Friday, May 25, 2007

The Water Of Life

It had rained, and it would likely rain some more. But, at least for the moment, there was blue sky in the north, so I headed out with my camera.

The recent rains had fueled the lush, green juggernaut of spring. I plunged into woods surrounding Beaver Brook, overwhelmed by green. Droplets splattered around me, shaken from leaves by the wind. I could almost hear things pushing up out of the earth, spreading, drinking, blooming.

Water coursed through channels,

pooled in holes,

hung from blades.

Overhead and underfoot and all around me green clasped and unclasped green, clasped and unclasped me.

I was in danger of becoming greenblind; I longed for Photoshop's desaturate --

So I fled. I fled across the dog park, past cavorting poodles and terriers and retrievers, past their owners, chatting in casual little groups. I veered off into the woods and crossed the small red bridge over Beaver Brook. I noticed green knives thrusting up out of the shallows.

One short path and a small hill lay between me and sanctuary: the tracks.

The final wasteland home of last season's weeds.

Amidst the battered hillside stand of Dutch rush, a few had kept their regal heads.

Some even seemed to sing.

and singing, praise the mercy/that prolongs thy days.

But most were brittle, bleached and bent.

Here, even the new growth seemed worn and world-weary.

A few old weeds enjoyed a fleeting, final luster,

and some even seem to rise like genies into brilliant light,

but, in the end, Yeats was right. This green spring

is no country for old men.

Or women, for that matter, I thought as a bruise-colored cloudbank gathered over the tracks and began to rumble thunder. Even new green seemed old, old, old. I too was clearly green: jaded. Was there nothing new under the sun ?

Thunder again. I turned and headed back. It had rained, and it was fixing to rain some more. The wind rose a little. I shivered in the cool breeze and tried to shake off the oily trackside melancholy I'd sought out. I'd just been confirmed, after all, not 24 hours prior. And that reached back through the decades to my baptism, that greenest of immersions, that watery death, which makes all that follows perpetually new. I thought of all the amazing things my camera and I had seen, and would see, the pure grace, the pure delight, the pure gift of being alive.

What happens when you sprinkle a little water on a thick-skinned, involuted gall ?

A miracle !

Saturday, May 19, 2007


First there was that burning bush right outside my office window.

Then, Tuesday night, in the midst of a quiet rainshower, there was a blinding flash of lightning right outside my bedroom window. A nearly simultaneous thunderclap rocked the house.

On Wednesday night, in a torrential, windblown rain, practically a whirlwind, I arrived at the church for midweek Eucharist. The church was dark, the door was locked. The big, plastic Meditative Eucharist sign flapped and snapped in the wind like an unlashed sail.

A block east, the big, new, stolid Trinity Congregational sign -- white buttressed plastic with a perpetually scrolling electronic message -- squatted, motionless and unflappable, on the wet Trinitarian lawn. The church had recently left the progressive UCC and struck out on its own transdenominational, Biblically inerrant path. I crept past in the rain, my shoulders hunched against stray Trinitarian lightning.

Yesterday, as I drove to work in yet another rainstorm, the radio announcer predicted more rain. Floods.

As Saturday's confirmation nears, I can't help reading these things as signs. But signs of what ? A burnt out bush, a thunderbolt, an empty church, an impending flood --

-- something about sin, about solitude, about power and purification ? I am walking on thin ice. Over an unfathomable abyss. I pray for it to break.

Last night, DK tells me, I shouted out in my sleep. Something like

Look out !

Could it have been Amen ! ?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Horse Altitudes

I was sitting with the consultant across the hall from my office in the nurses break room. She was giving me my final lesson in using our new voice activated dictation software, a program named Dragon that has a desktop icon featuring a dog, and a headset emblazoned with a parrot. Despite (or maybe because of) its mixed zoological metaphor, I had to confess a growing fondness for the software: it is capable of both astounding accuracy, and hilariously surreal mistakes (vide infra.) I probably enjoy the hilarious mistakes more than I do the astounding accuracy, but that's another story. As we sat there reviewing text macros and vocabulary training, suddenly the fire alarm went off.

