A Mountain Called Her By Name


unsoeld_and_daughter_200The ripple effect from Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in our high school in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  My best friend elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes making contact with everyone she met.  From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends and feminist longings.  Our nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.  But Devi didn’t look like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, wondering whether she was “for real” and viewed her suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship at a local college, so moved his family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing his large family in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on the faraway peak that called her by name.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 32 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without a mask of fad and fashion and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me back when she sat beside me in class, when she encouraged me in my tentative attempts at activism,  and when I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in her  nonconformity.  Instead, I mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she left behind on a snowy mountain peak.

Puzzling It Out

In a corner of the kitchen
By the window
On a card table with a lamp
Lies an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

Take a moment
To create order out of chaos
Fit a piece to its unique spot
Finding connection, completion, continuity.

First the border pieces
Placed to create boundaries of
Firm foundational building blocks
Outside which stray in peril.

Then grouping ‘like’ pieces-
Creating community to find the fit;
Some pieces blend together while others
Seem to go nowhere at all.

Turn and twist each part to find the way
It connects to another even if it doesn’t seem to belong
Too irregular, wrong size or strange color-
It still has its place yet to be discovered.

The holes in the puzzle become
Unfulfilled potential at the edge of precipice,
Often more emptiness than substance
Awaiting bridging bonds.

Slow progress to fill the gaps
Finding relationships from edge to edge
To fit together what seemed an impossibility
When scattered about at random with no order.

Like instruments of the orchestra blended,
Or intertwined threads of a tapestry,
Life’s fragmented puzzle once completed
Becomes magnificent masterpiece, whole and holy.

September Hay Field

By now the fields have survived
A first, and even second cutting
Mowed and tedded
Raked and baled, scalped clean then
Rained upon in spurts and spells.

The grass blades rise again, reluctant-
Certain of the cuts to come;
No longer brazen, reaching to the sky
With the blinding bright enthusiasm of May and June endless days,
But shorter, gentle growth of late summer golden sunsets.

The third cutting sparse and short as thinning hair
Tender baby soft forage, light in the hands and on the wagon
Precious cargo carried back to the barn;
Fragrant treasure for vesper manger meals
A special Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve gift.

Once again the fields are bare, aching for cover
Which comes as leaves rain and swirl in release,
Winds buffet, offering respite of deepening winter
Snowdrifts, blanketing in silent relief and rest
Until patiently stirred by melting soaking warmth

To rouse again, reaching toward the light.

Hayfield--oil painting by Scott Prior www.scottpriorart.com
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

Being Tucked In

eveningbarnwritten September 11, 2001

There are moments of epiphany in horse and family raising, and tonight brought one of those moments. The world suddenly feels so incredibly uncertain, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly, and I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.

Tonight it was tucking the horses into bed, almost as precious to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until horsie dinner is served and their beds prepared.

My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.

Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting quite golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar and maple leaves have carpeted the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge,  no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.

I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I can feel them breathe this big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in your same space.  My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.

Then comes my joy of returning to the house, feeding my human family and tucking precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable and comforting in spite of devastation and tragedy.   Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.

I’ll continue to search for those moments of epiphany whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope.  I need a quiet routine to help remind me how precious it is to be here, looking for a sanctuary to regroup and renew.

I don’t need to look far…

Green Bean Casserole


Our garden was sowed late this spring so the harvest has been late as well.  We are overwhelmed with tomatoes, carrots, corn and zucchini and are giving away as much as we are keeping. We have just finished picking all the bush beans–several 10 gallon buckets full–and spent several evenings sitting and snapping them, preparing them for blanching and freezing, with visions of green bean casserole during the winter months dancing in our heads.

Bean snapping is one of those uniquely front porch American Gothic kind of activities.  Old black and white Saturday matinee movies would somehow work in a bean snapping scene with an old maid aunt sitting on her ranch house porch.  She’d be rocking back and forth in her rocking chair, her apron wrinkled and well-worn, her graying hair in a bun at the nape of her neck and wearily pushing back tendrils of hair from her face. As the sole guardian, she’d be counseling some lonely orphaned niece or nephew about life’s rough roads and why their dog or pony had just died and then pausing for a moment holding a bean in her hand, she’d talk about how to cope when things are tough. She was the rock for this child’s life.  Then she’d rather gruffly shove a bowl of unsnapped beans in the child’s lap, and tell them to get back to work–life goes on–start snapping. Then she’d look at that precious child out of the corner of her eye, betraying the love and compassion that dwells in her heart but was not in her nature to speak of.  If only that grieving child understood they sat upon a rock of strength and hope.

