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.


The Heart of the Field

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

 

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Remember that meadow up above the ridge
where the dog ran around in circles
and we were tired from the climb up
and everything was tilted sideways
including the running in circles
of the ecstatic dog his bright tongue
lapping at the air and we were
leaning into the heart of the field
where no battle ever took place
where no farmer ever bothered
to turn the soil yet everything
seemed to have happened there everything
seemed to be happening at once enough
so we’ve never forgotten how full the field
was and how we were there too and full
~Tim Nolan “The Field”

 

 

 

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This hill on our farm is for running, for sunning, for lolling, for rolling, for pondering, for wandering.
With dogs or without them, our time spent here is full and fulfilling.

 

 

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Memorizing End of Summer Light

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For today, I will memorize
the two trees now in end-of-summer light

and the drifts of wood asters as the yard slopes away toward
the black pond, blue

dragonflies
in the clouds that shine and float there, as if risen

from the bottom, unbidden. Now, just over the fern—
quick—a glimpse of it,

the plume, a fox-tail’s copper, as the dog runs in ovals and eights,
chasing scent.

The yard is a waiting room. I have my chair. You, yours.

The hawk has its branch in the pine.

White petals ripple in the quiet light. 
~Margaret Gibson from “Solitudes”

 

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I want to memorize it all before it changes:
the shift of sun from north to south
balances on our east- west road at equinox.

The flow of geese overhead, honking and waving farewell,
hawks’ screams in the firs,
dragonflies trapped in the barn light fixtures
several generations of coyotes hollering at dusk.

The koi pond quiets with cooler nights,
hair thickens on horses, cats and dogs,
dying back of the garden vines to reveal what lies unharvested beneath.

We part again, Summer –
your gifts were endless
until you ended.

I sit silenced and brooding, waiting for what comes next.

 

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A Council of Clowns

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Coyotes have the gift of seldom being seen; they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover on the plains and highlands. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they parley at the river with the dogs, their higher, sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to.
N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn

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On summer nights like this, with light just fading from the sky at 10 PM, it will be only a few minutes before the local coyote choristers begin their nightly serenade.   This can be a surround-sound experience with coyote packs echoing back and forth from distant corners of farmland and woodlands below the hill where we live.  Their shrill yipping and yapping song, with hollering, chortling and hooting, is impossible to ignore just as it is time to go to sleep.  Like priming a pump, the rise and fall of the coyote ensemble inevitably inspires the farm dogs to tune up, exercising their vocal cords with a howl or two.  It becomes canine bedlam outside our windows, right at bedtime.

Coyotes send a mixed message:  they insist on being heard and listened to, yet are seldom visible.  In a rare sighting, it is a low slung slinking form scooting across a field with a rabbit in its mouth, or patiently waiting at a fence line as a new calf is born, hoping to duck in and grab the placenta before the cow notices.   They are not particularly brave nor bold yet they insist on commanding attention and ear drums.

Irritating not only for their ill-timed concerts, they also have a propensity for thieving sleeping chickens from coop roosts in the night.  Despite my disgust for that behavior, I have to grudgingly admire such independent self sufficient characters.   They do know how to take care of themselves in a dog-eat-dog world, primarily by eating whatever they can get their jaws around and carry away, no matter who it may belong to.

I can just envision this old council of clowns gathered around giggling and sniggering in the dark at their own silly stories of the hunt.   As I listen from a distance, sometimes just a few yards, sometimes miles, I wish to be let in on the joke.

Just once I want to howl back, plaintive, pleading, pejorative–another bozo adding my voice to the noisy nocturnal chorus– hoping somebody, anybody might listen, hear and join in the laughter.

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