Silent Synchrony

It started last week.  The tree right in front of our porch, having looked dead for the past six months, started to bud out in subtle pink petalled blossoms.
The previous week there had been nothing remarkable whatsoever about the tree.
This week it is a feast for the eyes, almost blinding in its brilliance.

Each year the dogwood startles me.  From dead to brilliant in a mere two weeks.  And not only our tree, but every other pink dogwood within a twenty mile radius has answered the same April siren call: bloom!  bloom your heart out!  dazzle every retina in sight!

And it is done simultaneously on every tree, all the same day, without a sound, without an obvious signal, as if an invisible conductor had swooped a baton up and in the downbeat everything turned pink.  Or perhaps the baton is really a wand, shooting out pink stars to paint these otherwise plain and humble trees, so inconspicuous the rest of the year.

Ordinarily I don’t dress up in finery like these trees do.  I prefer inconspicuous for myself.  But I love the celebratory joy of those trees in full blossom and enjoy looking for them in yards and parks and along sidewalks.

Maybe there is something pink in my closet I can wear.  Maybe conspicuous every once in awhile is exactly what is needed.

Song from a Snowdrift

photo by Josh Scholten

Your rolling and stretching grew quieter that stormy winter night, but no labor came.
A week overdue, you clung to amnion and womb, not ready.
The wind blew wicked and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts.
The roads impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.

Your dad and I tried, worried about being stranded at home.
Our little car got stuck in a snowpile,  our tires spinning, whining against the snow.
A neighbor’s bulldozer dug us out to freedom.
You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard,
we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital.
You slept.
I, not at all.

Morning sun glistened off sculptured snow outside our window,
Your heart had mysteriously slowed in the night.
You were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed.
You beat even more slowly.

The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble. The doctor, grim faced, announced
delivery must happen quickly, taking you now, hoping we were not too late.
I was rolled, numbed, stunned, clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes,
not wanting to see the bustle around me, not wanting to hear the shouted orders,
the tension in the voices, the quiet at the moment of opening when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry.
Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb,
to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room,
your first vocal solo brought applause
from the surrounding audience who admired your pink skin,
your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight,
then blinking open, wondrous.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch
before being whisked away,
your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.
I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.

If no storm had come, you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb,
no longer nurtured by an aging placenta,
cut off from what you needed to stay alive.
There would have been only our soft weeping,
knowing what could have been if we had only known,
if we could have been sent a sign to go for help.

Saved by a storm, dug from a drift:
I celebrate now each time I hear your voice singing.

Losing A Grip

In the Pasture--Julien Dupre`

This painting by French realist Julien Dupre` resonates with me this week.  I know well the feeling of pulling against a momentum determined to break free of the strength I can muster to keep it under control.  This illustrates what my life often feels like, both on the farm and at work.  I admit I am barely hanging on, at times losing my grip, my feet braced but slipping beneath me.

The full-uddered cow in the painting is compelled to join her herd in a pastoral scene just across the creek, but the milk maid must resist the cow’s escape.  For the cow’s benefit and comfort, she must be milked. The cow has another agenda.  She has nearly broken free, almost pulled up the stake, and now the maid is braced to pull her around to retie her.  The action suggests the maid may succeed, but the cow’s attention is directed far afield.  She doesn’t even feel the tug on her halter.

Right now, as spring advances rapidly with grass growing thick in the pastures, our horses smell that richness in the air.  Sometimes this tug of war takes place when my plan is different than the horse’s.  The fields are too wet for them yet, so they must wait for the right time to be released to freedom.  The grass calls to them like a siren song as I lead them to dirt paddocks for their portion of last summer’s uninviting hay.  They can pull my shoulders almost out of joint when they are determined enough, they break through fences in their pursuit of green, they push through stall doors and lift gates off hinges.  Right now I’m barely an adequate counterbalance to the pursuit of their desires and I struggle to remind them I’m on the other end of their lead rope.

Tonight I sprung them from their winter prison, allowing them 2 hours out in the evening twilight meadows, to run and leap and yes, even eat a little grass while I straightened their beds.  I readied their stalls just as I used to straighten my childrens’ bedrooms before bedtime when they were small.  One horse keeps a tidy home, with little mixing of waste and clean bedding.  Another horse is in constant motion at night and like a child whose sheets and blankets end up as much off the bed as on, stirs the clean bedding into the dirty areas of the stall.  Yet another horse likes to dump his water bucket, throw it in the air and knock it about, drenching everything–from the house I can hear him fighting a bucket battle in the dark of night.  My children were creative too–one was a clothes and toy “piler” , another was a “strewer” and the one still at home tends to both strew and pile.

Each day I try to restore order in my life, on the farm, in the house, in my clinic, with my patients and coworkers, with my family. I want to pull that cow back around, get her tied up and relieved of her burden of milk so that it can nurture and replenish others.  Sometimes I hang on, but only to be pulled along on the ground, getting roughed up in the process.  Sometimes I have to let go, and then have to try to catch that cow all over again.  Once in awhile I get the cow turned around and actually milked without a spill.

