Acres of Opinions

Now we are here at home, in the little nation
of our marriage, swearing allegiance to the table
we set for lunch or the windchime on the porch,

its easy dissonance. Even in our shared country,
the afternoon allots its golden lines
so that we’re seated, both in shadow, on opposite

ends of a couch and two gray dogs between us.
There are acres of opinions in this house.
I make two cups of tea, two bowls of soup,

divide an apple equally. If I were a patriot,
I would call the blanket we spread across our bed
the only flag—

Some nights
we’ve welcomed the weight, a woolen scratch
on both our skins. My love, I am pledging

to this republic, for however long we stand,
I’ll watch with you the rain’s arrival in our yard.
We’ll lift our faces, together, toward the glistening.
~Jehanne Dubrow from “Pledge”

photo by Bette Vander Haak

Whether it is a beloved country, or a devoted marriage, there is need for loyalty to last through the difficult times and the imperfections.

We pledge allegiance to the republic of one another among acres of opinions: our differences in how we see the world contrast with our shared goals and dreams. Our stubborn persistence to stay intact is threatened by our fragile weaknesses that can easily break us asunder.

So we stand united, no matter the dissonance and the disagreements, drenched with the responsibility and accountability to make this union work, no matter what, for as long as we shall live, and much much beyond.

May we glisten with the pledge of allegiance:
we can only accomplish this together.

Curled up in the Corner

How shall I not adore them, snoozing
right through the Annunciation? They inhabit
the outskirts of every importance, sprawl
dead center in each oblivious household.

They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps,
dozing with noble abandon while a boy
bells their tails. Often they present their rumps
in the foreground of some martyrdom.

What Christ could lean so unconcernedly
against a table leg, the feast above continuing?
Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace
as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?

No scholar at his huge book will capture
my eye so well as the skinny haunches,
the frazzled tails and serene optimism
of the least of these mutts, curled

in the corners of the world’s dazzlement.
~David Graham “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” from The Honey of Earth.

They are part of the scenery, always there, close by and near enough to touch, yet taken for granted until they are gone.

What would I do without them during times like these, when I need their steady gaze and happy wag? They look right into my eyes, trying to discern what I’m thinking and what I’ll do or say next, so I am held to a higher standard. These four-footed fluffy fellows are my conscience, reminding me my motives are always scrutinized.

They may be in the background of the old masterpieces, curled in the corners, just part of the furniture, but day in and day out their love and loyalty dazzle me, remaining front and center in my heart.

Falling Toward Each Other

We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait
for permission
to breathe again.

For only the snow
will release us, only the snow
will be a letting go, a blind falling
towards the body of earth
and towards each other.
~Linda Pastan from “Interlude”

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

I wait with bated breath, wondrous at today’s snowfall, to see the landscape transformed. Each snowflake falls alone, settling in together in communal effort. And each is created as a singular masterpiece itself.

We, the created, are like each snowflake. Together we change the world, sometimes for better, too often for worse. But each of us have come from heaven uniquely designed and purposed, preciously preserved for eternity through God’s loving sacrifice.

Without Him, we melt between the pages of history.

photo by Alexay Kljatov, pbs.org
photo by Alexay Kljatov, pbs.org

All We Know of God

It hovers in dark corners 
before the lights are turned on,   
it shakes sleep from its eyes   
and drops from mushroom gills,   
it explodes in the starry heads   
of dandelions turned sages,   
it sticks to the wings of green angels   
that sail from the tops of maples.     
It sprouts in each occluded eye   
of the many-eyed potato,   
it lives in each earthworm segment   
surviving cruelty,   
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,   
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs   
of the child that has just been born.     
It is the singular gift   
we cannot destroy in ourselves,   
the argument that refutes death,   
the genius that invents the future,   
all we know of God.     
It is the serum which makes us swear   
not to betray one another;   
it is in this poem, trying to speak
~ Lisel Mueller “Hope” from Alive Together

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White ~from Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience 

We can’t claw our way out of
the mess we’ve made of things;
it takes Someone
to dig us out of the hole,
brush us off,
clean us up,
and breathe fresh breath into our nostrils.
We can only hope
hope will be more contagious
than any pandemic virus.
We can only hope
and grab hold and put down roots
when His hand reaches down
to plant us firmly the dirt.

A Tumultuous Privacy of Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson from “The Snow-Storm”

The barn bears the weight
of the first heavy snow
without complaint.

White breath of cows
rises in the tie-up, a man
wearing a frayed winter jacket
reaches for his milking stool
in the dark.

The cows have gone into the ground,
and the man,
his wife beside him now.

A nuthatch drops
to the ground, feeding
on sunflower seed and bits of bread
I scattered on the snow.

The cats doze near the stove.
They lift their heads
as the plow goes down the road,
making the house
tremble as it passes.
~Jane Kenyon “This Morning”

We’ve seen harsher northeast winds, we’ve seen heavier snow. Yet there is something refreshingly disruptive about the once or twice a year overnight snow storm: it transforms, transcends and transfigures.

So we stay home when the weather and farms demand we do, to feed and water ourselves and our animals and the wild ones around us. It is a quiet and private and tumultuous time, a time to be attuned to one another.

The ultimate snow day, when all is atremble.

Let the Mind Take a Photograph

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.
~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn

Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.

