Take the Hand You Know Belongs in Yours

I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them…

…so that when 
we finally step out of the boat 
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted 
to drown you could, 
but you don’t 
because finally 
after all this struggle
and all these years
you don’t want to any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you 
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
~David Whyte from “The Truelove” in The House of Belonging

Yesterday was the wrap-up to my thirtieth academic year working as a college health physician.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.  

Reaching the end of the school year is always poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five (or six!) years,  while we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe.

We weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again, and a few giving up on life itself. They did not take the hand offered to guide them through, even though they tired of drowning.

In my work I have tried to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to simply do no harm.

I can only hold out my hand and wait. 

Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor you, our students, on this day, to confirm your courage stepping out from the safety of the boat — not to drown, never to drown — but wanting to live, wanting to love, wanting to move healthier, better equipped and joyful into the rest of your lives.

Just take the outreached Hand that belongs in yours.


The Beginning of an Uprising

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To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
~Karl Barth

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There is much shouting and gnashing of teeth going on in our country right now.  Some from the streets, some from computer keyboards and screens, and some from inside the halls of government and a certain White House.

We need to stop shouting and clasp hands in prayer.

Prayer is always easier for the youngest among us.  It can be amazingly spontaneous for kids — an outright exclamation of joy, a crying plea for help, a word of unprompted gratitude.   As a child I can remember making up my own songs and monologues to God as I wandered alone in our farm’s woods, enjoying His company in my semi-solitude.  I’m not sure when I began to silence myself out of self-conscious embarrassment, but I stayed silent for many years, unwilling to put voice to the prayers that rattled in my head.  In my childhood, prayer in public schools had been hushed into a mere and meaningless moment of silence, and intuitively I knew silence never changed anything.  The world became more and more disorderly in the 60’s and 70’s and in my increasingly indoctrinated mind, there was no prayer I could say that would make a difference either.

How wrong could I and my education be?  Nothing can right the world until we are right with God through talking to Him out of our depth of need and fear.  Nothing can right the world until we submit ourselves wholly, bowed low, hands clasped, eyes closed, articulating the joy, the thanks, and the petitions weighing on our hearts.

An uprising is only possible when our voice comes alive, unashamed, unselfconscious, rising up from within us, uttering words that beseech and thank and praise.  To rise up with hands clasped together calls upon a power needing no billions and no weapons and no walls ~ only the Word ~ to overcome and overwhelm the shambles left of our world.

Nothing can be more victorious than the Amen, our Amen, at the end.

So be it and so shall it be.

Amen, and Amen again.

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Last Year’s Mistakes Wiped Clean

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That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing… Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.
~Wallace Stegner from Angle of Repose
 
 
 
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Sixteen thousand students have appeared magically overnight on the campus where I’ve worked for three decades.  Unfortunately a record was set for the number who ended up in the emergency room last night due to their celebrating the start of the school year a bit too aggressively.

How is it the start of a new school year can be wistful, jubilant and potentially hazardous all at the same time?  There are always plenty of mistakes to be made and plenty to learn from, though sometimes at tremendous cost.  This is a risky way to start an education.

More than New Year’s Day, the beginning of autumn represents so many turned-over new “leafs”.  We are reminded of this whenever we look at the trees all over our beautiful campus and how their leaves are turning and letting go, seemingly joyful as they make way for the next stage of growth, the slate wiped clean and ready to be scribbled on once again.

Every autumn each emerging adult comes to the university with a similar clean slate, hoping to start fresh, leaving behind what has not worked well for them in the past.  These are our future patients who we hope are open to change because they are dedicating themselves to self-transformation through knowledge and discipline.

It is a true privilege, as a college health doc, to participate in our students’ transition to become autonomous critical thinkers striving to better the world as compassionate global citizens.  Their rich colors deepen when they let go to fly wherever the wind may next take them.

We who remain rooted in place celebrate each new beginning, knowing we nurture the hoped-for transformation…

…as long as we can keep them out of the emergency room.

 

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Nostalgic For What is to Come

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Toward the end of August I begin to dream about fall, how
this place will empty of people, the air will get cold and
leaves begin to turn. Everything will quiet down, everything
will become a skeleton of its summer self. Toward

the end of August I get nostalgic for what’s to come, for
that quiet time, time alone, peace and stillness, calm, all
those things the summer doesn’t have. The woodshed is
already full, the kindling’s in, the last of the garden soon

will be harvested, and then there will be nothing left to do
but watch fall play itself out, the earth freeze, winter come.
~David Budbill “Toward the End of August”

 

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As the calendar page flips to September this morning, I feel nostalgic for what is coming.

