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Saloons and Seeing Clearly

I stumbled into Dornan’s Saloon at the end of a long and amazing day.  Early that morning a pronghorn antelope had rushed across the high prairie as my car drove along the aptly named Antelope Flats Road, as if running to greet me, then tip-toeing across the road after I passed.  I then saw the Teton range reflected in the still waters of Jackson Lake, walked in snow in the Yellowstone Park, watched a lone buffalo graze in the Yellowstone basin unconcerned about either the eruption of Old Faithful or the large herd of humans who had come to watch.  Now I envisioned the perfect closure to the day: a beer and pizza while quietly watching the sun set over the mountains through the generous west-facing windows of that venerable saloon.

That didn’t happen.

Monday nights are “hootenanny” nights at Dornan’s.  Open mic for any and all locals.  Food available by lining up at a window to place an order and the bar is open.  The place was packed.  Lacking any alternative plan, we took the last three available chairs just off the right side of the tiny stage and re-considered our options.

While we made alternative plans, an old man took the mic first.  He had performed every Monday for the past twenty years or so, always first.  He had been introduced as a local legend in the ski world, performing some incredible backcountry feat, the details of which were lost on me, and becoming a founding father of extreme skiing.

He didn’t look like an extreme skier or talk like a singer.  His voice was raspy with age and hard use, but the room immediately silenced.  He pointed to the mountains and identified the Grand Teton.  Then he outlined a snowfield halfway down and told us it had snow all summer, more than last year, and although he had heard there was global warming, that snow field told him the year had been cooler than the year before.

With no further introduction, he started playing an autoharp beautifully, a tune vaguely familiar.  Then he started singing the lyrics with little improvement over the tonal quality of his talking voice.  But the words and melody were clear and sung with unwavering courage, a song from the 70’s made famous by Jimmy Cliff and Johnny Nash.

I can see clearly now; the rain is gone.

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the clouds that got me down.

Gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.

Then something magic happened.  My ears heard his raspy voice, but my mind played the sweet melody, the mountains and snowfields came into focus, and the cold blue of the sky and fading orange of the few clouds became something felt more than seen.  He continued:

Oh yes, I can make it now–the rain is gone.

All of the bad feelings have disappeared.

Here is the rainbow I’ve been waiting for.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.

He finished the song, and we slipped out the side door with me still seeking a better setting for alcohol and food consumption.  Yet, I felt like I’d been given a gift of some sort with that song.

I thought about the times I couldn’t see clearly.  When I went to medical school, there were no CT scanners.  We had no way to X-ray the brain.  Our imaging studies were angiograms that x-rayed the arteries of the brain, or pneumoencephalograms that x-rayed the fluid containing spaces of the brain.  We would have to deduce from the displacements of these structures whether or not a mass was present.  Often we would resort to exploratory burr holes or biopsies.

We could not see clearly.

We had a CT scanner at Yale by the time I was a first-year neurosurgery resident.  For the first time, we could get direct x-ray images of the brain.  By today’s standards the resolution was poor and the length of time to do a CT scan made the procedure very restrictive–fifteen minutes for a single cross-section, one hour for a “complete” scan consisting of four sections.  (Today’s scan’s have near anatomic resolution and a twenty section brain study can be done in two minutes.)

We could see clearly now.  But we could not see the obstacles in our way.

About six years after I finished medical school, during my last year as a neurosurgery resident, I talked to a neurosurgeon in Kansas City who had been a resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester when the one of the first CT scanners was installed in the U.S.  He described a post op patient who had deteriorated after a brain tumor removal.  The staff did an angiogram which showed nothing amiss.  So then they decided they might as well do one of these new-fangled CT scans just for the experience.

The CT scan showed a big white spot in the surgical bed, something we all know now represents a big blood clot.  But then the Mayo staff, certain of their familiar angiogram and experience, didn’t believe it.  The first thing they did was to contact the manufacturer’s representative to tell them the CT machine must be broken.  Then, when he assured them the machine was just fine, they grumbled and took the patient back to the OR to remove the clot they were so sure was not there.

They could see clearly now, but they did not.  Obstacles remained: in this case, understandable ignorance.

So I wondered if the singer in Dornan’s Saloon was just singing his favorite folksy kind of hit from the 70’s.  Or did he have a special message about the things he could see clearly now, but had not in the past?  Or maybe a prophecy for me?

Was this about global warming?  We had come from the warmest September on record in Florida to a place where the mountain spoke to those who listened to tell them the year had been cooler.  Is that what he saw more clearly?

Or was just my reaction to a very special day?  After being surrounded for several days in the strange and wonderful natural beauty of the Grand Teton range and Jackson Hole valley, the traffic jams, urban noise, and city lights that dim all but a few of the stars faded away as I re-discovered that we live in a place more majestic than cities and suburbs and airports.  Sometimes I need to touch the wilderness to remember.  To see clearly.

Or was it all about the rainbow?

We had come to Jackson Hole to celebrate the wedding of two young men, one of whom we have known since his birth.  We love his parents and we love him, so he is more like a nephew to us than simply the son of our friends.  And now he is getting married.  How could we not celebrate the greatest joy of his life with him?  How could we not encourage two people to do the hardest thing in the world: to love each other to the best of their ability for the rest of their lives?  So I showed up in spite of the qualms I have when I see two guys kiss.  I smiled, celebrated, listened, and watched.

I watched two men who love Jesus and love each other.  I watched two families–big families–who love Jesus and love their sons for how they have been created and who they have become.

I returned home the next morning without qualms.  Maybe I can see more clearly now.  I can see that the North American continent is warming now, but there has been a cool summer on the Grand Teton.  I can see new gas stations and tawdry apartment houses in my city, but the sun still rises over the Atlantic and sets over the St. John’s River with spectacular displays of color.  The rain has gone and here is the rainbow I’ve been waiting for.

And I can see that there are wise and ancient guidelines that are God-ordained so that His people can live with justice and joy.  But, I can also see that God creates His children just as they are, and loves them profoundly.

Paul starts a paragraph in I Corinthians 13:8 with the sentence, Love never fails.  He goes on the list the things that pass: prophecy, tongues, knowledge.  These are the things he confesses to being unable to see clearly now.  He finishes the paragraph with verse 12: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

In other words, when in doubt, trust love.  What prophecy you may have heard, what words you may have spoken, what you think you know, are but a shadow of a deeper truth that is about love, a love that never fails.

I, like Paul, look forward to the day I can see clearly, when the rain is gone, all obstacles are clear, the clouds no longer get me down, and I find the rainbow I’ve been waiting for.  It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.

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6 thoughts on “Saloons and Seeing Clearly”

  1. I have never been to Dornan’s Saloon… Never been to the Grand Tetons either. Maybe need to put on my bucket list?? Your journaling this event in your life certainly brings out the Godly Gifts you have so beautifully been given – and still use for His Glory!!! Yes, “To God be the glory!”

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