Outdoor Easter Sunrise Service on our farm

Easter Sunrise Service at BriarCroft
(formerly Walnut Hill Farm)

sunrise view from our hill

Sunday, April 12, 2009, 7:00 AM Easter Sunrise Service on the hill above our farm

When we purchased Walnut Hill Farm from the Morton Lawrence family in 1990, part of the tradition of this farm was a hilltop non-denominational Easter sunrise service held here for the previous 10+ years.  We have continued that tradition, with an open invitation to families from our surrounding rural neighborhood and communities, as well as our church family from Wiser Lake Chapel, to start Easter morning on our hill with a worship service of celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

At our annual Easter Sunrise Service in Whatcom County, we develop a different Easter theme each year through use of scripture readings and songs, led by Dan Gibson. We sit on hay bales on the hill for the worship service, followed by breakfast of cinnamon rolls, hot chocolate and coffee in our barn.  As many of the people who attend come from some distance from all over the county, we try to conclude by 8 AM so they may have time to get to morning church services.

We invite all to come to our farm to participate in this traditional service of celebration.  Please dress warmly with sturdy shoes as you will be walking through wet grass to reach the hilltop.  Bring heavy blankets or sleeping bags to wrap up in if it is a chilly morning.  In case of rain, we meet in the big red hay barn on the farm, so we never cancel this service.

If you would like more information and directions, please email us at briarcroft@clearwire.net.

Dan and Emily Gibson– Nate, Ben and Lea

Teenage Drama




Most parents and teachers, and the high schoolers themselves
Would say their drama doesn’t need rehearsals or a stage
And certainly not an audience,
But every day it still flourishes.

In schools urban or rural,
From gyms to cafeterias,
Theaters to auditoriums,
In venues large and small.

Scripts reviewed and chosen, directors hired
Auditions overflow with sweaty hands, racing hearts
Shaky voices and missed dance steps,
False tears and a few real ones.

What role goes best with which actor?
Who has the work ethic, fewest tardies?
Will the onstage lovers get over
Their disagreements offstage?

The cast parts posted;
Tears flow again in joy and despair
Some cut altogether; others grateful to simply stand on stage.
The leads panic as they read the entire script.

Rehearsals begin and the pruning starts:
Do this, don’t do that, stand here, move there.
Listen! Quiet! Louder! Pay attention! Turn this way!
No coach ever controlled their players so completely.

Weeks go by as awkward adolescents transform
Into gentlemen and ladies, royalty and ruffians,
Peasants and prostitutes, priests and policemen,
Becoming something completely other.

Backstage dressing room plywood walls conceal metamorphosis
From teenager to dowager or glamour queen,
Guys and girls stand side by side at wall length mirrors
Comparing foundation, rouge and mascara.

Stage crew all in black, phantoms moving silently
Amidst the sets and props, creating scenes in shadow.
Tech crew expertly work the sound and light boards
Teaching adults how things work.

Prior to each show opening,
The cast and crew circles, holding hands to
Pray together, singing “Blest Be The Tie”~
Binding together before the stage drama begins.

The curtain rises, the audience responds, the actors connect,
Emerging backstage smiling, energized
By each round of applause, the laughter and hoots,
Confidently bluffing through occasional muffed lines and missed cues.

A story unfolds,  neatly contained in two hours,
The curtain falls, the ovations begin, then
Noisy lobby reception of bouquets and hugs,
Finally the make up and costumes come off.

Back to the world, they amble out into the night
In sweats and flip flops, with hint of residual eyeliner,
Homework still waiting, real life resumes its forward motion
But not nearly as dramatic as before.

Students discovering the curious advantage of living inside
A character of scripted lines and finite existence,
Holding an audience rapt and grateful to buy a ticket
And witness the miracle of a child growing up overnight.

lesmisbenkeelialeapimpernel1benlesmisphotos courtesy of Josh and Tim Scholten



A writer friend just introduced me to an old word that describes a state of contentment in a visceral way.  Using it feels like opening a window in a stuffy room.


the rumbling vibration of a cat’s purr,

flannel sheets warmed when wind and snow blur,

a filling meal of fresh home grown food

a cow chewing cud, eyes closed in serene mood,

the slow wakening after a full night’s sleep,

a pig’s wallow in cool mud so deep,

the low-throated nicker of a mare to her foal,

a tub of smooth water when muscles exert a toll,

the sucking hungry baby in rocking chair bliss,

a cuddle in jammies before bed with a book not to miss.

