Twenty Six Years of Farm and Family

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress and a few kitchen things, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back after nine years in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months before to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a rural setting and an uncertain professional future.

I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so a family was on its way, and we were going to live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with five acres and a barn. A real (sort of) farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two little sister tortoise shell calico kittens just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.

I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my stomach, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in a city: the ideal family practice with a delightfully diverse patient population of African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Muslims and Orthodox Jews. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all with me into the Mazda, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding a dog Tango, then a Haflinger horse Greta, then goats Tamsen and her kids, a few geese, chickens, Fiona the Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added another baby, Ben and then another, Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Twenty six years later our children are grown and gone, off to their own adventures beyond the farm, each to a different big city. A few cats, two dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain. We are grayer, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. Our second larger farm seems more than we can realistically manage by ourselves in our spare time. My work evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day. My husband is talking retirement in a few years. I’m not so sure for myself. I have never not worked.

The freedom I felt watching Seattle disappear in the rear view mirror meant I no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams for an hour, but now commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could muster in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano at church and serving on various boards. I love how our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with swans overhead and salmon in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet me in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids me good night.

It all started one Halloween day with two orange and black kittens beside me in a little Mazda and a husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, twenty six years and three grown children later, we find ourselves on our own yet again, still pregnant with possibility for our future together.

When the Light is Just Right

End of October
rain and wind.

An instant at dusk,
the sun broke through,
peeling away the grey,
infusing amber onto
fields and foliage,
ponies and puddles.
The shower spun
raindrops threading
a gold tapestry
through the evening air,
casting sparkles,
a sunray sweep of
fairy godmother’s wand
across the landscape.

In the sky appeared
a double rainbow tiara,
radiant and beaming
with momentous promise.

One more blink,
and the sun shrouded,
the color drained away
the glimmer mulled
into mere weeping
once more,
streaming over
our farm’s fallen face.

Now I know to gently
wipe the teardrops away,
having seen the
hidden magic within,
when the light is just so.

Savoring the tears
of gold that glisten
when the light
is just right.

Physician Heal Thyself

photo by Josh Scholten

Most physicians do not follow their own advice. Too many of us are overly tired, cranky, and resentful about our work load, so not looking forward to the dawn of the next work day.

Here is advice we all know but don’t always allow ourselves to follow:

1) Sleep. Plenty. Weekend and days-off naps permitted. It’s one thing you can’t delegate someone else to do for you.

2) Don’t skip meals. Ever. Especially if there is family involved.

3) Drink water through the day.

4) Because of 3) go to the bathroom when it is time to go and not four hours later.

4) Nurture the people (and other breathing beings) who love and care for you.

5) Exercise whenever possible. Take the stairs. Park on the far side of the lot. Dance on the way to the next exam room.

6) Believe in something more infinite than you are.

7) Time off is sacred. When not on call, don’t take calls except from family and friends. No exceptions.

8 ) Learn how to say no gracefully—try “not now but maybe sometime in the future and thanks for thinking of me”.

9) Celebrate being unscheduled and unplanned when not scheduled and planned.

10) Get away. Far away. Whenever possible. The back yard counts.

11) Connect regularly with people and activities that have absolutely nothing to do with medicine and health care.

12) Cherish mentors, coaches and teachers that can help you grow and refine your profession and your person.

13) Start your work day on time. End your work day a little before you think you should.

14) Smile at people who are not expecting it. Smile at people who don’t think they deserve it. If you can’t get your lips to smile, smile with your eyes.

15) Practice gratitude daily.

photo by Josh Scholten

Digging Potatoes

Digging Potatoes by Martin Driscoll

Recent rains have melted the potato vines flat to the ground, nearly indistinguishable from the dirt where they lie strung out and dead spider-like. It is time to dig before there is no trace left of where the potato harvest can be found. Weeds still thrive in the cooler autumn weather, green and strong, but the potato vines had given up several weeks ago, dying back as summer waned.

Armed with basket and pitchfork, I go to work, sinking the tines into the soil to loosen it, then lifting up gently to see what I might find underneath. From a waterfall of dirt tumbles smooth egg-size ovals of red and yellow and white. I pan the dirt with my fingers, sifting through the clumps to discover nuggets to brush off and set aside in the basket to take to storage in the root cellar.

Within each unearthed hill of potatoes rests the old mother “seed” potato, so fertile and firm, eagerly sprouting when planted only 4 months ago. I stumble upon her, noticing her vigorous nurture of multiple offspring, sometimes as many as twenty coming from one original planting. Occasionally I find her shrunken to only a dry floppy skin, her flesh spent and dispersed. More often she is still recognizable, though spongy and softened, wrinkled and withered by her immense effort to propagate. Most poignant are the hills where there is nothing left but residual gooeyness in the center. It adheres sticky to my palms as I unexpectedly grasp her glutinous remains, and it gums up deep under my fingernails.

The seed gives all of herself. As she must.

The new potatoes are spread on the drying shelves, color coded into gold, red and white, waiting in the dark root cellar to become a feast of dreams born of sun, rain and soil. I return to the kitchen to wash their dirt off my hands, scrubbing to remove what still clings to my skin. Even so, my fingernails stay hopelessly stained and brown, and I don’t mind.

Within my hands I will carry the memory of the mothers.

Van Gogh Painting, Oil on Canvas on Panel Nuenen: August, 1885 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands, Europe F: 97, JH: 876

A Dent in the Ground

photo by Josh Scholten

Name of Horses by Donald Hall
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.


photo by Josh Scholten

As a child, not yet a teenager, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in an open clearing of our woods where our horse rested in the ground. She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. At first it was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see. When the tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear. Later it became the sanctuary I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.

Your bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.

I remember you.

And the Dying Begins…

It begins even though I’m unprepared.  No matter which way I turn,  autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again.  Some dying is flashy, brilliant, blazing, a calling out for attention.  Then there is the hidden dying that happens without anyone taking notice: a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.

I spent the morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning ten years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

A friend had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward. I have remembered.

Jenny herself spent the last six years dying, while living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that has been helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until two days ago when she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

So now she has let go her hold on life here.   And we must let her go.   Brilliance will cloak her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  Nothing from ten years ago amounts to a hill of beans. Except the words you spoke to me.

And I won’t be upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us.

We’ll catch up later.

Jenny R --photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs