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.

The Silence of a Dying God

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day”

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands so much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

Doing This Hard Thing

I finished loading the woodshed today. Every year
I tell myself, This is it, the last time. It’s just too
much work, too painful, and I’m too old.
And then, the next year, when fall rolls
around, the air gets cold, and the geese go south, I
load the woodshed again.

How long will this go on? I’m seventy-two.
Every year it takes me longer to recover,
yet every year I keep doing it.

It’s just, now that I’m done, I can go out into
the woodshed, sit in a chair, and look at all those
neatly stacked rows, six and a half feet high, six feet
long and sixteen inches deep, two sets of rows like that,
left and right, four full cord — not much by some standards —
but enough to keep us warm all winter.

When I go out and look at what I’ve done, I get such a deep
sense of satisfaction from this backaching labor that I can’t

imagine a year without going through all that pain again.
~David Budbill, “Loading the Woodshed” from Tumbling toward the End.

Long-johns top and bottom, heavy socks, flannel shirt, overalls,
steel-toed work boots, sweater, canvas coat, toque, mittens: on.


Out past grape arbor and garden shed, into the woods.
Sun just coming through the trees. There really is such a thing


as Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn. And here it is, this morning.
Down hill, across brook, up hill, and into the stand of white pine


and red maple where I’m cutting firewood. Open up workbox,
take out chain saw, gas, bar oil, kneel down, gas up saw, add

bar oil to the reservoir, stand up, mittens off, strap on and buckle
chaps from waist to toe, hard hat helmet: on. Ear protectors: down,

face screen: down, push in compression release, pull out choke,
pull on starter cord, once, twice, go. Stall. Pull out choke, pull on


starter cord, once, twice, go. Push in choke. Mittens: back on.
Cloud of two-cycle exhaust smoke wafting into the morning air


and I, looking like a medieval Japanese warrior, wade through
blue smoke, knee-deep snow, revving the chain saw as I go,


headed for that doomed, unknowing maple tree.
~David Budbill”Into the Winter Woods”, from Happy Life

The other day, I was visiting with a recently widowed neighbor who is now well into her 70’s. She said she had finished loading her woodshed and was now ready for winter, dependent on wood stove heat over the next 6 months or so. She is someone who takes her independence seriously after her husband died, having lived in the same house for over fifty years – not at all ready to move into town to an apartment or condo, much less assisted living. She assists herself, thank you very much, even if it means climbing a step ladder to overhead-toss the firewood chunks onto the top row, and later to pull them down again to haul into the house to the stove.

I asked her why she continued to do such hard physical work when she has sons who live nearby as well as the means to hire help if she needed it. She also could choose to install a furnace, making it easier to stay warm.

She told me she likes to look at the stack every day when she does her farmyard chores, which include bringing in her day’s worth of wood. It gives her a deep sense of satisfaction to know that she was able to neatly stack several cords of wood under cover for yet another year, just as she has done year after year after year. It is a reminder of what she is capable of doing on her own, now that she is alone.

It makes her feel good to look at the fruit of her labor.

And that, of course, is reason enough to keep doing a hard thing. We each work at living out our days the best we can despite how painful they can be. We are blessed to be able to do it.

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So Like a Queen

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

With the recent loss of Queen Elizabeth II, I must honor a queen of our own here on our farm:

Bobbi was a young calico who arrived on our farm after two years of a luxurious indoor life in town. She couldn’t accompany her physician owner to life in the big city to move in with a cat-allergic boyfriend, so Bobbi arrived to the farm in a van full of her own cat furniture – a climbing tree, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine. When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and immediately climbed into the nearest real tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former pristine yet restrictive indoor life.  She became Queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely. They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them. They were baffled but grateful for her royal blessing when she climbed over their kennel fencing to sleep curled up between them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one human to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s initial visit from Japan years ago, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other. During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

When she was 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench throne when our long-lived black cat Jose died.  She preferred a closer view of our comings and goings, seemingly less disdainful and distant.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn yet within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other retreats on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Still, I was surprised to find her one morning lying still on the grassy slope of our front yard as she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her. So I knew her long life of queenly surveillance and service was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi. You remain irreplaceable. May you forever continue to reign in our hearts.

photo by Nate Gibson
Tomomi and Bobbi, photo by Nate Gibson
Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

We resist the arrival of the evening of our lives. I wish I could remain forever sunshiny, vital and irreplaceable, living each moment of the day with the energy I feel with the morning light. But I know that the forward momentum of time inevitably will wind me down to sunset.

The poet Jane Kenyon learned this at far too young an age, diagnosed and beginning treatment for leukemia before turning fifty. I thought of Jane’s poem above when I learned today of the death of a courageous local nurse in her thirties who survived six years of treatment for metastatic cancer after being diagnosed only a few months after the birth of her first and only child. She and her family and medical team tried to postpone her evening coming for as long as possible, knowing God ultimately counts our days.

This week, her evening has come. God comforts those who weep with the loss of this remarkable loving wife, mother, daughter – a woman who trusted her heavenly Father for all the things she needed.

We all are created in the image of a God who remembered to rest. We are not alone in our need to catch our breath.

So let evening come, as it will – there is no stopping it – allowing our lungs to be filled with the loving breath of God, our Creator. To Him, we are most definitely irreplaceable.

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Dancing with Grief

The Palace of Holyroodhouse – The Queen’s residence in Edinburgh, Scotland

The missing-ness of it all surfaced again
I asked, “Grief, do you have anything new?”
“No, but you do.”

I suspect this will be our dance
You lead; I age.
~Jordan Sleed “Our Dance”

“Melancholie” sculpture by Albert Gyorgy in Switzerland – photo credit unknown

...my whole life, whether it be short or long, will be devoted to your service.
~Elizabeth in a speech on her 21st birthday

I don’t consider myself a monarchist, nor have I carefully tracked the comings and goings of the British Royal Family over my nearly seventy years of life, being a mere youngster compared to the Queen. But like many others around the world yesterday, I was moved to learn of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, only two days after she held an audience (looking very much alive with her broad smile and signature handbag) with the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Now she has moved on from us, her name and life relegated forever to the history books.

How can I possibly weep and feel grief for the passing of someone I never met, nor could have ever aspired to meet?

This is the strange way of grief — it dances with us throughout our lives, leading us into dark corners we don’t expect to visit. I am grieving for someone who was not born to be queen yet was thrust onto an international stage for 70 years of her life. When she was called to it, she did not shrink from the duty nor did she give up when it became overwhelmingly hard. She made a promise to her people and she delivered on that promise.

I did have an opportunity to speak once with someone who knew the Queen very well and who met with her regularly during her last several decades. He had nothing but great admiration for her character, perseverance, faith and love of family and country.

She was the real deal. And anyone who loves corgis and ponies is exactly my cup of tea.

I believe God welcomed her home with open arms just as He embraces the least of us into His Light – to God, we are all royalty, serving with humility and a duty of honor.

Art by Eleanor Tomlinson
Art by Eleanor Tomlinson

Bring us, O Lord God,
at our last awakening into the house and gate of heav’n:
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light,
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of thy glory and dominion,
world without end. Amen.
~John Donne

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The Porch as “In-between”

The cat calls for her dinner.
On the porch I bend and pour
brown soy stars into her bowl,
stroke her dark fur.
It’s not quite night.
Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky.
Above my neighbor’s roof, a transparent
moon, a pink rag of cloud.
Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there’s a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.
Everything is just as I’ve left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
~Dorianne Laux “On the Back Porch” from Awake

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.
~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”

If just for a moment,
when the world feels like it is tilting so far
I just might fall off,
there is a need to pause
to look at where I’ve been
and get my feet back under me.

The porch is a good place to start:
a bridge to what exists beyond
without completely leaving the safety of inside.

I am outside looking square at uncertainty
and still hear and smell and taste
the love that dwells just inside these walls.

What could we want more
than to be missed if we were to step away
and taken from this life?

Our voice, our words, our heart, our touch
never to be replaced,
its absence a hole impossible to fill?

When we are called back inside to Love
that made us who we are,
may the “in between” of
time spent on the porch,
be left more beautiful because we were part of it.

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Softening to an Evening Gray

Now that summer’s ripen’d bloom
Frolics where the winter frow n’d,
Stretch’d upon these banks of broom,
We command the landscape round.

