A Voice in My Ear

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
                                           I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
~Donald Hall “White Apples”

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.
~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems 

I saw my grandma’s ghost once.

She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.

She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever. She married too young to an abusive alcoholic, lost her first child to lymphoma at age 8 before treatment was possible and took her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.

But there was grace too. The marriage somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety – after his sudden death sitting in church, Grandma’s faith never wavered. Her garden soil yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, her children and grandchildren welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.

She was busy planning her first overseas trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.

I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.

Her funeral was unbearable as I had never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.

Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.

I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.

Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”

She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:

“I want you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”

She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.

She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.

Grandma Kittie and Grandpa Leslie in their courting days

You’re in a better place
I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times
I’ve rejoiced for you

But the reason why I’m broken
The reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me
The hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home

In Christ, there are no goodbyes
And in Christ, there is no end

So I’ll hold onto Jesus
With all that I have
To see you again
To see you again

And I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow

Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now
~Millard Bart Marshall

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In Longing

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I’ve lived longing 
for your ever look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body. 
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as the body wanes.
The longing will outlive this body.

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

Long before eternity, I caught a glimpse
of your neck and shoulders, your ankles and toes.
And I’ve been lonely for you from that instant.
That loneliness appeared on earth as this body. 
And my share of time has been nothing 
but your name outrunning my ever saying it clearly. 
Your face fleeing my ever
kissing it firmly once on the mouth.

In longing, I am most myself, rapt,
my lamp mortal, my light 
hidden and singing. 

I give you my blank heart.
Please write on it
what you wish. 

~Li-Young Lee, “I Loved You Before I Was Born”

I should have recognized you at first, but didn’t.

Once I looked you in the eyes, I knew that I had loved you from before I was born. It didn’t make sense to me but nevertheless I knew. Our longing in loneliness finally brought us face to face.

I handed you my heart and you handed me yours, to keep forever.
And there they remain with utmost tenderness,
our longings still being written.

Seeking What Could No Longer Be Found

photo by Kate Steensma

Though I know well enough
To hunt the Lady’s Slipper now
Is playing blindman’s-buff,
For it was June She put it on
And grey with mist the spider’s lace
Swings in the autumn wind,
Yet through this hill-wood, high and low,
I peer in every place;
Seeking for what I cannot find
I do as I have often done
And shall do while I stay beneath the sun.
~Andrew Young “Lady’s Slipper Orchid”

My grandmother’s house where my father was born had been torn down. She sold her property on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company – this was the house where all four of her babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and finally loved again, and where we spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died, Grandma took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the homesteaded wooded acreage on Similk Bay, fronted by meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   Her own health was suffering and she reached a point when it was no longer possible to make it work. A deal was struck with the lumber company and she moved to a small apartment for the few years left to her, remaining bruised by leaving her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought. The old growth woods would soon be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision. He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look. 

My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered about in an area the size of my small bedroom.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic childhood, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  A decade later, my father himself had left farm and family, not looking back.

Sometime after the divorce, when my mother had to sell the farm, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May, seeking what I hoped might still be there, but I knew was no longer.  The split rail fence still stood, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed. There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of the farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-in area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And they would be right – it did.

An embroidery I made for my father after he replanted the lady slippers — on the back I wrote “The miracle of creation recurs each spring in the delicate beauty of the lady slipper – may we ourselves be recreated as well…”

Once more, once more into the sunny fields
Oh, let me stray!
And drink the joy that young existence yields
On a bright, cloudless day.
Once more let me behold the summer sky,
With its blue eyes,
And join the wild wind’s voice of melody,
As far and free it flies.
Once more, once more, oh let me stand and hear
The gushing spring,
As its bright drops fall starlike, fast and clear,
And in the sunshine sing.
~Frances Kemble “A Farewell”

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Still Alive

Awake the mind’s hopeless so
At a quarter to six I rise
And run 2 or 3 miles in
The pristine air of a dark
And windy winter morning
With a light rain falling
And no sound but the pad
Of my sneakers on the asphalt
And the calls of the owls in
The cypress trees on Mesa Road

And when I get back you’re
Still asleep under the warm covers
Because love is here to stay
It’s another day and we’re both still alive
~Tom Clark – “Every Day” from Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems.

How joyful to be together, alone
as when we first were joined
in our little house by the river
long ago, except that now we know

each other, as we did not then;
and now instead of two stories fumbling
to meet, we belong to one story
that the two, joining, made. And now

we touch each other with the tenderness
of mortals, who know themselves:
how joyful to feel the heart quake

at the sight of a grandmother,
old friend in the morning light,
beautiful in her blue robe!
~Wendell Berry
“The Blue Robe” from  New Collected Poem

These winter mornings –
waking early to part
from your warm side,
leaving behind my soft imprint,
I wrap up in my robe
to walk the gravel drive
to deliver a letter to our mailbox.

