Walk.
Take the phone off the hook.
Work regular hours.

~Jane Kenyon from A Hundred White Daffodils

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There’s nothing “regular” about the hours I work and I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to obsessive commitment of my time.  My phone is attached to me day and night for good reason.  I don’t read enough, don’t particularly enjoy being alone, don’t spend enough time walking nowhere in particular and am immersed in the noise of life.

Since I have flunked care and feeding of a writer, I am taking a remedial course this week at the Festival of Faith and Writing @Calvin.   Maybe I’ll see you there.

In the meantime,  I cleave to good sentences in my heart and the cadence of good phrases in my ears.  It’s what a good steward of words must do.

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Hang on to Hope

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As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

E. B. White ~from Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience compiled by Shaun Usher

 

We can’t claw our way out of
the mess we’ve made of things;
it takes Someone
to dig us out of the hole,
brush us off,
clean us up,
and breathe fresh breath into our nostrils.
We can only hope
hope will be contagious.
We can only hope
and grab hold when His hand reaches down
to pick us up out of the dirt.
Classes are suspended at my University today

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