You Never Know…

Without realizing it, we fill
important places in each others’ lives.
It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery,

the mechanic at the local garage,
the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers.


Good people who are always “there,”
who can be relied upon in small,
important ways. People who teach us,
bless us, encourage us, support us,
uplift us in the dailiness of life.

We never tell them.
I don’t know why, but we don’t.

And, of course, we fill that role ourselves.
There are those who depend on us, watch us,
learn from us, take from us. And we never know.

You may never have proof of your importance,
but you are more important than you think.
There are always those who couldn’t do without you.
The rub is that you don’t always know who.
~Robert Fulghum from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

If there is one thing the pandemic taught me, it’s noticing the people in my life who may have not been as obvious to me before. I hadn’t realized how many folks truly are front-line serving others. It is not only the health care workers, grocery store clerks and school teachers but suddenly the list of “essential workers” has grown large, including law enforcement, plumbers and electricians, child care workers, water, sanitation and sewer maintenance, postal clerks, technicians who fix our cars and appliances and the farmers who tend the crops and livestock we need to live.

I realized how oblivious I had been before not taking the time to acknowledge the daily services I receive from so many varied people. In fact, it became even more urgent for me to tell my family members and friends – some thousands of miles away from me – how much they mean to me.

I’ve tried to remedy this: I try to tell others as simply and clearly as I can, whenever possible, that I appreciate what they have done and what they continue to do under difficult circumstances, how important they are to me and others and make life better for us all. I also need to continue to nurture those relationships with family and friends crucial to my well-being. I need them all.

It is so important for them to know.

Well over a thousand of you receive these daily Barnstorming emails and posts yet I only hear from a few of you – I treasure those messages, thank you! Let me know if I can do better at reaching out to each of you in a meaningful way – either by commenting on posts or emailing me privately at emilypgibson@gmail.com – we all need encouragement that we can make a difference in others’ lives.

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To Stay at Home is Best

Stay, stay at home, my heart, and rest;
Home-keeping hearts are happiest,
For those that wander they know not where
Are full of trouble and full of care;
       To stay at home is best.

Weary and homesick and distressed,
They wander east, they wander west,
And are baffled and beaten and blown about
By the winds of the wilderness of doubt;
       To stay at home is best.

Then stay at home, my heart, and rest;
The bird is safest in its nest;
O’er all that flutter their wings and fly
A hawk is hovering in the sky;
       To stay at home is best.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Cambridge Edition

Thank you to Harry Rodenberger for the hummingbird nest videos!

hawk in pursuit

We have been a disconsolate people, uneasy and restless, particularly during the past year of being told to stay at home is best. Safety and protection became the priority despite our longing for freedom of movement.

Now with pandemic restrictions lifting, many of us are impatient to fly and travel, even when the hawks in our lives remain in close pursuit. Though baffled, beaten and blown by the ever-buffeting winds of doubt and threat, we want our liberty.

It is easy to forget:
this earthly home isn’t our “safe” place and
true freedom isn’t going where we please when we please.

This life is merely vapor and our ultimate longing is for something far more eternal than we will find here.

We’re almost home – together on this journey through the darkness to forever.

photos of kestrel falcons by Kate Steensma
photo by Kate Steensma
photo by Kate Steensma
photo by Kate Steensma
photo by Kate Steensma

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Wonder in Their Eyes

Serene the silver fishes glide,
Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed!
As through the aged deeps of ocean,    
They glide with wan and wavy motion.   
They have no pathway where they go,
They flow like water to and fro,    
They watch with never-winking eyes,
They watch with staring, cold surprise,    
The level people in the air,  
The people peering, peering there:
Who wander also to and fro, 
And know not why or where they go,    
Yet have a wonder in their eyes,  
Sometimes a pale and cold surprise.

