Crimson Coda

Bellingham Bay-photo by Nate Gibson
Bellingham Bay-photo by Nate Gibson

No breath of breeze~
Leaves hang limp, unshaken
By wisp of wind or weary bird wing.

Heat drips from every pore
Moist salty brine
Pours unbidden into pooling eyebrows.

Await the evening coda as bold brush strokes paint
A palette of rosy crimson and orange
Above the creeping gray fingers of twilight

Until no longer streams vermilion bourn,
No more suspended furnace as the fiery
Remnant drops beyond reach, irrevocable, steaming.

Red Sunset photo by Nate Gibson
Red Sunset photo by Nate Gibson
Almost gone photo by Nate Gibson
Almost gone photo by Nate Gibson
Mt Baker at dusk-photo by Nate Gibson
Mt Baker at dusk-photo by Nate Gibson

Listening to the Vetch


Hot humid summer days are barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and right now our house is two degrees warmer (93 degrees) than the out of doors.  So distractions from the heat are more than welcome.

For me today it started as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town, running a bit late to an important meeting.  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my van from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting with a kitten and grease marks all over me, vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs, now with the new name “Harley” because he clearly desires the open road.

At that point, my meeting in town was already completed without me so I went out to check fence line as the hot wire seemed to be shorting out somewhere in the pasture as the mares had decided that the wire interfered with their hearts’ desire and had broken through, so it clearly was not hot enough to discourage them.  It has been a very hot few days with persistent drying breezes this afternoon so as I approached the fence line, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a fire hazard and certainly potentially dangerous with the winds whipping up.  I walked closer and was really puzzled to hear snaps all up and down the fence, but could not see sparks.  I approached more closely and heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, dropping its contents very effectively.  It was the dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fenceline in a reproductive symphony of seed release.  I put the broken wire back to together, plugged it in and all was well, at least until the next Haflinger decides the adjacent pasture looks better.

Returning to the barn,  I saw our stallion pawing furiously at his round black rubber water tub in his paddock, splashing water everywhere and creating quite a spectacle.  I went up to him to refill the tub with the hose and he continued to paw and splash in the tub and actually went down on his knees in the tub and then tried to lower one shoulder into it and his neck and face.  By this time he had created quite a mud puddle of the thick dust around the tub and his splashing and thrashing was causing mud to fly everywhere, including all over me, my hair, covering his mane and tail and belly and legs.  I took the hose and sprayed the cold water over him and he leaned closer to me, begging me to spray him everywhere, turning around so I could do his other side, facing me so I could spray his face.  I drenched him completely, and he was one happy horsie and I was laughing my head off at what he had done to me.  Both drenched, muddy, dirty, but happy and much much cooler.  What a sight we were.  This is the Haflinger that hesitates sometimes at water hazards on the cross country courses because he wants to splash and play in it.

This was a hot day on the farm indeed but with plenty else to occupy my mind.  It is never dull here.

Remember to bang on your car hood before you get in, keep the hotwire hot, and share a mud bath with your Haflinger. But especially, listen to the vetch and don’t let it fool you that catastrophe is about to happen.  The vetch is simply exploding in noisy reproductive ecstasy.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

A Lesson in Listening

(This is the middle part of a much longer story in memory of my friend Margy Anderson)

I wondered if 7:30 AM was too early to call even though I’d been up for hours. I knew Margy was not sleeping well these days, propped with pillows around her halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from cancer.

When she was surgically fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her forehead the “Frankenstein bolts”. I threatened to give her a white lace veil to drape around the metal halo surrounding her head, so she might be more recognizable as Frankenstein’s bride. She replied that Frankenstein’s bride had frightful hair rather than being completely bald, so a veil was not going to hide the ugly truth.

After a long 24 hours in the emergency room seeing patients, I felt the need to talk to her.  I wanted to tell her how deeply I appreciated the skills she had taught me, the spirit of service she, a former nun now married with two college age children, had instilled in me. Each patient I had seen in the Emergency Room over the previous 24 hours benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught us in med school. We were reminded each patient had an important story to tell no matter how rushed we were. She insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body. She told us: : “Just let your patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by caring enough to sit and listen…”

With a recent diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Margy herself was broken and in need of the glue of friendship, and so I had become her friend even though we were thirty years apart in age. Despite her illness, and more over as a result of it, she continued to teach and serve her students, often from her bed at home.

