A Moment of Peace

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It had happened many times before, but it always took me by surprise.

Always in the midst of great stress, wading waist-deep in trouble and sorrow, as doctors do, I would glance out a window, open a door, look into a face, and there it would be, unexpected and unmistakable. A moment of peace.  

The light spread from the sky to the ship, and the great horizon was no longer a blank threat of emptiness, but the habitation of joy. For a moment, I lived in the center of the sun, warmed and cleansed, and the smell and sight of sickness fell away; the bitterness lifted from my heart.  

I never looked for it, gave it no name; yet I knew it always, when the gift of peace came. I stood quite still for the moment that it lasted, thinking it strange and not strange that grace should find me here, too.   Then the light shifted slightly and the moment passed, leaving me as it always did, with the lasting echo of its presence. In a reflex of acknowledgment, I crossed myself and went below, my tarnished armor faintly gleaming.
~Diana Gabaldon – Claire’s observations from Voyager

 

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I’ve known this moment of peace in the midst of my work; it comes unexpectedly after a day of immersion in troubles and anguish.  As I leave the clinic and breathe in a sudden rush of fresh air, and as I drive down our country road as the sun is setting, I remember that for all of us, the sick and the not-yet-sick, there still are moments of grace and beauty.

It isn’t all sad, it isn’t all anxious, it isn’t all anguish. The moment may be brief, it may be elusive.

But it is there. And I seek it out every day.

 

 

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(written with gratitude to author Diana Gabaldon for her insights into the complex workings of an innovative physician’s mind in her Outlander series of novels, for Caitriona Balfe‘s insightful characterization and understanding of Claire and for Sam Heughan‘s sensitive portrayal of the man who loves her beyond the boundary of time in Starz’ Outlander  – if you don’t know these stories yet, you should.)

 

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The Pulsation of the Soul

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People are more themselves when joy is the fundamental thing in them,
and grief the superficial.
Melancholy should be an innocent interlude,
a tender and fugitive frame of mind;
praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul.
Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday;
joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.

~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

 

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How can I convince myself
sadness dwells lightly like a murky mist
over the surface of my soul some days
but cannot penetrate deep within.
It hovers but does not saturate.
It distracts but does not define.
If I just wait long enough,
again the sun will rise uproarious and outrageous,
drying up my melancholy
and pulse within me unceasingly
with joy.

 

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As the Light Went Out

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The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.

This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?

Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.

When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away.

We never looked back. It was a general vamoose … but enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
~Annie Dillard from her essay  “Total Eclipse” in The Atlantic about the February 1979 eclipse in Washington State

 

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In February 1979, I was working as a medical student on an inpatient psychiatric unit in a large hospital in Seattle, less than a hundred miles from the band of total eclipse Annie Dillard describes above happening just to the south.

Our clinical team tried to prepare our mostly psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic patients for what was about to happen outside that morning.

Our patients were clearly more anxious than usual, pacing and wringing their hands as the light outside slowly faded, with high noon transformed gradually to an oddly shadowy dusk. The street lights turned on automatically and cars moved about with headlights shining.

We all stood at the windows in the hospital perched high on a hill, watching the city become dark as night in the middle of the day. Our unstable patients were sure the world was ending and certain they had caused it to happen.  Extra doses of medication were dispensed as needed while the light faded away and then slowly returned to the streets outside. Within an hour the sunlight was fully back, and most of the patients were napping soundly.

We all breathed a sigh of relief, having witnessed such glory from the heavens, acknowledging we did not cause it but a power far greater did.  The eclipse swept, with its racing shadow followed by restoration of light, the edge of our sanity to accept that our light can indeed be taken away.  For some, they live their whole lives consumed by shadow.

Miraculously, the Light has been returned to us.  We may not be able to look if in the Face —  too blinding — but we need never dwell in darkness again.

 

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To Accept the Warming Rays of the Sun

 

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world;
he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.
Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry.
There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger.
But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion,
their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.

I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad:
and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer
if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle,
to accept the warming rays of the sun,
and to report them, whenever,
and if ever, they happen to strike me.

~E.B. White (on writing)

 

 

It becomes tiresome always feeling angry about what it is happening in the world,
to read and write nothing but words of frustration,
to rail against the meanness that surrounds us,
to push back the bully and seek a balance of perspective and insight.
When I need to feel something other than mad,
I walk as far as I can go,
look up, revel in the light and bask in its warmth.
I seek to accept what the sun has to offer
and tell about it
and my anger drains away,
flushed down a pipe
never to be seen again.

 

Unruly Sun

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Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?

Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
~John Donne, from “The Sun Rising”

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Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
~William Wordsworth from “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”

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“Morning without you is a dwindled dawn.”
~Emily Dickinson

 

I reluctantly leave behind our sun-drenched bed
to be launched back out into the world of work,
grateful for this place where we live and love
and where the unruly sun finds us drowsy in the wee dawn.

It is bliss to be warmed and soaked in such light,
to want to return to my pillow and you,
but knowing each day of waking and working and wanting
makes our rest a little later that much sweeter.

 

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Sending the Light

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I want you to read this some day, 恵真
our new little Emma Sophia:
as you took your first breath in the dark of the night
so far away from this farm where your father grew up,
we bid farewell to the sun here
so God could bring it glowing to your first day in Japan,
that misty island where your mother grew up.

Your birth blesses so many all over this earth
and proves that war from two generations ago
exists only in history books now,
now love digs so deep in the genes
it overcomes what has come before.

You have sent the sun back today to us,
brand new grandparents,
to rise pink over this snowy morning,
and we will send it back to you tonight
to wake you for your second day
resting calm in the arms of your loving family.

Each day from now on
may we always return the Light you sent
and send it forth to shine on you.

 

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End of September

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it rained in my sleep
and in the morning the fields were wet

I dreamed of artillery
of the thunder of horses

in the morning the fields were strewn
with twigs and leaves

as if after a battle
or a sudden journey

I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain

in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn
~Linda Pastan “September”

morningrise

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I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with sour bitterness for what is no more,

or I can flow unmoved for as long as I can stay afloat,
only passively aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile with awaking each morning, whether to sun or wind or rain,
grateful I’ve been given one more day to get it right,

or at least to care enough to try.

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