~ Max Eastman, “At the Aquarium”  Max Eastman: A Life

The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club

Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple
and a patch of gray. One with a gold head,

a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins
like half-folded fans of lace.
A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one,
and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water.
They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us
as we lean on the cement railing
in indecisive late-December light,
and because we do not feed them, they pass,
then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop.
“Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them,
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
perhaps another species, living in the shadow
of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white,
seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses,
unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet.
~Susan Kolodny “Koi Pond, Oakland Museum”

The water going dark only
makes the orange seem brighter,
as you race, and kiss, and spar
for food, pretending not
to notice me. For this gift
of your indifference, I am
grateful. I will sit until
the pond goes black, the last
orange spark extinguished.
~Robert Peake from “Koi Pond”

the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 
Matthew 13: 47-48

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. 
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
– It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels- until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go. 
~Elizabeth Bishop  from “The Fish”

All my life, I’ve taken care of a variety of fish in tanks and ponds.  As a child, I would watch, mesmerized, as our tropical fish glided around, happily exploring their little ten gallon world.  I willingly cleaned away the algae, rinsed the gravel and changed the filter. As a teenager, I boasted at least three different tanks aerating away in my bedroom, my own little aqua-cultural world of bubbles and fins.

During college and medical school, I chose to share my room with goldfish and bettas, thriving on their apparent contentment within a clear glass bowl.  I didn’t think of them as emotional support animals, but there was a joy obvious in their albeit limited existence: they still thrived when I was away, not missing me, but were always thrilled when I fed them, and tolerated my messing with their home maintenance.

My current thirty gallon aquarium is decades old and boasts over two dozen fish and plenty of furry algae and plants. Some of my watery friends have lived ten years or more and when they pass, I miss them.  Even the dozen koi and goldfish in our farm pond have expressive faces and individual personalities that I’ve gotten to know well as they come when I call.

I know the heart of compassion I feel for any creature I’m responsible for, as I know and have experienced the compassion of our Creator.

I would hope when the time comes that I end up in His net, that He’ll look me in the eye, see the wonder there as I gape at Him. He’ll count my blemishes and wounds and the number of hooks in my mouth from the times I’ve been caught and escaped, and if He’s not yet ready to take me home, or deems me not yet ready to leave this world, He’ll throw me back rather than throw me away to keep trying to get it right.

He has promised us that.

Rainbows, rainbows, rainbows indeed…

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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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Spin Until I’m Dizzy

Tomorrow
there will be sun, scalloped by clouds,
ushered in by a waterfall of birdsong.
It will be a temperate seventy-five, low
humidity. For twenty-four hours,
all politicians will be silent. Reality
programs will vanish from TV, replaced
by the “snow” that used to decorate
our screens when reception wasn’t
working. Soldiers will toss their weapons
in the grass. The oceans will stop
their inexorable rise. No one
will have to sit on a committee.
When twilight falls, the aurora borealis
will cut off cell phones, scramble the internet.
We’ll play flashlight tag, hide and seek,
decorate our hair with fireflies, spin
until we’re dizzy, collapse
on the dew-decked lawn and look up,
perhaps for the first time, to read the long lines
of cold code written in the stars….
~Barbara Crooker “Tomorrow” from Some Glad Morning.

Might I hope for a better tomorrow?

Awash in this world of technological and political complexity, I forget the simple pleasure of lying in the grass, looking up and staring at the stars spinning above me.

I become dizzy with the possibilities.

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The Same Simple Welcome

All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was;
but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him,
and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.
He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces,

to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him
and creep home and stay there;
the upper world was all too strong,
it called to him still, even down there,
and he knew he must return to the larger stage.
But it was good to think he had this to come back to,
this place which was all his own,
these things which were so glad to see him again
and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
~Kenneth Grahame, from Wind in the Willows about the Mole and his home at Mole End

Folks need a safe place to call home, where everybody knows their name, and they’re always glad you came – that same simple welcome is a given.

I, for one, am mighty grateful for this place I can wander and wonder about what I see and hear around me. I am gladly anchored here to everything that is meaningful to me.

Too many around the world wander homeless without an anchor – settling randomly wherever there is cover, or a clear grassy spot, or within the hidden-away seclusion of a woods. Even when offered secure housing, they often reject being anchored, not wanting to be subject to rules when home is about making compromises necessary to get along with others.

How do we make “home-more” for the home-less? How can we be convincing that more “anchorage” is a special value?

May we offer the same simple welcome to all.

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On the Lip of the Solstice



It’s deep time here, this barrow grave five thousand years old,
where we follow like sheep behind the guide to the heart
of its cruciform center. I’ve never been in a space so dark.
What was it like to fear that the sun would not return,
that crops would wither, deer flee, that night’s dark cloak
was all there was? But miraculously, on the lip of the solstice,
the light returned, liquid and golden, ran down the narrow corridor,
hit the back wall, splashed in the stone basin, and they knew summer
would come back, run to fruit. Light, dark, freeze, thaw, seedtime,
harvest, wheel of the year, the spiral dance. What would they make
of our device-laden lives, fossil-fueled cars, over-stocked larders?
Who stands in the dark and listens now, gaping at the stars?
— Barbara Crooker, “Newgrange” from The Book of Kells

Finnis Soutterain underground

Finnis Soutterain underground

There is nothing so dark as centuries-old underground tunnels and portal tombs, some positioned with an opening to capture a beam of light exactly at either the winter or summer solstice, illuminating what dwells in blackness the rest of the year.

The more recent ninth century soutterain tunnels were refuge for Christians hiding from invaders, keeping whole villages safe from capture.

The dolmens and portal graves are Neolithic structures built before the pyramids. They still exist today as they were constructed to last by people serious about their beliefs. Though those people are long dust, the stones and tunnels remain as they were, to protect the spirits of the departed.

What would they think now of our extravagance, our plethora of goods and foods, our modern ways of crippling others with the weapons of internet words and hacking, rather than stealing, pillaging and enslaving strangers?

We moderns are lost in our over-abundance of light year round, scarcely noting the calendar or the passing of the longest and shortest days.

What remarkable people of strength have preceded us, seeking to preserve the significance of Light in their darkness.

Legananny Dolmen, Northern Ireland
Legananny dolmen
Kilfeaghan Dolmen
Goward Dolmen at the foot of the Mourne Mountains

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An Exuberant Soul

Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two

Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

photo by Gary Herbert
photo from army.mil

This is the season for graduations and commencements to the next phase of life, when students move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and over thirty two years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.   In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into their hearts so they can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trusted they left well prepared.

As a former school board member, I watched our students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of our graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.  Only they will know the time to unpack it when the need arises.

And now, this year, I find I am “graduating” as well, moving away from a regular clinic work schedule to whatever waits for me next. I cleaned out my desk yesterday, carrying the detritus of three decades back home with me, including a packed-away glass “tear drop” I somehow earned ten years ago for “exceptional effort.” All I really remember about that time in my professional life are the shed tears that award acknowledged unbeknownst. It was a fitting symbol for what I had been through during a hard year.

I’m not exactly climbing on a bus with my lunch packed to go to summer camp, but it feels a bit similar as I enter this new phase. I’m nervous, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m exuberant, so much like all the graduates I’ve seen commence over the years.

And best of all for me, summer camp is right here on the farm, peanut butter sandwiches included.

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The Fly in the Currant Cake

Nothing seems to please a fly so much as to be taken for a currant;
and if it can be baked in a cake and palmed off on the unwary, it dies happy.
~Mark Twain

Today I will wrap up 45 years of uninterrupted training and doctoring. Most of that time, I have worried I’m like a fly hiding among the black currants hoping to eventually become part of the currant cake. 

Maybe no one has noticed. These days we call it the “impostor” syndrome. Mark Twain knew all about currant cake and how easy it was for a fly to blend into its batter.

Even while bearing three children and going through a few surgeries myself, I’ve not been away from patients for more than twenty consecutive days at any one time.  This is primarily out of my concern that, even after a few weeks, I would forget all that I’ve ever known. In fact, half of what I learned in medical school and residency over forty years ago has evolved, thanks to new discoveries and clarifying research. I worried if I were to actually to step away from doctoring for an extended time, then return to see patients again, I would be masquerading as a physician rather than be the real thing. A mere fly among the currants palmed off on the unwary.

