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Friday January 8th, 2021

In some ways it has not been an auspicious start to the knew year. I am excited about how the change in my work situation will allow me to have more time at home, and more time for writing. That is really big, and good, thing. But I have had a bit of a bad run of it.

The old year closed out with my desktop computer dying. This computer has all my writing. Then at the beginning of this week I damaged my car. Finally, on Wednesday night I almost broke my thumb. If bad things really do come in threes then we are all set. But if this is the start of a longer streak, I better go back to bed and not get up until spring.

What I am happy to report is that all three of these incidents can be concluded with the phrase, “It could have been worse.” The computer died because the SSD hard driver controller failed. That was the drive with the OS installed, but all of my writing archives were on the other hard drive. I lost whatever was dumped on the desktop (and I have a bad habit of dumping stuff on the desktop) but at the end of the day that is a minor loss. I have a new hard drive installed and today I will finish installing the software. It could have been worse.

The car damage particularly irked me because it was unequivocally an act of stupidity on my part. In the great December snow storm a kind neighbor plowed a large portion of the driveway with their tractor. In the process they pushed a log off at an angle beside the top of the driveway. It has since remained embedded in the snow bank. When I pulled into the driveway I realized I had parked too close and the pointed end of the log was pressing against the side of the car. “Need to check that before I pull out tomorrow,” I thought to myself. Then I went inside and forgot about it.

The next morning I was in a hurry leaving for work. I hopped into the car, put it into reverse and–craaack!–started tearing of the plastic front of my bumper. The pointed end of the log had caught the corner of the bumper and had inexorably started to peel the plastic sheathing off the car as I backed up. In the morning dark I feared I had done serious damage to the bumper, perhaps necessitating a complete replacement of the bumper. When I was able to inspect it later after work I realized that probably replacing the popped plastic rivets would be a sufficient repair. In the end my thoughtlessness cost me sixty dollars and change, hundreds of dollars less than I was anticipating. Talk about a sense of relief.

I felt like that was enough for one week, but then Wednesday night I almost broke my thumb. I was folding up a big collapsible aluminum ladder, and a chunk of snow was jammed between the bottom rung which prevented the ladder from sliding down the last section. So I kicked the chunk of snow out and did not think about where my thumb was positioned as it grasped the ladder. The snow went out and the ladder swiftly slid down crushing my thumb with finality.

The pain was something like slamming your hand in a car door. Even before I became a nurse and was schooled in the different words for pain I already knew there were distinctly different kinds of pain. There is the sharp clear pain of a slicing knife. There is the stabbing throb of a headache, the burn of heat, the pulse of infection, the clench of intestines, and so many others. Each distinct in its own way, some more tolerable than others. Blunt force trauma–like slamming your hand in a car door or crushing said hand in a collapsible ladder–is a pain all its own. I don’t consider it the worst kind of pain, but it is a pain with a very loud roar, a sudden explosion like a bomb going off in your body.

I dropped the ladder as I started to double over and the ladder fell on the new van which by some miracle did not get damaged by the impact of the ladder. My thought in the moment was, “I broke it” meaning my thumb, not the van. The pain was like a tidal wave, a flood that I tried to contain by clenching the thumb as hard as I could with my good hand. In that moment I felt like I never wanted to move that thumb ever again for the rest of my life. In the moment it felt like I couldn’t, and yet was afraid that it would and that the movement would increase my pain to unimagined levels. I felt like I wanted to take flight from my own body, burst away to escape the pain. Instead I walked around groaning through clenched teeth until the pain subsided to a current which could be contained by my own body.

With time I was able to let go of my thumb and take a look at it. Nothing was torn off, bleeding, or standing out a strange angles. Even more promising, nothing had yet ballooned up to grotesque proportions or changed to any alarming colors. At this point it seemed promising that no horrific damage had happened–though in a strange contradictory sort of way my thumb both hurt and had a distinct numbness along one side which indicated which thumb nerve had been colossally smashed by the ladder. With ice and some tentative movement I determined the impacted joint had no debilitating injury. I had escaped relatively intact.

Afterward, I noticed that once the pain leaves the mind feels amazingly clear.

The damage report the next day was not much changed. The crush affected muscles across the back of my hand and up to my elbow but the swelling remained very localized and only the mobility of the one thumb joint was impaired. There was pain on palpation only in one spot and also with certain movement of the thumb. At this point I feel fairly confident that I will be back to normal within a week.

It could have been a lot worse. My brother-in-law had his thumb sliced off in a folding chair when he was a little boy. A former neighbor crushed her thumb in a hydraulic wood splitter. The both managed to keep (or reattach) their thumbs but with much more blood, gore, swelling, and pain. I can’t say my experience made the same level. But I did feel like I couldn’t catch a break this week.

Pen to Paper

As I sit down to write at the kitchen table I look out the window and see the boys adventuring in the snow. They love exploring the wide world of our country property, playing in whatever way their imagination takes them. Tadhg stops now and lays down in the snow to make a snow angel.

So often Tadhg takes Peregrine on long meandering walks around the property, exploring or re-visiting familiar haunts. Tadhg is two and Pip is one, but Tadhg is much more able to do the walking. Still, Pip tromps along after him with all the determination a one-year-old can muster. It is hard with the snow and Pip often slips and falls. Right now they are two little shapes in snow gear off in the distance at the edge of the field, where the old garden used to be. It is a drizzly, windy, morning and strangely warm for the second day of a new year.

Now the boys have decided they want to come inside. I help them strip out of their winter clothes in the kitchen by the wood stove. As Tadhg pulls off his snow pants he glances up, savoring that fresh warmth of coming inside from a blustery day and says, “I love our nice warm house.” He has many of the faults common to a two-year-old, but he is an example to me of how it is good to live in the moment with gratefulness and awareness of the present.

The dawn of January is the time when plans are made for the coming year, where hope and expectation give rise to words and resolution. We welcomed our third child into the world on December 22nd, a snuggly little girl, so our household enters the new year with three children under the age of three. In this place of life a sober resolution would be, “Survive the year ahead.” The reality of caring for three little ones does not leave room for grand ambitions, much less little plans or even keeping the house clean.

There is something to be said for entering the year without expectation, opening hands to receive whatever may come and learning to see and live the life that has been given in this present moment. To live well with little ones is a great accomplishment and worthy goal. But there is also something to be said for the days of small things, the little time carved out for the steady perseverance of intention toward something more than another day survived. Beyond living well with my family in thought and deed, my hope for the new year is writing. No goal of books completed, or anything so grand. Such things are dreams, beyond the scope of life in this present season. Just the intention to write a little each week is a reach enough.

In the course of writing this I rescued Pip out of the snow, helped set up a toy road system on the kitchen floor, mediated fights, changed a diaper, and watched boys fly their own imagined paper airplanes around the kitchen.

If I manage a bit of writing each week this year, I will have done well.

The Pride of Life

My current job consists in spending forty minutes to an hour interviewing individuals in the over sixty-five age group. There is a huge variety among the people I see—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the educated and those not. The single consistency is that they are all older, though even this is not the consistent it might initially seem. There is a great deal of difference between sixty-six and eighty-six, or even ninety-six. Then you discover not even every sixty-six is the same. We can’t project life.

This job gives me much to reflect on. I speak with people in the last act of their lives. The choices they have made, the things they have done, and the things that have happened to them, have all brought them to the day where we meet. That life shapes the person I meet. A rough life leaves a broken body behind. A smoking drunkard can’t escape the ravages of his choices. Those are hard truths, but the easiest to understand. They have the logic of gravity, but not everything in age is a litany of such expected repercussions. An accident can leave a person debilitated, all the best choices of life undone by the mistakes of another person careening toward you in a car. Sometimes life robs you of the good results from good choices. Sometimes the last act of life brings more questions than answers. Life isn’t fair Mom told us, and so did the philosophers. That admonishment bring no comfort when it is you who must live with the pain and loss.

The litany of interviews every day drives home the point: we can’t stop aging or escape frailty. Most of us can’t escape our bad choices. Worse is the reality that life isn’t fair. Perhaps you make all the best choices in the world and bad genetics or the bad choices of someone else haunts your health, leaving you a broken shell. We can’t control the course of life and sometimes that is the bitterest thing. Life gives you a hand of cards, maybe a pretty bad hand, and what are you going to do with it?

Old age takes so many different shapes. I have met people spry in their nineties, and people debilitated in their sixties, and there is no promise which each of us will be. Even more, I think about how we hide from that truth, how deep the self-denial runs. In health, in youth, there is a pride in life, an unwillingness to admit our lot; our helplessness before the advance of time and what it brings. Unspoken but always present is the presumption, the mantra: Things will be different for me.

