You Never Know…

Without realizing it, we fill
important places in each others’ lives.
It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery,

the mechanic at the local garage,
the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers.


Good people who are always “there,”
who can be relied upon in small,
important ways. People who teach us,
bless us, encourage us, support us,
uplift us in the dailiness of life.

We never tell them.
I don’t know why, but we don’t.

And, of course, we fill that role ourselves.
There are those who depend on us, watch us,
learn from us, take from us. And we never know.

You may never have proof of your importance,
but you are more important than you think.
There are always those who couldn’t do without you.
The rub is that you don’t always know who.
~Robert Fulghum from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

If there is one thing the pandemic taught me, it’s noticing the people in my life who may have not been as obvious to me before. I hadn’t realized how many folks truly are front-line serving others. It is not only the health care workers, grocery store clerks and school teachers but suddenly the list of “essential workers” has grown large, including law enforcement, plumbers and electricians, child care workers, water, sanitation and sewer maintenance, postal clerks, technicians who fix our cars and appliances and the farmers who tend the crops and livestock we need to live.

I realized how oblivious I had been before not taking the time to acknowledge the daily services I receive from so many varied people. In fact, it became even more urgent for me to tell my family members and friends – some thousands of miles away from me – how much they mean to me.

I’ve tried to remedy this: I try to tell others as simply and clearly as I can, whenever possible, that I appreciate what they have done and what they continue to do under difficult circumstances, how important they are to me and others and make life better for us all. I also need to continue to nurture those relationships with family and friends crucial to my well-being. I need them all.

It is so important for them to know.

Well over a thousand of you receive these daily Barnstorming emails and posts yet I only hear from a few of you – I treasure those messages, thank you! Let me know if I can do better at reaching out to each of you in a meaningful way – either by commenting on posts or emailing me privately at emilypgibson@gmail.com – we all need encouragement that we can make a difference in others’ lives.

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Resting in the Grace of the World

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

When our grandchildren visit our farm,
I watch them rediscover
what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world.
I am 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.

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Much Too Beautiful to Stay

I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”

An amber light stretches from sky to ground
this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning-
today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.

A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay.
I long again for rain and chill nights.

Drying up and pock-marked with holes,
I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape,
wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together
where holiness is to be found.

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To Live in the Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.
~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”

A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.

I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

photo of Wiser Lake and Mt. Baker by Joel de Waard

…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”

When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole.
~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being

My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.

If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.

The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.

Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.

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Mist in the Fields

A girl comes out
of the barn, holding
a lantern
like a bucket of milk

or like a lantern.
Her shadow’s there.
They pump a bucket of water
and loosen their blouses,

they lead the mare out
from the field
their thin legs
blending with the wheat.

Crack a green kernel
in your teeth.  Mist
in the fields,
along the clay road

the mare’s footsteps
fill up with milk.
~Franz Wright  “Morning” from Ill Lit:Selected and New Poems

Each morning as I rise
to let the horses out to graze for the day,
I’m once again that teenage girl who awoke early
to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn,
mist in my hair and dew on my boots,
picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.

The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose
until I knew it was time to turn around,
each hoof step taking us closer to home
to clean barn, do chores, hang laundry,
weed the garden until sunset.

It is sunlight that creates and then erases
all in me that is shadow.
Eventually, only the real me remains.

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How Things Unfold

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in


so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
wind-glittering
totally its apparent self:


I look for the forms
things want to come as


from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will
unfold:

not the shape on paper, though
that, too, but the
uninterfering means on paper:


not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

~A. R. Ammons, “Poetics” from  A Coast of Trees

Even our very origin as a unique organism is a process of unfolding and spiraling: from our very first doubling after conception expanding to a complexity of trillions of cells powering our every thought and movement.

I look everywhere in my backyard world for beginnings and endings, wanting to understand where I fit and where I am in the process of this unfolding life. As I grow older, I find myself more peripheral than central, as I am meant to be – I have more perspective now. I can see where I came from, and where I am headed.

We unfurl, each one of us, slowly, surely, gently, in the Hands of our Creator God. He knows how each of us began as He was there from the beginning. He remains at the core our unfolding forever.

