When Night Comes

When Night Comes Liturty of Life Reading Group The Cloister Walk

I met Gerty during my second year of residency. She sat across from me in the exam room, her wig slightly off center. Words poured from her mouth.  From the bits of rambling speech I gathered that she was pregnant and here for her first prenatal exam. She was 44 years old, she said and this baby was her last chance.

Over time I learned that Gerty had five children all which were removed by CPS years ago, one was grown and lived in Austin, she had spoken to her on the phone a few months ago. Previous to this pregnancy she had been on and off some pretty hefty anti-psychotics which she balanced out with occasional street drugs. Now she was clean and she could prove it.

Gerty was alone in the world except for the women who shared her room at the shelter. But she had enrolled herself in  parenting and breastfeeding classes at the pregnancy support center and  by attending she earned points to buy baby supplies. She worked closely with her case worker, often bringing me papers  to sign as she tried to get into a program that would give her a space where she could raise her baby.

Gerty was always in a rush, and usually late after catching three different buses to arrive at the clinic.  Invariably she came with a story and the whole staff lit up when we saw her leaning on her elbow at the check-in window, rambling about her latest escapade.  She was a high risk pregnancy and she knew it so we saw her often.  I grew to love her with an affection that I rarely developed with my patients.

.    .    .

She was 38 weeks along, her C section was scheduled for one week from that day. She came in because she felt like something was wrong. I asked my nurse to set her up on the monitor (you know one of those miserable contraptions with giant elastic belts strapped across your stomach) while I finished up with my patient.

After a few minutes I walked into the room and startled to see the monitor beeping and flashing saying no heart beat was detected, Gerty’s wig was sitting even more crooked and her words spilled out faster than usual.  I was certain it was a problem with our machine, we had just seen her for a check up last week and she was doing fine.  So I removed the monitor and  started listening myself. I pressed my doppler probe into every corner of her swollen abdomen and tried to keep up some reassuring small talk.

Still no heartbeat. I was sure  the error was mine so I walked her to our ultra sound room where we could get a better look.  I left her in the hands of our radiology tech so I could check in with my waiting patients while they began her exam. The reality of what was coming hadn’t settled in.

After a few minutes they called me out of the room.

There was no heartbeat.

I was a young doctor, still early in my training. I had been through this with other patients, but never alone, and never with one that I held so dear. And I was pregnant, for the first time, due just a few weeks after Gerty. In her I saw my nightmares coming true.

Trembling I entered the room.

I told her she had lost the baby.

I watched her world collapse.

Then I held her, literally held her in one place as she as she flailed hysterically, begging me to say it wasn’t true.

She was still wailing when they strapped her to the stretcher and she went screaming down the hall to the ambulance.  There was no one to call.

I finished seeing my patients and rushed to the hospital. Gerty  had already undergone her C-Section by the time I arrived. I found her in the recovery room holding her baby boy, dressed in a little blue outfit. He was limp and cold but he was beautiful. She didn’t have a wig on and her soft curls made her look younger.  She held him, cried and kissed him. “I had so many nice things ready for you,” she said.

And I sat with her and I held him too.

She bore her loss with the grace of someone who has come to expect nothing of the world.  She loved her baby and told his story over and over. She had no visitors, but the hospital staff gladly took turns sitting at her bedside. Gerty said how grateful she was to know  we cared.

She stayed in the hospital 3 days. The hospital chaplain conducted a service.

  .     .     .

This week we are finishing up The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group.

In it she recounts a story of a monk who founded a hospice for AIDS patients. She quotes him talking of one of his patients,

“But I was in awe of how he functioned, how he never lost his sense of humor, his capacity to enjoy things. I couldn’t imagine myself functioning that way with what he had to bear. You can’t pity someone you’re in awe of.”

And when I read that I thought of Gerty and wanted to share her story with you.

Gerty gave me  courage to face my own pregnancy. The kind of courage that is found only in those who live through what for most of us exists only in nightmares.