Her phone rang only once. There was a long pause, a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?”
“Yes? Emily? ”
“Margy? What is it? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
Her voice shattered like glass, strangling on words that choked her.
“It’s Gordy, Emily. He’s dead…”
“What? What are you saying?”
“A policeman just left. He told us our boy is dead. Hit on the freeway sleepwalking out of the back of the camper he was riding in on the way to Mexico for a spring break mission trip.”

I sat in stunned silence, holding the receiver like a lifeline to her, completely undone by her sobs. Then I remembered what she herself had taught me only a few months before.

“I’m coming right now. I’ll stay with you as long as you need me.”

Posted in Uncategorized

A Dove in Search of a Cage


It took only a moment to decide.

As happens every day, as she sang to me, her arm reached past my perch through the open door, to pour fresh water in my bowl.   Just beyond her, overhead, were clusters of glistening red cherries bouncing in invitation in the morning breeze.  So I heeded, flapping clumsily over her arm as she spilled the water, her mouth an “O”.

I escaped my house, my first time flying free, awkward and careening.  I made it to a high branch and grabbed hold tightly, staring down at her asking me to come back.   Instead I listened to the cherries next to me, their sweet song of red juice pouring over the sides of my beak.

When the breeze picked up in the darkening hours, I missed the comfort of my indoor loft nest lined with cedar shavings and horse hair, with snug walls where I have spent many wintry nights, and soft summer twilights.   My mournful evening anthem was hushed by the wing swoop overhead of a clicking owl, anxious for dinner.  I tucked my head in fear, with no wire enclosure to protect me. I fell silent, barely sleeping.

At dawn, she found me picking at cat food near the back porch, with an ancient feline crouched a few feet away, tail twitching, ready for instant breakfast.  I fluttered off, returning to relative safety of the orchard treetops, alert for hawks.   For two days I explored the trees surrounding my little home, its door still open as a standing invitation.  She filled my water bowl and brought my seeds just as she always did, singing.  I listened carefully to the familiar tune, twisting my neck one way and then another to hear her better.  The cherry song no longer seemed as sweet.

The next morning, she found me in my little nest inside my dove house, the door still wide open.  She filled my bowl with fresh water and brought me new seeds, closed the door, latching it tight.

Today, joyful at dawn, I woke her with my mourning song.

Sliding to Home


Our church belongs to a summer co-ed softball league, along with 8 other churches and a few local businesses.  This has been a traditional Thursday evening summer activity for the past generation or longer.  Couples have met for the first time on the ball fields and eventually marry. Babies have attended games in back packs and strollers and now are catching at home plate.  Relatives going to different churches find themselves on opposing teams yelling good natured insults.  There are a few bopped heads, abrasions, sprained fingers and broken legs as part of the deal.  Hot dog roasts and ice cream sundaes are the after game rewards.

Yet nothing is quite as wonderful as how a team recreates itself year after year.  It is thrown together by our coach Brenda in a mere two weeks prior to the season starting, with the youngest members needing to be at least age 14 with no upper age limit; we’ve had our share of 70+ year olds on the team over the years.   Some ball players are raw beginners having never played catch or swung a bat outside of school PE class, and others have extensive history of varsity fastpitch in school or other community league play so mean business when they stride out on the diamond.  It is the ultimate diverse talent pool.

A different dynamic exists in church league softball compared to Little League, Pony League, minors or majors when you watch or play. Sure, there are slow pitch teams that will stock their ranks with “invitation-only” players, reserving the best and most athletic so there is a real chance at the trophy at the end of the summer.  Churches like ours, a mere 150 people average weekly Sunday attendance, have a “come one, come all” attitude, just to make sure we avoid forfeiting by not having enough players week after week.   We always do have enough.  In fact we have more players than we can sometimes find positions for.  And we have a whole bleacher full of fans, dedicated to cheering and clapping for anything and everything our players do, whether it is a pop-up foul ball, a strike out swing, a missed catch, or an actual hit.  We love it all and want our players to know they are loved too, no matter what they do or what happens.

I think that is why the players and fans come back to play week after week, though we haven’t won a game in years.  We root and holler for each other, get great teaching and encouragement from our fantastic coach, and the players’ skills do improve year to year despite months of inactivity.  We have a whole line up of pre-14 year olds eager to grow old enough to play, just so they can be a part of the action.

