The Fairness Doctrine

It’s been a hellacious month (a hellacious year, actually — more on that in a minute), with big changes at work (two new employees to train), a major home construction/repair project going on, and a near-fatal case of the avian flu (well, it felt like bird flu… ) from which I am just now barely rebounding.

The past year or so has been phenomenally difficult in many ways — with an aging mother-in-law who has had two falls with resulting long-term disability and a rocky recovery (but who is now doing well); a major family brawl arising out of her care decisions; a contentious dispute at work over a 401(k) discrepancy; two car accidents (my wife and I, no injuries, just the expense and hassle of dealing with body shops and car insurance); a medical lawsuit filed against me; a daughter who’s 8-month marriage ended in divorce despite her heroic efforts to salvage it; the death of the family dog; the loss of two long-term employees (in a three-employee practice) which has — temporarily, I hope — nearly doubled my workload as I train their replacements. And this is the short list.

Oh, and one more thing: our house is falling down. Seriously.
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Delivering the Cookies

It is, after a fashion, a legend of the fall.

Not mine, mind you — although one could say my fall was in some ways greater.

My wife’s mother was, though elderly, quite strong and independent — alert, cantankerous, losing a little memory here and there, in nearly constant pain from vertebrae once tall and straight but now arched and foreshortened. It seemed simple enough: bend down to retrieve the dropped utensil, a task done mindlessly a million times before. But this time, different: muscles weakened by nearly nine decades, joints worn thin and crepitant by a century’s steps, she could not maintain balance and fell backwards to the floor.

The call came shortly thereafter, and was not the first: a prior fall six months before had broken no bones but nearly broken her spirit — months of slow recovery, fighting pain and hopelessness, had by some small miracle been conquered, with much relief among us but a lingering fear of an even-worse encore. The curtain call came, to no applause and much apprehension.

The hospital stay was long, and replete with the consequences of falls in the elderly: rapid loss of strength from recumbency; mental confusion from requisite opiates; quiescent health problems charging to the fore to complicate a recovery trivial for the young but disastrous and often deadly in the eighth decade of life. When she was finally discharged to the nursing home, she was hardly recognizable as the same individual who had fallen little more than one week before.

She had sustained no fractures, but there were fractures aplenty developing. The enfeeblement of an elderly parent quickly finds the fault lines in a family, as the stresses of disrupted schedules, new financial strains, and disputes about responsibilities and recovery find old tapes playing and new resentments kindling. The lid blew off at mom’s birthday dinner, when a planned family meeting found my wife and her siblings squaring off, two on two, with one storming out and all looking for lightning rods to discharge their pent-up passions.

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The Breaking of Waves


There are times when the feebleness of prose fails; when clarity of language and reasoned arguments cannot do justice to the cries of the heart. In the depths of our souls there are emotions, experiences, pain, joy which defy the pathetic limitations of mere words; whose depths and complexities, whose heights and depths, defeat the poor tools of the spoken or written word. It is at such times, perhaps, that the poets take over; where language becomes a tool of another part of the soul, of the spirit. It is a time when the sound and the image of language — for language is the only tool our soul possesses to reach outward — comes to the fore, where images and emotions trump simple structure, where sentences fail but evocative words must bear the unspeakable pain or unsurpassable joy which the soul knows, but the mind cannot grasp.

It was at such a moment that I wrote a poem — where images formed and fleeting could not be expressed by any other means, where deep pain and lifelong experience, where emptiness and hope, joy and agony, swirled together in a violent whirlpool seeking voice which could be found no other way. Such was the purpose, I now understand, for ancient icons painted in gold and the faded red of blood spilled and eyes swollen by tears, of hope and heartache hand in hand, which line the ancient walls of Eastern churches and the fading art of ages past.

Someone very dear to me — my own flesh and blood — is going through a very dark valley. No words can express the joy and satisfaction which a child brings into your life. It is a deep thing of the heart — inexpressible through words, better expressed through the countless deeds of shepherding them through their early years; investing your life, often inadequately, often distracted by false priorities and our foul selfishness so profoundly shortsighted. There comes a time, after years of joy and agony, frustration and fear, when you finally set them free — like some young child learning to ride a bike, watching them swerve and struggle for balance, wandering left and right, falling and getting up again, fearing for their safety and flinching at their pain, knowing and praying that the balance will be found and their road thereby made straight.

