The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart, from Iron String

I thought I had forgotten how to wake to the sound of a child’s voice in the night. I thought I wouldn’t remember how to gently open their bedroom door, entering their darkness from my own darkness, discerning what was distressing them, sensing how to soothe them back to slumber, wondering if I might sing or pray the words they needed to hear, bringing a blossoming peace and stillness to their night.

And then our son’s family arrived two months ago from thousands of miles away, to stay until they could settle in their own place, and I remembered my nights were never meant to be mine alone. As a child, I had so many night-wakenings that I’m sure my mother despaired that I would ever sleep through the night. She would come when I called, sitting beside my bed, rubbing my back until I forgot what woke me in the first place. She was patient and caring despite her own weariness, sleep problems and worriedness. She loved me and forgave me for needing her presence in the night, so her nights were never her own.

I too responded with compassion when my own children called out in the night. I woke regularly to phone calls from hospitals and patients during forty years of medical practice and listened and answered questions with grace and understanding. And now, for a time, I’m on call again, remembering the sweetness of being loved when the dark fears of the night need the light and promise of a new day coming, if only just a few hours away.

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An Arch of Colored Light

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
~Lord Byron

But mark! what arch of varied hue
  From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
  The Rainbow in the cloud.

How bright its glory! there behold
  The emerald’s verdant rays,
The topaz blends its hue of gold
  With the deep ruby’s blaze.

Yet not alone to charm thy sight
  Was given the vision fair;–
Gaze on that arch of colored light,
  And read God’s mercy there.

~Felicia Hemans from “The Rainbow”

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I bring to the page or screen is intangible yet so very real.

I will keep reaching for rainbows, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever. It does feel like I’m clutching at a moment in time moving through my fingers.

I witnessed this Sabbath rainbow last night from our farm, standing with two of our very young grandchildren, hoping they would remember it enough to describe it to our someday great-grandchildren. Perhaps they will even read my words and know how much it mattered to me that they experience such beauty and promise.

I want them to always remember: in the beginning was the Word, and we are created by the same Author who writes incredible rainbows across the sky.

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As Much Serenity As Yearning

Last night I walked the woods
lit by the final moon of the month.
Days don’t count here
beneath the centuries-old pines
where my grandmother took her solace
on hard farm days, passing up
the washboard or jam-making
for the eternal whooshing
of the forest as much serenity
as yearning.
~Dave Malone, “Walk in the Woods” from Tornado Drill

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black.

My husband and I met in the late 70’s while we were both in graduate school in Seattle, living over 100 miles away from our grandparents’ farms farther north in Washington. We lived farther still from my grandparents’ wheat farm in Eastern Washington and his grandparents’ hog farm in Minnesota. One of our first conversations together, the one that told me I needed to get to know this man better, was about wanting to move back to work on the land. We were both descended from peasant immigrants from the British Isles, Holland and Germany – farming was in our DNA, the land remained under our fingernails even as we sat for endless hours studying in law school and medical school classes.

When we married and moved north after buying a small farm, we continued to work full time at desks in town. We’ve never had to depend on this farm for our livelihood, but we have fed our family from the land, bred and raised livestock, and harvested and preserved from a large garden and orchard. It has been a good balance thanks to career opportunities made possible by our education, something our grandparents would have marveled was even possible.

Like our grandparents, we watch in wonder at what the Creator brings to the rhythm of the land each day – the light of the dawn over the fields, the activity of the wild birds and animals in the woods, the life cycles of the farm critters we care for, the glow of the evening sun as night enfolds us when the moon ascends.

We are blessed by the land’s generosity when it is well cared for. Each new day promises another chance to treat it with the love it warrants.

Now forty-some years after that first conversation together about returning to farming, my husband and I hope we never have to leave the land. It brought us together, fed our family, remains imbedded under our fingernails and in our DNA.

Each in our own time, we will settle even deeper.

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Just Closing My Eyes For a Bit

I count it as a certainty that in paradise, everyone naps. 
~Tom Hodgkinson

Like a graceful vase, a cat, even when motionless, seems to flow. 
~George F. Will

A slight breeze stirs tree branches
so shadow patterns play on the curtains
like candlelight in a drafty room.

The harvest is over, corn
stubble and weeds in the field. The sky is

soft blue, a few clouds in the distance.

