For Grace in the Season to Be Grumbly

photo by Josh Scholten

written in 2003 on the solstice night

We are in our darkest of dark days today in our corner of the world–about 16 hours of darkness underwhelming our senses, restricting, confining and defining us in our little circles of artificial light that we depend on so mightily. Yesterday, we had a sudden power outage at home around 5 PM, and our bright, noisy, Christmas-tree-lit carol-playing house was suddenly plunged into pitch blackness and silence. Each family member groped around blindly, looking for elusive candles and flashlights in the dark, each running our toes and knees into things, and then found that each of us had to share a little circle of light to navigate. Dinner, which was almost ready in the oven, was eaten gratefully by candlelight, and became a sacrament of sorts as we huddled around our advent candles, now burning out of necessity, not just in a ceremony of anticipation.

The light this morning is just now finally coming up in the southeastern sky, blending the gray of the ubiquitous clouds with the mist over the fields and barns here on the farm and over the mountain peaks and waters of the bay in the distance. Even the golden Haflingers are gray in this light. It all melts together with the deep green of the forests and fields–a blended water-saturated palette struck by rays of piercing rosy light here and there, creating alpenglow on the distant mountain snow, and sporadic pools of brightness in our barnyard.

It is so tempting to be consumed and lost in these dark days, stumbling from one obligation to the next, one foot in front of the other, bumping and bruising ourselves and each other in our blindness. Lines are long at the stores, impatience runs high, people coughing and shivering with the spreading flu virus, others stricken by loneliness and desperation. So much grumbling in the dark.

I had a conversation with a remarkable young college student recovering at the hospital this week reminding me about the self-absorbance of grumbling. A week ago she was snowshoeing with two companions in the bright sun above the clouds at the foot of nearby Mt. Baker. A sudden avalanche buried all three–she remembers the roar and then the deathly quiet of being covered up, and the deep darkness that surrounded her. She was buried hunched over, with the weight of the snow above her too much to break through. She had a pocket of air beneath her and in this crouching kneeling position, she could only pray–not move, not shout, not anything else. Only God was with her in that small dark place. She believes that 45 minutes later, rescuers dug her out to safety from beneath that three feet of snow. In actuality, it was 24 hours later but she had been wrapped in the cocoon of her prayers, and miraculously, kept safe and warm enough to survive. Her hands and legs, blackish purple when she was pulled out of the snow, turned pink with the rewarming process at the hospital, and a day later, when I visited her, she glowed with a light that came only from within–it kept her alive.

One of her friends died in that avalanche, never having a chance of survival because of how she was trapped and covered with the suffocating snow. The other friend struggled for the full 24 hours to free himself, bravely fighting the dark and the cold to reach the light, courageously finding help to try to rescue his friends.

At times we must fight with the dark–wrestle it and rale against it, being bruised and beaten up in the process, but so necessary to save ourselves and others from being consumed. At other times we must kneel in the darkness and wait– praying, hoping, knowing the light is to come, one way or the other. Grateful, grace-filled, not grumbling.

May the Light find you this week in your moments of darkness. Merry merry Christmas.

For an Old Grey Wool Sock

In my work at a university health center, at least 1/3 of my patients have some sort of upper respiratory infection, often with a significant sore throat.  It is crucial that my medical team members sort through the possibilities of Group A strep throat, mononucleosis, early tonsillar abscess or the rare case of potentially fatal Lemierre’s Syndrome.   Although most of the sore throats are viral infections that will resolve simply with time and rest, the discomfort caused by a sore throat, no matter the cause, is miserable. The students often could benefit from something more than the routine salt water or lidocaine gargle, pain pills and numbing lozenges, and certainly don’t need unnecessary antibiotics.

I think it might be time to bring back an old remedy that worked for me some fifty years ago as a kid with frequent sore throats.  My mother wrapped my neck in one of my father’s old gray wool socks with the red toes and tops, usually one that had been darned one time too many, and just couldn’t hold up in a work boot any longer.  She would rub pungent camphor/menthol Balm Ben Gay on my neck and chest before the sock was wrapped around and anchored toe to rim with a big safety pin.  I was always a little concerned about an inadvertent stab to the jugular while she was snugging it up to be pinned, but she never did draw blood.

The heat from the balm and the comforting wrap of wool calmed the child and the misery.  There was just something about my mother’s ministrations and my father’s large sock around my neck that made me feel completely and utterly cared about.  Maybe there was a therapeutic value beyond that, but I suspect that my immune system simply responded positively to love made tangible.

So I may stock up on gray wool socks, safety pins, and BenGay in the clinic along with the usual bags of tea, instant chicken soup broth and peppermint drops.  If the students don’t go for it (it’s not exactly fashionable to be reeking of camphor and wearing a grey wool collar) then we’ll just start making sock monkeys.  They are therapeutic too.  You can’t look at one without smiling.   You can’t hold one without feeling better.  You can’t sleep with one without having sweet dreams.  They just might cure a viral sore throat all on their own.

Maybe the new medicine is really the old medicine.  I think we have forgotten how well it works.