Of course things will be different for me. I catch myself presuming the idea, and it frightens me how much I see that presumption in my life. A few people I meet have aged comfortably (or something close to it) into their latter years. Time have been kind to them. I ask “Any pain in the last month?” and the answer is no. But for most of the people I meet, that is not their story. And it’s not my story. I am not past forty and I have pain. The painless advance into old age won’t be my story.

And yet, the idea still persists, so powerful because it is so presumed as to be nearly unrecognized as a presumption or anything less than an unassailable truth. Unlike everyone else, I won’t age. I will keep feeling just as I do today for years and years to come. So the thought goes and so subtle the thought that it permeates the view of life like a charmer’s whisper. When I shake off the stupor and look around I am startled by how much that good health is presumed. I have it, and I can’t think that I will lose it. Loss isn’t the imagined narrative. Today I can go where I want and do what I will and it feels like that is my right. I eat decent and exercise regularly, so good health is mine to keep.

But what if it is not? I think of what Jesus said to Peter, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” We don’t all have a prophetic word on our end as a martyr, but in a way those words for Peter are prophetic for all of us who reach the frailty of old age.

Everything runs out. The body wears and breaks. Sickness comes. Some losses are sudden, like robberies, others are like a fire slowly dying. Ultimately they are losses which can’t be stopped. Though I acknowledge this as an abstraction, I find myself in everyday life living in thought and feeling as if—unlike the people I talk with every day—my health will not fail. I won’t be like them. Because I feel fine, I feel great, and that won’t change. I kneel with no problem, without even thinking about it. Why would that change? The man twice my age watches with envy, the kneeling I easily do a thing he cannot even imagine doing. And yet when he was my age he also felt, and thought, as I did.

My daily conversations give me a strange feeling, hard to describe, but perhaps expressed as feeling suspended from time, looking down and dimly seeing the picture from both ends of life—young, full of vigor, and then broken and spent. It is hard to hold both realities as true—to be this healthy and strong and to surely, someday (and not so long now) to then be that feeble frailty. I spoke with a man over 80 years who recounted how he had built two homes and fixed the one he currently lived in, and how now he could do nothing. That could easily be me, but do I think of it as I renovate my house? Not so much as perhaps I should.

It isn’t just personal health, it is the wholeness of life, and loss. I talk with people who are widowed, sometimes for years, sometimes just recently. A spouse who has been part of life for fifty years is gone, and the survivor must struggle to carry on alone. Or the loss is a child, gone to cancer or suicide. We never want to bury a spouse, we never think that we will bury a child. Tragedy and loss, and all of it something the person didn’t think would be them, didn’t expect they would be facing when the looked forward twenty years ago.

Here I am with a young wife and two little boys and I meet these people on the other end of the story and it is hard to admit that all of our stories go down those paths of sorrow in one fashion or another. There is loss in every life. None of us lives forever. But I have these conversations and realize that mostly I don’t think about this. Do I really live as one rightly should in face of this truth of life?

The reality, and the danger of forgetting, is captured in the last chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes:

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Time unravels us. Everything runs out in the end. Lean limbs once full of vigor shrivel with atrophy or swell with edema. Once strong shoulders stoop, vertebrae compress, hands gnarl. What once worked so well that it went without thought or consideration now becomes a struggle, then impossible. I cannot kneel, I cannot put on my socks, I cannot go to the mailbox. The litany grows and we never though it would be us. And it gets worse. The lungs wheeze. The heart fails, becoming a fluttering fickle thing. We are not what we once were and what we are becoming frightens us—our body now a faithless friend, untrustworthy and ready to betray us in the moment we most fear.

At the beginning of this year I caught the flu. I was out of commission for about a week which is really not so very long. Three days with fever, maybe about another three days with a wracking cough. I lost six pounds in as many days. A rough patch, but I bounced back. Still, it was enough to remind me of my mortality, of how thin the thread of good health is, and how easily it snaps. A man twice my age would have found recovery much more tenuous. A sickness with more punch and my recovery this year could have been in doubt.

It is on the rare times these things spring on me that I feel most acutely how much I take my good health for granted. I go where I want, I lift what I will, I do without thought of not being able, because of course I am able. Then I am sick to the point of sleeplessness, loss of appetite, dizziness, and weakness. Harbingers of old age, the ghost which looks at me and says “Soon. Not yet, but soon.” And then I feel my health returning, for now. For this time.

