Much Too Beautiful to Stay

I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”

An amber light stretches from sky to ground
this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning-
today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.

A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay.
I long again for rain and chill nights.

Drying up and pock-marked with holes,
I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape,
wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together
where holiness is to be found.

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Mist in the Fields

A girl comes out
of the barn, holding
a lantern
like a bucket of milk

or like a lantern.
Her shadow’s there.
They pump a bucket of water
and loosen their blouses,

they lead the mare out
from the field
their thin legs
blending with the wheat.

Crack a green kernel
in your teeth.  Mist
in the fields,
along the clay road

the mare’s footsteps
fill up with milk.
~Franz Wright  “Morning” from Ill Lit:Selected and New Poems

Each morning as I rise
to let the horses out to graze for the day,
I’m once again that teenage girl who awoke early
to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn,
mist in my hair and dew on my boots,
picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.

The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose
until I knew it was time to turn around,
each hoof step taking us closer to home
to clean barn, do chores, hang laundry,
weed the garden until sunset.

It is sunlight that creates and then erases
all in me that is shadow.
Eventually, only the real me remains.

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Supposing a Tree Fell

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

our friends’ bedroom after a tree fell through their roof in a windstorm – thankfully, no one was hurt

It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply
in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs”
because people were being crushed by a virus
right and left.

I understand this kind of thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies,
(like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night)
play out real-time in the palm of our hand
in front of our eyes
and we feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to think catastrophically.
That is what I have done for a living –
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise, too often sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all do ~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did … even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never abandoned.

He is with us always.

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With Quiet Eyes

Who loves the rain    
    And loves his home, 
And looks on life with quiet eyes,  
     Him will I follow through the storm;    
     And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,    
     Who loves the rain, 
     And loves his home, 
And looks on life with quiet eyes.

~Frances Shaw, “Who loves the rain” from Look To the Rainbow

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
and that necessary.
~Margaret Atwood from “Variation on the Word Sleep”

For Dan’s birthday…

In this journey together,
we inhabit each other,
however long may be the road we travel;
you have become the air I breathe,
refreshing, renewing, restoring~~
you are that necessary to me,
and that beloved.

Each year, as we grow older together:
grayer, softer, gentler
with ourselves,
each other
and the world.

I pause,
on this day you were born,
to thank God yet again
for bringing you to earth
so we could meet,
raise three amazing children,
and walk this journey together
with pulse and breath and dreams.

It was your quiet brown eyes I trusted first
and just knew
I’d follow you anywhere
and I have…

Sweating Under the High Arc of Midsummer

What is the hayfield in late afternoon
that it can fly in the face of time,

and light can be centuries old, and even
the rusted black truck I am driving

can seem to be an implement born
of some ancient harvest,

and the rhythmic baler, which spits out
massive bricks tied up in twine,

can seem part of a time before now
because light glitters on the hay dust,

because the sun is sinking and we sweat
under the high arc of mid-summer,

because our bodies cast such long shadows–
Rebecca, with the baby strapped to her back,

the men who throw impossible weight
to the top of the truck, the black and white

dog that races after mice or moles
whose lives have been suddenly exposed.

How does the taste of my sweat take me
down through the gate of childhood,

spinning backwards to land in a field
painted by Bruigel, where the taste of salt

is the same, and the same heat
rises in waves off a newly flattened field.

In the duskiness of slanted light, we laugh
just as we laughed then, because there is

joy in what the earth gives, allowing
our bodies to mingle with it, our voices

small on the field, our work assuring the goats
can give milk, the sheep can grow wool,

and we will have in our bones the taste
of something so old it travels in light.
~Susie Patlove “First Cutting” from Quickening

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson
1994
2005
2011

There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.

Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.

I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.

But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most:
-the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked
-the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains
-the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us

Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.

photo by Tayler Rae
Pieter Bruegel “Hay Harvest”
My grandparents Leslie Polis and Kittie Lovelace standing in a hayfield with loose hay shocks — 1915

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Go Out and Help Your Dad


It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.


Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself


to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took


so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him


home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—


all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,


help your father, but this
was work we could not do.


He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Twenty-six years ago today
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.


This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying,
and returning home forgiven.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what was yet undone was up to us
to finish for you.

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Missing the Right Things

In your next letter, please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.
When I try to explain where I’m from,
people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,

cows drifting across grass. I interrupt
with barbed wire, wind, harvest air
that reeks of wheat and diesel.