Don't worry about that, I said cheerfully to the consultant, It's usually nothing. I proceeded to yammer on about the alarm -- three bells pitched a step apart sounding at three different tempi -- until we both became aware of some frenzied activity outside the door.

It's a fire ! Right outside your office ! exclaimed Nurse Sally. The office manager sprinted past with a fire extinguisher. I dashed into my office to rescue my backpack, pulled aside the slatted blind and saw a wall of white smoke.

By the time I got outside, the fire was out. By all accounts it had been a swift, spectacular blaze, going from a few flames flickering in the mulch to a small pine tree fully engulfed in flames within a matter of minutes. I stared at the blackened, smoldering tree skeleton. My tree ! I'd enjoyed that tree and the little now-singed bush beside it. In winter, I liked watching snow pile up on its branches. And now this ! I felt a bit ill.

Then I got pissed. Damned smokers, I thought. I'd been complaining for years about how the hospital entrance's "No Smoking Within 25 Feet of Building" sign simply moved smokers a distance down the sidewalk to the yellow newspaper vending box just outside my office window. Less than ten feet away, I might add, from the building. All day I watch people stand there smoking -- some with IV poles, hospital gowns and hospital bracelets -- and drinking coffee, tossing butts into the mulch and leaving their Dunkin' Donuts empties on the newspaper box. Afternoons, if any door or window is open, the stench of tobacco smoke pours into the clinic. And I get pissed, and rant, but can't help thinking that the smoker's probably got some dying loved one in the ICU and who am I to add to their woes by getting on their case. So I simply fire off another self-righteous email to the office manager lamenting the non-enforement of the smoking policy and let it go at that.

But now there had been a casualty. A tree was dead. Bushes were singed.

My office window was cracked.

There were victims, VICTIMS !!!

I got on my high horse. It whinnied and snorted, up for a good fight. Is there any atmosphere more envigorating than what's found in the horse altitudes ?

Then it came. The revelation. I dismounted and stared, wide-eyed, at the dead tree. There had been a burning bush right outside my office window !

A burning bush ! I turned to the person beside me, an ER nurse.

It was a burning bush ! I exclaimed. Like in the Bible ! God spoke to Moses from a burning bush ! First my dictation software is a fire-breathing dragon and then my laptop takes to surreal and gnomic utterances, and now there's a freakin' burning bush right outside my office window ! Well, there was one, and I missed it, and now it's just a burnt-out bush, maybe like Graham Greene's burnt-out case, but what does it all mean ? My God !!!

She peered at me, and, with wide eyes and a frozen little smile, slowly backed away.

Friday, May 11, 2007

O praise Him

All creatures of my God and King.

Two Views Of Chlamydia

What I said: a reportable illness.

What the machine wrote: a very portable illness.

I would say we both are correct.

I will, of course, prescribe stem cell lung cream.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rhus Blues

Today, thanks to my voice-activated dictation program, I have become the first doctor on the planet to prescribe "stem cell lung cream."

This, after spending long minutes trying and failing to teach the program to recognize the word "vine."

Fine. I snorted, using a word it clearly knew. Have it your way, stupid machine. P-L-A-N-T. Ha !

That's when it came up with stem cell lung cream.

Can I go home now ?

Thursday, May 03, 2007


"What do you mean old," my dentist exclaimed, sincerely shocked, "why, you're not even middle aged ! You could live another fifty years !"

I had proposed, as a counter to her gum surgery, root canal and crown suggestion, that she simply extract my broken tooth. She was, as I suspected she would be, horrified. I sighed and acceded that she was correct. One missing tooth -- the late and infamous #4 whose departure was preceeded by two root canals and a crown and a world of pain -- is depressing enough; my tongue wanders from time to time into the slimy little gap where #4 used to reside and my heart sinks. It's a little memento mori, as if I needed a reminder lately. First my mother, then, just two weeks ago, DK's mother: we flew to Topeka to sit vigil at her bedside (there is no euphemism for gurgle) and in the midst of it DK learned that his old pal M. had died, a suicide, in February -- M., about whose milo field I'd written this almost 10 years ago.

iii. Milo

This is as far inland as one can get.
An old moon sags aloft in hazy air.
The milky way, like a final fling of seed,
winnows above the farmhouse, through the whirr
and whine of locust. Nights weigh less back home.