Yet once on their road, a large part of your soul rides with them. Lost is the ability to easily check and correct their wrong turns — to even know if every turn which seems wrong may instead be a new road toward greater purpose and joy, or a downward path to pain and destruction. To lose such control over something so dear — a control we truly never have had, but which in our delusions of parental power we had believed — can be an unbearable agony, for it shows us the fragility of life and how foolish are our pretensions of manipulating our own journeys, much less those of another.

The veneer of life may be smooth or turbulent, rolling or roiled, and our eye sees only its very surface, placid or violent. Yet forces far vaster drive its movement, tides and tempests, currents and continents. The very violence of a hard wave breaking upon jagged rocks, transforming its placid swells into a fine and fleeting misting foam which arcs high and falls again to the sea, is but a the final act of a unimaginably complex play, whose actors and plots are unseen and unknown. Yet the culmination of these forces transform while they transfix: the wave is shaped by the rocks as the rocks are sculpted by the wave.

It is a small thing to speak of grace, of prayer, of transcendent power transformational, of wisdom and foolishness, in the words smooth and rhythmic belying the power of the forces thus described. It is in the violence of the wave crashing on the rocks that such deep forces rise to the surface, testing the mettle of the soul, bringing forth fear and apprehension from the depths of our being which belie and challenge the trust in something greater and higher than ourselves. We may at such times turn in many directions, as the surf and mist may fall slowly back to sea or lie stagnant in pools of desiccated brine. Such times demand wisdom which we do not possess; such times demand strength which we utterly lack; such times demand peace when only fear and confusion seem possible.

Such times are, for this poor fool, seasons of much prayer — as if every moment of our life should not be — but a merciful God still listens and touches the heart though his treasured child has wandered afar. It is at such times that one sees how frail is faith, how cheap are words, how empty are our souls though our lives be filled with hollow riches unimaginable.

If you are among those who pray, and are given a few moments’ grace to do so, your prayers will be cherished and valued beyond measure by myself and my family. I cannot say at this time how the events of the next few days will play out — as if we ever know such a thing — but I have come, through many years of foolishness and failure, to a point where trust trumps knowledge, for He whom I trust has never let me down — though my eyes have often seen Him but dimly.

When Waters Break


When waters break, their power spent in fine mist on the breeze,
to thus retreat, and gather up and hurl again
against those jagged boulders yet unfazed;

What purpose, they, whose molten age in fiercest shapes did freeze,
their faces polished now by salt and sand,
igniting foaming fury upward raised?

And why the rolling wave from distant endless seas,
a trifling ripple swells in vast expanse,
to end its path in agony and praise?

And thus thrust skyward power breaks to knees,
in roar of prayer with lifted pleading hands,
now gently laid to rest on rugged place.

When waters break, He draws the fine mist high from troubled seas,
in glory does the breaking fury stand,
to shape the hardened heart which wounded lays.

The Path – II:

The Path - Part 2: Exodus

A journal of one fool’s journey, and the faith which found him.
It happened by accident.


Just off the lot, spanking new, a canary yellow convertible Beetle with black convertible top: her first car. She never saw the woman as she backed out of the parking stall. Fender-bender, to be sure–but deeply distressing, as only the first wound on new wheels can be. “Why?!” her muttered prayer, angry yet submissive by will, seeking to understand what could have no meaning beyond divine capriciousness. Her unintended target, an older women, gracious and composed, proved more merciful than mad–and by twists quite serpentine, two women met by accident that day, mangled fenders forging new friendship.

The older woman’s daughter–a remarkable young lady who lost her sight in early adulthood–soon became Cynthia’s close friend as well. And before long she was introduced by this new friendship to another woman–who was a medical student.