Our hilltop farm
lies silent amid fallow fields,
moon shadows
broad across my path
star sparks overhead
with orange paint beginning to lick
awake the eastern mountain peaks.

I walk noiselessly;
step out on the road
then turn ~ startled
as a flashlight approaches.

A walker and her dog
illuminate me in my dawn disarray
like a deer in headlights:
my ruffled hair, my sleep-lined face.
It is a grandma-caught-in-her-bathrobe
surprise at sunrise and
I’m simply glad to be alive.

A book of beauty in words and photos, available for order here:

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The Glowing of Such Fire

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
~William Shakespeare Sonnet 73

I may think youth has it all
– strength, beauty, energy-
but now I know better.

There is treasure in slowing down,
this leisurely leave-taking;
the finite becoming infinite
and a limitlessness loving.

Without our aging
we’d never change up
who we are
to become so much more:

enriched, vibrant,
shining passionately
until the very last moment.

To love well
To love strong
To love as if
nothing else matters.

This book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

What Falling Leaves Disclose

And Is it not enough that every year
A richly laden autumn should unfold
And shimmer into being leaf by leaf,
It’s scattered ochres mirrored everywhere
In hints and glints of hidden red and gold
Threaded like memory through loss and grief,
When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled,
When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel
And ready us for winter with strange calm,
That I should see the inner tree revealed
And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall
And feel its truth within me as I am?

It is not yet enough. So I must try,
In my poor turn, to help you see it too,
As though these leaves could be as rich as those,
That red and gold might glimmer in your eye,
That autumn might unfold again in you,
Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose.

~Malcolm Guite from “And is it Not Enough?”

As the rains return,
and the leaves turn and fall,
we shelter together,
blessed by years and miles,
our unknown becoming known,
our understanding of nakedness
breathed in silence.

Though we be gray as the clouds above,
our hearts beat in synchrony
each pulsing moment
more sacred than our last.

More beauty in words and photography in this book, available to order here:

Into a Commonwealth of Joy

The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown.
~Wendell Berry from “Poetry and Marriage” in Standing By Words

Our vows to one another forty years ago today:

Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.

I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.

I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.

I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.

I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.

“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

(our wedding vows for our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church — the last line adapted from Thomas Hardy’s  “Far From the Madding Crowd”)

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

We enter, willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.
~Wendell Berry from “A Country of Marriage”

…Marriage… joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God.  From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.
~Wendell Berry from Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

We married in our Seattle church with our pastor officiating, with a small group of family and friends as witnesses.

It was a wedding created by two frugal people with little to spend – I sewed my dress and Dan’s shirt from muslin, we grew our own flowers, our families helped potluck the lunch afterward and our tiered carrot cake was made by a friend.

Yet our vows to one another were not frugal and held nothing back.
They were extravagant and comprehensive, coming from our hearts and spirits. The music we asked our amazing organist to play (versions below) inspired us by its simplicity and complexity – very much like the families that raised us and the God we worship.

Our vows have taken us from the city to the countryside, to the raising and rejoicing in three amazing children (each of whom wrote movingly to us today) and now four grandchildren. We served more than forty years as a public-employed attorney and physician, have laid down those responsibilities, and picked up the tools of farm and garden along with church and community service for as long as we are able.

We treasure each day of living together in faithfulness, respect, compassion and hope – knowing that how we love and find joy in one another mirrors how God loves and revels in His people.

We are praying for many more days to fill us with what endures.

A pot of red lentils
simmers on the kitchen stove.
All afternoon dense kernels
surrender to the fertile
juices, their tender bellies
swelling with delight.

In the yard we plant
rhubarb, cauliflower, and artichokes,
cupping wet earth over tubers,
our labor the germ
of later sustenance and renewal.

Across the field the sound of a baby crying
as we carry in the last carrots,
whorls of butter lettuce,
a basket of red potatoes.

I want to remember us this way—
late September sun streaming through
the window, bread loaves and golden
bunches of grapes on the table,
spoonfuls of hot soup rising
to our lips, filling us
with what endures.
~Peter Pereira from “A Pot of Red Lentils”

Here are versions of the organ music we selected for prelude, processional, recessional and postlude

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…

Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

A new book from Barnstorming – available for order here

The Heart as a Secret Garden

Buttercup’s heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high.

Buttercup: We’ll never survive.
Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.

Westley: Hear this now. I will always come for you.
Buttercup: But how can you be sure?
Westley: This is true love. You think this happens every day?

************************

Westley: “I told you I would always come for you. Why didn’t you wait for me?”
Buttercup: “Well… you were dead.”
Westley: “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”
Buttercup: “I will never doubt again.”
Westley: “There will never be a need.”

That day, she was amazed to discover
that when he was saying “As you wish”,
what he meant was, “I love you.”
And even more amazing was the day

she realized she truly loved him back.
~William Golding, above quotes from The Princess Bride

How was I ever blessed to find just such a farm boy?
A farm boy who says “I love you” in many ways every day,
as the walls of my secret garden heart come tumbling down…

buttercup pony

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