That Witnessing Presence

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

~Denise Levertov “Witness”

Even on the days when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  In the off-chance that it might be visible if we took the time to drive up the highway to the foot of it, we did just that last night, risking seeing nothing but pea soup clouds at the higher elevation. Mount Baker remained behind its impenetrable veil, unseen.

A bit lower, at the foot of Mount Shuksan, initially massive clouds obscured it completely – invisible to us except the knowledge that we knew it was there as we had been in that exact spot before and witnessed it first hand. Yet due to powerful winds that blow in the Cascades, over the course of a few minutes Shuksan was exposed before our eyes in all its glory, first in shadowy profile and then crystal clear reality: it was there, movingly unmoved, a revelation of constancy.

No, it had not vanished overnight, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t always penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover, but it is still there. 

I know this and have faith it is true even when, within a few minutes, the clouds blew back over the mountain’s face and veiled it completely again.

Some days I simply don’t bother to look for the mountains, so preoccupied I walk right past their obvious grandeur and presence. Then they reach out to me and call me back.  There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there Baker is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

The mountains confirm my lack of witness and still stay put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and lift my own veil, just one more time.

Trying Not to Miss a Thing

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.….A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.
~Annie Dillard from Life Magazine’s “The Meaning of Life”

I can feel overwhelmed by the amount of “noticing” I need to do in the course of my work every day.  Each patient deserves my full attention for the few minutes we are together.  I start my clinical evaluation the minute I walk in the exam room and begin taking in all the complex verbal and non-verbal clues sometimes offered by another human being.   What someone tells me about what they are feeling may not always match what I notice:  the trembling hands, the pale skin color, the deep sigh, the scars of self injury.  I am their audience and a witness to their struggle; even more, I must understand it in order to best assist them.  My brain must rise to the occasion of taking in another person and offering them the gift of being noticed.  It is distinctly a form of praise: they are the universe for a few moments and I’m grateful to be part of it.

Being conscious to what and who is around me at all times is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting.  I must reduce the expanse of creation to fit my limited synapses, so I can take it all in without exploding with the overload, to make sense of the “mess” around me and within me.

Noticing is only the beginning.  It concludes with praise and gratitude.

Unanswerable Questions

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When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.
But a rather special sort of “No answer.”

It is not the locked door.
It is more like a silent,
certainly not uncompassionate,
gaze.

As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question.

Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?
Quite easily, I should think.
All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

How many hours are there in a mile?
Is yellow square or round?

Probably half the questions we ask –
half our great theological and metaphysical problems –
are like that.

~C.S. Lewis from  A Grief Observed

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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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And now brothers, 
I will ask you a terrible question, 
and God knows I ask it also of myself. 
Is the truth beyond all truths, 
beyond the stars, just this: 
that to live without him is the real death, 
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederich Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

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And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?
~Mary Oliver from Long Life

Some mornings it is impossible to stay a silent observer of the world.  I demand answers to the unanswerable.

Overnight, wind and rain have pulled down nearly every leaf, the ground carpeted with the dying evidence of last spring’s rebirth, dropping temperatures robing the surrounding foothills and peaks in a bright new snow covering.

There can be no complacency in witnessing life in progress.
It blusters, rips, drenches, encompasses, buries.
Nothing remains as it was.

And here I am, alive.
Awed.
A witness.
Called to comment.
Dying to hear a response.

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Keeping Your Face Hidden

 

 

 

 

 

Vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats
awakens me and I look up
at a minute-long string of black geese’
following low past the moon the white
course of the snow-covered river and
by the way thank You for
keeping Your face hidden, I
can hardly bear the beauty of this world
~Franz Wright from “Cloudless Snowfall”

 

 

 

A psalm of geese
labours overland

cajoling each other
near half…

The din grew immense.
No need to look up.

All you had to do
was sit in the sound

and put it down
as best you could…

It’s not a lonesome sound
but a panic,

a calling out to the others
to see if they’re there;

it’s not the lung-full thrust of the prong of arrival
in late October;
not the slow togetherness

of the shape they take
on the empty land
on the days before Christmas:

this is different, this is a broken family,
the young go the wrong way,

then at daybreak, rise up and follow their elders
again filled with dread,
at the returning sound of the journey ahead.
~Dermot Healy from A Fool’s Errand 

 

 

 

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life
 edited by David Friend

 

 

I am overwhelmed by the amount of “noticing” I need to do in the course of my work.  Each patient, and there are so many,  deserves my full attention for the few minutes we are together.  I start my clinical evaluation the minute I walk in the exam room and begin taking in all the complex verbal and non-verbal clues offered by another human being.

How are they calling out to me as they keep their faces hidden?

What someone tells me about what they are feeling may not always match what I notice:  the trembling hands, the pale skin color, the deep sigh, the scars of self injury.  I am their audience and a witness to their struggle; even more, I must understand it in order to best assist them.  My brain must rise to the occasion of taking in another person, offering them the gift of being noticed and being there for them, just them.

This work I do is distinctly a form of praise: the patient is the universe for a few moments and I’m grateful to be watching and listening. When my patient calls out to me, may they never feel they are playing to an empty house. May I always look for the beauty in their hidden faces.

A Need to Kneel

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I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

 

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Last night the sky was dancing;
waves and sweeps and swoops of clouds feathering the horizon.

I am mere audience, not dancer,
too weak in the knees to do anything but kneel in witness,
knowing that fear and suffering lies beyond this hill
and how much I don’t understand of what has been
and what is to come.

Even so
even so
I was happy the sky was dancing amid
the mystery.

 

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A Witnessing Presence

 

 

 

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, 
the moon only when it is cloudless?  
To long for the moon while looking on the rain, 
to lower the blinds and be unaware
of the passing of the spring – 

these are even more deeply moving.  
Branches about to blossom
or gardens strewn with flowers
are worthier of our admiration.

~Yoshida Kenko

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
~Denise Levertov  “Witness”

 

 

 

Even on the days like today when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds,
I have every confidence it is there.
It has not moved in the night, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.

There are more days its snowy peak is hidden
than days it is blossom-stark floating cloud-like above the horizon of our barn roof

Visitors to the farm are too often told “the mountain is right there”
as I point to a bank of nondescript gray clouds

My loving and longing for it, my knowing it is always there, in hiding,
moves me more than the days it is simply given to me.

I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil,
and lift my veil, just one more time.

The beauty of anticipation,
confident of fulfillment to come
my thirstiness
to be slaked
my hunger to be
satisfied.

 

photo by Nate Gibson

Ensanguining the Skies

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How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”

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to the northwest

 

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to the north

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
  Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
  I never kept before.Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”

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to the northeast

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to the east

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to the southeast

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~ R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

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to the south

 

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to the southwest

 

Last night, as you can see,  was a surrounding sunset experience – 360 degrees of evolving color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It was all in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet communion took place with the air breaking and feeding me like manna from heaven.

May I squander life no more and treasure each day.
May I keep my vows to God, church, family, friends, and patients.
May I be warmed on a chill winter day by the witness of such bleeding of last light of day.

 

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to the west

 

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to the west

 

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to the west