The shattered pitcher at the spring, the broken wheel at the well. How do we live in light of the reality that everything runs out? It is hard to live in the midst of the losses that comes with old age, but it is also a battle to truly live as someone who acknowledges that those things will come and lives today facing that future reality. Self-deception is so easy, the pride of life comes so comfortably. You think you recognize the reality of life, and then face surprise and betrayal on the day when what is common to all finally catches you and the life you used to have is now gone forever, taken by time and never to return. Then you find you weren’t ready and you don’t know how to live.

Humility helps. From what I have seen, it is the greatest tonic to help with aging. When a person turns away from the pride of life and puts no trust in their own strength, and does not hope in their ability to do or accomplish, then the loss of those things is not so great a blow. When we see ourselves for what we truly are, and find hope in something greater then the self-deception of eternal youth, then we are prepared to face the future.

This is Thursday, March 12th 2020

Unseasonably warm air, and a need to get my wife ice cream, blew me into the gas station. I was standing tiredly at the checkout while the cashier rang up my purchase. “Where do I stick this–oh, here,” I said a bit foolish, staring at the card reader right in front of me. I inserted my credit card. “Long day,” I said by way of excuse.

“Yeah,” said the younger cashier to my left. “I’m leaving work early today.”

“Well I work in health care,” I said. “With all of the corona-virus it’s been more than the usual.”

The two cashier’s made sounds of fake alarm and stepped back, one covering her face with her shirt.

“I remember that,” said the older lady, a rangy woman in her fifties or perhaps early sixties. “That’s why I got out of the nursing home. I worked there and I was sick all the time. I was forty years old then, and I was sick three months, throwing up all the time.”

I gave a vague expression, half thinking of explaining that it was administrative headaches associated with the corona-virus, not issues of getting sick, which had made my day weary. But the lady continued without any input from me.

“I went to the doctor and told him I had the flu. He tested me and said, ‘Lady, you don’t have the flu.’ I told him, ‘Yes, I do. I’ve been sick a long time.’ He said to me, ‘You don’t have the flu, you’re pregnant.’ I said to him, ‘Doctor, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m forty years old. I’m not pregnant.’ ‘Don’t argue with me,’ he said. ‘I’m telling you that you’re pregnant.’ I went home and I was so mad. I was furious.”

I looked at her, a little uncertain, and picked up my purchase. “So…were you pregnant?”

“Yeah. I was so furious.”

People sometimes share the strangest things.

This is Tuesday March 10th 2020

The early morning fire burns hot and low against the March dampness. The grubby black stove radiates its assurance. The wind rustles against the walls, the first drops patter window and roof. The fern on the table begs for water, and I give it mercy. Tomorrow it will need it again. The plants on the sink window sill bring a smile to my eye, the work of my wife in all their green profusion.


The rain comes stronger on the drive to work, the drops splatter and run across the windshield. Geese traverse the river in flight, two pairs as I cross the rusting bridge. They slid low, searching for home. From the hill I see a flock drawing a ragged black line. They seem to sing of spring, the hill below lifting ragged hands to clap with the song.


My oldest loves his toy guitar. He was being cranky and was required to spend some time in his crib but after a good cry and then a few songs and a back rub he agrees to behave better. He takes his guitar and his new Richard Scarry book downstairs, clutching them tight as he rides in my arms. Then he grins though his teary eyes while I sing various nursery songs and his plays with good imitation and great gusto on his guitar. Life is better. We go outside.


The evening darkens, the rain continues fitfully. I rake the yard with my boy, the wetness soaking jackets and pants. He helps carry the bucket, in his hand and mine, and he wants to dump it. Then we walk back and he carries the bucket in one hand and holds mine in the other. While I rake more he holds up his dirty hands to the sky waiting for the rain to wash them clean.


At bedtime I read him a chapter from the Bible and he doesn’t really pay attention. There are no pictures and the drama rarely has words to make stories he understands. But he thought the name “Jesse” was worth of vigorously repeating until I acknowledge that he had indeed said the name very well. After the reading finished he tried to earnestly pay attention as I talked to him about the chapter and how Saul’s disobedience was punished by God, and how when God punished Saul it made Saul very sad and David came and played music for him and he wasn’t so sad anymore. This he understood.