Why does it not matter that we don’t win games?  We are winning hearts, not runs.  We are showing our youngsters that the spirit of play is what it is all about, not about the trophy at the end.  We are teaching encouragement in the face of errors, smiles despite failure, joy in the fellowship of people who love each other–spending an evening together week after week.  We are family; family picks you up and dusts you off when you’ve fallen flat on your face during your slide to base while still being called “out.”

Most of all, I see this as a small piece of God’s kingdom in action.

Our coach models Jesus’ acceptance of all at the table, and embodies the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

Our players are the eager, the ambivalent, the accurate, the flawed, the strong, the weak, the fast, the slow: chosen for the game even if they are completely inadequate to the task at hand, volunteering to be part of each moment as painful as it can sometimes be.

The cheering from the bleachers comes as if from heaven itself:  Do not be afraid.  Good will to all.  We are well pleased. Amen!

We’re sliding to home plate, running as hard as we can, diving for safety, covered in the dust and mire and blood of living/dying and will never, ever be called “out”.

Let’s play ball.


Forgetting to Remove Our Shoes


Within the hour, sixty folks would be coming to our hilltop pasture for “campfire church” and a wiener roast.  That was when I realized there were plenty of old horse manure piles still needing to be picked up from the very spots where families would be sitting on the ground, eating their hot dogs and singing their praise songs.  I grabbed the wheelbarrow and pitchfork and trudged up the hill to try to purge the field of poop, at least superficially.

It was no use.  Manure piles don’t pick up easily out of long grass, and the number of mole hills outnumbered poop hills 2 to 1 so there was plenty of dirty stuff to go around.  This would not be a hygienic eating and worshipping experience, no matter what I did at the last minute to try to change things.

Sure enough, many of the kids and a few of the adults pulled their shoes off to walk barefoot in the pasture grass, and I’m sure a few walked in stuff I’d rather not think about.  Only one got stung by a bee.  The rest of us kept our shoes, sandals and flip flops on,  which meant plenty of the farm went home on bare feet and soles of shoes after the service was over–people actually leaving dirtier than they arrived.  It seemed a bit backwards from how it is supposed to work…

Muslim, Shinto,  Hindu, or Buddhist worshippers ritually leave their shoes at the door of the temple or mosque.  Christians wear shoes into church every Sunday, having walked in muck and mire of one sort or another all week.   We might do our best to try and clean up for Sunday, but we track in the detritus of our lives when we come to sit in the pews.  Rather than leave it at the door, it comes right in with us, not exactly hidden and sometimes downright stinky.  That is when we are in obvious need for a good washing, shoes, feet, soul and all,  and that is why we worship together as a church family.  Jesus Himself demonstrated this on the last night of His life, washing the dusty feet of His disciples.

The Lord told Moses:  “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”    He knows it is time for a good bath.



Stacking the Hay


Every hay crew is the same
Though the names change;
Young men flexing their muscles,
A seasoned farmer defying his age
Tossing four bales high,
Determined girls bucking up on the wagon,
Young children rolling bales closer,
Add a school teacher, pastor,
Professor, lawyer and doctor
Getting sweaty and dusty
United in being farmers
If only for an evening.

Basket weave
Cut side up
Steadying the load
Riding over hills
Through valleys
In slow motion
Eagles over head
Searching the bare fields
Evening alpen glow
Of snowbound
Eastern peaks

Friends and neighbors
Walking the dotted pastures,
Piling on the wagons,
Driving the truck,
Riding the top of hay stack
In the evening breeze,
Filling empty barn space to the rafters,
Making gallons of lemonade in the kitchen.
A hearty meal consumed
In celebration
Of summer baled, stored, preserved
For another year.

Hay crew
Remembered on
Frosty autumn mornings before dawn
When bales are broken for feed
And fragrant summer spills forth.
In the dead of winter

Party Line


Two longs and a short is for the Williams farm,
Two shorts and a long is for Abner and Sara, retired down the road,
A short and a long is for Aunt Bessie who lives nearby with her cat,
One long is for the Mitchell family of ten next door,
One short means it’s for me, alone since my son got married.

Most of the rings are for the Mitchells as four of their girls are over thirteen,
But when I pick up the receiver, it is Aunt Bessie’s voice I hear most,
As she likes to call the ladies from church and find out who’s sick,
Who’s not, and who’s maybe not going to make it through the week
To be sitting in their pew come Sunday.

Sara is usually listening on the line real quiet-like and I know that
Because I can hear her sniff every once in awhile
Due to her allergies, kind of a little snort which she tries to cover up
But it does no good as we know she’s there and everything we say
Will be spread to town by tomorrow anyways.

