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.
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 that 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 “The Hundred Names of Love”
In the lull of evening, your son nested in your arms becomes heavier and with a sigh his body sloughs off its weight like an anchor into deep sleep, until his small breath is the only thing that exists.
And as you move the slow dance through the dim hall to his bedroom and bow down to deliver his sleeping form, arms parting, each muscle defining its arc and release— you remember the feeling of childhood,
traveling beneath a full moon, your mother’s unmistakable laugh, a field of wild grass, windows open and the night rushing in as headlights trace wands of light across your face—
there was a narrative you were braiding, meanings you wanted to pluck from the air, but the touch of a hand eased it from your brow and with each stroke you waded further
into the certainty of knowing your sleeping form would be ushered by good and true arms into the calm ocean that is your bed. — Alexandra Lytton Regalado, “The T’ai Chi of Putting a Sleeping Child to Bed” author of Matria
Each of those countless nights of a child wakening, each of the hundreds of hours of lulling them in the moonlit dark, leading them back to the soft forgiveness of sleep.
I remember the moves of that hypnotic dance, a head nestled snug into my neck, their chest pressed into mine, our hearts beating in synchrony as if they were still inside.
Even when our sleep was spare and our rest was sparse, those night times rocking in unison were worth every waking moment, trusting we’re in this together, no matter what, no matter how long.
We’re in this together.
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My mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, was born 101 years ago today in the lonely isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington. She drew her first breath in a two story white house located down a long poplar-lined lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills.
She attended a one room school house until 8th grade, located a mile away in the rural countryside, then moved in with her grandmother “in town” in Rosalia to attend high school, seeing her parents only a couple times a month.
It was a childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart – her only sibling, an older brother, was busy helping their father on the farm. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.
Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.
She nearly died at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her life-long, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith, letting go at age 88 after fracturing a femur, breaking her will to continue to live.
As a young woman, she was ready to leave the wheat farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.
Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation after their divorce years later, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.
As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.
She never did stop worrying until the last few months. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she gave up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became much more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.
I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight-laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected at times but safe nonetheless, under her wings.
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What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall… It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.
I had hopes for my rough edges. I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface, and exit through it. ~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood
I saw a mom take her raincoat off and give it to her young daughter when a storm took over the afternoon. My god, I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel that I never got wet. ~Ada Limón from “The Raincoat”
Mothering is like standing under a waterfall, barely able to breathe, barraged by the firehose of birthing and raising children – so much so fast. Ideally, nothing rough remains after child rearing — all becomes soft and cushiony, designed to gather in, hold tight, and then reluctantly and necessarily, let go.
All the while a mother does whatever she must to protect her children from also getting soaked in the barrage, knowing one day they will also feel overwhelmed in the storms of life.
Now that my children have grown and flown, I’m well aware my rough edges still can surface, like Godzilla from the primordial swamp, unbidden and unwarranted, ready to cut a hole in the world. I wish my sharpness gone, smoothed to a fine sheen and finish, sanded down by the relentless flow of the waters of time.
Now from afar, my children polish me even as I try to throw my raincoat over them virtually to keep them from getting wet in inevitable downpours. My reach will never be far enough.
Time pounds away both at me and them. I can feel it ruffing and buffing me every single moment, every drop its own mixed blessing, every drop unique, never to come again.
The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back. The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe, trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow, balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack the ice so horses could drink. With each blow I feared she would fall, but she never slipped. Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say? The time we have’s still too short to master love, and then, the hollow that comes after. ~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”
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. Hollowed.
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.
When we reach the field she is still eating the heads of yellow flowers and pollen has turned her whiskers gold. Lady, her stomach bulges out, the ribs have grown wide. We wait, our bare feet dangling in the horse trough, warm water where goldfish brush our smooth ankles. We wait while the liquid breaks down Lady’s dark legs and that slick wet colt like a black tadpole darts out beginning at once to sprout legs. She licks it to its feet, the membrane still there, red, transparent the sun coming up shines through, the sky turns bright with morning and the land with pollen blowing off the corn, land that will always own us, everywhere it is red. ~Linda Hogan, “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” from Red Clay.
