I Sit Beside the Fire and Think…

I sit beside the fire and think
Of all that I have seen
Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green

I sit beside the fire and think
Of people long ago
And people that will see a world
That I shall never know

But all the while I sit and think
Of times there were before
I listen for returning feet
And voices at the door
~J.R.R. Tolkien
“Bilbo’s Song”

The lengthening days make me greedy
for the transformation to come;
I’m watching the sky change by the hour,
brown winter fields
greening from warming rains,
buds forming, the ground yielding to new shoots.

Still I hunker down,
waiting for winter to give up and move on.
These quiet nights
by the fire restore me as I listen
for visitors at the door,
for those returning feet,
for the joy of our spending time together
rebuilding dreams and memories.

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Landing Home

I was feeling lonely so
I went outside to the wind
swept yard and beyond
that to the wind-tousled outer
yard and found where last
night in the moonlight we left
two sets of boot prints, when
you stopped on your way
through the darkness to bring a
lemon bar and a movie, and
beside ours the tracks of the
smallest thing with claws, which
must have followed sometime
later. And I chased its tiny prints
and our mud-wash indents to
the far back gate and through
the gate out to where the
land is still dirt and brush
and bushes and cow
pies, my hair pinned
to my head but still blowing,
blowing, and finally a hard
breath, and I could see
through lonely to the wide
open, long blue lines of sunset,
moonlit night, the airplanes trailing
one another
down to tarmac, all those
people landing home.

~Angela Janda “At Quarter to Five” from Small Rooms with Gods.

When I walk out on our farm’s hilly fields, I’ve recently noticed more jets passing overhead than I remember in past years. They aren’t as low as I would expect for take offs and landings from Vancouver (B.C.) International Airport an hour north of us or descending for an approach to SeaTac International 100 miles to the south. They are in mid-flight mode, at least 35,000-45,000 feet above us. So I found a website that shows real-time location of flights all over the world. I can literally stand on our hill looking at a flight overhead while checking my phone to see where it has come from and where it is going. In that way, I feel linked with those people so far above me in that plane, strangers though they be.

Most of these flights are bound for Japan or Korea, coming from the east coast or midwest United States. Apparently these flights are taking a longer circuit over the Pacific Ocean to avoid going too close to Russian air space. They have a long flight ahead as they pass the coastline here in northwest Washington and over Vancouver Island. My husband and I have made that trek over the Pacific to Japan a half dozen times. I can easily imagine myself seated in the economy section, trying to keep my legs from stiffening up over 10+ hours, distracting myself watching movies on the inflight channels.

Instead of having leg cramps, I am here with my dog and farm cat leaving a trail of footprints in a frosty winter field. Above me, a plane leaves a condensation trail which blurs, fades and disappears in the evening light. I stand on a hillside at home, someone living out my days in this spot; those flying above are in transit, each with an individual story of their own. Though we are miles apart, the passengers in the plane connect with me for a brief few minutes.

It makes sense for me to pray for these people I will never meet to fly safely to their destination.

We all find our way home eventually, leaving our transient and temporary trails behind us. Surely, that home will be breathtaking and beautiful – just exactly where we belong.

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Only the Lost Could Find It

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,

which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,

wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,

shatter me God into my thousand sounds.
~Christian Wiman “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind” from Every Riven Thing

May I,
though sagging and gray,
perilously leaning,
be porous enough
to allow life’s gusts to
blow through me
without pushing me over
in a heap.

The wind may
fill my every crack, crevice, and defect,
causing me to sing out.

Someday, when I do shatter,
toppling over into pieces into the ground,
it will be amidst
a mosaic of praises.

same abandoned school house near Rapalje, Montana – 2012 photo by Joel DeWaard
2012 photo by Joel DeWaard
2013 photo by Joel De Waard, a few days after the school collapsed
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Still Here, Giving Warmth Before Going Cold Again

When I was sick with a head cold, my head
full of pressure, my father would soak a washcloth
in hot water, then ball it up, ring it out. He would
open it above my head, then place it against
my face like a second skin, the light around me
disappearing entirely except through the spaces
between the stitching. I would inhale the steam
in that darkness, hearing his voice on the other side,
otherwise almost devoid of any other bodily sense
but the warmth and depth of his voice, as if
I had already died and was on the other side
of life waiting for the sickness to lift, but I wasn’t.
I was still on this earth, the washcloth going cold
on my face, my body still sick, and my father still
there when I opened my eyes, as he always was,
there to give me warmth before going cold again.

~William Fargason “Elegy with Steam”

A common clinic conversation this time of year:

I’ve been really miserable with a cold for three days, and as my COVID test is negative, I need that 5 day Z-pack antibiotic to get better faster.

It really can be miserable suffering from cold symptoms. Ninety eight percent of the time these symptoms are due to a viral infection and since your rapid RSV and influenza nasal swab tests are also negative today, your illness should resolve over the next few days without you needing a prescription medication.

But I can’t breathe and I can’t sleep.

You can use salt water rinses and a few days of decongestant nose spray to ease the congestion.

But my face feels like there is a blown up balloon inside.

Try applying a warm towel to your face – the heat will help improve circulation in your sinuses and ease your discomfort. When it cools off, warm it up again – basically rinse and repeat.

And I’m feverish and having sweats at night.

Your temp today is 99.2 so not a concern. You can use ibuprofen or acetominophen to help the feverish feeling.

But my snot is green.

That’s not unusual with viral upper respiratory infections and not necessarily an indicator of a bacterial infection.

And my teeth are starting to hurt and my ears are popping.

Let me know if that is not resolving over the next few days.

But I’m starting to cough.

Your lungs are clear today so it is likely from post nasal drainage irritating your upper airway. Best way to help that is to breathe steam to keep your bronchial tubes moist, push fluids and prop up with an extra pillow.

But sometimes I cough to the point of gagging. Isn’t whooping cough going around?

Your illness doesn’t fit the typical timeline for pertussis.  You can consider using an over the counter cough suppressant if needed.

But I always end up needing antibiotics. This is just like my regular sinus infection thing I get every year.

There’s plenty of evidence antibiotics can do more harm than good, eliminating healthy bacteria in your gut.  They really aren’t indicated at this point in your illness and could have nasty side effects.

But I always get better faster with antibiotics. Doctors always give me antibiotics.

Studies show that two weeks later there is no significant difference in symptoms between those treated with antibiotics and those who did self-care without them.

But I have a really hard week coming up and my whole family is sick and I won’t be able to rest.

This could be your body’s way of saying that you need to take the time you need to recover – is there someone who can help pick up the load your carry?

But I just waited an hour to see you.

I really am sorry about the wait; we’re seeing a lot of sick people with so much viral illness going around and needing to test to rule out COVID and influenza.

But I paid a $20 co-pay today for this visit.

We’re very appreciative of you paying so promptly on the day of service.

But I can go down the street to the urgent care clinic or do one of those telehealth doctor visits and for $210 they will write me an antibiotic prescription without making me feel guilty for asking.

I wouldn’t recommend taking unnecessary medication that can lead to bacterial resistance, side effects and allergic reactions. I truly believe you can be spared the expense, inconvenience and potential risk of taking something you don’t really need.

So that’s it?  Salt water rinses, warm towels on my face and just wait it out?  That’s all you can offer?

Let me know if your symptoms are unresolved or worsening over the next few days.

So you spent all that time in school just to tell people they don’t need medicine?

I believe I can help most people heal themselves with self-care at home. I try to educate my patients about when they do need medicine and then facilitate appropriate treatment. Also, I want to thank you for wearing your mask today to reduce the chance of transmitting your virus to those around you.

I’m going to go find a real doctor who will actually listen to me and give me what I need.

It certainly is a choice you can make. A real doctor vows to first do no harm while always listening to what you think, what your physical examination shows, then takes into account what evidence-based clinical data says is the best and safest course of action. I realize you want something other than what I’m offering you today. If you are feeling worse over the next few days or develop new symptoms, please let me know so we can reevaluate how best to treat you.