I am still proud of Gerty. I am proud of how brave she had been for her baby, of how hard she had worked to be the mom she knew she could be, of how honestly she grieved,  of how confidently she held her little baby’s body.   I could never hope to do better.
She never came for her follow up. I imagine Gerty, alone once more, returned to her cycles of drugs and psychosis, to life on the streets.

Norris ends her book with a chapter called Night.

“The night will come with its great equalizers, sleep and death. It will pass over us, and bring us forth again to light. . .

She talks of how we face this reality, the despair of death and the hope of eternal life,

“between shedding our self-consciousness and taking on a new awareness, between the awesome fears that shrink us and the capacity for love that enlarges us beyond measure, between the need for vigilance in the face of danger, and the trust that allows us to sleep. Night comes . . and we turn our lives over to God.”


Thanks to those of you that have been part of The Liturgy of Life Reading Group. This week we finish The Cloister Walk and in another week we will start Edith Schaeffer’s, The Hidden Art of Homemaking. We would love to hear from you or have you join our group and read and ponder along with us. Thanks for being here.

Just a note, whenever I share stories of patients, details are always changed to protect their privacy.

Searching for the
Bob White Quail:
Why Contemporaries are
Not the Best Judge
of our Own Generation

Bobwhite Quail, Contemporaries are never the best judge of their own generation, Liturgy of life
Photo credit: Renewing the Commons

The Bob White Quail was  once a popular game bird in the southern US though now their populations are dwindling to near extinction. We would occasionally spot them on the ranch where we lived last year. I have a bit of an environmentalist streak in me and I started asking questions about where they were going.

Quail like all animals, hold a specific niche  in their ecosystem.  And while understanding the complexities of how one living thing relates to all other living things is  impossible to quantify, research pointed to habitat loss.

And while shopping centers going up where a forest once stood was part of the problem, the more significant habitat loss seemed to be in the form of changes to the forests themselves. Saplings and bushes which make up the new growth, referred to as the “understory,” where quail would normally nest was missing. And where there was growth  often native plants were absent, replaced by more vigorous and less palatable (that is if you are an animal that eats plants) invasive species.

Bobwhite Quail, Contemporaries are never the best judge of their own generation, Liturgy of life
Photo Credit: Tony Thomas Photography

This brings us to the White Tail Deer.  Our beloved Bambi it seems has been reproducing at astronomical rates in the last few decades and now is one of the most significant threats to the diversity of our ecosystems. As deer populations begin to exceed the  food supply, deer over graze, eating everything in sight including all the saplings and bushes where quail (and other birds) make their homes. They prefer native plants first, clearing these and then helping to spread foreign and invasive species.

Beyond the destruction of forests the overpopulation of deer is having other damaging effects.  There are  over 1 million car accidents due to deer every year leading to over 100 human deaths. And deer are eating over 200 million dollars a year in damage to agriculture.  Plus with their increased population density they  spread diseases  rapidly, leading to a  rise in tick borne diseases like Lyme.

Bobwhite Quail, Contemporaries are never the best judge of their own generation, Liturgy of life
Photo Credit: Predator Defense

This is brings us to the wolf. The foe of every fairy tale and the natural predator of the deer.  Historically the most widespread mammal in the world, wolves have now been eliminated from Western Europe and Mexico and had been near extinction in the US.   In the late 1800’s westward expansion  lead to a decline in wild game and livestock began filling up the American landscape. Livestock then became the natural food source for wolves and  wolves then became the obvious enemy to ranchers and land owners.  So they joined hand with  politicians and began a campaign to eliminate wolves from the US. They were shot, trapped and poisoned until there were almost none left. All in the name or protecting the public and taming the West.

By the 1960’s the conservation movement began. Researchers were noticing how ecosystems had changed and recognized  that to maintain biodiversity we needed wolves and large predators.

And so America launched a new campaign. This one cost millions of dollars to re-introduce wolves to our forests (yes the same wolves that a few decades before we had been set on annihilating).