Nature in the prospect yields
Humble dales and mountains bold,
Meadows, woodlands, heaths-and fields
Yellow’d o’er with waving gold.

On the uplands ev’ry glade
Brightens in the blaze of day;
O’er the vales the sober shade
Softens to an ev’ning gray.
~John Cunningham from “The Landscape”

Betty with children Carol, Barbara and Joe
the renovated farm house
the “egg” house where produce was kept cool
On the porch in Spring Valley in the Palouse – me at age two with Nancy holding my baby brother Steve along with the Schmitz cousins – Joe, Barbara and Carol

My Aunt Betty Buchholz Schmitz lived for most of her 102 years in landscapes that could be summer-rich with golden crops yet in winter, harsh, bleak and empty. She weathered it all with hard work, grace and an innate sweetness born of her faith.

She was carried away last week to her true home to join my mother’s brother, Albert, and so many family and friends who had gone before her, including my mother who always felt blessed to call Betty her sister through marriage.

I remember Aunt Betty from my earliest days as we would make an annual summer visit to our cousins in Spring Valley, a tiny place with train tracks and a grain elevator in the middle of the rolling hills of the Palouse country of eastern Washington. I felt such a surge of excitement as we entered the long poplar-lined driveway that we could see from the road from far away.

My Palouse family lived in the farm house where my mother and uncle were born – a magical place of two stories with an enclosed staircase and many rooms, a huge basement, a sleeping porch for summer, a working windmill, as well as numerous outbuildings that contained everything Palouse wheat and lentil farmers needed to survive. The house was nestled in a small vale between the surrounding hills, to protect it from chill winter winds and stay cool in the shadows on blazing hot summer days.

Betty was a woman who was soft-spoken, always humble and eager to lend herself wherever needed. She cooked and baked huge meals, and used a wringer-washer and clothesline for never-ending loads of farm laundry. Her home was warm and welcoming with true heart-felt hospitality, even decades later after she moved to a house “in town” – a metropolis with just a few hundred neighbors.

Although a pioneer in the sense of living remotely with minimal conveniences, Betty and her brother Kenneth became pioneers in the 1960’s living donor kidney transplant program, as one of the first successful transplants. This must have required immense courage and stamina from a farm mother of three children, yet she was able to give her brother years of life that he otherwise would not have had.

Over the years, Betty sent cards and letters of encouragement to me in between our occasional visits to see her. She was the kind of aunt that modeled how I wanted to be and I have too often fallen short of her example.

I hoped to see Betty this summer, having missed visits over the last two years of COVID restrictions in her assisted living facility. Instead I will look for her smiling face and listen for her warm voice amid a lengthening list of beloved family and friends when I am called home some day myself.

I’ll see you again, Betty, in the glades of those rolling hills and the shadowed softened vales of the valleys. You will hold out your hand and make sure I feel at home there, just as you did for me during your century here.

Palouse fields
Poplar-lined driveway to the Schmitz farm

A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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Forget Me Not

A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.
~Charles Spurgeon (19th century pastor and theologian)

It’s said that ages, long ago,
when God had formed the earth and heaven,
He called the flowers one by one
until to all sweet names He’d given:
to one, pure Lily, other Rose
another Violet, or Daisy fair,
as each bright flower before Him passed,
to wear anew its Father’s care.

One day a tiny flower with pale blue eye,
stood at the Father’s feet and gazing in His face,
it said, in low and trembling tone
and with a modest grace,
“Dear God, the name You gave to me,
alas I have forgot!”
Then kindly looked the Father down
and said: “Forget-me-not.”
~Ethel Ridley (adapted by Emily Bruce Roelofson)

The tiny blue forget-me-not blossom reminds us who we are:
we are faithful,
we are loving,
we will remember,
we will keep the promises we make.

God does not make His promises in order to please us. He faithfully keeps His promises because He knows we need to understand what happens in our lives is according to His plan.

He forgets-us-not because we are the troubled dust upon which He has blown sweet and fragrant breath.

God is ever-faithful,
God loves us forever,
God never withers.

His promises are carved upon our hearts.

for those of you familiar with the Forget-me-not’s role in the Outlander book series…

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