First, her fluid flows in subtle stream then gushes in sudden drench. Soaking, saturating, precipitating inevitability. No longer cushioned slick sliding forward following the rich river downstream to freedom.
The smell of birth clings to shoes, clothes, hands as soaked in soupy brine I reach to embrace new life sliding toward me.
I too was caught once; three times emptied into other hands, my babies wet on my chest their slippery skin under my lips so salty sweet
In a moment’s scent the rush of life returns; now only barn or field birthings yet still as sweet and rich. I carry the smell of damp foal fur with me all day to recall from whence I came. I floated once and will float free someday again.
When I lay my head in my mother’s lap I think how day hides the stars, the way I lay hidden once, waiting inside my mother’s singing to herself. And I remember how she carried me on her back between home and the kindergarten, once each morning and once each afternoon.
I don’t know what my mother’s thinking.
When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder: Do his father’s kisses keep his father’s worries from becoming his? I think Dear God, and remember there are stars we haven’t heard from yet: They have so far to arrive. Amen, I think, and I feel almost comforted.
I’ve no idea what my child is thinking.
Between two unknowns, I live my life. Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am by coming before me. And my child’s wishes, older than I am by outliving me. And what’s it like? Is it a door, and a good-bye on either side? A window, and eternity on either side? Yes, and a little singing between two great rests. ~Li-Young Lee The Hammock
I’ve become the window bridging four generations, waiting for the door to reopen:
I remember my grandmother’s soft hands smoothing my hair when I was upset. I still see her tears when she said goodbye.
I remember my father carrying me on his shoulders when my legs grew weary and my patience short. I still feel his final breath as he finally gave up his struggle.
I remember my children needing me for nearly everything. Now, living so far away, I give so little as they soothe and comfort my grandchildren when I cannot.
I wonder what my grandmother, my father, my children, my grandchildren were thinking. I can only imagine, stuck as I am between the closed pandemic door and the someday-open window.
Once again I am the one in need: praying life and hugs might happen again.
Soon. Soon and very soon. I can almost hear the singing between us.
Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering. ~St. Augustine of Hippo
Our firstborn son turns thirty five years old today. Nate was born on a day very much like this: sunny, frosty, a not-yet-spring kind of early morning. He was so welcome and cherished after years of our struggling to have children. Nate seemed to come with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for whatever life had in store for him.
First-time parents don’t think much about where their child’s path will lead in a mere twenty years – it seems so far off. We knew he was a home-body. Nate wanted to write and teach and settle into the small town life that he loved and understood.
But God had other plans. God asked him to wonder at himself in relation to the world beyond his small town. So Nate was called to teach in Japan within days of graduating with his teaching degree in 2008. He has remained there ever since, reaching the hearts and minds of well over a thousand individual students in his classroom during those years, while falling in love with his soulmate Tomomi and becoming father to their two beautiful children.
Nate has discovered the irony of moving from a town where the majority of his classmates were blonde to thriving where he is the only redhead among thousands in a train station throng. He has learned a new culture, a new language and a new way of thinking about what “home” in God’s kingdom really means.
When we visit Nate now, only virtually since the pandemic, we see a man who has traveled far, in miles and spiritually. He continues to wonder where God may call him, along with Tomomi and their family, next. We cherish them all, from so far away, no matter where their home may be, as they embody servant love wherever they are needed most.
Happy Birthday, Nate! Sending our love across the many miles of ocean that separates us but our shared hearts remain close.
The towering tree spreads his greening canopy — A veil between the soil and sky— Not in selfish vanity, But the gentle thrush to shade and shelter. So it is with love. For when we love, Simply love, Even as we are loved, Our weary world can be transformed. The busy thrush builds her nest below — A fortnight’s work to weave and set— Not for herself alone, But her tender brood to shield and cherish. And so it is with love. For when we love, Simply love, Even as we are loved, Our weary world can be transformed Into the Kingdom of God! ~Charles Silvestri