It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

With Quiet Eyes

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

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

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

For Dan’s birthday…

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

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

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

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

Sweating Under the High Arc of Midsummer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson
1994
2005
2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Go Out and Help Your Dad


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

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

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

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

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:


Missing the Right Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Clearly

To see clearly,
not needing a drink
or pill or puff
of any pipe
to know I’m alive.
To come home,
peel off sandals
and step onto
the cool tile floor
needing only
the rush of water
over strawberries
I picked myself
and then a knife
to trim the dusty
green heads
from each one,
to watch them
gleam cleanly
in a colander
in a patch of sun
near the sink.
~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.

Can’t relax? Have a drink.
Feeling irritable? Have a smoke.
Can’t wake up? Strong coffee.
Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines.
Can’t sleep? Valium.

I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.

As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.

Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.

No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Like Time’s Insidious Wrinkle

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

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

1971 – not a wrinkle in sight
2021

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

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

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

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

A book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

The Reddening Light

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”
from The Singing

Oh little one
who was to have been born this week in June
thirty eight years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon.

Gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing soundlessly into a thicket:
so long ago it makes me question
if you were real,
until my heart clenches again at the memory.

But you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee this time,
but stay to find out.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

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.

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here: