Cherish Your Humble and Silky Life

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This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises, 
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace, 
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls, 
craving the sweet sap, 
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities —
and all day
under the shifty wind, 
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies, 
and tip their fragrance to the air, 
and rise, 
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness 
gladly and lightly, 
and there it is again — 
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open. 
Do you love this world? 
Do you cherish your humble and silky life? 
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, 
and softly, 
and exclaiming of their dearness, 
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, 
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

~Mary Oliver from “Peonies” from New And Selected Poems

 

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White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human

heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,

and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.
In the darkening June evening

I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
~Jane Kenyon “Peonies at Dusk”

 

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Year after year, I bring our peonies to the graves
of those from whom I came,
to lay one after another exuberant head
upon each headstone,
a moment of connection between those in the ground
and me standing above
before this humble and silky life shatters
and becomes nothing,
its petals perfectly
scattered, lush and trembling,
to the wind.

 

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The Art of Showing Up

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I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”

 

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Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it.  Showing up with food you’ve made yourself is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food;  bringing along a cake is simply the icing.

This is a good reminder that as a doctor, my usefulness is completely dependent on others’ suffering. No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job.

If only.
What a world that would be.
And then I can still be a mom even if there is no more doctor work:

….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake…

 

 

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Coming to the End of Things

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And by and by Christopher Robin came to the end of things,
and he was silent,
and he sat there, looking out over the world,
just wishing it wouldn’t stop.

~A.A. Milne from The House at Pooh Corner

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Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

…These things happen … the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses …

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
~Jane Kenyon from “Twilight: After Haying”

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Bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses; we are like the grasses withered and ravaged by time, released reluctant to the wind.

Tears flow today as they must, wetting the stubble left behind,  clinging and sparkling like dew.

We weep in sorrow for those we have lost;
we weep for joy each time we’re able to wake to another day.

For what else can a soul do but weep at parting and weep at welcoming?

These things happen, oh yes, they happen. I just wish it wouldn’t cut us so.

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Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
~Psalm 103: 15

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This Good Man

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This good man
~who has left us behind~

whose farm-hardened hands
wielded not only heavy hammers
but cradled a trembling wee bird.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

raised many a calf and chick
and a plethora of pups and piglets
and enough canaries to fill a thousand homes with song.

This good man
~who left us behind~

whose gentle smile
and generous heart
volunteered thousands of hours of selfless service.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who raised no children himself
yet loved and nurtured a slew of nieces and nephews,
keeping track of every single one.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who plowed and planted,
harvested and gathered
and saved and gave and gave and gave.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who dressed for the farm every day
yet changed his jeans and tee shirt and muck boots
each week to Sunday’s best button-down shirt and sweater.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

is the only man to ever have owned both
a church organ in his front room
and a gold FireBird Trans Am in his back shed.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

has shown us the way to follow Him:

by his faithful service
by his love for the land
by his love for the garden
by his love for his animals
by his love for his family and friends
by his love for his church
by his love for the Lord.

This good man~
This good and humble man~
This good and humble and gentle man~

has gone down the lane ahead of us a bit
and will be waiting for us around the bend,
watching and waiting, waiting and watching,
keeping vigil until he can
someday see us coming on the horizon
and beckon us in and welcome us home.

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Uncle John Smit

The Mountain Called Her By Name

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Devi and father Willi
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Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

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The ripple effect from Nanda Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

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To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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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

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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

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The North Wind Dying

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Outside, the north wind,
coming and passing,
swelling and dying,
lifts the frozen sand drives it
a-rattle against the lidless windows
and we may
dear
sit stroking the cat stroking the cat
and smiling sleepily, prrrr.
~William Carlos Williams

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José is our front porch cat. That is as opposed to our garage cat, our upper barn cat, our lower barn cats and those that come and go on the farm because we’re a hospitable place where food is always on the table.

But he is the king of the farm cats.  No one questions him (usually) and no one occupies his front porch bench without his express permission. His Majesty shows mercy to any who show proper submission, and every once in awhile, that includes the dogs.  He’s trained every pup here over the years.

He is the official front porch farm greeter, rising from his pillowy bench throne to investigate any newcomer up the sidewalk, mewing his cheerful little “chirp” of a meow in welcome.  Then he turns around and returns to his perch.

José also is a performance cat, having been trained in his younger years to ride on a bareback pad on our Haflingers, walk, trot and over jumps (sorry, no pictures).  This once again proved his ability to get any creature, large or small, to submit to his will.

The love of his life is our daughter, Lea.  José  arrived on our farm 13+ years ago from a city home where he had been adopted as a stray of indeterminate age, and was too intimidating to the other resident cats.  José needed his own kingdom and his own queen so he set his eyes on her and decided he was exactly what she needed.  They have had many happy snuggles together over the years whenever she returns home, including only a month ago during the holidays.

The winter weather was brutal over the past month with weeks of bitter northeast wind blowing right over José’s front porch bed.  Usually during northeasters he picks up and moves to another of our farm buildings until the storm is done, and then reclaims his favorite spot when he deems it cozy enough to be worthy of him.

Only this time, when the wind went away, José didn’t return.

I’ve looked, I’ve called, I’ve left goodies out.  But no José. No chirpy meow, no yellow eyed gaze, no black velvet fur to stroke, no rumbly purr to vibrate in my lap.

I fear he has left for warmer quarters far far away from here as the north wind was dying this winter.

I think he was dying too, and somewhere on the farm — I just haven’t found it yet — there is a black coat that he left behind.

He doesn’t need it any more.

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