Research in Yellowstone is encouraging, with the addition of the wolf,  deer herds size is controlled, and animals are healthier (wolves typically eat the sick or weaker animals helping the genetic make up of the herd) and bio diversity is increasing as grasslands and saplings begin to regenerate. It would seem that if deer are controlled, along with some other environmental practices we still have a chance of maintaining Bob White Quail and the many other birds whose populations of been on the decline.

This story came to mind a few weeks ago while reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk with The Liturgy of Life Reading Group. Of course there is a lot more to be said about quail and deer and wolves (and if you are an environmental scientist I apologize for over simplifying this so much), but what I want to share a thought from Norris,

“. . . contemporaries are never the best judges of what works and what doesn’t.”

Norris is describing monastics and the slowness to which they approach change. In many ways the monastic lifestyle feels antiquated to us, with their dark cassocks and and silent ways, they seem like a remnant of medieval times that  borders on irrelevant.

But what monastics understand is that even a small change today, the wording of a prayer or the requirements of dress, will live on, speaking to,  and forming the generations to come who will practice it.

We can’t help but live in the present and make decisions today about the world around us. But predicting how the future will be shaped by the choices we make involves a bit of wishful thinking.  When we set out to create a safer country by eliminating  wolves we had little understanding of the implications of what we were actually doing.

We can look back at our nation’s and our church’s choices, some  make us swell with pride while others leave us hanging our heads in shame, yet both, at some point, were touted as great ideas.

The American Church today may have something to learn from monastics. We who have been quick to shrik traditions for the sake of personal freedom, perhaps without fully understanding the role that the tradition played in protecting our faith.  We have inadvertently paved the way for a society that values individualism above all things, even at times to our own detriment.

Looking forward it seems will always keep us guessing, but perhaps by looking back, at the patterns and trends we have seen in our history, we may gain a healthier insight into the wisdom or folly of the decisions we make today.


This post is  part of a series of reflections on The Cloister Walk which we are reading as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading group. We would love to hear from you or have you read and ponder along with us.


What is Enough?
Thoughts on Stuff

What is Enough, Kathleen Norris, Pope Francis, Liturgy of Life


What is enough?

As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough.

(Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk)


This week I spoke with an old friend. She spent this past year living  for months at a time in West Africa. As she prepared to go, like most of us would, she packed her most essential essentials into a backpack as a carry on for her flight. She then carefully chose the remaining items she would  need during her long stay and packed them in her suitcase.

But her suitcase never arrived. It was sent to another location and she lived the proceeding months out of what she had packed in her backpack.

“I guess I didn’t need all that stuff after all,” is all she had to say.

 .  .  .

I’ve been skimming through Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical, On Care For Our Common Home (as a total side note this document is a strong contender for next year’s  Liturgy of Life reading list, so if you have thoughts about it in either direction let me know.  It is something that a year ago I would never have imagined myself even looking at and now I’m loving it).

He says,

“. . . the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.”

Any of us who have been in a Wal-mart basically ever, but especially over the holidays, can probably agree to that.

He warns,

“When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs.

I recently wrote about how our clothing industry is an example of this very thing and our food industry is right there as well, the exploitation of the lives of others is deeply ingrained into our consumerism culture.

Now the hard thing is that in between reading Norris and Francis, I am also updating my Amazon wishlist for my upcoming birthday (no I won’t put a link to it, though it is tempting), and I really think I need a new bathing suit, mine is just not holding up to the daily visits to the pool with Zenie, and I need a new bread knife, I bake all of the time and I have never had even a half decent one, and along with those there are about 20 other great books and other useful and/or beautiful things. And in my gut I’ll tell you really, I really do need this stuff, (I mean if I don’t have an electric grain grinder how am I going to make homemade flour for our family?)

But if I’m not willing to simplify then who is?

If we as the church don’t learn to live within limits then who will?

We can’t learn what enough is by looking around, all we see are new housing developments and car showrooms and a  barrage of marketing which is constantly at work convincing us that taking a step to minimize is radical even un-American.

