High-Desert Spring

Earth exhales
moist, fragrant
breath of thaw.
Pungent pine bark,
needle rot composting,
soil awakening below the top inch.

No rain falls. Snowpack
long since melted
feeds grass and flower,
flows up tree trunks
into gauzy green haze.

Meadow thrush,
redwing blackbird,
Steller’s Jay’s ecstatic shrill,
and flicker’s knock on tree and barn
all call to mate.

Clouds gather and glower.
On the Cascade peaks
shadow-snow or rain
falls like a mirage.

Garden draws deep,
footfall welcome in yielding touch,
sighs a sweetness short lived

until summer sucks it into sun.

Pandemic Artifact

What are these people doing?
What slow dance, moving one
to another, pairs of arms clasped
around backs, necks entwined
like swans. And rocking as if the ground
beneath them beats with a rhythm,
fluid. Both exotic and nostalgic.

Not the clutch of passion, the simple
meeting of belly to belly. Like food
but sweeter, meatier.

I salivate tears. My whole body
hungering for touch.

Painstaking

While we’re separated here by illness,
the bold forsythia risks the nightly
cold to burst forth in golden flame.

Likewise, the chokecherry, with its
furry buds, lifts its arms the way
I’ve heard that trees breathe
at night when we’re not watching.

And the red maple has nascent keys
dangling like platelets, small spurts
from its heart.

Life hurts. We go on,

even when we feel we can’t go on.

Go on.Go on. Walk the floor
to the nearest window. Something
out there is singing.

What is blooming

in you today that you’re mistaking as pain?

 

Go Outside

Whatever time of day it is,
wherever you are, crowded
city, tenement with its narrow stoop,
or high rise with its pricey airspace,
the streets are empty.

Stand and face,
the sky. Be patient, are there clouds,
continents shifting against the blue,
or a slip of moon? Windows bright with life,
laundry hung to dry?

Or if your suburban
house has a yard, a lawn, maybe
a bush or some weeds, or maybe you’ve
tended the grass, mulched the beds
and flowers spring up from the thawing ground.
Are you in a country lane? A farm?
Cattle, sheep, horses—even wheat
or soybeans.

Here is the news you need:
this blue and green marble continues to spin
bringing the new day and rich black night—
beyond the lights that burn to keep your fear
away. The fences are plunged into soil,
the wrappers lifted by wind.

The songs of birds
calling each other is all you need to learn.

For Those Who Won’t Stay Home from Church

This morning I worshipped God
in the light on frozen grass
that shone like a thousand windows
of stained glass. I worshipped the crack
of wood, its sculptured grain
that contains the imprint of years
of rain. I prayed on my knees for the fire
in the stove, warmth and home.
I prayed before the altar of candle
and smoke to those who hear and hold
the suffering of the world. I prayed
to be of service. I prayed for you, pastor
and supplicant of the mega church
with its walls and roof, its bodies
tightly packed in stadium pews.
Be still, and know that I am here,
came the answer in the empty room.

Terminal Mental Illness

Some years ago, the daughter of an acquaintance of mine died by suicide. While her husband and children were out, she lit a hibachi in their living room and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The obituary her parents wrote said, quite truthfully, that she had succumbed after a long illness.

The recent suicide death of Gregory Eells, head of the University of Pennsylvania’s mental health services, brought to mind my friend’s comparison of lifelong mental illness with a chronic and ultimately terminal disease. In suicide prevention work, we say that many suicides can be prevented. Many, not most or all.

For some people, the lifelong challenges of a mind that berates, undermines, and negates their value as a human being is ultimately unbearable. No matter their outward signs of success, love, or accomplishment, they “know” themselves to be inferior, undesirable, unlovable. No matter the support they have in the form of medication, talk therapy, and interventions, like the Safety Planning Intervention developed by Gregory Eells’ colleagues at U of P that is proving so useful to many people living with anxiety and depression, the illness thrives at the expense of their wellbeing and life force.

We’ve come a long way in our attitudes toward mental illness and its compatriot, addiction, but we have a long way to go.

Myself, I struggle to accept the choices of the terminally ill who seek self-selected euthanasia under plans like Death with Dignity. I’m inclined to a world view that says life is what it is and is ours to experience no matter what. But when I encounter deaths like Eells’, I understand the analogy to terminal disease, that the suffering of acute, unrelenting mental illness can become too great. The prognosis unfavorable and unchanging. The best option to “shake off the mortal coil.”

What is the counterpart, for those with unrelenting mental illness, to hospice and end of life care available to the physically terminally ill? I only know that its foundation is compassion. We can no more blame those who succumb to mental illness than we can those who succumb to terminal illness of the body. We need to start loving, listening, and accepting that we cannot know another’s suffering, nor can we fix it. Our good intentions, pep talks, and interventions may, in the long run, only add to the weight of depression and anxiety. Not only does our loved one feel that the world would be better without them, but they carry the extra weight of our implicit message that they should be able to do something to make things different. Instead, our responsibility is to stand in compassion and serve the best we can as witnesses of life’s various ways of being.

The metaphysical poet, John Donne wrote “No man is an island. . . Every man’s death diminishes me.” Each is a cause for grief and contemplation of our own fragile mortality. “To live in this world,” the late Mary Oliver wrote, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” For me, this is sage advice for those of us who bear witness to friends and family for whom life is an insurmountable struggle, to love each other’s mortality and to hold it as our own. Our lives depend upon it.

Portents

Beetle, snake, apples. We walk single
file under willows, the dappled light
casting shadows. First the beetle, on its back,
and one side missing a few hairlike legs.
I flip it with the fine point of a pen revealing
its pale shell with elegant black stripes.
What to read in the moist spot it leaves
scuttling into the weeds? Immediately,
a slip of snake whips quickly into hedge,
slender tail a question mark, disappears.
Three small apples in a row far
from orchard. Four of us stepping
lightly on the concrete walk, stepping
lightly into the mystery of being
here together in this moment,
where everything is contained.