If being truly honest, those who spend their professional lives providing medical care to others always share this concern: if a patient only knew how much we don’t know and will never know, despite everything we DO know, there would really be no trust left for us at all.

Of course, some say, didn’t the COVID pandemic prove our ignorance? Physicians started at Ground Zero with a novel virus with unclear transmissibility and immense potential to wreak havoc on the human body … or cause no symptoms whatsoever. We had no collected data to base prevention or treatment decisions: would masks just protect others or would they only protect ourselves, or maybe they protect both? Could a common inexpensive anti-inflammatory/antimalarial drug be beneficial or would a parasitic wormer medication be somehow effective to fight the devastation of the virus?

Effective treatments are still being sought all these months later; others have been debated, studied and discarded as worthless.

Or would this pandemic finally resolve thanks to effective yet controversial public health mandates while rapidly distributing highly effective vaccines developed from many prior years of carefully performed research?

During the past 16 months, your next door neighbor, or the loudest tweet on Twitter proclaimed more expertise than the average medical professional and definitely had a stronger opinion. At least we doctors knew how much we didn’t know and how much was simply guess work based on experience, good intentions and hopeful prayer. Gradually, while lives were lost, including too many of our own, real data began to trickle in so decisions could be made with some evidence backing them. But even that data continues to evolve, day by day, as authentic medical evidence always does.

That doesn’t stop all the “quack” flies out there from climbing into the batter pretending to be currants. With so much rapidly changing medical information at everyone’s fingertips, who needs a trained physician when there are so many other resources – sketchy and opportunistic though they may be – for seeking health care advice?

Even so, I am convinced most patients really do care that doctors share the best information they have available at any point in time. None of us who are doctoring wants to be the “fly” in the batter of health care.

As I meet with my last patient today, I know over forty years of clinical experience has given me an eye and an ear for the subtle signs and symptoms that no googled website or internet doc-in-the-box can discern.  The avoidance of eye contact, the tremble of the lip as they speak, the barely palpable rash, the hardly discernible extra heart sound, the fullness over an ovary, the slight squeak in a lung base.  These are things I am privileged to see and hear and about which I make decisions together with my patients.  What I’ve done over four decades has been no masquerade; out of my natural caution, I am not appearing to be someone I am not.  This is what I was trained to do and have done for thousands of days and many more thousands of patients during my professional life, while passing a comprehensive certification examination every few years to prove my continued study and changing fund of knowledge.

The hidden fly in the currant bush of health care may be disguised enough that an unwary patient might gobble it down to their ultimate detriment. I know I’ve not been that doctor. I’ve been the real thing all these years for my patients, even if I’ve seemed a bit on the tart side at times, yet offering up just enough tang to be exactly what was needed in the moment and in the long term.

And someday, hopefully not too soon, I will die happy having done this with my life.

My ID photo from my first year of medical school 1976
45 years later…

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Unseen, Unknown

Happy the man, whose wish and care
   A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
                          In his own ground.


Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
   Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
                          In winter fire.


Blest, who can unconcernedly find
   Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
                         Quiet by day,


Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
   Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
                         With meditation.


Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
   Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
                          Tell where I lie.

~Alexander Pope, “Ode to Solitude” from Pope: Poems

450 year old gravestone in Glencairn Parish Cemetery in Scotland which reads:
Here Lyeth The Corps Of John Mcubin in Meruhirn (Marwhin) Who Departed This Life The Year 1663 Age 100

other side of the same stone

But the effect of her being on those around her
was incalculably diffusive:
for the growing good of the world
is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,
and that things are not so ill
with you and me as they might have been,
is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs.
~George Eliot’s final sentence in Middlemarch

We have no idea who came before us,
unseen, unknown, unheralded, unvisited,
yet they, by living and dying, made our lives better today.

They lie, forgotten, now dust in the ground.

Yet they lived fully and lovingly, stewards of the earth and its creatures, parents to the next generation and the next and the next, placed here as images of their Creator.

May we, someday, having also lived faithfully in the fullness of time, leave behind a legacy of good and unhistoric acts that leave this world a better place for those who walk behind us in our footsteps.

It’s the least we can do, to honor those whose footprints we now follow.

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