The Bird That Feels the Light


Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
~Rabindranath Tagore

...then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.

Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone. 
~Mary OliverA Thousand Mornings

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

What does it say about me that in the darkness of December mornings, I yearn for the early sunrises of June but once I’m firmly into the June calendar, it no longer is so compelling?  It confirms my suspicion that I’m incapable of reveling in the moment at hand, something that would likely take years of therapy to undo.  I’m sure there is some deep seated issue here, but I’m too sleep deprived to pursue it.

My eyes popped open this morning at 4:17 AM, spurred by vigorous birdsong in the trees surrounding our farm house.  There was daylight sneaking through the venetian blinds at that unseemly hour as well.  Once the bird chorus starts, with one lone chirpy voice in the apple tree by our bedroom window, it rapidly becomes a full frontal onslaught symphony orchestra from the plum, cherry, poplar, walnut, fir and chestnut.   Sleep is irretrievable.

This might be something I would ordinarily appreciate but last night nearby pastures roared past midnight with the house-shaking rumble of heavy tractors and trucks chopping and hauling fresh green grass destined for silage.

Only a few months ago I remember wishing for early morning birdsong when it seemed the sun would never rise and the oppressive silence would never lift.  I conveniently forget those mornings years ago when we had a dozen young roosters who magically found their voices very early in the morning a mere 10 weeks after hatching.  Nothing before or since could match their alarm clock expertise after 4 AM.  No barbecue before or since has tasted as sweet.

So I remind myself how bad it can really be and today’s backyard birdsong is a veritable symphony in comparison.

Even so, I already need a nap, yet a full day of clinic awaits. Ah, first world problems of a farmer/doctor/sleep-deprived human.

A Flock of Colours

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.
~John O’Donohue from “Beannacht

We all will stumble, bearing the bruises and scars of our fall.
We all waken to gray days when there seems no point in going on.
We all can be sucked into the darkest thoughts,
tunneling ever more deeply.

In those moments, those days, those months,
may we be wrapped tightly in love’s cloak of invisibility:
and darkness swallow us no longer~
we follow a brightening path of light and color,
with contentment and encouragement,
our failing feet steadied,
the gray kaleidoscoped,
the way to go illuminated with hope.

May our brokenness be forever covered in such blessings.


Not Forgotten

Our memories are, at best, so limited, so finite, that it is impossible for us to envisage an unlimited, infinite memory, the memory of God. It is something I want to believe in: that no atom of creation is ever forgotten by him; always is; cared for; developing; loved. 
~Madeleine L’Engle from The Summer of the Great-Grandmother

…a friend told me a story about a little girl who wanted time alone with her infant brother. Her parents were suspicious of her motives. What if she did something to harm the baby? The big sister was so persistent that her mom and dad finally decided to allow her ten minutes alone with him in his room. After they closed the door, they listened quietly. They felt chills when they heard their daughter say,
“Baby tell me what heaven is like. I’m starting to forget.”
~Sue Shanahan from “Fresh from Heaven”

He of strength and hope,
of infinite memory and everlasting love:
He knows us down to our very atoms ~~
even we who are weak, broken, and undeserving.
He causes us to burst into bloom
in remembrance of having been in His presence.

Here and Now

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”

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
~T.S. Eliot from “East Coker”

Today, if we feel we are without hope,
if faith feels frail,
if love seems distant,
we must wait, stilled,
for the moment we are lit afire~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known,
forever burning in our hearts
in this moment, for a lifetime
and for eternity.
Here and now ceases to matter.

Suds in the Sink

She rarely made us do it—we’d clear the table instead—
so my sister and I teased that some day
we’d train our children right and not end up like her,
after every meal stuck with red knuckles,
a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us:
gummy plates in water greasy
and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.                               
Or did she guard her place at the window?
Not wanting to give up the gloss of the magnolia,
the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder.
First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.
~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women

Even the mundane task of washing dishes by hand is an example of the small tasks and personal activities that once filled people’s daily lives with a sense of achievement.
~B.F. Skinner, behavioral psychologist

I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.

What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?

Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?