Bearing Fruit


Spring is rapidly advancing at a furious pace and on my way to the barn, I’ve glanced furtively at our many orchard trees, knowing that I’ll soon lose my best window of opportunity to get our annual pruning done. It’s  “now or never” time–actually not never, but pruning done after new growth already started is potentially damaging and wasteful to the energy the tree is expending this time of year in its rush to push out green from those dead looking branches.

Pruning is one of those tasks that is immensely satisfying–after it’s done–way after. Several years after in some cases. In the case of our fruit trees, which all have an average age of 80 years or more, it is a matter of prune or lose them forever, as they had a long respite from pruning in the 80s before we bought this farm and were growing wild and chaotic. We set to work early on in our tenure on this farm, trying to gently retrain these huge mature apple, cherry and pear trees, but our consistency was lacking and the trees remained on the wild side, defying us, and in two cases, toppling over in windstorms due to their weakened frame. Once we hired additional help, hoping to get ahead of the new growth, but our helper had the “chain saw” approach to pruning and literally scalped several trees into dormancy before we saw what was happening and stopped the savaging.

Instead, the process of retraining a wild tree is slow, meticulous, thoughtful, and expectant. You must study the tree, the setting, know the fruit it is supposed to bear, and begin making decisions before you make cuts. The dead stuff goes first–that’s easy. It’s not useful, it’s taking up space, it’s outta here. It’s the removal of viable branches that takes courage. Like thinning healthy vegetable plants in a garden, I can almost hear the plant utter a little scream as I choose it to be the next one to go. Gardening is not for the faint of heart. So ideally, I choose to trim about a third of the superfluous branches when I prune, rather than taking them all at once, and in three years, I’ll have the tree I hoped for, bearing fruit that is larger, healthier and hardier. Then we’re in maintenance mode. That takes patience, vision, dedication, and love. That’s the ideal world.

The reality is I skip years of pruning work, sometimes several years in a row. Or I make a really dumb error and prune in a way that is counter productive, and it takes several years for the tree to recover. Or, in the case of the scalping, those trees took years to ever bear fruit again–standing embarrassed and naked among their peers. Then there is the clean up process after pruning–if it was just lopping off stuff, I’d be out there doing it right now, but the process of picking up all those discarded branches off the ground, carrying them to a brush pile and burning them takes much more time and effort. That’s where kids
come in very handy.

I see the training work we do with our young horses as a similar process –we are shaping them for their eventual fruitfulness as productive working stock. Even the most wild and untamed of youngsters eventually respond to the gentle process of “pruning” away the unwanted behavior and encouraging the growth of the best behavior. Nipping is not fruitful–it is never encouraged; it is actively discouraged. Kicking belongs on the brush pile. Horse training is not for the faint of heart. Leading quietly and standing tied without a fuss are rewarded with the treat of scratches and rubs. The final product takes years of effort before it bears fruit, but our work is essential otherwise the grown horse may be completely unusable, and discarded like a tree that topples due to its weakness.

Our three children are not just a work in progress, but are about to bear fruit. They’ve been tolerating our shaping, trimming and pruning for years now, and are standing tall and strong and ready to meet the world, to give it all they’ve got, thanks to a sturdy foundation. In our hopes and dreams for them, there are times we  probably pruned a bit in haste, or sometimes neglected to prune enough, but even so, they’ve apparently grown up with few “scars” to show for our mistakes.  Child rearing is not for the faint of heart. Now we turn over the maintenance to the Master Gardener, to keep our children rooted, fed, watered, thriving and fruitful.  This is the ultimate act of faith and love. It is no longer our job to do, but we turn it over to Another, just as my parents did decades ago for me.

I’m still pruned, regularly, often painfully. Sometimes I see the pruning hook coming, knowing the dead branches that I’ve needlessly hung onto must go, and sometimes it comes as a complete surprise, cutting me at my most vulnerable spots. Some years I bear better fruit than other years. Some years, it seems, hardly any at all. Being pruned when you are mature, set in your ways, and a bit opinionated is not for the faint of heart. Yet, I’m still rooted, still fed when hungry and watered when thirsty, and still, amazingly enough, loved. I’ll continue to hang on to the root that chose to feed me and hold me fast in the windstorms of life. Even when my trunk is leaning, my branches broken, my fruit withered, I will know that love sustains, no matter what.