Which reminds me the Williams’ are having money troubles
Because the bank is calling them about their overdue loan payments
And the crops are poor this year so there is worry about foreclosure.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Mrs. has made a doctor’s appointment in the city
Because of a new lump she found just yesterday.

Wouldn’t you know one of the Mitchell girls was talking about running off
With that Howard boy but I can’t imagine how word got back to her daddy
Who has put the phone and the boy off-limits for the time being
Until summer is over and she can be sent to the city to be a nanny to a wealthy family
And maybe meet a rich city boy who will keep her occupied.

Of course we’ve all offered solutions for Abner’s hemorrhoids
And his itchy scalp, even when we aren’t asked for our opinion.
Then when the youngest Mitchell was refusing to sleep through the night
Aunt Bessie suggested a little blackberry cordial might help but
Mrs. Mitchell was properly horrified and hung up then and there.

Last night the phone rang one short ring, sometime after 1 AM,
I woke with my nerves all a-jangle, wondering what bad news I would hear,
Four other people were on the line listening for my bad news too.
When I heard my oldest boy back east shout  “Mama, it’s a girl, you’re a granny!”
My heart swelled and my tears flowed for this answer to my prayers.

In the morning, when I went to walk down the driveway to get the mail
There was a bright bouquet of pink dahlias from the Williams’ on my front porch,
A drawing colored up real nice from the Mitchell kids “to our favorite new granny”
And a still warm fresh loaf of bread from Sara waiting in the mailbox
Which made for a real fine party for Bessie and me sipping on her blackberry cordial.

Where’s the Party?


Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson
Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson

I  remember childhood summers as 3 months of full-out celebration– long lazy days stretching into nights that didn’t seem to really darken until 11 PM and bright birdsong mornings starting out at 4:30 AM.  Not only were there the brief family vacations at the beach or to visit cousins, but there was the Fourth of July, Daily Vacation Bible School, the county fair, family reunions, and of course and most importantly, my July birthday.  Yes, there were mundane chores to be done, a garden to tend, a barn to clean, berries to pick,  a lawn to mow and all that stuff, but my memories of summer are mostly about fluff and frolic.

So where are the summer parties now?  Who is out there celebrating without me?  Nothing seems to be spontaneous as it was when I was a child. Instead there is still the routine of going to work most days in the summer.

I’m finding myself in the midst of my 55th summer and I have to create celebrations if they are going to happen in my life.  Without that perspective, the bird song at 4:30 AM can feel more irritant than blessing and the long days often mean I fall asleep nodding over a book at 9 PM.  I want to treasure every, every minute of this precious time yet they flow through my fingers like so much water, faster and faster.

I realize there will be few “family” summers left as I watch my children grow into adults and spread their wings.  They may be on to their next adventure in future summers.  So each family ritual and experience together takes on special meaning and needs to be appreciated and remembered.

So….for this summer my family has crammed as much in as we can in celebration of the season:

We just spent some time in the hayfields bringing in the bales with friends–our little crew of seven–sweating and itchy and exhausted, but the sight and smell of several hundred hay bales, grown on our own land, harvested without being rained on and piled in the barn is sweet indeed.   Weekly we are out on the softball field in church league,  yelling encouragement and high-fiving each other, hooting at the good hits and the bad, the great catches and the near misses, and getting dirty and sprained, and as happy to lose as to win.  We had a wonderful July 4 barbeque with good friends culminating in the fireworks show on our farm’s hill overlooking miles of valley around us, appreciating everyone else’s backyard displays as well as our own.  We are now able to sing hymns in church in four part harmony, and last night our children helped lead the singing last night in an evening “campfire church” for over fifty fellow worshipers on our hill.  In a couple weeks, we’ll take to the beach for three days of playing in the sand, roasting hot dogs. reading good books, and playing board games.  We’ll try to make the trek down to Seattle by train to spend the day watching the Mariners play (and likely lose). One change this year is we won’t be returning back to the Lynden fair with our horses–due to “off the farm” work and school schedules, we couldn’t muster the necessary round-the-clock crew after seventeen years of being there to display our little part of small town agricultural pursuits.