No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.

The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.

Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.

It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…

Your Days Are Short Here

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

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

Finding Out Who the Patient Is

Portrait by Norman Rockwell

If you want to identify me, 
ask me not where I live, 
or what I like to eat, 
or how I comb my hair, 
but ask me what I am living for, 
in detail, 
ask me what I think is keeping me 
from living fully 
for the thing I want to live for. 
~ Thomas Merton from My Argument with the Gestapo

As a patient waiting to see my health care provider,  I would adapt Merton’s template of personal revelation this way:

If you want to know who I am,
ask me not about my insurance plan,
or what is my current address,
or whether I have a POLST on file,
or whether I have signed the Notice of Privacy Practice,
or whether I’ll accept a message on my phone —
but ask me what I am most concerned about,
in detail,
ask me what I think is causing my symptoms
and what I think is keeping me
from eating healthy, exercising regularly,
and choosing moderation in all things
so that I can live fully
for the thing I want to live for.

As a physician in the midst of a busy clinic day, I struggle to know who my patients are beyond their standard medical history and demographics.  One of my goals in our primary care clinic, now sixteen years into electronic medical record (EMR) use,  is to create a way for our patients to provide their personal history online to us via their password secured web portal.   These are the questions our clinic staff may not have opportunity to ask or record during clinic visits.  Having the patient personally document their social history and background for us to have in the chart –in essence, telling us their story in their own words–can be very helpful diagnostically and for individualizing the best treatment approach for each unique individual.

There needs to be an “About me” section in the EMR that would contain biographical and personal history information the patient could provide online via writing or video.

Tell us about yourself

This is your own personal history in your own words to be added to your electronic medical record in the folder “About Me”. You can edit and add information at any time via this secure patient portal to update it.

We want to know your story.  Only you can tell us what you think is most important for us as your health care providers to know about you.  We may not always have the time to ask and document these detailed questions in a brief clinic visit, so we are asking for your help.  

Why do we want to know your non-medical background as well as medical background?

We evaluate a patient’s symptoms of concern but we also are dedicated to helping our patients stay healthy life long.  To assist us in this effort, it is very helpful to know as much about you as possible, in addition to your past medical history.   It is crucial also to understand your family background and social history.  We want to know more about your personal goals, and what you think may be preventing you right now from living fully for the things you consider most important to you. 

This is your opportunity to tell us about yourself, with suggested questions below that you can consider answering.  This information is treated as a confidential part of your medical record, just like all information contained in your record.  You can add more at any time by returning to this site.

1)      Tell us about your family—who raised you and grew up with you, and who currently lives with you– including your racial/ethnic/cultural heritage. If relevant,  tell us whether you have biological beginnings outside of your family (e.g. adopted, egg donation, surrogate pregnancy, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization)    Provide information on any illnesses in your biologic family.

2)     List the states or countries you have lived in, and what countries outside the U.S. you have lived in longer than a month.  Have you served in the military or another government entity, like the Peace Corps?

3)      Tell us about your educational and job background. This could include your schooling or training history,  paid or volunteer work you’ve done.  What are your hobbies, how do you spend your leisure time, what are your passions and future goals.  Where do you see yourself in ten years?

4)      Tell us about your sexual orientation and/or gender preference.

5)      Tell us about your current emotional support system—who are you most likely to share with when things are going very well for you and especially when things are not going well.

6)      Tell us about your spiritual background,  whether you are part of a faith or religious community and if so, how it impacts your life.

7)       Tell us what worries you most about your health.

8)      What would you have done differently if you could change things in your life?  What are you most thankful for in your life?

9)      What else do you feel it is important for us to know about you?

Thank you for helping us get to know you better so we can provide medical care that best meets your unique needs.

As our clinic is moving to an updated EMR, I’m interested in hearing feedback from patients and health care providers.  What additional questions would you want asked as part of personal history documentation in a medical record?

Electronic medical records allow us, as never before, the ability to share information securely between patients and their health care providers.
Patients want to tell us their story and we want to know more about them. 

It is time we asked them and truly listen to what they have to say.