Already But Not Yet

springsunsetcolor(written originally in 2006)
The first full day of spring broke bright, sunny and full of promise.  After a hectic day at work, I turned to my barn chores, rushing to bring the horses in to the barn as the sunset began coloring everything on the farm.  I wanted to take a picture of the paint-streaked sky, but the sun’s descent was faster than I.  By the time I grabbed the camera and headed to the hillside to take photos of the red flushed woods to the east, the amber hue was barely visible as a cloak of gray dusk settled over everything.   I took photos in that mere light and when I loaded them on the computer there reappeared the light I’d lost outside.  Though grainy from the darkness, the red was vibrant and visible after all.  The sun had already set, but not quite yet.

It was an “already but not yet” kind of week.  Spring has already arrived if one looks at the calendar.  Yet there are not the typical signs of full-fledged spring.  The frogs have not begun to chorus at night, the orchard buds are staying stubbornly small, the tulip blossoms are staying tight and green, the grass is only beginning to show growth, the snow is still low in the hills.   So there is a “not yet” feel to spring. We continue to wait, hopeful.

One of our mares seemed “all ready” to deliver her foal last week when we needed to be away for the farm for a couple days, so a “horse sitter” came and stayed until we returned, and but the foal arrival time was “not yet”, so it was an exceedingly boring mare watch for her.

My 85 year old mother spent the week in the hospital after suffering a small stroke which affected her balance and coordination.  Though not a major setback for her physically, it was a blow to her confidence and makes her feel vulnerable to future strokes, which may be worse next time.  She knows, after a long healthy life, she should be “all ready” for the day the Lord takes her home, but it is “not yet” her time.

I am already in the midst of my own life transition with plummeting hormonal levels in my 50s as my teenage daughter’s peak.  I’m most definitely in the proverbial middle of the generational sandwich–whether I’m the meat, the cheese or a condiment is not clear to me. What I do know is that I’m not yet done with this very challenging and compressed part of my life.

Already but not yet.  There is tension in knowing that something profound is happening–a vanishing sunset, a vernal equinox, a life change or transition, but the transformation is not yet complete, and I’m not sure when it will be. I am still unfinished business.

In a few weeks I will be reminded of what is yet to come. I will know the shock of the empty tomb. My heart will burn within me as more is revealed, through the simple act of bread breaking.

It is finished on my behalf.

I’m all ready.

Steaming in the Pile


(yes, another story about manure–sorry!  Given I spend an hour or more a day dealing with it, it tends to absorb my creative energy!)

A mid-March cold snap swept down from northern Canada last week, freezing daffodils in mid-bloom, withering berry plant and orchard branch buds, and causing general mayhem in the Pacific northwest.  After a few weeks of rain and temperate weather up to the high 50’s, 17 degrees felt cruel indeed.

Our barn is fairly draft proof, but in northeasters like this, the water buckets ice up and the manure sits in cold hard piles, like so many round rocks.  It is a great temptation to put off the stall cleaning when the weather is this bitter cold and push the poop to the walls for later pick up when it is warmer.  After all, it doesn’t smell when it is frozen rock hard, and certainly loses its “squish” factor, so the horses seem to not mind too much.  So when I went out this weekend to start the digging out process, there were several days of accumulation to contend with.

As I wheeled the loads out to the manure pile, and dug into the pile to tidy it up, the steam poured out into the frigid air–there was nothing left frozen there.  It was hot and getting hotter–its destruction assured through the composting of so much organic matter.  No wonder the cats find a nice sunny spot to stretch out next to this smoldering mountain of poop.  It is as comfy as a tropical vacation spot.

How often have I similarly piled my metaphorical “poop” in piles to deal with another time?  Frozen it seems innocuous, inoffensive, not worthy of my attention, not enough to bother with.  It is so tempting to pass on cleaning up my messes, by shoving mistakes and errors to one side or “under the carpet” and trying to ignore the growing mounds in my own nest.  Admitting one’s sins and proceeding to clean up after one’s self  is not fashionable in this day and age of not wanting to be judged or to pass judgment.  All types of behavior, even some of the most self-destructive, are tolerated as freedom of expression, and referring to anything as sin is considered impossibly old fashioned.  Our pastor is doing a study series on Christian “respectable sins”, like ungodliness, discontent, pride, etc.   I have a ton of them that accumulate daily that I want to simply pile up and ignore.

Like frozen poop shoved aside and not dealt with, sin eventually warms up.  It starts to stink, and generally becomes obnoxious and overwhelming.  Once it gets big enough, it becomes its own steaming inferno, burning and destroying everything else within. The only safe place for it is to move it far away from where we dwell everyday.

I remember a young mother of three children who died three years ago as the heat of her drug addiction overcame efforts to clean up her life, though she was a Christian believer.  Many family, friends, church family and health care professionals handed her the tools to help scoop up the mess her addiction had left behind, but she chose to shove it into frozen piles around her, unwilling to admit how it was mounding up higher and higher, to the point of blocking any eventual escape.  It consumed her before she could dig free with her rescuers’ help.  It crushed her and her family is still trying to recover.

Such tragedy convinces me we must face our own messes without turning away in our shame.  We must dig ourselves out everyday from our mistakes, ask forgiveness for the harm we cause, and gratefully accept the tools handed to us that make possible the impossible job of getting clean.   We cannot do it by ourselves.  Our wheelbarrow is too small, our shovels too inadequate, our muscles too weak.

Blessed are the barn cleaners, for working together, they will find hope beyond the steaming pile.



All of us come to the study and practice of medicine through different pathways: some because of family members who were doctors or patients, some out of our own illness or woundedness, some out of intense drive to achieve and serve.

I came to medicine because of my grade school classmate Michael.

My grade school represented a grand social experiment of the early 1960’s.  It was one of the first schools to mainstream special needs children into “regular” classrooms.   At that time, the usual approach was to warehouse kids with disabilities (i.e. “handicaps” in 60′s parlance)  in separate rooms, if not whole separate schools.

During those years, the average class size for a grade school teacher was 32-35 kids, with no teacher’s aides, rare parent volunteers (except for field trips and room mothers who threw the holiday parties) and no medications or special accommodations for ADHD or learning disabilities.  I’m not sure how teachers coped with a room full of too-often noisy unruly kids,  but somehow they managed to teach in spite of the obstacles.  Adding in children with mental and physical challenges without additional adult help must have been  very difficult.

So the more capable kids got recruited to mentor the kids with disabilities.  It was a way to keep some kids busy who out of boredom might otherwise find themselves engaging in disruptive entertainment. It helped the teacher by creating a buddy system for the special needs kids who might need help with class work or who might have difficulty getting around.

I was assigned to Michael.  He was a spindly boy with cerebral palsy and hearing aids, thick glasses hooked with a wide band around the back of his head,  and spastic muscles that never seemed to go where he wanted them to go.  He walked independently with some difficulty, mostly on his tiptoes because of his shortened leg muscles, falling when he got going too quickly as his thick orthopedic shoes with braces would trip him up.   His hands were intermittently in a crab like grip of contracted muscles, and his face always contorting and grimacing.  He drooled continuously so perpetually carried a Kleenex in his hand to catch the drips of spit that ran out of his mouth and dropped on his desk, threatening to spoil his coloring and writing papers.

His speech consisted of all vowels, as his tongue couldn’t quite connect with his teeth or palate to sound out the consonants, so it took some time and patience to understand what he said.  He could write with great effort, gripping the pencil awkwardly in his tight palm and found he could communicate better at times on paper than by talking. I made sure he had help to finish assignments if his muscles were too tight to write, and I learned his language so I could interpret for the teacher. He was brave and bright, with a finer mind than most of the kids in our class.    He loved a good joke and his little body would shudder as he roared his appreciation.   I was always impressed at how he expressed himself and how little bitterness he had about his limitations.

He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew.  As an eleven year old peer-opinion-driven preadolescent girl, I’m amazed I could even recognize that about Michael.  It was so tempting to be oblivious and insensitive to the person that Michael was inside his disabled shell.

Sometimes I wanted to hide as Michael appeared around the corner of the grade school building every morning. He would be walking too quickly in his careful tip-toe cadence, arms flailing, shoes scuffing, raising up dust with each step. He would wave at me and call out my name in his indecipherable voice, a voice I knew all too well.