Summer is filled with so much overwhelming activity due to ~18 hours of daylight accompanying weeks of unending sunny weather resulting in never-enough-sleep.  Waking on a summer morning feels so brim full with possibilities: there are places to go, people to see, new things to explore and of course, a garden and orchard always bearing and fruiting out of control.

As early September days usher us toward autumn, we long for the more predictable routine of school days, so ripe with new learning opportunities. This week my teacher friend Bonnie orchestrated an innovative introduction to fifth grade by asking her students, with some parental assistance, to make (from scratch) their own personalized school desks that will go home with them at the end of the year.  These students have created their own learning center with their brains and hands, with wood-burned and painted designs, pictures and quotes for daily encouragement.

For those students, their desks will always represent a solid reminder of what has been and what is to come.

So too, I welcome September’s quieting times ushering in a new cool freshness in the air as breezes pluck and toss a few drying leaves from the trees.  I will watch the days play themselves out rather than feeling I must direct each moment.  I can be a sponge.

I whisper hush … to myself.

Goodnight August, goodnight farm, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.

 

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Mrs. Bonnie Patterson’s fifth graders’ handmade desks at Evergreen Christian School, Bellingham, Washington

 

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Enter Autumn Cautiously

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Enter autumn as you would 
a closing door. Quickly, 
cautiously. Look for something inside 
that promises color, but be wary 
of its cast — a desolate reflection, 
an indelible tint.
~Pamela Steed Hill  “September Pitch”

 

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Today is a rainy gray start to the University’s academic year:  we enter autumn cautiously with no little trepidation about what comes next.

Once we’re on the other side of the closing door, we search for what enriches and envelopes  —  that which is unforgettable and indelible.

May we find the color midst the gray.

 

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Questions Die Away

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I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

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Today I help greet new and returning 15,000 college students who begin classes this week at my university.  Each one seeks answers to their many difficult questions about life and how to live in this troubled time.

Every day I will see college students who are so consumed by anxiety about the questions in their lives they become immobilized in their ability to move forward through inevitable obstacles and difficulties.  They become so stuck in overwhelming feelings they can’t sleep or eat or think clearly, distracted by their symptoms.  They self-medicate, self-injure and self-hate.  Being unable to nurture themselves or others, they wither like a young tree without roots deep enough to reach the vast reservoir of answers that lies untapped beneath them.  In epidemic numbers, some decide to die, even before life really has fully begun for them.

I grieve for them in their distress.   My role is to help find healing solutions, whether it is counseling therapy, a break from school, or a medicine that may give some form of relief.  My heart knows the ultimate answer is not as simple as the right prescription.

Before the face of God, the questions fall away.

We who are anxious are not trusting a Creator who does not suffer from attention deficit disorder and who is not distracted from His care for us even when we turn away in worry and sorrow.  We magnify our difficult circumstances by staying so tightly into ourselves, unable to look beyond our own eyelashes.  Instead we are to reach higher and deeper, through prayer, through service to others, through acknowledging there is power greater than ourselves who can answer all our unaskable questions.

So we are called to pray for ourselves and for others,  disabling our anxiety and fear and transforming it to gratitude and grace.

No longer withering, no longer deaf to the answers we’ve been given, we just might bloom.

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Back to School Fog

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A white, indifferent morning sky,
and a crow, hectoring from its nest
high in the hemlock, a nest as big
as a laundry basket …
                                    In my childhood
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.
 
The damp dirt road gave off
this same complex organic scent.
 
I had the new books—words, numbers,
and operations with numbers I did not
comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.
 
Spruce, inadequate, and alien
I stood at the side of the road.
It was the only life I had.
~Jane Kenyon “Three Songs at the End of Summer”
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Back to school no longer is the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently.  Only a few are starting today: school buses roar past our farm brimming with young faces, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs and a fair amount of dread and anxiety.

I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups.  Even as a good learner and obedient student, I felt I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom, so the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with each other, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something more than who we were.

Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful.  As my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as teachers, and as I prepare for the new students who will soon be under my care, I take a deep breath on a foggy morning and am immediately taken back to the fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes,  waiting for the bus on a wooded country road.

She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I have become, under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and stretching — but I do remember her well. She could use a hug.

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