Yet the real party happens right here every day in small ways without any special planning.  It doesn’t require money or special food or traveling beyond our own soil.  It is the smiles and good laughs we share together, and the hugs for kids taller than I am. It’s adult conversations with the new adults in our family–no longer adolescents.  It’s finding delight in fresh cherries from our own trees, currants and berries from our own bushes, greens from the garden, flowers for the table from the yard.  It is the Haflingers in the field that come right up to us to enjoy rubs and scratches and follow us like puppies. It is babysitting for toddlers who remind us of the old days of having small children, and who give us a glimpse of future grandparenthood.  It is good friends coming from far away to ride our horses and learn farm skills. It is an early morning walk in the woods or a late evening stroll over the hills. It is daily contact with aging parents who no longer hear well or feel well but nevertheless share of themselves in the ways they are able.  It is the awesome power of an evening sunset filled with hope and the calming promise of a new day somewhere else in this world of ours.

Some days may not look or feel like there’s a party happening, but that is only because I haven’t searched hard enough.  The party is here, sparklers and all, even if only in my own mind.




Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak
Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak


A Cure for a Case of the Nerves

“Wait until you see what is waiting for you in the next exam room…”

My clinic nurse was barely able to contain a smirk.  This meant one thing to a doctor in training:  the next patient must be a “train wreck”, with so many things wrong that I would never graze the surface during my brief visit.  I was running 30 minutes behind, so I took a deep breath.

As I opened the exam room door, I was greeted heartily by the Wentworths, who both stood up when I entered.  This couple in their eighties appeared to have stepped out of a 1920’s bandbox, some sixty years after their attire would have been the height of fashion.

Mr. Wentworth wore a wide lapel pinstripe three piece suit, with suspenders, a starched white shirt and paisley bow tie.  He held a derby hat in one hand and his wing tip shoes were spit polished shiny.  His wife was in a high necked lace blouse and woolen skirt, with a fur collar jacket clasped in front with a large brooch.  She wore a felt hat over her perfectly coiffed white curls,  set off by pheasant feathers pointing jauntily from one side.  Her gloved hands clasped a purse and a closed lace parasol.  I invited them to sit.

“Doctor, we are so glad to meet you.  Our neighbor told us we must switch doctors since you’ve taken such good care of her!  In fact we drove clear across town to come here!”  Mrs. Wentworth gushed.  “We had a little trouble finding your clinic and it took awhile to find parking, but here we are!  Isn’t that right, Charles?”  She reached over and patted her husband’s knee with her gloved hand.  He smiled and nodded agreeably and clasped her hand in his.

“How can I be of help today? “  I began, thinking how sweet they looked together.

“Well, Doctor, you see, it’s my nerves.   I just have such a difficult time with my nerves.  Isn’t that right, Charles?”  He smiled and nodded again agreeably and gave her hand a squeeze.   “It just seems to be getting worse and worse…”

“Tell me more about how your nerves affect you, “ I asked, jotting notes quickly.

“For instance, while Charles was driving here today, I was just such aflutter about whether we would be able to find you, and whether we would find a parking spot, or whether we would miss our appointment altogether.  We even got up an hour earlier to get ready.  Even so, I managed to tell Charles to turn right when he should have turned left and so we ended up lost.  I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest, I was so worried!  But I got us turned around and back on the right track.  And here we are!!   Isn’t that right, Charles?”   He had dozed off, head nodding.

“You both still drive?”  I asked hesitantly.

“Oh, no, Doctor, not me!  I’ve never driven!  Charles has always been the chauffeur in our family.   He is such an excellent driver.  Isn’t that right, Charles?”   She nudged him with her elbow as he had started to snore softly.  “Oh my, I guess I did wake him up a bit early today.   But Doctor, it’s gotten so he has to be reminded about where to turn and when to stop, even in our neighborhood when we drive to the store.  So I make sure I tell him exactly what to do, and he usually does just fine.  Charles, wake up!  I’m talking about you!”

Mr. Wentworth opened his eyes, blinking, and gave his wife another pleasant smile.

“Mr. Wentworth, how did the drive go for you today? “  I was curious how he would respond.   He turned his gaze to me, and my heart sank, knowing the truth from the empty way he looked at me.  He would not have a clue.

“Oh, it was fine, just fine,  thank you for asking, “  he offered good naturedly.

“Mr. Wentworth, can you tell me who the President is right now? “  I asked.  Mrs. Wentworth flashed a puzzled look at me.

“Why of course, it is Mr. Coolidge, “ he replied confidently.

After arranging a ride home for the Wentworths, I called the Department of Motor Vehicle Licensing, letting them know I was sending them a drivers’ license that needed rescinding.

Predictably, Mrs. Wentworth’s nerves got much better.