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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Preparing the Heart: A Wretched World Blurred Soft

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In time,
the sons of men filled the earth
with their evil deeds.
And God beheld the desolate wastes
the soiled streets
the bitter brown of barren fields
and the sin of the world
cut him to the heart.

“I will blot from the earth
the memory of these things.
Behold, I will make all things new!”
So he gathered up clouds
from the four corners of the sky,
billows pregnant with promise.
He gathered them in great, dark piles
on the horizon of hills
while the weathermen watched
grandmothers gazed
schoolchildren pressed their noses against the glass.

And God said,
“Let there be snow.”

First, small white flakes
like lace, drifting.

Then—wind
driving snow before it, a blizzard
hiding hills from view
(and the tops of church steeples
and street lights, too).

 For forty days
the land was covered in white,
the wretched lines of a wretched world
blurred soft overnight—
buried, forgotten
as God birthed grace upon the earth.
~Sara Arthur “Advent in Michigan”

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I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

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…Then how his muffled armies move in all night
And we wake and every road is blockaded
Every hill taken and every farm occupied
And the white glare of his tents is on the ceiling.
And all that dull blue day and on into the gloaming
We have to watch more coming.

Then everything in the rubbish-heaped world
Is a bridesmaid at her miracle.
Dunghills and crumbly dark old barns are bowed in the chapel of her sparkle.
The gruesome boggy cellars of the wood
Are a wedding of lace
Now taking place.
~Ted Hughes from “Snow and Snow”

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Out of the bosom of the Air,
      Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.
         The troubled sky reveals
         The grief it feels…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Snow-flakes”

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I’m roused by faint glow
between closed slats
of window blinds
at midnight

The bedroom suffused
in ethereal light
from a moonless sky
as a million tiny stars fall silent

The snow lights all that is broken,
settling gently while
tucking in the downy corners
of a snowflake comforter

as heaven comes down to
plump the pillows,
cushion the landscape,
soften the wretched,
illuminate the heart.

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A Blessing Just to Be

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Before the adults we call our children arrive with their children in tow
  for Thanksgiving,

we take our morning walk down the lane of oaks and hemlocks, mist
  a smell of rain by nightfall—underfoot,

the crunch of leathery leaves released by yesterday’s big wind.

You’re ahead of me, striding into the arch of oaks that opens onto the fields
  and stone walls of the road—

as a V of geese honk a path overhead, and you stop—

in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky, your hands
  flapping from the wrists,

and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going
  where they must,

such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child
  who knows by instinct, by birthright,

just to be is a blessing. In a fictional present, I write the moment down.
  You embodied it.
~Margaret Gibson “Moment”

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I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise”

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On this day,
this giving-thanks day,
I know families who surround loved ones
fighting for life in ICU beds,
more families struggling to find gratitude
in their pierced hearts
from loss of a child in an overturned school bus,
or their gunned down police officer son/husband/father,
or their soldier coming home under a flag.

It is the measure of us, the created,
to kneel grateful, while facing the terrible
and still feel loved and blessed,
to believe how wide and long and high and deep
is His love for us,
we the weeping, the broken-hearted.

 

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Refusing to Pledge an Oath to Life

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It is…the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life…
The man who kills a man kills a man.

The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Suicide rates in the United States have increased by 25% since 1999.

Based on the anguish of the patients I see every day,
one after another and another,
over and over again I hear
a too-easy contemplation of suicide,
from “It would be easier if I were dead”
or “no one cares if I live or die”,
or “the world would be better off without me”,
or “I’m not worthy to be here”
to “that is my plan, it is my right and no one can stop me”.

Without us all pledging an oath to life,
willing to lay ourselves down,
to bridge the sorrow and lead the troubled to the light,
there will be no slowing of this trend.

…when there is no loyalty to life, as stressful and messy as it can be,
…when there is no honoring of the holiness of each created being,
…when there is no resistance to the buffeting winds of life,
only a toppling over, taking out everything and everyone in the way,
our sad and hurting world is wiped out by one suicide,
all people killed by one act of self-murder.

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When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on, silvergirl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
~Simon and Garfunkel

An Obesity of Grief

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…to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
— Ellen Bass  “The Thing Is…” from Mules of Love

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It begins again, even though I’m unprepared.  No matter which way I turn,  autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again.  Some dying is flashy, brilliant, blazing – a calling out for attention.  Then there is the hidden dying that happens without anyone taking notice: just a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.

I will spend the morning adjusting to the change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scoop and push the wheelbarrow, I recall another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me as the organizer that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regret. After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt futile and unappreciated.

One friend had stayed behind with her young family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen:

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their Haflingers, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times since (and there have been plenty),  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to cease seeking appreciation from others or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time.  She was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and instead to focus outward.

I have remembered.

Jenny herself did not know that day fifteen years ago she would subsequently spend six years dying while still loving her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was only slowed in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf gone holy, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until five years ago this past week, she finally had to let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her firm belief in the plan God had written for her and those who loved her.

So Jenny let go her hold on life here.   And we reluctantly let her go.   Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans now. Except the words you spoke to me that day, teaching me to love life even when I have no stomach for it.

And I won’t be upset that I can’t change what is past and the fact that you have left us.

We’ll catch up later.

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Jenny R in her final year –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

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