All That Was Me is Gone

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Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!
Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
~Robert Louis Stevenson from “Sing Me a Song of a Lad That is Gone”
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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel deWaard

 

Do we recognize ourselves as we journey through life, at first lighthearted and merry, but with each stumble, disappointment and wound, become more embittered and wary?

All that was me is gone?

To where to we flee in this sorry world?

I want to cover my eyes and ears, to be shielded from the headlines, from the threats and the worries.

This is not our home.  Give me the soul; give me the Son that shone!

 

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard
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Missing the Knock on the Door

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When a great moment knocks on the door of your life,
it is often no louder than the beating of your heart,
and it is very easy to miss it.
~Boris Pasternak

 

 

 

Years ago, a young woman I’d been treating for depression for several weeks in my clinic called unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon and canceled an upcoming appointment for the following Monday and did not reschedule. The receptionist sent me a message as is our policy for patients who “cancel and do not reschedule”. It gave me a bad feeling that she was turning her back on her treatment plan and I was uneasy about the upcoming weekend without knowing what was going on with her.

I could have just put on my coat and headed home at the end of that long Friday after a very stressful work week and even more stressful year. I was discouraged about many aspects of the clinic work load and the after-hours responsibilities only seemed to get heavier.  I was frustrated at how ineffectively I was communicating to administrative supervisors about the need for change.  I was ready to quit and walk away.

Instead I decided to call my patient to find out how she was doing.  She didn’t answer her phone. I mulled over my options, looked up her apartment address and drove the few blocks to get there. As I approached her door, I could hear someone moving around in her apartment, but she ignored my knocks and my voice and when I tried the door, it was locked.

So I stayed right there, talking to her through the door for about 15 minutes, letting her know I wasn’t leaving until she opened up the door. I finally told her she could decide to open the door or I would call 911 and ask the police to come to make sure she was okay. She then unlocked the door, tears streaming down her face. She had been drinking heavily, with liquor bottles strewn around on the floor. She admitted an intent to overdose on aspirin and vodka. The vodka was already consumed but the unopened aspirin bottle was in her hand. I was the last person she expected to see at her door.

Miraculously the mental health unit at the local hospital had an open bed. I told my patient that we could save time and hassle by heading over there together right then and there, and avoid the emergency room mess, and the possibility of an involuntary detainment.

She agreed to come with me and be admitted voluntarily for stabilization. I visited the hospital the next day and she greeted me with a hug and thanked me for not giving up on her when she had given up on herself. In sobriety, her eyes were brighter and she was more hopeful. She never expected anyone to care enough to come knock on her door when she was at her lowest point,  and she struggled to answer, as consumed as she was in her own painfully beating heart.

She was astounded and grateful and frankly, by deciding to do what I knew was necessary and right even though it disregarded every workplace policy, so was I.

Four years later, a small card arrived in my clinic mailbox on another most challenging work day from an unfamiliar address two thousand miles away. The name looked vaguely familiar to me but when I opened and read the contents, this time the knock on the door was to get my attention, to focus the beating of my heart on what was most important – not the stresses of my work place — and it was my turn to let tears flow:

 

“Dear Doctor,

I am not sure if you will remember me considering you see a number of patients daily; however, I am a patient whose life you changed in the most positive way. I never truly THANKED YOU for listening to me and hearing my silent words of grief and hearing my cries for help. If it had not been for you, had you not knocked on my door, I would not be writing this letter to you today. I don’t know exactly what to say to the person who saved me from hurting myself fatally. You were a stranger in my life, but a dear friend in my time of need. THANK YOU, for everything that you did for me. You have a permanent place in my heart, you have given my spirit hope, you have reminded me that a life is worth living. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sincerely, L_____”

 

I’m grateful 4 years ago I had the sense to go knock on her door when all she could hear was the beating of her own painful heart. I had the stubbornness to stay put until she responded, and most of all, I’m appreciative for her gracious note letting me know it made a difference. When I needed it the most, she made a difference for me that has kept me on the job all these years later.

She knocked, oh so gently, on my door and I opened it, amazed that someone cared, and found me awash in my own tears.

 

 

I Heard a Fly…

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I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –….
~Emily Dickinson

 

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There is nothing more humbling than an unwanted fly buzzing in the room.  No matter whether we live in a slum or a castle, a fly finds its way to us, just because it can.  And we must learn to coexist with what we can’t control.

When I’m feeling bugged, which happens all too often these days, the buzzing may overwhelm my stillness but it cannot overwhelm me.  I will put down the swatter and simply listen to the coming of the heaving storm.

 

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Shortcake With Soul

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A cobbler is shortcake with a soul…
~Edna Ferber

 

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Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
~Stephen Dunn from “Sweetness”

 

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Even when the softness of sunset lingers long
with residual stains of dappled cobbler clouds
lasting long to the sweetness of next day’s dawn,
I’m reminded to “remember this, this moment, this feeling”~

I realize that it will be lost, slipping away from me
in mere moments, a sacramental fading with time.
I can barely remember the sweetness of its taste,
so what’s left is the mere stain of its loss.

Walking this life’s cobbled path,
only guessing where it leads,
I ponder the messy sweetness
of today’s helping of soulful shortcake,
treasure it up, stains and all,
knowing I could never miss it
if I didn’t taste and savor it to begin with.

 

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A Salt Water Cure

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…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

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The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has middle age.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition and that’s my excuse.

A few years ago I read a fascinating article about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witness many tears every day in my office, and not tears of joy.  These are tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients will describe having a “break down” by which they mean uncontrollable crying.  It is one of the first-mentioned symptoms they want relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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Supposing It Didn’t

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“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne

 

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It is the final week of a very long academic year and tension is running high.

Among those students to whom I provide care,
there are many who dwell deeply in “what if?” mode,
immobilized in their anticipation of impending disaster.

I understand this line of thinking,
particularly in this day and age of
“in the moment” tragedy
played out real-time in the palm of our hand
and we can’t help but watch as it unfolds.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes it worse.
It teaches one to think catastrophically.
That is what I do for a living,
to always be ready for the worse case scenario.

When I rise, sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do at times~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

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“Supposing it didn’t” — He says to reassure us.

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Fully Sufficient

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There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
Marilynne Robinson in Gilead

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There are a thousand thousand people on any given day who cannot think of one sufficient reason to live this life.
There are a few thousand who will decide this is their last day.
There are a few who say goodbye.

It is enough for me to find just one reason to live today.
It is enough for me to help someone else find just one reason today.
One is enough.
Fully sufficient.

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