The First Week of August

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The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer,
the top of the live-long year,
like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.

The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring,
and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn,
but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.

It is curiously silent, too,
with blank white dawns and glaring noons,
and sunsets smeared with too much color.
~Natalie Babbitt from Tuck Everlasting

 

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After a few days of milder summer respite, we’ve returned to temperatures in the nineties this week.  No one asked me if enduring such heat was a reasonable way to usher in the first week of August.

So here I sit silently rocking and sweating in the highest vantage point of this year’s ferris wheel ride, hanging breathlessly mid-air, appreciating the brief pause in the endless cycle of days.

Having just arrived at the top, I will venture to look down, knowing I am simply along for the ride, and Someone else is at the controls.  I might as well enjoy the view of all that is behind, alongside and in front of me, but especially what is below, holding me up in thin air.

All too quickly will come the descent into autumn, my stomach leaping into my chest with the lurch forward into the unknown.  As the climb to get here took so long, I am not quite ready for this inevitable drop back into the chill.

Hot or not, it’s best to celebrate this first week in August for all it’s splash and glare.  At least I’m swinging in what little breeze there is, endeavoring to capture the moment forever.

 

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So Then, My Brethren, Live

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It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall,
driving horses, sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory if being in his grace
you do it as your duty.

To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dung fork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give him glory too.

He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should.

So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from Seeking Peace

 

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Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we must keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend over an hour every day year round through all seasons and weather, carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork and moving manure down this barnyard lane because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes.

In so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship our God with dungfork and slop pail and wheelbarrow.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace that comes alongside me, helping me to live out each day,  pitching the muck and carrying the slop and making me clean again – spring, summer, fall and winter.

Amen.

 

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photo from Emily Vander Haak

Never and Always At Home

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It is merely
a question of continuous
adjustment, of improvising a life. When I’m far from friends
or the easing of a wind
against my back, I think of lichen—
never and always true to its essence,
never and always at home.
~John McCullough from “Lichen”

 

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We are lichens on a grand scale.
~David Haskell

 

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Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!

Why are they doing this?

In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?
~Lew Welch from “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen”
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The lichen raised its fragile cup,
and rain filled it, and in the drop
the sky glittered, holding back the wind.

The lichen raised its fragile cup:
Now let’s toast the richness of our lives.
~Helvi Juvonen  “Lichen Cup”

 

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I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of 63 years, and on this farm for 24 years.  The grandeur of the snow-capped mountains to the east and the peaceful shore to the west overwhelms everything in between.  I’ve walked past these bare antique apple trees autumn after autumn, but had never stopped to really look at the landscape growing on their shoulders and arms.  There is a whole other ecosystem on each tree, a fairy land of earth bound seaweed, luxuriant in the fall rains, dried and hidden behind leaves and fruit in the hot summer.

This is the world of lichen, a mixed up cross between mold and fungus, opportunistic enough to thrive on rock faces, but ecstatic on absorbent bark.

I had never really noticed how proudly diverse they are.  I had walked right by their rich color and texture.

Yet it hasn’t bothered them not to be noticed as they are busy minding their own business.  As John McCullough says,  they thrive happily where they find themselves “never and always true to their essence, never and always at home.”

 

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But what is life to a lichen?
Yet its impulse to exist,
to be,
is every bit as strong as ours —
arguably even stronger.
If I were told that I had to spend decades
being a furry growth on a rock in the woods,
I believe I would lose the will to go on.

~Bill Bryson

 

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Be Obscure Clearly

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A wind has blown the rain away
and blown the sky away
and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand.
I think, I too,
have known autumn too long.
~e.e. cummings

 

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Be obscure clearly.
~E. B. White

 

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As a family doctor in the autumn of a forty year career, I work at clarifying obscurity about the human condition daily, dependent on my patients to communicate the information I need to make a sound diagnosis and treatment recommendation.  That is hard work for my patients, especially when they are depressed and anxious on top of whatever they are experiencing physically.

There is still much unknown and difficult to understand about psychology, physiology and anatomy.  Then throw in a disease process or two or three to complicate what appears to be “normal”, and further consider the side effects and complications of various treatments — even evidence-based decision making isn’t equipped to reflect perfectly the best and only solution to a problem.  Sometimes the solution is very muddy, not pristine and clear.

Let’s face the lack of facts.  A physician’s clinical work is obscure even on the best of days when everything goes well.  We hope our patients can communicate their concerns as clearly as possible, reflecting accurately what is happening with their health.  In a typical clinic day we see things we’ve never seen before, must expect the unexpected, learn things we never thought we’d need to know, attempt to make the better choice between competing treatment alternatives, unlearn things we thought were gospel truth but have just been disproved by the latest double blind controlled study which may later be reversed by a newer study.   Our footing is quicksand much of the time even though our patients trust we are giving them rock-solid advice based on a foundation of truth learned over years of education and training.   Add in medical decision-making that is driven by cultural, political or financial outcomes rather than what works best for the individual, and our clinical clarity becomes even further obscured.

