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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A Great Door That Does Not Look Like a Door

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And as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.
~Stephen Graham from The Gentle Art of Tramping

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That great door opens on the present, illuminates it as with a multitude of flashing torches.
~Annie Dillard (in response to the Graham’s quote) from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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There is a second or two in each day
(and some days I must watch hard for it)
when there is a moment of illumination
like a multitude of flashing torches,
when I can see just beyond what is here and now.
It feels like a promise.

When I miss it,
this opened door that is not a door~
too busy to notice-
too blinded to see-
having turned my face away,
nevertheless it happens without my witness.

It saddens and gladdens my heart to know that
it will be offered up again tomorrow.

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The Fringey Edge

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Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

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Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

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An April evening of swirling drama in the sunset clouds~
just enough illumination
to witness the fringe of heaven just beyond.

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Turn Aside and Look: What Shall I Cry?

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“I alternate between thinking of the planet as home
– dear and familiar stone hearth and garden –
and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone To Talk

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A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”
~Isaiah 40:6-8

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And what shall I cry?

I find it very difficult to admit I am as temporary as a rain drop a flower, a mere mirrored reflection of this incredible place where I dwell.  I want so badly for it to last, I want it etched in stone, I want to be remembered beyond the next generation, I want not to be lost to the ether.

Yet I, like everyone, am sojourner only, not settled and certainly not lasting.   As a garden flourishes and then dies back, so will I.  This is exile in the wilderness until I am led back home.

Home.  Really home. No longer fading and withering.

Forever etched on His heart, held fast in His Hand,
His Word enduring far beyond my flesh.

 

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All flesh is like the grass
The grass withers and fades away.
All flesh is like the grass
The grass withers and fades away.
The glory of man like a flower
That shrivels in the sun and falls.
The glory of man like a flower
That shrivels in the sun and falls.
But the Word of the Lord
Endures forever.
~Fernando Ortega

Empty and Hollow

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Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow;
you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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I am often unprepared for the rush of challenges each clinic day brings and lately far into the night.

Each call, each message, each tug on my arm, each box of kleenex handed over, each look of hopelessness  —  I empty continuously throughout the day to try to fill the deep well of need around me.   If I’m down and dry, hollowed to the core with no more left to give, I pray for more than I could possibly deserve.

And so it pours over me, torrential and flooding, and I only have a mere cup to hold out for filling.  There is far more cascading grace than I can even conceive of, far more love descending than this cup of mine could ever hold, far more hope ascending from the mist and mystery of doctoring,  over and over again.

I am never left empty for long.  The hollow is hallowed, filled to the brim and spilling over.

 

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To Last Forever

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“Last forever!” Who hasn’t prayed that prayer? You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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For too much of my life I have been future-focused,  bypassing the present moment.  There is always a goal to achieve,  a conclusion becoming commencement of the next phase, a sunset turning right around in a few hours to become sunrise.

There are indeed precious times when the present is so overwhelming, so riveting, so tenderly full of life, I must grab hold with all my strength to try and secret it away and keep it forever.   But it will melt and slip away from me, elusive and evasive, torn to bits by the unrelenting movement of time.

Even if I was able to take a photo to lock it to a page or screen, it is not enough.  No matter how I choose to preserve the canvas of the present, it has passed, ebbing away never to return.   I can only wonder at the present by dwelling less on the foreshortening future.

So I write to harvest those times to help them last a little bit longer.  Maybe not forever; they are too soon lost downstream into the ether of unread words.

Even unread, I am learning that words, which had the power in the beginning to create life, can bring poignancy and meaning back to my life.   How blessed to live the gift twice: not just in the moment itself but in writing the words that preserve and treasure it all up.

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Preparing the Heart: Bend Our Angers

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…the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
Romans 13:12

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Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

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Unexpected God,
your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent

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photo by Nate Gibson

During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of that silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.

The reality, I’m confident, was far different.

There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son.
There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven.  No signal flares needed there.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never ever save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the wrath of God.

It is not for the faint of heart.

There are times it is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

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O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

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Mt. Baker at Sunrise