Pope Francis chimes in,

“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. . . No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.

Maybe we have to look again at The Rule of St. Benedict  (he at least as a good track record with thousands of people still using his rule 1,500 years after he wrote it) to create a set of standards, a rule of life that will let us live in moderation. Or maybe we have to go, like Norris did to the tree less plains of South Dakota or like my friend did to the remote lands of West Africa to learn that contentment comes from God and experiencing Him in the world, not through accumulating stuff. I hope for me it will be moving to South Texas,  the land of unending summer and year long mosquitoes. And maybe I could just wear an old cut off pair of jeggings to the pool and get a decent second hand bread knife at the Good Will.

I know I don’t have  all the answers, but I do know that I would rather my generation be known for rejecting a culture defined by insatiable consumerism than for embracing it. And I know it starts with me.

This post is part of a series of reflections on The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris which we are reading as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group. We would love to hear from you or have you join in and read and ponder along with us. Thanks for being here.

Laundry Lessons:
More Than Just
Getting Stains Out

Reflections on Laundry and God's presence, The Cloister Walk and Liturgy of Life

Laundry seems to have an almost religious importance for many women. We groan about the drudgery but seldom talk about the secret pleasure we feel at being able to make dirty things clean, especially the clothes of our loved ones, which possess an intimacy all their own.

(Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk)

We spent most of last year living on a 7,000 acre ranch out in the Hill Country of Central Texas.  The scenery was spectacular which was good because the small dimly lit cabin we lived in required that we spend a lot of time outdoors. I had a washing machine on a back porch (situated right outside of a giant walk-in refrigerator about the size of my daughter’s  current bed room,  put there for hunters to store the deer that they had killed).  My only option for a dryer was a line strung up behind the house.

My relationship with that line, like any good relationship, was full of challenge and delight.  On a warm breezy day I adored it. I loved toting my basket, heavy with wet clothes, to the yard and carefully pinning up each piece. The line was just long enough to fit three days worth of laundry and I had just enough clothes pins, so I had to carefully decide what to hang where to make sure it all fit. Plus I had to think about where the sun was the brightest and consider what had stains and needed to be bleached in the sun and what wouldn’t dry if it spent too much of the day in the shade.

As summer drew on laundry began to feel a bit more like work. I was sweating before I even got started and the fire ants seemed to find my ankles no matter where I stepped. Sometimes I would drop a newly washed white towel into the dust and lift it up covered with burrs and wish for an air conditioned mud-room where this sort of frustration was unheard of.

But overall doing laundry that year taught me a lot.

I learned that I needed to pay attention to the world around me.  Unlike most of the modern world where technology now allows me to control my own climate,  I quickly realized that a sudden afternoon thunderstorm (which granted unlike this year, were quite rare last summer) could ruin all my work.

I learned that the world does not revolve around me. Some days are sunny and some are rainy and I had to adjust my plans according to the world  around me.  And while it was frustrating to have my plans delayed it was also a longed for relief to be reminded that I was very small and that the realm of my control is much tinier that I often imagine it to be.

I learned to slow down. I realized that laundry has to be done and my time spent doing it was just as important as anything else. So  rather than let my mind  race ahead to all I had left to do I began to practice being quiet, not only not talking but letting my mind rest in the present moment, relishing in the smells of cedar trees and warmth of sunlight as I worked.

That summer I hung my laundry in the speckled light that came through the cedars and oaks,the birds would chirp and sing around my head and by afternoon my clothes smelled like pure sunshine. As I took down each stiff piece and stacked them neatly to keep them from spilling onto the dry grass I began to realize that God was  right there with me and it dawned on me that He probably always is even when I don’t notice, that something as simple as laundry can be gift to know Him more.


For another laundry inspired post click here

This post is part of a series of reflections on The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris which we are reading as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group. We would love to hear from you or have you join in and read and ponder along with us. Thanks for being here.