I’ve held on.  I’ve got a grip.  And I can make cheese.

Mowing the Orchard

The rain eases long enough
to allow blades of grass to stand back up
expectant, refreshed yet unsuspecting,
primed for the mower’s cutting swath.

Swollen clusters of pink tinged apple blossoms
sway in response to the mower’s pass,
buds bulge on ancient branches weighted in promise of fruit
stroked by the hum of honeybees’ tickling legs and tongues.

Bowed low beneath the clustered blooms,  yet scratched by snagging branches
that shower from a hidden raindrop reservoir
held in the clasp of blushing petal cups–
my wounds anointed in trickles of perfumed crimson.

orchard photos by Lea Gibson (“after the rain”)

A Place that Reflects the People Inside

( a writing class assignment on a building that is particularly meaningful to me)

Back in the early days of Whatcom County,  the little church on Wiser Lake had been constructed through “contributions of the people” in a rural neighborhood only a few miles from where we now live.  $600 in lumber was provided by a local farmer whose trees were cut and milled and brought by horse drawn wagon to a building site adjacent to a one room school house along a corrugated plank road. The total property was “valued at $1800, but of even more value to the community.” The dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, August 27, 1916 followed by “a basket dinner—come with well filled baskets for a common table, under the direction of the Ladies Aid”. This was to be followed by a “Fellowship Meeting, special music and fraternal addresses” and the day ended at 8 PM with a Young People’s Meeting.  So began the long history of the “Wiser Lake Church”.

For reasons unrecorded in the history of the church, the original denomination closed the doors thirty years later, and for awhile the building was empty and in need of a congregation. By the fifties, it became a mission church of the local Christian Reformed Churches and launched a Sunday School program for migrant farm and Native American children in the surrounding rural neighborhood.  No formal church services started until the sixties. By the time the building was sixty years old, so many children were arriving for Sunday School, there was not enough room so the building was hoisted up on jacks to allow a hole to be dug underneath for a basement full of classrooms. Over the course of a summer, the floor space doubled, and the church settled back into place, allowed to rest again on its foundation.

Over seventy years after its dedication ceremony, our family drove past the boxy building countless times hurrying on our way to other places, barely giving it a second glance. It had a classic design, but showed its age with peeling paint,  a few missing shingles, an old fashioned square flat roofed belfry, and arched windows. The hand lettered sign spelling out “Wiser Lake Chapel” by the road constituted a humble invitation of sorts, simply by listing the times of the services.

On a blustery December Sunday evening, we had no place else to be for a change.  Instead of driving past, we stopped, welcomed by the yellow glow pouring from the windows and an almost full parking lot. Our young family climbed the steps to the big double doors, and inside were immediately greeted by a large balding man with a huge grin and encompassing handshake. He asked our names and pointed us to one of the few open spots still available in the old wooden pews.

The sanctuary was a warm and open space with a high lofted ceiling, dark wood trim accents matching the ancient pews, and a plain wooden cross above the pulpit in front. There was a pungent smell from fir bough garlands strung along high wainscoting, and a circle of candles standing lit on a small altar table. Apple pie was baking in the kitchen oven, blending with the aroma of good coffee and hot cocoa.

The service was a Sunday School Christmas program, with thirty some children of all ages and skin colors standing up front in bathrobes and white sheet angel gowns, wearing gold foil halos, tinfoil crowns and dish towels wrapped with string around their heads. They were prompted by their teachers through carols and readings of the Christmas story. The final song was Silent Night, sung by candle light, with each child and member of the congregation holding a lit candle. There was a moment of excitement when one girl’s long hair briefly caught fire, but after that was quickly extinguished, the evening ended in darkness, with the soft glow of candlelight illuminating faces of the young and old, some in tears streaming over their smiles.

It felt like home. We had found our church. We’ve never left. Over two decades it has had peeling paint and missing shingles, a basement that floods when the rain comes down hard, toilets that don’t always flush, and though it smells heavenly on potluck days, there are times when it can be just a bit out of sorts and musty. It also has a warmth and character and uniqueness that is unforgettable.

It’s really not so different from the folks who gather there.  We know we belong.

Ballad of a Soldier

“Comrade General, instead of a decoration, could I go home to see my mother?”

I was sixteen, taking second year high school Russian during the Cold War, partly for the challenge, but mostly to understand better who our “enemy” was.  Our teacher assigned us unusual homework one weekend: watch the 1959 Russian movie  “Ballad of a Soldier” being broadcast on PBS in 1970.  It had English subtitles, but the point of the assignment was to experience the sounds and inflections of native Russian speakers.  Although the movie was a fictional story of a Russian soldier’s brief leave from the front during WWII, it complemented a concurrent assignment in our World History class, reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The unforgettable juxtaposition of these two works of art helped me appreciate, in the midst of the nightly news from Vietnam,  the terrible cost of war.

The other night, some forty years later, I watched this movie again. The tale is a classic “returning home from war” saga with the twist that young Alyosha is only on a brief leave granted by a compassionate general rewarding the front line soldier for an extraordinary act of bravery.  Alyosha asks only to return to his home village to fix the leaking roof of his mother’s home.  Given the extraordinary difficulties of war time travel in an economically struggling country, as well as the challenges and people he ends up meeting along the way, his time home ends up being only a few precious minutes before he has to turn around and return to the front.  He only has enough time to hug his mother, and say goodbye one last time, never to return again.

Although the story focuses on a son’s determination to get home to his mother, it also allows a view of war’s permanent damage to bodies and minds,  as well as the toll of war time separation on relationships.  There seems little sense of hopeful future for the characters in this story, so the immediacy of what they experience takes on greater significance.

Alyosha meets a young woman on the train and their evolving connection offers a glimpse of a potential love that can transcend the ugliness of war.  They part not even knowing how to find each other again, after having spent precious few hours in conversation.   Acknowledging that lack of future hope is the most painful of all;  there is no ability to make plans with confidence, no sense of a long life stretching ahead like the dusty road leading from his village that reaches endless to the horizon.

I remember sitting in my childhood home, watching this movie as a teenager with so little life experience at that point.  Tears streamed down my face, as I was touched forever by the tender story of a man made too old by war and hardship for his young years and his simple desire to once again hug his mother.   This did not feel like an enemy to me.  This felt like someone I could easily love and hold on to–as a brother, someday as a cherished husband, eventually as a precious son.   Years later I identify with the mother with moistening eyes, watching my children leave our home, heading down that long endless road, hopefully, never to fight a war.

Watching these touching scenes play out once again, I realize I’m still holding on to precious hope, forty years later, even as my road gets shorter.  I’ll never let it go.

Easter Meditation: Our Hearts Burn Within Us

Christ on the Road to Emmaus Artist: Roghman Roelant Location: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Luke 24: 30-32

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

This story of the risen Lord appearing to two despondent disciples later on the day of His resurrection tends to get overlooked in the excitement of the rolled back stone, the empty tomb with grave clothes left behind, and the angels announcing “He is not here, He is risen!”.   Yet at the end of a blessed and full Easter day today, and after 6 weeks of daily meditations in preparation for this day, it is the Road to Emmaus that I keep coming back to.  It reaches me because it makes my heart burn, not in a “too much acid” way, but in a “wishing I could more fully understand God’s plan for us”  way.  It helps open my eyes and see a living Jesus in the people around me.

Like so many, I tend to walk through life blinded to what is really important, essential and necessary.  I can be self-absorbed,  immersed in my own troubles and concerns, staring at my own feet as I walk each step, rather than looking at the road ahead and taking joy in the journey.

Emmaus helps me remember how He feeds me from His word, and I hunger for even more, my heart burning within me.   Jesus makes plain how He Himself addresses my most basic needs:

He is the bread of life so I am fed.

He is the living water so I no longer thirst.

He is the light so I am never left in darkness.

He shares my yoke so my burden is easier.

He clothes  me with righteousness so I am never naked.

He cleanses me when I am at my most soiled and repugnant.

He is the open door–always welcoming, with a room prepared for me.

So when I encounter Him along the road of my life,  I need to be ready to listen, ready to invite Him in to stay, ready to share whatever I have with Him.    When He breaks bread and hands me my piece, I want to accept it with open eyes of gratitude, knowing the gift He hands me is nothing less than Himself.


Lenten Meditation: It Was As His Flesh: Ours

'The Incredulity of St.Thomas' by Caravaggio ca.1601, at the Neues Palais, Potsdam

Seven Stanzas for Easter by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

—John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964

Empty Tomb by Barbara Adams

Lenten Meditation: Sometimes it causes me to tremble…

Today was dismal with extreme winds and rain.  The sun threatened to disappear but it didn’t.  Even so, it felt like it should.  Today was that kind of day.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Sometimes it causes me to tremble…

There is nothing good about what happened that day–the rejection, the denials, the trumped up charges, the beatings, the burden of carrying a heavy weight through jeering crowds, the thorns,  the nails, the suffocation, the thirst, the despair of being forsaken.

But all this cannot defeat God.  On this day, there is courage to surrender, there is forgiveness, there is compassion, there is grace,  there is sacrifice, there is a debt paid.  The Son takes on our inquity, brings us face to face with our Father and will bring us home.

Sometimes it causes me to tremble.

Such a good, such a very Good Friday.

Lenten Meditation: Many Rooms

John 14: 1-3

Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

It was meant to be reassurance: trust me, don’t be troubled, I will return.  Looking back, it is powerfully reassuring, but at the time it must have been greatly puzzling.  There would have been too much to absorb and understand in these few words.

Certainly it is reassuring there will be plenty of room as well as plenty of rooms.  We are a diverse flock–each unique from the next, yet there is room for everyone.  Despite our differences, there will be a dwelling place prepared and ready,  able to fit us all in.

And most reassuring of all–nothing is hidden from us, even if we don’t always understand what we hear and read.  “If it were not so, I would have told you.”

There is a welcome mat, an open door, a room prepared specifically for us, and we will be guided there.

No need to be troubled.  Trust me.