So life goes on after tragedy.  Even on a day eight years ago when life as we knew it ended in fire and smoke for thousands of innocents.  A day that started like any other but ended up changing us all beyond recognition.  We are hated and we will wear the scars forever.  It bears talking about possible responses to hatred with one’s children over bean snapping.  It is too easy to learn to hate because we are hated. Finding forgiveness is much harder work.

Just as I sat with my mother snapping beans some 40+ years ago and talked about some difficult things that were unique to the 60’s,  I sat snapping beans this week together with my family, talking about  hopes and disappointments and fears and listened to our children grumble that I was making them do something so utterly trivial when from their perspective, there are far more important things to be doing. My response is a loving and gruff “keep snapping”.  Of course we really don’t have to snap the beans, as they could be frozen whole, but they pack tighter snapped, and it is simply tradition to do so.  We enjoy that crisp satisfying crack of a perfectly bisected bean broken by hand–no need for knife to cut off the top and tail.    We prepare for a coming winter by putting away the vegetables we have sowed and weeded and watered and cared for, because life will go on and eating the harvest of our own soil and toil is sweet.  We must do this. Indeed it is all we can do when the world is tumbling down around us.

Indeed, I want to be more rubbery like a bean that doesn’t snap automatically under pressure, more resilient.

There is an old Shaker Hymn that I learned long ago and sing to myself when I need to be reminded where I must end up when I’m at the breaking point.

I will bow and be simple,
I will bow and be free,
I will bow and be humble,
Yea, bow like the willow tree.

I will bow, this is the token,
I will wear the easy yoke,
I will bow and will be broken,
Yea, I'll fall upon the rock.

As people of resilient faith we seek to wear the yoke we’ve been given to pull, bow in humility under its burden and know the freedom that comes with service to others.  Even in the midst of the most horrific brokenness, we fall upon the rock that bears us up with love and compassion that we are often not even aware of.  It is there under us and we’ve done nothing whatsoever to earn it.

Time for us to get back to work and start snapping–life does go on.

Don’t Wanna Hold Your Hand

Ross MacDonald illustration for the New York Times

Suffice to say, I’m not germ phobic.  If I were, I wouldn’t live on a farm handling manure everyday, and I wouldn’t work as a health care provider in the “culture media” otherwise referred to as a university student health center.  I’ve learned to live in harmony with all the pathogens I come in contact with, and, for the most part, we leave each other alone.

Yet there comes a time (and this is it!) when a little paranoia about viruses is warranted.  This current early influenza season has the potential to be a real humdinger because the virus people are passing between them is unfamiliar to the majority of the younger (under age 50) population, so their immune systems are not readily primed for the antibody fight.  So there may be good reason for social rituals to adapt to protect the unprotected.

There is reasonable evidence that H1N1 influenza really takes hold in environments where people are doing a great deal of “meet and greet” activities, such as sorority and fraternity “rush” week at universities.  That means that hand shakes and hugs, or the seemingly benign cheek kiss, confer more than good will.  They become the vectors of a viral gift, ready to transfer to our mucus membranes with an innocent rub of an itchy eye, or licking of our lips after touching the outside of our mouths, or running the back of our hand across our noses.

In other words, we inadvertently share and receive more than we intend with a simple greeting ritual.  This becomes important during a time when potentially fatal viruses are circulating widely, especially as a certain percentage of the population will tend to be “carriers” without having obvious symptoms,  effectively becoming unwitting transmitters.

So this fall, the time has come to stop greeting with hand shakes, particularly in “high volume” situations like political rallies, wedding and funeral receptions, church lobbies and school orientation activities.  The options to replace the hand shake are plenty, but ideally should minimize physical contact.   I prefer a simple nod, leaning forward, hands behind my back, and actually using my vocal cords to do the work:  “good to see you”  or some other gracious few words.

I’m not being unfriendly, nor am I rebuffing your friendly extended hand.  I just don’t want to share what I may have just been exposed to a few minutes earlier without having had a chance to adequately wash my hands, as I would if I were working in the barn or the clinic.  Just like the classic classroom exercise illustrating how many sexual partners you exponentially end up with when you consider all the partners of the partner’s partners, etc. —when you shake my hand, you are shaking the hand of everyone I’ve touched since the last time I washed my hands.  In certain social situations, that can be an overwhelming number of contacts.  So let’s just take handshaking out of the equation and make it a little tougher for this virus to find its way from me to you.

So it’s good to see you looking so well. And I really want you to stay that way.

Savoring the Sweetness

Apples11(published a year ago in Country Magazine)

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this gift of sweetness, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and how we receive it makes all the difference.