The earnest way he looks at me sometimes in these moments touches me deeply. There is so much he cannot even now begin to understand, and often he slips into boredom and inattention. But in moments when I address him he understands it is important to me and that is so very important to him. In snatching moments he musters himself to pay attention as best he can, with all his might focusing wide eyes at Daddy. Still he grasps so little for all his trying, and yet he does grasp disobedience. He has learned something important, and for tonight that is enough.

So Fast

The terror of many is the fear of forgetting. They lurch through the middle years of life anticipating some future sentence of dementia. The irony of life is that we all forget so much all the time that what is left to be forgotten in dementia is dwarfed by comparison.

How many days of your childhood have you forgotten? How many events of your teen years? What we recall at this moment of life are but a few smattering moments from the scantiest collection of days. In my case a lot of memories seem to be weird unimportant things which struck me odd, meaningful, or somehow lodge in my mind. Not the important things. But of all the things you do remember how many of these things are mis-remembered? You think you know your life, but maybe you don’t. Maybe you would be surprised if you saw it all play before your eyes at death, a story new to even you in the re-interpreted place of our own minds. Dementia is the unmasked face of our entire lives, forgetting, confused, wandering.

I suppose some sense of this is part of my attraction to writing. Words on paper capture things for remembrance once forgotten. Through the trick of words the past can speak to the future, and I can make myself not forgotten to myself. At least, it feels a little that way. If one thing we fear is being forgotten by others, how much more the fear of forgetting ourselves? I fear that if I don’t write what I have learned, and thought, and experienced that it will all wash away into my past without leaving any final imprint. It will be as if it had not been. In my mind I know it isn’t true–the majority of people don’t write at all and they are no less people for it. But the feeling lingers.

An extra barb is added to this prick now that I have my own children and now their pasts quickly melt away into my shifting memory. My oldest has passed eighteen months. How much do I really still remember of those earliest days? Yes, I do remember snippets of days, events from the hospital, little flashes from the early days home. I remember hard sleepless nights, and a blur of many things. But the nuance of life, the minute details of that little boy’s unfolding, blossoming personality? Not really.

The little bits I remember are almost painful in their reminder of how much I have forgotten. One clear memory is how our son never needed to be taught how to climb off a bed or couch. Soon as he could locomote, he turned himself around and shoved himself feet-first off the side of our bed. The world waited below and he wanted to explore. The moment was remarkable in the combined reality of him being safety conscious enough at such an early age to intuit the right way to exit the bed, and at the same time completely oblivious to the reality that the drop was still considerably more than his short frame.

That early moment encapsulates so much of our boy’s life, his personality. He understands physical things with a surprising intuition, and he has a boundless curiosity. Another early memory is in his first winter before he could walk he started crawling across the snow of the yard, heading toward he didn’t know what except that off somewhere a dog was barking and he wanted to find it.

The feet-first incident also holds the incipient reality that our eldest is not truly a risk-taker. He thirsts to know, and loves to explore, and is quite ignorant of many dangers. But where he perceives dangers he seeks to avoid it–even if his conception of danger and risk management still only rises to the level of leaping feet-first off a cliff because head first is dangerous. He loved the idea of dogs until he realized they were agents beyond his control and perhaps hostile to his interests. We won’t even go into his dawning conception of worms. So he will love life and exploring and be terrified in equal and complicated measures.

Such is the prick, the sharp knowing that as I have my children I also in some sense lose them each day. I am trying to learn peace in the not writing, in being demented even now. My days are so full of the living with my wife and sons that I’m lucky to have a few stolen moments to write. A few words to capture one memory of a hundred I remember of the million I have forgotten. I try to remind myself that if something was well lived it does not lose its value even if I can no longer recall it to mind. If I am in my fifties with five kids growing fast and I can remember only a few things from each of their first years of life that loss will not lessen the good if I have loved them well.

My little boy loves to run and jump and climb and spin around. I see the body in motion, time spinning out through fingers and toes, moments tumbling past in flailing limbs. He likes to run for me so I can see how well he does. “Wow!” I say. “You are so fast!” And he runs again, life rushing onward.

Winter’s Morn

A bitterly cold night starts as the evening wanes late. The wood stove in the kitchen is repeatedly stocked with wood, very diligently, until the bedroom upstairs is uncomfortably warm from the rising heat. (Or warmed just right, if you are my wife.) Once I go to bed I get up throughout the night to restock the stove. Since I am tired, I don’t stock it as religiously as during the evening, so the house grows colder as the night progresses. Sometime after midnight when I come downstairs I think, “Boy, it is getting cold down here” and I check the faucet to make sure the water lines haven’t frozen. This I do every time I get up for the remainder of the night. The water still flows in the faucets, and I keep restocking the stove over the course of the night. Morning comes, and it might be hovering around sixty degrees in the kitchen, but that is country life. I clean out the ash from the stove, stoke the fire back up and know that the battle has been won for another night. And I check the faucets one last time because you never know.