Linda the future physician, was funny, smart, sassy, and tough as nails. One of only ten women in a medical school class of 200, she could throw a punch as well as take one–a highly useful skill in the days before robust friendships between men and women were castrated by PC speech codes and university thought police. She excelled in the dark, sarcastic humor of the urban Northeast–a skill I too had learned in home and high school, a drop-forged survival shield guarding wounded spirit with sarcastic put-down humor.

The blind date with a mutual friend–Linda and Bill, Cynthia and I–was a disaster, although I failed to recognize it at the time. Sharp, sarcastic barbs soared through the room like barroom darts: Linda, Bill and I trading mutual put-downs passing for party talk. I barely spoke with Cynthia, my social dis-ease uncomfortable with anything approaching normal verbal intercourse.

But she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met: long auburn hair cascading down her slender back; rich russet eyes behind tortoise-shell rims, penetrating the soul; a quiet, demur presence and graciousness I had never before encountered. Had I known, that night, her reaction to our first encounter, I would never have phoned her: she drove away, politely waving, while thanking what gods there were that she would never have to see that jerk again. A lady-killer I may have been–but surely not in any sense which one might hope.

She does not know to this day why she accepted my invitation, one week later–nor do I comprehend my willingness to face the certain rejection engendered by such a cold call: an act normally associated with abject terror. Our reunion proved vastly different from that horrid night of two weeks prior; she tells me now she knew, after that first date, that we would be married.

Less than a year later, her foresight became fact–two strangers, wounded warriors, boarded a train together on a journey to an uncertain destination. By odds, it might not have worked; by grace, it was destined to.

Hers was a decidedly patriarchal family, where religion was a topical no-man’s-land: Father Episcopal, Mom a Catholic, raising the kids by the rules of Rome–but the brokered deal permitted no broaching of this potentially contentious subject. Religion was something you just did, a family routine without much substance–for her, at least. By college she was “liberated” from its clutches–much as I had been. But for a nettlesome brother, who “got religion” and hammered her with it, she might well have stayed that way. The anvil of God shattered the hammer of hardened self-will, and she finally broke, acknowledging her submission, almost in spite. Then, unexpectedly, her life began to change.

When she first broached the subject of faith with me, a month or so before we were married, I was–true to form–utterly clueless. She asked if I believed in Christ, and I replied that I always had–and promptly poured myself a Scotch, self-satisfied that I had put that awkward topic to bed with style and panache. But at some level something stirred: what did I believe, if anything, about God, and Christ, faith and spirituality? The terror of impending marriage quickly drove such thoughts from mind–but not from the heart, where they would resurface in unexpected ways in the quieter days after our union.

The routines of our early marriage proved propitious: I on short vacation before resuming medical school, she working full time and some evenings, left me with time alone–time to read. I started to engage the New Testament, which was for me very much an open book: I had no preconceived notions of what I might find there, yet an ill-recognized anticipation that answers deeply sought might be discovered therein. It was, I knew, the core text of Christianity–but a core never confronted, something of a secret book glimpsed but dimly through the ritualized litanies of liturgical worship. Expecting in no small part the arid aimlessness of countless homilies haplessly delivered, I was stunned to find something quite disquieting: a stirring of spirit, the soft whisper of words breathing life, a narrow shaft of brilliance from a door barely ajar, cutting the dense darkness like a scalpel slicing deftly to the depth of the soul.

Days passed; I could not desist. The Book drew me in like some enchanting wizard, widening my vision and deepening my distress as I sought some resolution, some culmination lying just beyond my reach. The path broadened and narrowed, its destination uncharted, its wooded boundaries obscuring my view yet drawing me forward in some impassioned journey to a land unknown.

The clearing came suddenly, almost shockingly: a tree, and upon that tree, a man. A man I had known, but dimly, yet long forgotten. A man who knew me–gazing to the very depths of my rawest wounds and raging shame–yet a knowledge not terrifying, as such knowledge might be, but liberating, unshackling, almost whimsical with joy first discovered. It was a new day, a new light–a new life. How little I understood of the tortuous path thus traveled–or of the perilous and unpredictable turns in the journey ahead.

But I had found purpose and direction; little else mattered. I had but to trust–but trust was a stranger to a heart bound by fear. It would take many mistakes and countless wrong turns to unbind its cruel cords.