We’ve scrambled up the dirt road’s weedy bank
to where the thicket opens on a field.
Its surface ripples, restless as a pond’s,
across the dark distance, toward the darker woods.

Close-up, the flame-shaped seedheads rattle, hiss,

-- Are there snakes here, Merlin ?
-- Yes. But I’ve never seen one.

and I’m wading toward a shore of low, black trees,
an alien Ruth breast-deep in homely grain,
as the combine’s waterwheel comes threshing in.

On the morning of my mother's memorial service I sat on my glasses and crushed them. After my mother-in-law's funeral,
chewing a bagel in the temple, I broke my tooth: dicey tooth #3 whose restoration had been languishing at the top of my dentist's "treatment plan" for several years, victim of my general dental reluctance. I was, I have to admit, secretly satisfied by these little rending-of-the-garments equivalents. But, yes, I did go out and buy new glasses; and yes, I did, fearing quietly fractured #3 would eventually erupt into screams of pain, keep last Saturday's's dentist appointment.

I was in no mood to embark on a long, expensive, existentially futile dental adventure. Toothless I came into the world, I thought, and toothless I shall leave. But nonetheless, I apologized to my horrified dentist. "I trust you," I mumbled as best I could around the metal clamp that was protruding from my mouth. "I'm just being nihilistic." She continued her homily, describing octogenarian patients who go on living and chewing for decades, young patients who die in their dental prime. She counseled living each day to its fullest, and, as a corollary, giving poor, old, broken #3 the care and respect it deserved.

There's a church on every street corner in Topeka, from sober Lutheran edifices to glitzy Baptist megachurches to concrete outbuildings with stuck-on, mail-order steeples housing all sorts of tiny, DIY pentacostal sects. There's also the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, home of the ultra-unsavory, picket-wielding Fred Phelps clan and their lunatic gospel of hate and homophobia.Topeka's Episcopal Church, St. David's, has been holding its services at DK's family's temple since it burned down last November. It was likely arson. St. David's was one of the churches that Phelps had regularly picketed.

There aren't a lot of Jews in Topeka, even fewer since its famous Menninger Psychiatric Clinic moved to Texas a few years ago. I watched as Temple Beth Sholom swung into action after Alma's death: generous meals arrived for the family, and the post-funeral reception quietly materialized with one phone call.

It was high springtime in Topeka. We stood in Beth Sholom's section of Mount Hope Cemetary where many former Menninger colleagues -- including DK's father, and now his mother -- lay buried side by side. It was bright, and green and there was a warm wind blowing. The rabbi's words were familiar --

You sweep us away like a dream;
we fade away suddenly like grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes,
in the evening it is dry and withered.

I sat in the dentist's chair and ruminated: likely the silver filling in poor old #3 was nearing a half century old. My dentist, God bless her, was bestowing me with an life expectancy of 105 years, and urging me to enter each bright, remaining day with attentive care. This was a great and unexpected gift, and I was moved. It's true: between green morning and dry evening there is a considerable stretch of time. Rabbi Stiel had described death as not an end, but as the destination of life's journey. A journey, I thought, as the drill whirred and the stench of burning tooth filled my head, through time. Heavy, encroaching, impinging time. Time that wears us and our world smooth as river stones.

Day by day, we lose handhold, eyehold, tooth-hold, foothold, wordhold, until we finally slide, beautifully polished, into the padded box or into the fiery confines of the crematory retort. And, then added the Rabbi, into eternity: free at last of time, restored -- all of us together -- to the dark, everlasting, Mysterious care of our Creator.