It is coldest right after dawn. I learned this experientially back in the days of my youth when I went out biking on these very mornings. The temperature drop varies, but is most pronounced on still, clear, and bitterly cold mornings. I wonder this morning if my car will start.

The car does start after a few sluggish turns. I give it a little extra gas just to make sure it doesn’t think about giving up. The dashboard comes alive and the outside temperature display reads -12F. I am slightly disappointed. If we must suffer with cold, it feels like we should get something a little more dramatic. My coldest bike ride those years ago was squeaking just past -20F, and in my childhood we had it drop to -30F. A little part of me is disappointed at the lesser showing this morning, but the rest of me is glad it isn’t so cold.

When it is this cold it is hard for the car to defrost the windows. On these coldest mornings the heat is going full blast and the windshield is only half defrosted by the time I reach work. A clump of snow might melt and then refreeze when it has slid a little further from the heat vents. The windshield washing fluid is frozen in the lines, so cleaning away the fine grime from the road is only a dream.

These are the best winter mornings to drive into work, if one must have a winter morning to drive. On the other side of December the daylight is fleeing away, less each day, until I drive into work while it is dark, and drive home while it is dark. In this new year we have reached the point where I drive in to work with the sunrise, and drive home as the sun prepares to set. This experience is inexpressibly more cheerful, and it encourages me to look forward to even better things.

This morning the world is wrapped in snow and stifled in cold. Still, the sun rises as it always does. The slanting rays peek from the east, filtering through the hill breaks, reaching out amber fingers of benediction which rest across the opposite side of the valley. Peace, be still, it says. This sun and the cold make an impossible combination of beauty and savageness. The light calls us on, the chill hunts the unwary. Do not travel unprepared.

I drive to work past farm fields of snow and corn stubble. The farms are waiting, the land sleeping. It is the stillness of day’s birth, the quiet which comes before a shout.

My trek takes me over a one lane bridge and up a winding hill. Here the view looks over a wide windswept valley. I think of coming to this spot in the warmer months when all is green and the breeze is gentle. These are good miles to wander in better seasons. For now my car heater blasts hard against the cold, and the sun chases me to work.

Winter’s Night

The January night settles over our little valley with still and quiet sternness. I walk about the yard on evening chores and feel the weight of cold pressing through my coat, thrusting its icicle fingers up my nose. Tomorrow is the last day of the month and its passing is a thought not far from my mind.

Tonight we march into the coldest days of the season; now man and animal alike brace for the assault. The day is fading toward six in the evening but already the air bites with a sharpness that comes from temperatures below zero. The snow crunches beneath my boots with a sharp squeaky dry sound as I move on to my final task: collecting wood for the fire tonight.

The ground is hard and the path winds through the snow to the woodshed past the chicken yard and beyond the clothesline. The wood is running low, but it is dry and ready to crumble in burning heat against the days of cold which remain. I bring it inside, armload after armload.

Winter is not yet over, but it has aged past its prime. The days of bitter cold are numbered, and it is as if this truth has caused winter to muster its strength and batter us with its remaining fury. As daylight lengthens now with every passing week, hope grows. And tonight I think, “It will be over soon.”

The far horizon across the valley is limned a pale blue, like a final kiss from the passing day. I watch the fading light as I bring in the wood. The sight has an austere beauty against the darkening upper heavens. Tree limbs along the hill ridge reach and grasp against this retreating glimmer, the flight of day unstopped. It is peaceful, remote, and utterly unlike a summer evening.

Above, the stars come out sharp and clear, watching my trek. Each circuit of my journey brings me to the dark shed and then back to the light and warmth of the house. The cheerful kitchen light bursts from the windows across the snow-blanketed yard and each time I step inside the warmth greets me. My wife works on a delicious supper, and my little boy plays on the kitchen floor. We will stay warm together.

The winter night will pass and as sure as dawn comes, so will spring.
For now, there are the days of cold ahead, and this night. This will be a very cold night.