I’ll bet you’ll tell me next you want me to get one of those COVID vaccines too, won’t you?

Actually, I prefer you be feeling a bit better before you receive both the COVID and influenza vaccines. That would offer extra immunity protection for you through the next few months. Shall we schedule you for a time for your vaccination updates next week? Remember, I’m still here if you need to review your options again…

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We Couldn’t Do Anything


Yesterday our children, playing
in a tree, watched as the tiniest bird
fell from above them,
where it belonged,
to land below them,
where it did not.
The dog, animal and eager,
stepped on the bird, then
lowered his head. Our daughter
screamed, hauled him back,
then cupped her trembling hands
around the trembling bird,
Its one wing stretched and bent.
Our son ran inside, obedient
to our daughter’s instructions.
I was in the shower, useless.
You found a shoebox, sheltered the bird,
helped our children find leaves and twigs,
perched the box in the tree. At supper,
we prayed for the bird while its mother
visited the shoebox,
her beak full. She fretted
and fluttered. She couldn’t do anything,
and we couldn’t do anything,
and after supper, we found the trowel.
Dust to dust,
I said.
O how I longed to gather you,
you said, as a mother hen gathers
her young beneath her wings.
Our son pushed a stick into the soft earth.
Our daughter told him not to push too far.

~Shea Tuttle “After reading our daughter’s poem” from Image Journal

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~Emily Dickinson

I have known the helplessness of watching life ebb away from a living creature and not be able to do a thing to change what is happening.

As a teenage nurse aide in a rest home for the elderly, I saw much of dying over those years before going to medical school – some deaths were anticipated and some unexpected. What was most apparent to me in that setting is that my primary role was to be a caring witness and comforter. I could not change what was happening but I could be there, not leaving my patients to die alone. I hoped that I was useful in some way.

Later, when I worked as a physician in a hospital, there were certainly things we would do to respond to a sudden cardiac event, and it was very dramatic to see someone’s pulse restored and stabilized due to our intervention. But more often than not, what we could do wouldn’t change the reality – dying still happened and we were gathered to witness the end. We often left the bedside feeling useless.

Now I have grandchildren who are learning about death through observing the natural cycles of animals living and dying on our farm. They discover a dead bird or vole on the ground; they were aware one of our elderly horses recently died. They are aware our beloved farm dogs are aging and so are grandma and grandpa.

Children naturally ask “why?” and we do our best to explain there is always hope and comfort, even when physical bodies are dust in the ground, marked by a stick or stone or only a memory.

It is “Hope” that sings alive within us, even when we’re naked and featherless, even if we fall far from the nest we were born to. We are caught and safe under our Savior’s wings for the rest of eternity, never to be “just dust” again.

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Taking Time to Talk

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~Robert Frost “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost.

Conversations these days often take place asynchronously – text messages back and forth, voicemails, instant messages, emails – all composed and sent when most convenient so not necessarily as time-responsive as they could be.

Chatting over a fence, or on a front porch or even over the phone just doesn’t happen easily any more, especially during the pandemic years of avoiding face-to-face encounters.

Even more unusual is taking time during the work day to talk. Interruptions leading to setting aside the computer mouse or the stethoscope or the hoe can be challenging when there are only so many hours in the day.

I’m really terrible at conversation because I’ve always been shy and awkward at small talk. It’s all good when it is part of my work in an exam room, but to be honest, I don’t make time to go out to coffee with someone, or meet over a meal, or even enjoy a spontaneous visit while out for a walk or the grocery store. I’d rather be washing dishes at our weekly church potlucks.

And I’m missing out on an opportunity to love and be loved. Forgive me, friends, for my reticent nature.

The next time someone shouts at me “Howdy!” – I won’t just wave and keep on with whatever business I’m doing. I’ll stop, set aside my work tools and come over to chat. Putting two heads together in conversation is what our life and language is all about

Howdy back at you!

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Doomed to Rebirth

You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts that separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.

Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran
Or the trenched features of an agèd man.

Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

~Richard Wilbur “A Black Birch in Winter”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
~Robert Frost “Birches”

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

The poet understands as we (and trees) age, we are no longer smooth on the surface, developing cracks and furrows, a flaking and peeling skin surrounding a steadfast trunk. Yet we still grow, even if not as recognizable in our old skin – our innards are still working, in particular enhancing a “greater girth.” (!)

Our farm’s twin birch trees have had some rough winters, having been bent double in a previous ice storm. One has not survived the trauma – the other continues to struggle. There are times when these flexible trees can bear no more bending despite their strength and perseverance.

As I am no longer a swinger of birches (and in truth, never was), I hope instead for the “finished wisdom in shriveled skin” of the aging tree. I admire how the birches renew themselves each spring, not giving up hope despite everything they have been through. They keep reaching higher up to the sky, while a slender branch just might touch the hem of heaven oh so gently.

1. See the lovely birch in the meadow,
Curly leaves all dancing when the wind blows.
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows,
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows.

2. Oh, my little tree, I need branches,
For the silver flutes I need branches.
Loo-lee-loo, three branches,
Loo-lee-loo, three branches.

3. From another birch I will make now,
I will make a tingling balalaika.
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika,
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika.

4. When I play my new balalaika,
I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree,
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree.

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Just Keep Going

In winter the steep lane
is often icy
one in four, and today
it brings me
to my hands and
dodgy knees

absurd under trees
tall as the sky
a mile or two to go

I crawl for a while
then scrabble
to my feet but stay low,

young old man
I stop at a dry
stone wall then step

up
atop
a stile

owl call
far city
constellation

then down
to a field
that might be snow

nothing to do
but keep going
~Peter Sansom “In Winter the Steep Lane”

When faced with navigating an icy path ahead of me, I am rendered helpless. An icy path on a slope is even more intimidating.

Our farm is located on a hill, which is wonderful 50+ weeks out of the year, but in winter during arctic wind flow days, plus rain or sleet, it becomes a skating rink on an incline. Even the best traction devices won’t keep me on my feet.

I’m thankful my husband has much better balance than I do, but even the last ice storm was even too much for him. We don’t have much choice but to slide and crawl to our barnyard destination to complete our chores. It is exceedingly humbling to be brought to our knees, but that has always been the best position for sorely needed prayer and petition.

We pray to keep our aging bones intact.
We pray to keep our backs and noggins functional.
We pray for the thaw to come soon.

Despite an unsure landing for each footstep, there is nothing to do but keep going.
So we do.

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An Ordinary Night

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

~Billy Collins “I Ask You”

I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected
~Mary Oliver  from “Everything”

Some days, my search for new words and images runs dry, especially in mid-winter when a chill wind is blowing and inhospitable. I seek indoor comfort more than inspiration. I am content sitting in a warm kitchen with other’s words running through my ears and over my tongue.

I feel kinship with the amaryllis bulb that has been on my kitchen table for the past month, as it enjoys the warmth in its soil pot and occasional drink of water. It started out as such a plain-looking bulb, so dry, so underwhelming in every respect. Once the stem started emerging from its plain-jane cocoon, I watched it grow taller each day. Last week it burst open, wearing its heart on its sleeve, comically cheerful at this drab time of year. I appreciate its effort at bringing summer right into my kitchen and my heart; I get a bit drab and cranky myself without the reminder that winter is not forever.

So I allow myself to drink deeply from a cup of astonishment, even on an ordinary night in an ordinary kitchen on an ordinary very cold end-of-January evening.

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An Unexpected January Light

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household,
work-place, or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number
of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I stop, take a deep breath,
sense the earth’s roundness
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to a moment of manna
falling from the sky.

Sometimes it is as plain and gray
as I am, but at times,
a fire is lit from above and beneath,
igniting the sky, overwhelming me.

I am swept away by light and shadow,
transfixed and transformed,
forever grateful to be fed
by heavenly bread broken over my head.

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