There were many times when I resented being Michael’s buddy, socially crippled myself in my 5th grade need to be popular and acceptable to my peers.  I didn’t want to be constantly responsible for him and my friends teased me about him being my boyfriend.   And in many ways, he was just that.

As he would approach while I stood in my clump of friends on the playground, a group of boys playing tag would swoop past him, purposely a little too close, spinning him off his feet like a top and onto the ground. Glasses askew, he would lay momentarily still, and realizing I was needed, I would run to his side. Despite all he endured, I never saw Michael cry, not even once, not even when he fell down hard.  When he got angry or frustrated, he’d get very quiet, but his muscles would tense up so much he would go into even greater spasms.

I would help him up,  brush off the playground dirt from his sweatshirt and pants and look at his grimacing face. Although he would give me a huge toothy smile of thanks, his eyes, as usual, said what his mouth could not. He looked right past my hardened preadolescent pretense, into my softening heart. Michael knew I needed him as much as he needed me. I was a lifesaver that had been thrown to him as he struggled to stay afloat in the sea of playground hostility.  And he was the first boy who loved me because of who he saw beneath my outer shell.

After two years, the social experiment was over and the school segregated the special needs kids back to therapeutic educational classrooms.  Though I never saw Michael again, I heard him on the radio six years later, reading an essay he’d written for the local Voice of Democracy contest on what it meant to be a free citizen.  His speech was one of the top three award winners that year.  I was so proud of how he’d done and how understandable his speaking voice had become.

I’ve thought of him frequently over the years as I went on to medical school, knowing that my initial training in compassionate caring came as I sat by his side for hours, even when I didn’t want to be there, learning to understand his voice and his heart.  I didn’t appreciate it then as I do now, but he taught me far more than I ever taught him:  patience, perseverance and respect for the journey rather than the destination.    He taught me life isn’t always fair so you make the best of what you are given.

Michael, wherever you are, you did that for me and it set me on the road to practice medicine.  You helped me reach deep into my too often selfish heart to reach out to help others.

And in my own imperfect special needs way, I know I loved you too.

Train to Kigoma–1975


view of Kigoma, Tanzania on http://www.fairmarket.com

1392777855_c20b88c3a4 www.flickr.com/photos/hansecoloursmay/1392777855

A steam locomotive and passenger cars
Left over from British colonial days
Crosses central Africa daily;
Dar Es Salaam to Kigoma
From Indian Ocean to western shore of Lake Tanganyika
Carrying hundreds of Tanzanians
And four white Americans.

We depart on time, four hours late, whistle blowing,
A party atmosphere in third class.
Rows of benches with families
Spreading cloths, to sit together
Swapping meals and Swahili wisdom,
Singing and clapping
In celebration of easy mobility.

Seated on the outdoor platform
Between cars, I feel the humid air
Lighten and cool in the breeze
As the train makes its way through the plains;
Flat topped trees scattered in silhouette,
Dust clouds camouflage herds of wildebeest
Giraffe move slow motion, stirred to run.

Ujamaa villagers walk alongside the tracks
Women carrying heavy bundles balanced
With perfection upon their heads,
Babies wrapped in slings on their backs.
Men hoe in meager corn rows, stop to
Look up longingly at the passing train.
Children wave and laugh and run alongside.

Stops may be a few metal huts
A smelly latrine hole in the ground
Or a modern station with platform
Waiting room and parking lot.
Dodoma–growing and ambitious
Tabora–vestiges of British rule
Still linger, clinging to the land.

Moving onward to reach Kigoma
A sleepy village on a hillside
Overlooking the world’s deepest lake
Of shining cichlids and snapping crocodiles,
Miracle sunsets, then shimmering fisherman boat lights,
Open markets and cattle herded
Through red dirt main street.

I breathe deeply of Africa
Hearing chiming birdsong of  liquid notes
The smells pungent and moist
Of chimpanzee musk, their tolerant gaze
As Americans stare, dazed, dazzled
At the spectacle of teeming life
In the multi-layered jungle.

It is a garden such as this
Where man began
It is plains such as this
Where man,  nomadic,  trudged, weary
It is land such as this
That blesses and curses,
Reclaiming always what has been taken away.


Kigoma sunset found at www.travelblog.org/…/Tanzania/blog-26128.html

Mountain Lions in the Shadows


Published in Country Magazine 2007

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them warming near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These rascals are two gray tabbies, one black and one gray, perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasing gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.