Their Exuberant Souls

summergrass

 

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Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now. 
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do… 

…Whatever is 
stored in his heart, he can use, now. 
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on.  What he does not have
he can lack…

…Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now…

…Everything that’s been placed in him will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds from “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

 

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This is the season for graduations, when children move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and after nearly thirty years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.

In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into those exuberant hearts so he or she can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving way beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trust they left well prepared.

As a school board member, I watched students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university and college health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road inevitably gets bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.   Only they will know the time to unpack what is within when their need arises.

 

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wwugrass

 

Enter Autumn Cautiously

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squirrellayers

 

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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alittlecolor

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Send Our Roots Rain

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Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? (Jeremiah 12)

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes

Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain
~Gerard Manley Hopkins  “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

rainstorm

As I look out through a tear-streaked window at the beginning of this dark day,
I feel inadequate to the task before me.

Parched and struggling patients will line my schedule in weeks to come;
they are anxious and already weary and barren, seeking something, anything
to ease their distress in a hostile world.
Preferably an easy pill to swallow.
Nothing that hurts going down.

While others thrive around them,
they wilt and wither, wishing to die.

Lord of Life, equip me to find the words to say that might help.
May it be about more than
genetics, neurotransmitters and physiology.

In this dry season for young lives,
send your penetrating rain to reach them
and those who guide them.
Reach down and shake our roots fiercely
to slake our continual thirst.

1031drops7

Back to School Fog

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crow

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”
morninglayers

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.

squirrellayers

 

And I Weary Wept…

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tiredrose

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellowed leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left.  And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
~Antonio Machado translated by Robert Bly

This garden blooming with potential,
entrusted to me, now 26 years:
the health and care of 15,000 students,
most thriving and flourishing,
some withering, their petals falling,
a few lost altogether.
As winds of time sweep away
another cohort from my care,
to be blown to places unknown,
I weary weep for losses,
wondering if I’ve failed to water enough
or is it only I with thirst unceasing,
my roots drying out, hidden away deep beneath me?

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…one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
~Billy Collins from “Forgetfulness”

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A Crippled Heart

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All of us come to the study and practice of medicine through different pathways: some because of family members who were doctors or patients, some out of our own illness or wounded brokenness, some out of intense drive to achieve and serve.

I came to medicine because of my grade school classmate Michael.

My grade school represented a grand social experiment of the early 1960’s.  It was one of the first schools to mainstream special needs children into “regular” classrooms.   At that time, the usual approach was to warehouse kids with disabilities (i.e. “handicaps” in 60′s parlance)  in separate rooms, if not whole separate schools.

During those years, the average class size for a grade school teacher was 32-35 kids, with no teacher’s aides, rare parent volunteers (except for field trips and room mothers who threw the holiday parties) and no medications or special accommodations for ADHD or learning disabilities.  I’m not sure how teachers coped with a room full of too-often noisy unruly kids,  but somehow they managed to teach in spite of the obstacles.  Adding in children with mental and physical challenges without additional adult help must have added immeasurable challenges and lots of gray hair.

So the more capable kids got recruited to mentor the kids with disabilities.  It was a way to keep some kids busy who out of boredom might otherwise find themselves engaging in disruptive entertainment. It helped the teacher by creating a buddy system for the special needs kids who might need help with class work or who might have difficulty getting around.

In fifth grade I was assigned to be a buddy to Michael.  He was a spindly boy with cerebral palsy and hearing aids, thick glasses hooked with a wide band around the back of his head,  and spastic muscles that never seemed to go where he wanted them to go.  He walked independently with some difficulty, mostly on his tiptoes because of his shortened leg muscles, falling when he got going too quickly as his thick orthopedic shoes with braces would trip him up.   His hands were intermittently in a crab like grip of contracted muscles, and his face always contorting and grimacing.  He drooled continuously so perpetually carried a soppy Kleenex in his hand to catch the drips of spit that ran out of his mouth and dropped on his desk, threatening to spoil his coloring and writing papers. I would deliver him to the bathroom on a schedule, pushing the heavy door open for him to get inside, and waiting outside until he knocked on the door so I could open it back up for him.

