Friday, June 12, 2009

June 12, 2009 - Beside the Lake

It’s nearing the end of a remarkable day, for me. After breakfast and a time of worship, our retreat leaders sent us off to find a place to spend two and a half hours in quiet discernment, seeking hints to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Four days’ work have led up to this point. I have been much occupied in reflecting on various things that have led me to feel spiritually and vocationally stuck. Many of them derive, directly or indirectly, from the way lymphoma has interrupted my life.

Reflecting back, now, on that time of discernment...

I make my way along the path to a large, lakeside picnic pavilion on the conference center grounds. The place, which is evidently where they hold cookouts as well as some wedding receptions, is deserted. Walking across the wooden deck to the railing by the water’s edge, I notice something at my feet. It’s a bird’s nest, with a yellow-and white smear on the planks beside it. Evidently, some prowling carnivore swept the nest down from a rafter overhead, then devoured the frail eggs that had been nestled in it.

Saddened by nature’s carnage, I pull a folding chair to the edge of the dance floor and sit there, looking across the lake.

Skirted by rolling mist, the dark water reflects the tall trees on the opposite shore. Occasionally, a fish breaks the opaque surface. The calling of circling birds reminds me this place is teeming with life.

Taking out my journal, I begin to write a poem that records the way this scene speaks to me, in a way I can only conclude is the leading of the Spirit:


“Look at the birds of the air...” – Matthew 6:26

Bird’s nest
cast on the wooden planks of a picnic pavilion:
Beside it,
a spattered mess of yolk and white:
life’s potential
spilled out
by some anonymous predator.
Life is hard,
far harder than we know
through pampered days;
cruel, too,
and unspeakably random.
So many fruits of careful, loving preparation
cast aside
with one sweep of the predator’s paw,
one feathered flurry of raptor-wings.
And what of the wattle-and-daub sanctuary
of my life, my career (if I may use that un-theological word)?
There is sadness:
immense sadness,
for all the cancer has swept away.
Sometimes I fear my vaunted call to ministry
has become but a smear of yolk and white
upon the deck.

Whose call is it, anyway,
I hasten to remind myself?

Out on the lake,
a man is rowing backwards,
facing towards the prow.
He wants to see where he is going.
Does he not trust the dread discipline
of rowing towards a destination he cannot see,
eyes fixed on the reference point?

Get up.
Get up and walk a spiral labyrinth
upon the dance floor:
a squared-off spiral,
defined by angular symmetry of faux-wood tiles.
on the way in,
Options, one by one,
falling away.
At the center,
a swift turn upon the heel:
scarcely room to breathe.
But then,
but then, the turning.
“To turn, turn will be our delight,
till by turning, turning we come out right.”

What of the ravaged nest?
What of it?
Shall my eye continually be drawn
to such a horror?
What of the bird-mother,
whose eye must have,
one time at least,
been drawn to that appalling sight?
There is birdsong in this place,
to be sure,
but no black-winged mourner,
perched disconsolately upon a rafter.

comes the Sweeper,
broom in hand.
His eye falls upon the downed nest
before he stoops down,
pausing scarcely a moment,
and picks it up in two fingers
before walking solemnly to the rail
and tossing it gently into the lake:
burial at sea.
A squeeze-bottle of pink disinfectant
completes the ritual,
soaking the boards:
chemical absolution.
A few passes of this Undertaker’s broom,
and all that remains
is a wet spot upon the planking.
like the mother bird,
has a way of moving on,
it would seem.
Archangel Janitor paces slowly away,
squeeze-bottle in one hand,
rag in the other.)

Tears wet my eyes
as I recall how many days I have wasted:
days the Lord has made,
intended for rejoicing.
How many pounds of walking burden
have I allowed to gather at my waist?
How many meaningless rectangles of paper –
8½ by 11, and other shapes and sizes –
have I allowed to join the dusty disarray
on my abandoned desktop?
Have I become a bystander to my own, neglected life,
in ways the mother bird
never allowed herself to be?

I sit, davening, upon my folding chair.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.”
I have fought the helmeted cancer-hordes to a draw.
(So far, they have not returned,
but for the occasional, ominous scout.)
“I, I alone am left” has been my cry.

The Lord, of course,
would not,
does not
let a true prophet get away
with such an easy answer.

My way back
is serenaded
with birdsong.


Jill said...

That poem is beautiful. I have no words ! Just thank you.

I'm humbled by your words and I feel I'm spoinling the mood with my comment, but the fact is I've just made a link to your blog from mine and need to give you the opportunity to have it removed if you have any objections. Your words and images are beautiful and I want to include your blog in my post. the address is
There isn't much traffic, but I'd really like to include you.
Please feel free to delete this message as I'm not trying to use it for marketing my own.
Many thanks for your blog.

Jill B.

Anonymous said...

Very beautiful Carl! It is funny how a vulnerable moment can be a source of great strength.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

We find out who we are in the tough times, not the times when all seems to be going well.

Thank you for sharing such a personal reflection. With hope, Wendy