I will close my eyes, nap for
a while. Perhaps when I wake all will seem
the same. Sleep plays tricks in many ways.
~Matthew Spireng “Late August, Lying Down to Nap at Noon”

I believe the world would be a better place if we all could stop in the middle of the day and just rest our eyes for awhile — to look at the inside of our eyelids for a few minutes, to pause, to pray, to purr with contentment…

perchance to dream.   Aye, there’s the rub.

Perhaps, we might wake with a new perspective and an improved attitude. Works like a charm for our grandchildren.

And for me as well…

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With All My Heart

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity

~Louise Erdrich “Advice to Myself”

I am a messy person, coming from a long line of messy people. My paternal grandmother never had a clear kitchen counter, or a dining room table without piles of books and papers, spilling over with knickknacks and half-completed craft projects everywhere. I loved the chaos of her house since the messes left behind by her grandchildren weren’t as noticeable. I always felt at home, as if I was not being constantly monitored as a potential mess about to happen.

During this past (very hot) week, in our own home some sixty years later, we have grown from two residents to twelve with a lovely reunion of our children and grandchildren after four years of living far-flung and unable to gather. With four children under six years of age together, our house became even more of a whirlwind than it ordinarily is. I took no photos to demonstrate this, but trust me, the floor was covered with all manner of organic and inorganic matter most of the time. This was bliss, as long as I didn’t step on something sharp or suspiciously slimy in my bare feet.

The biggest surprise was a very early morning, about 4:30 AM, when the house was still dark and quiet except for our ten month old grandson who had not adapted yet to our time zone, so was up early for his breakfast. As I tiptoed quietly into my <very messy chaotic> kitchen to retrieve something, I noticed a good sized dust bunny on the linoleum floor and bent down to pick it up to toss in the trash can. To my surprise, it leaped away from my fingers!

It kept jumping away and when my eyes finally focused in the early morning light, I realized it wasn’t an escaping dust bunny, but a tree frog covered in dust fuzz from my less than tidy floor. It must have come in the house from the perpetually open front door and hidden under a piece of furniture, being transformed into a furry froggy Frankenstein.

I caught it and carried it outside into the morning dawn, setting it free into the chaos of the world outside, rather than coping inside with my insufficient housekeeping. No, I didn’t think to get a photo. Oh, well. Some things you just have to take on faith.

After all, my heart has been leaping and rejoicing all week to have our family under one roof for a brief few days and whether the house was clean was simply a secondary concern. It actually is not a concern at all.

You can’t clean out a mama’s heart; it carries so much over the years that may need sweeping and scrubbing, but this was not the week to worry about it. My worth is not in what I own or how pristine I keep things, but in the depth of my commitment to those who I am given the privilege to know and love.

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Prayer at Dusk For a Weeping World

At dusk, everything blurs and softens.
From here out over the long valley,
the fields and hills pull up
the first slight sheets of evening,
as, over the next hour,
heavier, darker ones will follow.

Quieted roads, predictable deer
browsing in a neighbor’s field, another’s
herd of heifers, the kitchen lights
starting in many windows. On horseback
I take it in, neither visitor
nor intruder, but kin passing, closer
and closer to night, its cold streams
rising in the sugarbush and hollow.
Half-aloud, I say to the horse,
or myself, or whoever: let fire not come
to this house, nor that barn,
nor lightning strike the cattle.
Let dogs not gain the gravid doe, let the lights
of the rooms convey what they seem to.

And who is to say it is useless
or foolish to ride out in the falling light
alone, wishing, or praying,
for particular good to particular beings,
on one small road in a huge world?
The horse bears me along, like grace,

making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken. For up, out of
the inscrutable earth, have come my body
and the separate body of the mare:
flawed and aching and wronged. Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston, "Riding Out at Evening"


photo by Emily Vander Haak

On this, my 68th birthday, I pray for the world as if I am carried by the grace of a horse who bears not only me but all burdens as well. I am a bird who embraces the air that lifts its wings, tenderly holding to its breast the weeping world.

I have seen much goodness in seven decades, sometimes through tears of sorrow; I hope to see much more before I’m done.

I am grateful, so very grateful to have lived these years learning how love can heal, how tears are dried, and how the only thing that lasts forever is God’s covenant to carry us with grace through it all.

photo by Brandon Dieleman
photo by Brandon Dieleman
video of juvenile bald eagle by Peter Tamminga (down the road from our farm)

Whilst the world is weeping, let us do our bit.
We have the time to sympathise, to listen and to sit.
No needless thoughts, of the things we cannot do.
But appreciate all the good bits and look at them anew.
 
The warmth and comfort of our homes, the food we have to eat.
The family and friends we have, although we cannot meet.
The village that we live in, and the community we share.
So precious to us right now, so sit and think and care.
 