His speech consisted of all vowels, as his tongue couldn’t quite connect with his teeth or palate to sound out the consonants, so it took some time and patience to understand what he said.  He could write with great effort, gripping the pencil awkwardly in his tight palm and found he could communicate better at times on paper than by talking. I made sure he had help to finish assignments if his muscles were too tight to write, and I learned his language so I could interpret for the teacher. I quickly discovered he was brave and bright, with a finer mind than most of the kids in our class.    He loved a good joke and his little body would shudder as he roared his appreciation.   I was impressed at how he expressed himself and how little bitterness he had about his limitations.

He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew.  As a peer-opinion-driven preadolescent girl, I’m amazed I could even recognize that about Michael.  It was so tempting to stay oblivious to the person that Michael was inside his broken shell of a body.

Sometimes I wanted to hide as Michael appeared around the corner of the grade school building every morning. He would be walking too quickly in his tightly wound tip-toe cadence, arms flailing, shoes scuffing, raising up dust with each step. He would wave at me and call out my name in his indecipherable voice, a voice I knew too well.

There were many times when I resented being Michael’s buddy though I was determined not to let him know it.  I was myself stuck fast in my 5th-grade-need to be popular and acceptable to my peers.  I didn’t want to be constantly responsible for him and other kids teased me about him being my boyfriend.

And in many ways, he was.

As he would approach while I stood in my clump of friends on the playground, a group of boys playing tag would swoop past him, purposely a little too close, spinning him off his feet like a top and onto the ground. Glasses askew, he would lay momentarily still, and realizing I was needed, I would run to his side. Despite all he endured, I never saw Michael cry, not even once, not even when he fell down hard.  When he got angry or frustrated, he’d get very quiet, but his muscles would tense up so much he would go into even greater spasms.

I would help him up,  brush off the playground dirt from his sweatshirt and pants and look at his grimacing face. Although he would give me a huge toothy smile of thanks, his eyes, as usual, said what his mouth could not. He looked right past my hardened pretense, into my softening heart. Michael knew I needed him as much as he needed me. I was a lifesaver that had been thrown to him as he struggled to stay afloat in the sea of playground hostility.  And he was the first boy who loved me despite of who he saw inside my own inner broken shell.

After two years, when parents complained that the educational process was suffering for all the students, the social experiment was over and the school segregated the special needs kids back to therapeutic educational classrooms.  Though I never saw Michael again, I heard him on the radio six years later, reading an essay he’d written for the local Voice of Democracy contest on what it meant to be a free citizen.  His speech was one of the top three award winners that year.  I was so proud of how he’d done and how understandable his speaking voice had become.

I’ve thought of him frequently over the years as I went on to medical school, knowing that my initial training in compassionate caring came as I sat by his side for hours, even when I didn’t want to be there, learning to understand another person’s  voice and heart.  I didn’t appreciate it then as I do now, but he taught me far more than I ever taught him:  patience, perseverance and respect for the journey rather than the destination. He taught me life isn’t always fair: you make the best of what you are given and pay no attention to what others think and say.

Michael, wherever you are, you did that for me.  You helped me put someone else’s needs above my own.  You set me on the road to practice medicine. Your kindness reached deep into my own special needs heart, helping heal the crippled part of me that no one else could see, but you could feel.

Thank you, Michael, for being a buddy to someone whose pre-teen emotional handicaps ran far deeper than your life-time physical disabilities.

In my own imperfect way,  I loved you too.

michael

Autumnal Beginning

 
“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing… obligations gathering, books and football in the air … 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 in Angle of Repose
 

How is it the same day can be wistful and yet jubilant?  More than New Year’s Day, the beginning of autumn represents so many turned over “leafs”.  We are literally reminded of this whenever we look at the trees and how their leaves are turning and letting go, making joy as they make way, the slate wiped clean and ready to be scribbled on once again.

Tomorrow the school where I’ve worked for nearly a quarter century welcomes back 15,000 students to its halls and classrooms.  We see or are contacted by 2% of those students every day about their health concerns and symptoms.  I am struck anew every autumn when each adult comes to the university with that clean slate, hoping to start fresh, leaving behind what has not worked well for them in the past.  These are patients who 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 who strive to better the world as compassionate global citizens.  Their rich colors deepen once they let go to fly wherever the wind may take them.

We who remain rooted in place celebrate each new beginning, knowing we nurture the coming transformation.

photo by Josh Scholten