Forty years of doctoring in the midst of the mystery of medicine: learning, unlearning, listening, discerning, explaining, guessing, hoping,  along with a little silent praying — has taught me the humility that any good clinician must have when making decisions with and about patients.  What works well for one patient may not be at all appropriate for another despite what the evidence says or what an insurance company or the government is willing to pay for.  Each person we work with deserves the clarity of a fresh look and perspective, to be “known” and understood for their unique circumstances rather than treated by cook-book algorithm.  The complex reality of health care reform may dictate something quite different.

The future of medicine is dependent on finding clarifying solutions to help unmuddy the health care decisions our patients face. We have entered a time of information technology that is unparalleled in bringing improved communication between clinicians and patients because of more easily shared electronic records.  The pitfall of not knowing what work up was previously done can be a thing of the past.  The risk and cost of redundant procedures can be avoided.  The time has come for the patient to share responsibility for maintenance of their medical records and assist the diagnostic process by providing online symptom and outcomes follow up documentation.

The benefit of this shared record is not that all the muddiness in medicine is eliminated, but that an enhanced transparent partnership between clinician and patient develops,  reflecting a relationship able to transcend the unknowns.

So we can be obscure clearly.  Our lives depend on it.

 

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This Restless Heart

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The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain
Loveliness.
~John Updike from “A Child’s Calendar”
 
 
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Yea, I have looked, and seen November there;
The changeless seal of change it seemed to be,
Fair death of things that, living once, were fair;
Bright sign of loneliness too great for me,
Strange image of the dread eternity,
In whose void patience how can these have part,
These outstretched feverish hands, this restless heart?
~William Morris, “November”
 
 

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Even as worn and wrinkly I feel these days,
I know there still is beauty hidden within
as I look into your eyes that remember,
your eyes that saw me young
once so smooth and fresh and soft,
in yielding to fit you before we fall
together, beautifully in bloom.

 

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Not Burdock’s Blame But Mine

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A Burdock — clawed my Gown —
Not Burdock’s — blame —
But mine —
Who went too near
The Burdock’s Den —
~Emily Dickinson

 

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One day in 1948, an amateur Swiss mountaineer and naturalist, George de Mestral, went on a nature walk with his dog through a field of hitchhiking bur plants. He and his dog returned home covered with burs. With an intense curiosity, Mestral went to his microscope and inspected one of the many burs stuck to his pants. He saw numerous small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing bur to cling so tenaciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. George de Mestral raised his head from the microscope and smiled thinking, “I will design a unique, two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like the burs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of my pants. I will call my invention Velcro® a combination of the words velour and crochet. It will rival the zipper in it’s ability to fasten.”
From: The Mining Company (Feature 09/12/97)

 

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One moment you were just fine running ahead to the barn as I walked leisurely down hill to my chores – then I find you panting and miserable, immobilized on the ground, unable to get up or walk.

What could have happened to you in only a few short minutes?

I bent down expecting to discover the worst: I check your back and neck, your joints, your head for injuries. Instead I discover one front and one back leg glued to your body bound as if tied fast —  by dozens of sticky burdock.  You had taken a short cut through the weeds and the hooky plants hitchhiked onto your long flowing hair.  The more you moved the more bound up your fur became until you had painful prickle masses poking your armpit and groin.

You were only doing your farm dog duties and the burdock seeds were doing what they do: velcroing on to you to be carried to another place to germinate and make more prickles balls.

It took fifteen minutes of you lying upside down, with a barn cat warming herself on your chest to do scissor surgery to your fur to free you of the torture.   No longer immobilized, you ran free with your favorite cat in hot pursuit, and I noticed you gave wide berth to the burdock patch in the weeds.

Perhaps we all might be so quickly freed from our prickly immobilizing burdens when we wander too far into the weeds of life.

If only a mere hair cut could trim away all the troubles with which we are afflicted.

I know, in fact, our Rescuer is near at hand and I’m suspect when He needs to,  He wears muck boots.

 

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A Necklace of Days

 

 

It is a dark fall day.
The earth is slightly damp with rain.
I hear a jay.
The cry is blue.
I have found you in the story again.
Is there another word for “divine”?
I need a song that will keep sky open in my mind.
If I think behind me, I might break.
If I think forward, I lose now. 
Forever will be a day like this
Strung perfectly on the necklace of days.
Slightly overcast
Yellow leaves
Your jacket hanging in the hallway
Next to mine.
~Joy Harjo “Fall Song”

 

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In the string of fall days,
each differs from the one before
and the one that comes after,
a transitional linkage to winter
at once gradual and unrelenting.
If I were to try to stop time,
hold tight a particular moment,
this necklace of days would break and scatter,
as the connection depends
on what was before
what is now
and what is to come.