I hope your sleep comes easy now
that you’ve surrendered the upstairs,
hope the sun still lets you drink

one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss
flannel shirts, radios with only
AM stations, but there’s a certain kind

of star I can’t see from where I am—
bright, clear, unconcerned. I need
your recipes for gravy, pie crust,

canned green beans. I’m sending you
the buttons I can’t sew back on.
Please put them in the jar beside your bed.

In your next letter, please send seeds
and feathers, a piece of bone or china
you plowed up last spring. Please
promise I’m missing the right things.

~Carrie Shipers, “In Your Next Letter” from Cause for Concern

For our children (and now their children) who have left the farm, now living far away:

I want to be sure you are missing the right things about this incredible place.

There is so much about a farm that is worrisome, burdensome, back-breaking and unpredictable. Don’t miss those things.

Miss what is breath-taking, awe-inspiring and heart-swelling.

We miss you more than we can ever say, indeed an intensive “missing” that can’t be expressed in words. So I send this to you and you’ll understand.

All Barb and Bristle

This upstart thistle
Is young and touchy; it is
All barb and bristle,

Threatening to wield
Its green, jagged armament
Against the whole field.

Butterflies will dare
Nonetheless to lay their eggs
In that angle where

The leaf meets the stem,
So that ants or browsing cows
Cannot trouble them.

Summer will grow old
As will the thistle, letting
A clenched bloom unfold

To which the small hum
Of bee wings and the flash of
Goldfinch wings will come,

Till its purple crown
Blanches, and the breezes strew
The whole field with down.
~Richard Wilbur “A Pasture Poem” from Anterooms

Not unlike the thistles that dot our pastures, I can have a tendency to be a bristly, barbed and sharp – some is simply my nature, but also long years of relentless training to become tough and impenetrable. Perhaps it represents my need for self-protection, but like the thistle, though having spiky thorns may keep me from being “eaten”, it doesn’t deter the gentle approach of butterfly or bee.

As a result, I have been softened over time (in more ways than one!) by forces outside of myself – a ripening that means I am less threat and more welcoming. My unfolding into fluffy blossom became my way of enveloping myself around my world as grace enveloped me.

With the breezes, the softest of thistle down spreads afar rather than standing stock-still in self-defense. I find in my seventh decade, I’m actually meant to fly, settling into nooks and crannies I never could have dreamed while barbed and spiky.

That is how grace and redemption works on thistles and bristly people: from sharp edges to delicate downiness.

We are all in need of such transformation.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

It’s Being Easy in the Harness

Photo by Joel deWaard
photo by Joel deWaard

I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
A definition of freedom:
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

photo by Joel deWaard
photo by Joel deWaard

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing, 
Old Callow at his autumn ploughing, 
Old Callow, stooped above the hales, 
Ploughing the stubble into wales. 
His grave eyes looking straight ahead, 
Shearing a long straight furrow red; 
His plough-foot high to give it earth 
To bring new food for men to birth. 

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…

At top of rise the plough team stopped, 
The fore-horse bent his head and cropped. 
Then the chains chack, the brasses jingle, 

The lean reins gather through the cringle, 
The figures move against the sky, 
The clay wave breaks as they go by. 
I kneeled there in the muddy fallow, 
I knew that Christ was there with Callow, 
That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

photo by Joel deWaard
photo by Joel deWaard

We shoulder much burden in the pursuit of happiness and freedom,
worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

Our heart land is plowed,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow should be straight and narrow.

We are tread upon
yet still bloom;
we are turned upside down
yet still produce bread.

The plowing under brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms now making fertile our simple dust.

Plow deep our hearts this day of celebrating freedom, Dear Lord.
This is the day of rest You made for us
and let us remember to worship You, and not ourselves.

May we plow, sow, grow, and harvest what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

photo by Joel deWaard
photo by Joel deWaard
photo by Joel deWaard

Thank you once again to Joel deWaard, local farmer, craftsman and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

Like Time’s Insidious Wrinkle

Like Time’s insidious wrinkle
On a beloved Face
We clutch the Grace the tighter
Though we resent the crease
~Emily Dickinson

People are more than just the way they look.
~Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time

1971 – not a wrinkle in sight
2021

Just a glance in the mirror tells me all I need to know:

the creases I see remind me
each wrinkle shows my life in action,
so tangible, so telling, so mobile –
they multiply particularly when I smile and laugh
so I must do both more often.

I won’t hide them
nor tighten them away
or inject them smooth.

Instead I’ll grin at the wrinkle of time’s passing
knowing each line gained
is grace clutched tightly
in my otherwise loosening grasp.

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