When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.

The routine:  loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.

The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.

Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky.  They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.

Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.

Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

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.

The World Made Whole Again

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
the world without form and void made whole again.




Holding Down What We Have

The next morning I felt that our house
had been lifted away from its foundation
during the night, and was now adrift,
though so heavy it drew a foot or more
of whatever was buoying it up, not water
but something cold and thin and clear,
silence riffling its surface as the house
began to turn on a strengthening current,
leaving, taking my wife and me with it,
and though it had never occurred
to me until that moment, for fifteen years
our dog had held down what we had
by pressing his belly to the floors,
his front paws, too, and with him gone
the house had begun to float out onto
emptiness, no solid ground in sight.
~Ted Kooser “Death of a Dog”

God… sat down for a moment when the dog was finished in order to watch it… and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been made better.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Twelve dogs have left pawprints on my heart over my sixty five years.  Each dog of my childhood was my best friend to confide in, take walks with, to cry into the ruff of their furry necks. They always listened compassionately and never judged, even when I was in the wrong.

There was a thirteen year long dogless period while I went to college, medical school and residency, living in inhospitable urban environs, working unsuitable dog-keeping hours.  Those were sad years indeed with no dog hair to vacuum or slobber to mop up.

The first dog in our married life on the farm, a Tervuren,  rode home from Oregon on my pregnant lap in the passenger seat, all sixty five pounds of her.  I think our first born son has a permanent dog imprint on his side as a result, and it certainly resulted in his dog-loving brain yet he has lived ten years in the largest city on earth, sadly dogless.  

Six dogs and thirty four years later, we are currently owned by two gentle hobbit-souled Cardigan Corgis who are middle-aged and healthy. I hope they stick around with us for a few more years, but we have felt the unmooring of our home’s foundation when we have lost, one by one, our dog friends in the past, usually in ripe old age.

Dogs could not have been made better among God’s creations because they love unconditionally, forgive without holding a grudge and show unbounded joy umpteen times a day.    It’s true–it would be nice if they would poop only in discrete off-the-path areas, use their teeth only for dog designated chew toys, and vocalize only briefly when greeting and warning, but hey, nobody is perfect.

So to Buttons, Sammy, Sandy, Sparky, Toby, Tango, Talley, Makai, Frodo, Dylan Thomas, Sam Gamgee and Homer:  God sat down for a moment when He made you and saw that it was good.

You’ve been good for me too, holding fast my foundation to the ground..

Sam as puppy kid – photo by Nate Gibson
photo of Dylan Thomas by Nate Gibson

The Winding Pathway of Least Resistance

One day thru the primeval wood 
A calf walked home, as good calves should, 
But made a trail all bent askew, 
A crooked trail, as all calves do. 
Since then three hundred years have fled, 
And I infer, the calf is dead; 
But still behind he left his trail, 
And thereon hangs my mortal tale.

The trail was taken up next day 
By a lone dog that passed that way, 
And then a wise bell-weather sheep 
Sliding into a rut now deep, 
Pursued that trail over hill and glade 
Thru those old woods a path was made.

And many men wound in and out, 
And dodged and turned and bent about, 
and uttered words of righteous wrath 
Because “twas such a crooked path” 
But still they follow-do not laugh- 
The first migrations of that calf.

The forest became a lane 
That bent and turned and turned again; 
This crooked lane became a road 
where many a poor horse with his load 
Toiled on beneath the burning sun, 
And traveled some three miles in one.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet, 
The village road became a street, 
And this, before the men were aware, 
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.

And soon a central street was this 
In a renowned metropolis; 
And men two centuries and a half 
Followed the wanderings of this calf.

Each day a hundred thousand strong 
Followed this zigzag calf along; 
And over his crooked journey went 
The traffic of a continent.

A hundred thousand men were led 
By one poor calf, three centuries dead. 
For just such reverence is lent 
To well established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach 
Were I ordained and called to preach.

For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind; 
And work away from sun to sun 
To do what other men have done.
~Sam Walter Foss “Cow Path”


Each day and night fly by more swiftly than the previous.  It is as if minutes are exponentially more compressed than in the past, hurtling forward to an inevitable destination, but the estimated time of arrival is unknown.

I struggle in late middle age to keep perspective while traveling this road of life, looking back at where I’ve been, and hoping for the best about where I’m headed, and trying to stick to the winding path ahead without deviation.  My regret about this journey is that I haven’t stopped nearly often enough to simply take in the scenery, listen to the birds, smell the orchard blossoms, and feel the grass under my bare feet.

It is the conundrum of following the cow path laid down before me, traveling the well-worn pathway of precedent.

Nevertheless, as with all cow paths, there may have been no greater reason for the bend or curve than a patch of tall appealing grass at one time, or a good itching spot on a tree trunk or a boulder obstructing the way.  Still I follow the curve, dodge the boulder, tread the zig zag. My path may appear random without focus on the destination and that’s okay:   I need to stop once in awhile, settle down for a really good nap, enjoy a particularly fine meal, read an insightful book, or play a lovely hymn.  It is not which path I’ve traveled to my eventual destination but the quality of my journey along the way.

I enjoy the twists and turns of life if I take the time to appreciate them.  Just maybe – I’ll throw in a few curves of my own for those who are following behind me.