A Girl from Spring Valley

Fourteen years ago today, my mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, returned home for good, gently picked up and carried away by the Lord before dawn. She was just over 88 1/2 years old, and had lived much of her life anticipating her death day with some apprehension, having almost been called home at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith.

She was born in the isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington, in a two story white house located down a long lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills. Despite having one older brother, it was a lonely childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation years later after divorce, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying during the last few months if her life after a devastating leg fracture. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she tried to give up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

Blinking in the Sun

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.
~Joyce Sutphen “From Out the Cave” from Straight Out of View
.

Rather than mindfulness, I try to practice something I call “heartfulness.” Instead of staying so much inside my head while going through the necessary motions of everyday routine, I try to make sense of my place and purpose in the world to invest my heart in it. I pay attention to what is happening around me – the sights, sounds, smells – to where my feet will land next and to where my hands might extend to serve. For internally focused people like me, it helps to stretch my vision and my actions beyond my own needs.

It is like waking from a troubled sleep, and seeing familiar surroundings that have been in shadow, cast in a new light for the first time. When I first bought a phone with a camera over a decade ago, I started looking at the world differently, eager to capture the subtle changes I witnessed throughout the time of day and seasonal progression. Sometimes I receive feedback that my photos look “all the same” – they are only two-dimensional versions of what I see around me. Indeed, how can a photo communicate the fresh feel of dew-dawn air, or the crunch of snow underfoot, or the scent of spring blossoms or the smell of badly needed rain? My photo becomes my hook back to a focused moment of heartfulness for me — my reminder of what ‘was’ and ‘is” and what ‘will be again.’

As I climb out of the relative safety of my dark “cave” – a place we all retreat to when life is simply too much – I stand astonished and heart-full, blinking at the sun, aware that I’m meant to witness all that is beyond me.

And simply to share and tell about it as best I can.

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Such Letting Go

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
~Lucille Clifton “Lesson of the Falling Leaves” from Blessing the Boats

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Autumn” translated by Robert Bly

Sometimes I wake from my sleep
with a palpitating start:
dreaming of falling,
my body pitching and tumbling
yet somehow I land,
~oh so softly~
in my bed,
my fear quashed and cushioned by
awaking safe.

I feel caught,
held tightly,
rescued amid the fall
we all do someday,
like leaves drifting down
from heaven’s orchard,
like seeds released like kisses
into the air,
the earth rises to meet me
and Someone cradles me there.

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The Child I Was Calls Out to Me

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree   
out of blue sky    the wind   
sings loudest surrounding me.


And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,   fearfully,   high     I’d climb   
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog,   autumnal burnings,
far calls,   close calls—   the boy I was
calls out to me

here the man where I am   “Look!
I’ve been where you


most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

And this is where we went, I thought,
Now here, now there, upon the grass
Some forty years ago.

The days being short now, simply I had come
To gaze and look and stare upon
The thought of that once endless maze of afternoons.
But most of all I wished to find the places where I ran

What’s happened to our boys that they no longer race
And stand them still to contemplate Christ’s handiwork:
His clear blood bled in syrups from the lovely wounded trees?
Why only bees and blackbird winds and bending grass?
No matter. Walk. Walk, look, and sweet recall.

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

Not long ago, we drove the country roads where I grew up,
over sixty years later,
and though some trees are taller, and others cut down –
it looked just as I remembered.
The scattered houses on farms still standing, a bit more worn,
the fields open and flowing as always,
the turns and bends, the ups and downs of the asphalt lanes unchanged
where once I tread with bicycle tires and sneakered feet.

My own childhood home a different color
but so familiar as we drive slowly by,
full of memories of laughter and games,
long winter days and longer summer evenings
full of its share of angry words and tears
and eventual forgiveness.

I too left notes to my future self, in old barns, and lofts,
and yes, in trees,
but won’t go back to retrieve them.
I remember what I wrote.
My young heart tried to imagine itself decades hence,
with so much to fear – bomb drills and shelters in the ground,
such anxiety and joy would pass through me like pumping blood,
wondering what wounds would I bear and bleed,
what love and tears would trace my aging face?

I have not forgotten that I wish to be remembered.

No, I have never forgotten
that I remember that child:
this is me,
as I was, and, deep down, still am.

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Fallen Like the Trees

I want to praise things
that cannot last. The scarlet and orange leaves
are already gone, blown down by a cold rain,
crushed and trampled. They rise again in leaf meal
and wood smoke. The Great Blue Heron’s returned to the pond,
settles in the reeds like a steady flame.
Geese cut a wedge out of the sky, drag the gray days
behind them like a skein of old wool.
I want to praise everything brief and finite.
~Barbara Crooker from her poem “Equinox” in Selected Poems

A gracious Sabbath stood here while they stood
Who gave our rest a haven.
Now fallen, they are given
To labor and distress.
These times we know much evil, little good
To steady us in faith
And comfort when our losses press
Hard on us, and we choose,
In panic or despair or both,
To keep what we will lose.

For we are fallen like the trees, our peace
Broken, and so we must
Love where we cannot trust,
Trust where we cannot know,
And must await the wayward-coming grace
That joins living and dead,
Taking us where we would not go–
Into the boundless dark.
When what was made has been unmade
The Maker comes to His work.