Becoming Nobody

A few weeks ago I commented to my wife that I needed to be careful at work, if I didn’t want to get in trouble. “I am not used to being nobody,” I said. “If I am not careful I will inadvertently step out of line.” The observation really struck me, and stuck with me.

Class and rank are deeply embedded in certain cultures. It is true–if overstated–that this is less prevalent in US culture. Here in proclaimed ethos we have the egalitarian way. But don’t look too close or you might see money and education gaining many unworthy people special privileges and advantages. Nonetheless, we don’t have the strict class of nobility so that is something.

The clash and tension between egalitarian ideals and the unspoken notion that some people are “a breed apart” manifest in the medical field of this country. This in some ways exists as a microcosm of US society as a whole with its tensions and contradictions, only more clearly drawn. Technically, anyone can enter this lofty ivory tower of the medical field, but those born into money and education have distinct advantages, both in entering and in rising through the ranks of this society. For the privileged this is their territory, their class. In essence, their home. Here they feel comfortable with the conventions and perspective which look out on the rest of the world. Any may enter, but you must prove yourself worthy of entering this class unto itself.

Somehow, I stumbled into the lowest ranks of this society, and as one not born into the guild I am not always sensitive to its conventions. This insensitivity is exacerbated by the fact that I was raised and educated as a homeschooler where typical authority structures of approved knowledge didn’t hold sway. Thinking critically for yourself was expected in ways and to degrees not seen in the average education. Questioning everything was expected, as well as valuing opinions and ideas for their own worth, not for who voiced them.

When I stepped out into the world of professional nursing it was within long term care, and this placed me fairly high in the localized authority of the organization. In the larger structure of the multi-state company I was a very small fish, but in the day to day I was in essence the boss of the floor. If someone had questions, I (or one of my peers) was the first place they came for answers. It was my underlings who had to be careful to not speak out of line. The smart bosses knew which underlings should be heeded, but they were officially the ignorant underlings.

Since I have moved to work within primary care my role has switched ends of the power structure. As a licensed practical nurse I am the lowest of all licensed health care professionals. I do the lesser work for those above me. Woe to me if I step outside my approved role or speak above my rank.

The atmosphere is not so severe as that. I have congenial coworkers. I am liked at my workplace, and I am respected for the work I do. The health care providers I serve are generally down to earth, and not the embodiment of aloof superiority sometimes imagined. Today one of them joked they were going to race me to the bathroom.

But that is the danger. For a naive man like myself, the good-natured surface masks the reality that there is a strata and we each have our own place. Don’t forget it, and don’t step outside your role. My personality and my background means I don’t naturally think about these things, and since I have no interest in writing medication scripts or referring patients for specialized testing I did not initially notice these bonds which constrain me.

That is, until I had an opinion.

In theory, the opinion and input of everyone on the health care team is supposed to be valued. They teach you that in school. In practice, your opinion is valued generally commensurate with your education and rank. In other words, within the class structures at work it is unthinkable for a doctor to consider my opinion. Such an act would violate all unspoken tenets of the social order. I do not have education sufficient to offer any worthwhile insight into any problem a doctor might face.

When facing a situation in which I feel I may have some worthwhile contribution, I have a hard time remembering that according to the structures in which I am operating I don’t have any valuable insight. I am to provide raw data for the insightful ones to process. I am not qualified to have insight. Mind you, I work with nice people so they would be discomfited if they were required to rebuke me in this manner. But I would be grossly out of line and due a rebuke if I started opining about a problem.

I almost got myself in trouble because there was a patient who was dealing with dementia issues. The patient and a family member had come in for the visit. My role was to see them first, ask the initial questions, and prepare them for the doctor. I have seen many different patients facing many different issues, but this struck very close to home. Having spent years as a caregiver for someone with dementia, having written a book about my experience, and having spoken around the country about the journey of those facing dementia, I felt I had some understanding about what these people faced.

When I left the patient and met the doctor to pass on report I began to offer my perspective on the issues they faced, and the doctor’s demeanor immediately became curt. I was told, “This person has been my patient for years. I know what is going on.”

It was then I realized I was nobody.

The doctor didn’t mean to be high-handed. It simply was that the operating class structures made plain it was not possible I had the qualifications for a useful opinion. If the situation was different–if I was standing at the podium of an Alzheimer’s Association event speaking–then what I said would have value. But here it did not. This is a quick lesson on class structure and caste.

It is good for me to be a nobody. I had my turn in the sun, to stand at the podium and tell everyone how things were, and to give advice. Sure, it felt good but that is only part of the world. And I had my turn to be in charge, and the person everyone on the floor came to for answers. That was stressful, and I don’t want to go back to those days. Now being small, and being nobody, is a new kind of learning. It isn’t always easy, and isn’t always comfortable, but from here I can look out at the world and consider .

There is much that can be learned from becoming small, and becoming nobody. But at the end of the day the roles and the strictures of this place also remind me that it isn’t my home. I am, and always will be, an interloper. Someday, I will be moving along.

Being A Father

Becoming a parent is a life changing experience. At least, in some sense it should be. Yes, a truism, a cliche. But the meat and marvel of it is how this life changing by new life appearing is different for everyone. Personality, past life experience, and age are just three basic elements which have a huge impact on the experience of becoming a parent. And there are many more.

Many Americans come from a shared cultural background and so as new parents they can come together and converse on the basis of this shared experience about the change in their lives. There is the diaper changing, feeding, lack of sleep, and all those new struggles. People share their shock at the life change.

As the second oldest in a very large family, I come to parenthood from a very different place. Before I ever had the name father, I have changed many a child’s diaper, fed, chased, and heard the night troubles. I suppose I have been present and a part of the whole messy experience for at least a half dozen younger siblings. There is no new introduction to those aspects of child rearing.

The coming of my own child has felt in many ways more like the return of the old familiar rather than something shocking and new. The house has felt empty, absent the sounds of small children. Yes, I remember all these things, the familiar rhythms, the cadence, the sounds. I haven’t had the “I didn’t expect things to be like this” experience than many people today share in common when they come together and talk about their new experience of parenthood. The familiarity has made the transition calmer for me, not as stressed nor filled with shock and uncertainty. That has been a blessing, though all the past experience doesn’t mean I have answers. All experience means is that I know a parent never has the answers, and that confounding problems and unanswerable questions are just part of being a parent. And I know nobody else has all the secret answers. You never get it all figured out, and experience teaches the listening to accept this truth a little more comfortably.

But being a parent is different than being an older sibling, and my deep familiarity with the basic rudiments of child care can almost obscure that important truth. As an older brother I was called upon to change diapers, feed hungry bellies, and make sure little hands and feet didn’t come to harm. And those little siblings looked up to me and found me fascinating and a person to be emulated–as they found all their older siblings. As special as that relationship is, it is not the same as being a father.

As an older brother I wasn’t particularly attentive to my siblings. That was a shortcoming on my part. I didn’t go out of my way to avoid my younger siblings, but neither did I go out of my way to bring them into my activities. They were welcome to be around or tag along, but I was busy with my own things. I helped with feeding and diaper changing as needed, but it was duty I did without complaint–or much thought.

It is a danger to think I can be a father as I was an older brother–able to do what is needed with those diapers and feeding–and admired by the little person–but not so much present in my own thoughts and intentions. The damage from such casual preoccupation can be so much greater when it is a father.

As an older brother it was not my responsibility to chart a course of discipline and instruction. It was not my job to teach–and by that I mean shining light on the reality of life and truth more importantly than math and language arts. Being a father has opened that world. I need to be fathering, not brothering. “What are we doing?” as a question on the deep existential level of teaching a child about life was not my responsibility in all my previous interaction with little people. That was not my job because I was not a father. But now I am.

This is what is different. Dirty diapers I know, and spit up, and all the confounding things of non-answers about sleepless nights, bad digestion, and teething. But spending my life toward a child as a father–this is new. For a few short years, I will be the world to my little son. I will mean the world to him. In those littlest of years I will seem the embodiment of power, wisdom, intelligence, and perhaps goodness. I will be all that he wants to be. With time he will come to know how I come so far short of those things, but in the beginning there is profound opportunity to be the vessel of incalculable impact on a little soul. And I do not want to be inattentive to this sober reality, or to the small one whom I could so easily overlook in a busy life full of doing.

Yes, I hope to do and be with my son in the big special things; the going on adventures and playing grand games, the building and making projects, the sharing which is special in big ways. I look forward to that because there is so much I want to share. But equally important–perhaps even more important–I want to see him every day, and remember him in the small things, hear him in the small conversations, to truly remember him and be present in the small and easily forgotten moments of every day.

So I hope I grow into being a father, into being awake in the every day, and being loving in the deep ways that truly matter.