Whilst the world is full of sadness, anxiety and pain,
It’s hard to imagine our lives ever carefree again.
But nothing lasts forever, the clouds will always clear.
Let’s heal the world with love, so the sunshine can appear.
~Sandra Rickman “Whilst the World is Weeping”

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In Long Straight Rows

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t
wait anymore. I get the hoe,
pull back the snow from the old
furrows, expose the rich dark earth.
I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,
one by one.
I see my grandmother’s hand,
doing just this, dropping peas
into gray gumbo that clings like clay.
This moist earth is rich and dark
as chocolate cake.
Her hands cradle
baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft
and hands them down to me, safe beside
the ladder leading up to darkness.
I miss
her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,
but mostly her hands.
I push a pea into the earth,
feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,
she says, in long straight rows,
dancing in light green dresses.
~Linda Hasselstrom “Planting Peas”

My earliest childhood memories include the taste and smell of fresh peas.  We lived in farming country north of Seattle where 50 years ago hundreds of acres of peas were grown for canning and freezing.  During the harvest, large pea harvesting machines would arrive for several days and travel down the road in caravans of 10 or 12, going from farm to farm to farm. They worked 24 hours a day to harvest as quickly as possible and traveled the roads late at night because they were so huge, they would take up both lanes of the country roads.  Inevitably a string of cars would form behind the pea harvesters, unable to pass, so it became a grand annual parade celebrating the humble pea.

The smell in the air when the fields were harvested was indescribable except to say it was most definitely a “green” and deliciously fresh smell.  The vines and pods would end up as silage for cattle and the peas would be separated to go to the cannery.  I figured those peas were destined for the city dwellers because in our back yard garden, we grew plenty of our own.

Pea seeds, wrinkled and frankly a little boring, could be planted even before the last frost was done with us in March, or even sometimes on Washington’s birthday in February.  The soil needed to not be frozen and not be sopping.  True, the seeds might sit still for a few weeks, unwilling to risk germination until the coast was clear and soil warmed a bit, but once they were up out of the ground, there was no stopping them.  We would generally have several rotations growing, in the hope of a 6 week pea eating season if we were fortunate, before the heat and worms claimed the vines and the pods.

We always planted telephone peas, so the support of the vines was crucial–we used hay twine run up and down between two taut smooth wires attached high and low between two wooden posts.  The vines could climb 6 feet tall or better and it was fascinating to almost literally watch the pea tendrils wind their way around the strings (and each other), erotically clinging and wrapping themselves in their enthusiasm.

Once the pods start to form,  impatience begins.  I’d be out in the garden every day copping feels, looking for that first plump pod to pick and pop open.  It never failed that I would pick too soon, and open a pod to find only weenie little peas, barely with enough substance to taste.  Within a day or two, however, the harvest would be overwhelming, so we’d have to pick early in the morning while the peas were still cool from the night dew.

Then it was shelling time, which involved several siblings on a back porch, one mother supervising from a distance to make sure there weren’t too many peas being pelted in pique at an annoying little brother, and lots of bowls to catch the peas and the pods.  A big paper sack of intact pods would yield only a few cups of peas, so this was great labor for small yield.   Opening a pod of peas is extremely satisfying though;  there is a tiny audible “pop” when the pod is pressed at the bottom, and then as your thumb runs down the inner seam of the pod loosening all the peas, they make a dozen little “pings” in the bowl when they fall.  A symphony of pea shelling often accompanied by the Beach Boys and the Beatles.

Once the weather got hot, the pea worms would be at work in the pods, so then one encountered wiggly white larvae with little black heads and their webs inside the pods.  We actually had a “Wormie” song we sung when we found one, even in the 60’s recognizing that our organic garden meant sharing the harvest with crawling protein critters. The peas would be bored through, like a hollowed out jack o’lantern, so those got dumped in the discard bowl.

The dull green coat of the raw pea turns bright green during the several minutes of blanching in boiling water, then they are plunged into ice water until cool and packed in ziplock bags.  Those peas are welcomed to the table during the other 11 months out of the year, sometimes mixed with carrots, sometimes with mushrooms, sometimes chased with a little fresh garlic.  They are simply the most lovely food there is other than chocolate.

From an undistinguished pea seed to intricate vines and coiling tendrils–from pregnant pods bursting at the seams to a bounty at meals: the humble pea does indeed deserve a grand parade in the middle of the night and the close attention of only the best grandmas.

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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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