~Wendell Berry “Sabbaths, II”

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.
~Jane Kenyon, from “Things”
in Collected Poems

I know I am brief and finite,
leaning more and more from the prevailing winds,
wobbly throughout each storm.

Things I wish would last
don’t, so I hold them lightly in love.
I must trust God’s Light passes
through the darkness,
an illuminated pathway
I will follow,
even when falling, even when finite and failing
until I become Light myself.

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Let’s See What Happens…

“Hello, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
~A.A. Milne from Winnie the Pooh

There are days when I am just weary of the status quo and would like to pretend I’m not me just to see what happens.

…not have the same worries,
same bad habits,
same aches and pains,
same overwhelming obstacles.
It might be quite refreshing.

But if I pretended I wasn’t me, I’m sure I would end up having a whole new set of problems, anxieties and fears that would rightfully belong to someone else.

I think I’ll stick with what I know and who I am. After all, I have it pretty good, and that is more than enough for me.

And besides, I kinda want to see what happens… just being me.

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Spark of Consciousness

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We’d go to the living room;
anticipating that she’d be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She’d be on the roof,
she’d be in a nearby tree.
She’d be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can’t get her out of my mind.

~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray

Our pets witness the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one offers their lap to stroke their fur.

They sit silently waiting and wondering, a little spark of consciousness, aware of our family life. They know when things aren’t right at home. They hear the raised voices and they hear the strained silences.

Sometimes a farm cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home; that’s where they stay, through thick and thin.

When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, gauging what amount of spilled-out love might be left over for them.

I still can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We all knew when we left behind the only home we had ever known, we could never truly feel at home again.

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The Unbroken Dark

Now you hear what the house has to say.
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you’ve learned how to ignore.

But now you must listen to the things you own,
all that you’ve worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,

the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
~Dana Gioia, “Insomnia” from 99 Poems: New and Selected. 

The almost disturbing scent
of peonies presses through the screens,
and I know without looking how
those heavy white heads lean down
under the moon’s light. A cricket chafes
and pauses, chafes and pauses,
as if distracted or preoccupied.

When I open my eyes to document
my sleeplessness by the clock, a point
of greenish light pulses near the ceiling.
A firefly . . . In childhood I ran out
at dusk, a jar in one hand, lid
pierced with airholes in the other,
getting soaked to the knees
in the long wet grass.

The light moves unsteadily, like someone
whose balance is uncertain after traveling
many hours, coming a long way.
Get up. Get up and let it out.

But I leave it hovering overhead, in case
it’s my father, come back from the dead
to ask, “Why are you still awake? You can
put grass in their jar in the morning.”

~Jane Kenyon from “Insomnia” from Collected Poems

Sleep comes its little while.
Then I wake in the valley of midnight or three a.m.
to the first fragrances of spring which is coming,
all by itself, no matter what
My heart says,
what you thought you have you do not have.
My body says,
will this pounding ever stop?
My heart says:
there, there, be a good student.
My body says:
let me up and out,
I want to fondle those soft white flowers,
open in the night
~Mary Oliver
from A Thousand Morning Poems

Our house does make sounds at night. It has many stories to tell, and does.

I’ve become accustomed to its various voices after almost thirty years sleeping (and too often not sleeping) here, yet hearing new noises are disconcerting – whether thumps that come from the attic, pattering of little feet across the roof, clinking and clunking of the furnace, or inexplicable wild sounds right outside the bedroom window.

Listening in the night reminds me I’m a mere visitor here. The house, the farm, all that surrounds me here remains long after I’m gone. Awake or asleep, I want to spend my time well here; tossing and turning in my thoughts gives me a chance to consider what the house, the land, the the wild and not-so-wild critters outside have to say. The “terrible clarity” of the unbroken dark is often disconcerting and downright frightening.

It is then, and only then – God’s still, small voice breaks the dark.
Always has. Always will.

I will seek You Lord
Search with all my heart till I find You
Waiting patiently
Longing for one word to breath new life
Your words are life

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

Take me to a place
Sheltered from the noise and distraction
Lord be my escape
Open up my heart to whispers of
Your life and love

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice
~Jay Stocker

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Only Here and Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day,
as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter,
tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods,

doing the last of the fall mowing,
pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…


when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…


when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—
then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind,
the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why
I so seldom find this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.

I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.

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Dreaming of Rain

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain
~Gerard Manley Hopkins  “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

it rained in my sleep
and in the morning the fields were wet

I dreamed of artillery
of the thunder of horses

in the morning the fields were strewn
with twigs and leaves

as if after a battle
or a sudden journey

I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain

in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn

~Linda Pastan “September” from Carnival Evening

Even though we are experiencing outlandishly brilliant and sunny late summer weather, I am longing for rain – it has been much too long without a decent soaking and I’m antsy and anxious when the ground is all dust and the air is in need of a good cleansing.

It’s true that my spirit can be just as dry and dusty as the ground, and my roots are parched. I know the need for a drenching renewal isn’t just for the soil.

Lord of Life,
send your refreshing rain to quench my continual thirst.
Reach down with your torrential Love and bathe my roots.

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