Turning Darkness into Light: Someone Almost Here

Around December first, the summer people
All have gone. Some had stayed to see the fall
And some for hunting season—all have gone.

We walk deserted roads. The first snows came
But dried away to traces in the ditch
And snowy patches on the forest floor.

In town the Christmas lights are blinking bright,
The tourists few. The locals are subdued,
At peace with what some still call Advent time.

It’s dark by four. We light a fireplace fire.
We have a drink and share a meal and read
Until it’s time to go to early bed.

Outdoors to fetch tomorrow’s wood, I stand
Beneath the stars. It’s moonless, clear and cold.
The constellations reach like outspread hands.

Star bright but not at all a silent night,
There seems to be a constant trembling—
Someone surely there, someone almost here.
~Steven Peterson “Advent”

During these quiet quarantined days
when we no longer share meals
meeting on screens rather than living rooms,
there is a sense of trembling anticipation,
waiting and watching for
the world to feel safer again.

We wander, wondering,
looking for Someone
who is almost here
but not quite yet.
Born to die
for poor ornery people
like you and like I.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
That Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

I Wanted a Horse

I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.
~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”

I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic.  “We’ll see,”  he said.  “We will see what we can do.”

So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.

When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

Fifty five years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu.  He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid.  I’ll never forget.

at twenty

Make Our Feast Ourselves

The adults we call our children will not be arriving
with their children in tow for Thanksgiving.
We must make our feast ourselves,

slice our half-ham, indulge, fill our plates,
potatoes and green beans
carried to our table near the window.

We are the feast, plenty of years,
arguments. I’m thinking the whole bundle of it
rolls out like a white tablecloth. We wanted

to be good company for one another.
Little did we know that first picnic
how this would go. Your hair was thick,

mine long and easy; we climbed a bluff
to look over a storybook plain. We chose
our spot as high as we could, to see

the river and the checkerboard fields.
What we didn’t see was this day, in
our pajamas if we want to,

wrinkled hands strong, wine
in juice glasses, toasting
whatever’s next,

the decades of side-by-side,
our great good luck.
~Marjorie Saiser “Thanksgiving for Two”

Even without family gathered around us this day,
we do have each other and that is a blessing in and of itself.
May we revel in our thanksgiving feast for two because,
through thick and thin and COVID,
we are still together.

Struck Senseless

I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.

It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.

I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Too much of the time
I fixate on what I think I can control in life~
what I see, hear, taste, feel

Instead –
how must I appear to my Maker
as I begin each day?
-my utter astonishment at waking up,
-my true gratitude for each breathless moment,
-my pealing resonance
when struck senseless by life.

As Old As I Am

There’s a single tree at the fence line…

When I cross the unfertile pasture strewn
with rocks and the holes of gophers, badgers, coyotes,
and the rattlesnake den (a thousand killed
in a decade because they don’t mix well with dogs
and children) in an hour’s walking and reach
the tree, I find it oppressive. Likely it’s
as old as I am, withstanding its isolation,
all gnarled and twisted from its battle
with weather. I sit against it until we merge,
and when I return home in the cold, windy
twilight I feel I’ve been gone for years.

~Jim Harrison, from “Fence Line Tree” from Saving Daylight.

Our fence line apple tree is considerably older than I am, and not a far walk away from the house. I visit it nearly every day, to be reminded that there is a wonder in gnarled limbs and blatant asymmetry.

What strikes me is the consistent presence of this tree though so much changes around it: the seasons, the birds that nest in it, the animals that graze under it and the ever-changing palette above and beyond.

This tree stands bent and misshapen, though not nearly as fruitful as in its younger years, yet still a constant in my life and in generations to come.

May I be that constant for those around me, to be steady when all around me changes in swirls and storms. Perhaps being bent and wrinkled and knobby can also be beautiful.

Beyond Communion

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.

As If What Exists

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness


and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom


as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious
~Lisel Mueller
“In Passing” from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems

We lose light so quickly by mid to late afternoon these days. There is no wistful lingering within the descent of evening; the curtain is pulled closed and it is dark — just like that.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having more difficulty adjusting to the loss of daylight this year than any year previously. This is perplexing as the change of seasons is no mystery to me. Somehow I’m feeling a new deprivation beyond the fact that shorter days are simply a part of the annual autumnal routine.

As if –
something precious has been stolen away

as if –
I had any claim to the light to begin with

as if –
I exist only to notice what ceases to exist.

I’m ready for more than just feeling loss.
I’m ready to break into blossom;
to be the light instead of grumbling in the dark.

Unseen Nest

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.
~Tess Gallagher “Choices” from Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems.

Am I capable of such tenderness,
such recognition of the well-being of others,
by saving the nest
and all future potential nests
rather than exercise my freedom
to have an unimpeded world view
when and where I want it?

I must not forget:
my right to choose
can only mean
choosing to do right
by those who have no choice.

A Cottonwood Dream

Stand near the river with your feet
slightly apart. Push your toes down
beyond the mud, below the water.
Stretch your arms and head back
deliberately, until straight lines
no longer matter—until the sky
from any angle is your desire.
Let the skin go grey and split open.
If you die a little somewhere
the wind will carve the branches back
into an alphabet
someone will try to remember
how to read. Stay this way
half a century or more, turning leaves
in the half-note tides of the air.
Inside, with that blood so slow
no one hears it, set buds for spring
by each late October. November,
December, dream what it means
being owl…or star.
~Kathleen Cain, “What This Means, Being Cottonwood” from Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace

According to old Morton Lawrence, the original owner of this farm, this particular cottonwood was a special tree. He called it the “Balm of Gilead” tree for the sticky resin that exudes from its spring buds, which he liked to rub into his dry cracked hands. The scent is memorable, both sweet and green, and invokes the smell of spring ground awakening from a long winter.

The big tree stands apart from the rest of the forest, always a sentinel of the seasons, blowing cotton fluff in the late spring and heart-shaped leaves in the fall, covering the surrounding fields.

The buds may well have healing properties, as described in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, but it is this tree that I depend upon for its unblinking steadiness through the worst wind storms, the driest summers and our iced-over winters. The cottonwood, in its multi-armed reach to the skies, is balm to my eyes, no matter when I look at it — a dream of the healing I’ll find someday in heaven for all that ails me.

Some Missing One

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.
~Jane Hirshfield “Hope and Love” from The Lives of the Heart

I know what it is like to feel out of step with those around me, an alien in my own land. At times I wonder if I belong at all as I watch the choices others make. I grew up this way, missing a connection that I could not find, never quite fitting in, a solitary kid becoming a solitary adult. The aloneness bothered me, but not in a “I’ve-got-to-become-like-them” kind of way.

I went my own way, never losing hope.

Somehow misfits find each other. Through the grace and acceptance of others, I found a soul mate and community. Even so, there are times when the old feeling of not-quite-belonging creeps in and I wonder whether I’ll be a misfit all the way to the cemetery, placed in the wrong plot in the wrong graveyard.

We disparate creatures are made for connection of some kind, with those who look and think and act like us, or with those who are something completely different. I’ll keep on the lookout for my fellow misfits, just in case there is another one out there looking for company along this journey.