Turn Aside and Look: Remembering the Air of Childhood

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I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in,
because they are apparently too minor and intangible.
The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end.
Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong.
Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought,
and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion.
Or those birthday morning blues.
Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.
Things like that.

~Nina George from The Little Paris Bookshop

 

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A white vase holds a kaleidoscope of wilting sweet peas
captive in the sunlight on the kitchen table while

wafting morning scent of pancakes
with sticky maple syrup swirls on the plate,

down the hall a dirty diaper left too long in the pail,
spills over tempera paint pots with brushes rinsed in jars after

stroking bright pastel butterflies fluttering on an easel
while wearing dad’s oversized shirt buttoned backwards

as he gently guides a hand beneath the downy underside
of the muttering hen reaching a warm egg hiding in the nest

broken into fragments like a heart while reading
the last stanza of “Dover Beach” in freshman English

Just down the hall of clanging lockers
To orchestra where strains of “Clair de Lune” accompany

the yearning midnight nipple tug of a baby’s hungry suck
hiccups gulping in rhythm to the rocking rocking

waiting for a last gasp for breath
through gaping mouth, mottled cooling skin

lies still between bleached sheets
illuminated by curtain filtered moonlight just visible

through the treetops while whoosh of owl wings
are felt not heard, sensed not seen.

Waking to bright lights and whirring machines
the hushed voice of the surgeon asking

what do you see now, what can you hear, what odor,
what flavor, what sensation on your skin

with each probe of temporal lobe, of fornix
and amygdala hidden deep in gray matter

of neurons and synaptic holding bins of chemical transmitters
storing the mixed bag of the past and present

to find and remove the offending lesion that seizes up
all remembrance, all awareness

and be set free again to live, to love, to swoon at the perfume
of spring sweet peas climbing dew fresh at dawn,

tendril wrapping over tendril,
the peeling wall of the garden shed

no more regrets, no more grief
no more sorrow.

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Turn Aside and Look: Full of Darkness

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

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The bright sadness of Lent
is a box full of darkness
given to us by someone who loves us.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
this gift with which we are entrusted
is meant to
hand off to another and another
whom we love just as well.

Opening the box
allows light in
where none was before.
Sorrow shines bright
reaching up
from the deep well
of our loving
and being loved.

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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The Angles of Winter

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Long yellow rushes bending
above the white snow patches;
purple and gold ribbon
of the distant wood:
what an angle
you make with each other as
you lie there in contemplation.
–  William Carlos Williams, January Morning – XII

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For the past eleven days, millions of us wake reluctant to contemplate the headlines:

At what cross purposes are we now?
What right and left angles have been sharpened in the night?
What blowing snow covers a multitude of sins, hiding what we know lies beneath?

And when, O God,  will a naked and merciless January yield to the more welcoming light of Your spring?

 

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The Snuffle of Winter

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We praise thee, O God, for thy glory
displayed in all the creatures of the earth,
In the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm;
in all of thy creatures, both the hunters and the hunted…
They affirm thee in living;
all things affirm thee in living;
the bird in the air, both the hawk and the finch;
the beast on the earth, both the wolf and the lamb;…
Therefore man, whom thou hast made
to be conscious of thee,
must consciously praise thee,
in thought and in word and in deed.
Even with the hand to the broom,
the back bent in laying the fire,
the knee bent in cleaning the hearth…
The back bent under toil,
the knee bent under sin,
the hands to the face under fear,
the head bent under grief,
Even in us the voices of the seasons,
the snuffle of winter, the song of spring,
the drone of summer,
the voices of beasts and of birds,
praise thee.
~T.S. Eliot from Murder in the Cathedral

 

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These draining dripping
frozen winter months
of dark begin to emerge enlightened:
a reminder to praise Him,
grateful for daily thanksgiving and blessings~~

it is good to dwell on our gifts
even when ill,
coughing all night,
blowing through countless tissues,
back and knees and head bent double.

We invite stark naked winter
to sit in silence with us,
its tears blending with ours.

These deepened days
of bare stripped branches
and weeping fog
feed our growing need
for the white-as-snow covering grace
of His coming light.

 

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Perfectly and Completely Rotten

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O lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
                 rotten
hardly a contour marred–

                 perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
                 aside perfect
in every detail! O lovely

                 apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
                 mantles that
unspoiled surface! No one

                 has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
                 rail a month ago
to ripen.

                 No one. No one!
~William Carlos Williams “Perfection”

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“When a newspaper posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G. K. Chesterton.’

That is the attitude of someone who has grasped the message of Jesus.”
~Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008)

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No one of us escapes the rottenness that lies not-so-deep beneath our shiny surface.  We are full of wormholes allowing the world inside to eat us alive.

We are the problem and the problem is us. That is why we need rescue by a Savior who is the one good apple among a barrel of contagiously bad apples. We are so tainted, it takes Someone who truly is Perfect to transform us from the inside out.

We’ve elected someone who is emphatically a reflection of who we are — bad and rotten and more than willing to spoil the barrel with his history of immoral and unethical behavior, his contentious and profane words, his complete lack of humility and his unwillingness to admit his flaws.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states will once again survive an imperfect leader, just as we’ve survived the other rotten apples we’ve placed over us.

We get exactly what we deserve in a President and no one should be celebrating that today.

May we fall to our knees, weeping and grateful, that Christ, who is the Leader of all in His Kingdom, will grant us a grace and sanctuary we emphatically don’t deserve.

Now that would be reason to celebrate.

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North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note