Out through the fields and the woods And over the walls I have wended; I have climbed the hills of view And looked at the world, and descended; I have come by the highway home, And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground, Save those that the oak is keeping To ravel them one by one And let them go scraping and creeping Out over the crusted snow, When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still, No longer blown hither and thither; The last lone aster is gone; The flowers of the witch hazel wither; The heart is still aching to seek, But the feet question ‘Whither?’
Ah, when to the heart of man Was it ever less than a treason To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason, And bow and accept the end Of a love or a season? ~Robert Frost “Reluctance”
As I kick through piles of fallen leaves in the barnyard, I realize how close I am to becoming one of them. Within my own seasons, I have flourished and bloomed and fruited, but, with aging, am now reminded of my fading, withering and eventual letting go. I find I’m not nearly so bold anymore, instead trembling nervously when harsh winds blow me about.
I have come to question the stability of the stems, branches, trunk and roots I’ve always depended upon. Will they continue to nourish and sustain me?
Everything feels transitory — especially me.
When these thoughts overwhelm, I tend to hang on tighter rather than simply giving up and letting go. My feet stumble when I try to do the same tasks I did so smoothly years ago. I am easily torn, broken and full of holes. No graceful bow from me; I’m stubbornly wanting things to stay the same, reluctant for a transition to something different.
My only solace is that the heart of man — indeed my own holey heart — is transient compared to the holy Heart of God. I am sustained by His steady Pulse, His ubiquitous Circulation, His impeccable Rhythm of Life and Death.
In that I trust. In that I come to abandon my stubborn reluctance.
“There’s never an end to dust and dusting,” my aunt would say as her rag, like a thunderhead, scudded across the yellow oak of her little house. There she lived seventy years with a ball of compulsion closed in her fist, and an elbow that creaked and popped like a branch in a storm. Now dust is her hands and dust her heart. There’s never an end to it. ~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985
My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it. She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs, unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties. Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying, and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975. She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.
I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral. In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote. It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare. In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.
She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.
Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations. As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt. She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother. Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.
Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world. Her most visible joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring. It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned. She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America. It provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.
I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died. I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended. Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy. I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.
He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do. He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will. This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church. She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting. Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades. The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.
I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled. Yes, I knew her, I said. Yes, she was a remarkable woman. Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.
There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful. I know now that she did have a secret life. She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little. Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well. It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives, her money would hurt us more than it would help.
Her full story has died with her. Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave.
On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.
Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun. We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.
A real (sort of) starter farm.
Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.
I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish 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. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.
Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.
A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.
My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever: volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.
That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.
He found himself wondering at times, especially in the Autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself ‘Perhaps I shall cross the river myself one day.’ To which the other half of his mind always replied ‘Not yet.’ ~J.R.R. Tolkien — Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings
When you live in Whatcom County, as we do, it is possible to cross the river (several times) over 90 minutes of two lane highway switchbacks to arrive in these wild lands, breathless and overcome by their majesty.
Visions of mountains from our dreams become an overwhelming 360 degree reality, nearly reachable if I stretch out my hand.
God touches every square inch of earth as if He owns the place, but these square inches are particularly marked by His artistry. It is a place to feel awed by His magnificence.
I am left to wonder about the wild lands, much like Tolkien’s Frodo, pondering what bridges God is building to bring us back home to Him.
I spent this 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 twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger 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. Whenever horse people gather, there were 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.
My friend Jenny 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 which still come often in my professional life, 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.
Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.
Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially 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 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.
Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here. And we all had to let her go.
Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.
You were so right, Jenny. No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.
And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.
Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still! ~William Wordsworth from Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 1802
The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder. — G. K. Chesterton
The ending of September is wistful yet expectant. We have not yet had frost but the air has a stark coolness that presages a freeze coming soon. Snow has fallen on the mountain passes and the peaks.
Nothing is really growing any more; there is a settling in, as if going down for a nap–drifting off, comfortable, sinking deep and untroubled under the blankets.
Our long sleep is not yet come but we take our rest at intervals. There is still daylight left though the frenetic season has passed.
We take our calm as it comes, in a serene moment of reflection, looking out from the edge and wondering… pondering what is waiting on the other side.