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What’s Left of Joy

You recall how winter
colored your love, left it


overly delicate, like a flower
skimmed of all fragrance.


You hear in the long last notes
of the nightingale’s song


how to harbor what’s left
of joy, how spring clutches


the green shoot of life and holds
on and on through summer, prepares


for no end that is sure in coming,
the fall ever endlessly repeating.
~Maureen Doallas “Recounting Seasons”, from Neruda’s Memoirs 

One of my greatest joys is watching time as days become weeks, then months, and as years flow by, the seasons repeat seemingly endlessly. I know they must end for me eventually so I anticipate transitions before they take place.

In the “olden” days, many farmers kept daily hand-written diaries to track the events of the seasons: when the soil was warm enough to sow, when the harvest was ready, the highs and lows of temperature fluctuations, how many inches in the rain gauge, how deep the snow.

Now we follow the years with a swift scroll in our photo collection in our phones: the tulips bloomed two weeks later this year, or the tomatoes ripened early or the pears were larger two years ago.

I take comfort things tend to repeat predictably year after year, yet I can spot subtle differences. Our hydrangea bushes are a harbinger of seasonal change: they are blooming a darker burgundy color this year, the lace caps are mostly blue rather than pink and purple. Their blooms fade eventually into blended earth tones, then blanche, finally losing color altogether and becoming skeletal.

And so it is with me. I harbor joy by noticing each change, knowing the repetition of the seasons and the cycle of blooming will continue, with or without me here watching. I am unnecessary except as a recorder of fact.

I will keep watching and keep documenting as long as I’m able.

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Wonder in Their Eyes

Serene the silver fishes glide,
Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed!
As through the aged deeps of ocean,    
They glide with wan and wavy motion.   
They have no pathway where they go,
They flow like water to and fro,    
They watch with never-winking eyes,
They watch with staring, cold surprise,    
The level people in the air,  
The people peering, peering there:
Who wander also to and fro, 
And know not why or where they go,    
Yet have a wonder in their eyes,  
Sometimes a pale and cold surprise.

~ Max Eastman, “At the Aquarium”  Max Eastman: A Life

The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club

Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple
and a patch of gray. One with a gold head,

a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins
like half-folded fans of lace.
A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one,
and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water.
They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us
as we lean on the cement railing
in indecisive late-December light,
and because we do not feed them, they pass,
then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop.
“Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them,
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
perhaps another species, living in the shadow
of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white,
seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses,
unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet.
~Susan Kolodny “Koi Pond, Oakland Museum”

The water going dark only
makes the orange seem brighter,
as you race, and kiss, and spar
for food, pretending not
to notice me. For this gift
of your indifference, I am
grateful. I will sit until
the pond goes black, the last
orange spark extinguished.
~Robert Peake from “Koi Pond”

the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 
Matthew 13: 47-48

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. 
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
– It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels- until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go. 
~Elizabeth Bishop  from “The Fish”

All my life, I’ve taken care of a variety of fish in tanks and ponds.  As a child, I would watch, mesmerized, as our tropical fish glided around, happily exploring their little ten gallon world.  I willingly cleaned away the algae, rinsed the gravel and changed the filter. As a teenager, I boasted at least three different tanks aerating away in my bedroom, my own little aqua-cultural world of bubbles and fins.

During college and medical school, I chose to share my room with goldfish and bettas, thriving on their apparent contentment within a clear glass bowl.  I didn’t think of them as emotional support animals, but there was a joy obvious in their albeit limited existence: they still thrived when I was away, not missing me, but were always thrilled when I fed them, and tolerated my messing with their home maintenance.

My current thirty gallon aquarium is decades old and boasts over two dozen fish and plenty of furry algae and plants. Some of my watery friends have lived ten years or more and when they pass, I miss them.  Even the dozen koi and goldfish in our farm pond have expressive faces and individual personalities that I’ve gotten to know well as they come when I call.

I know the heart of compassion I feel for any creature I’m responsible for, as I know and have experienced the compassion of our Creator.

I would hope when the time comes that I end up in His net, that He’ll look me in the eye, see the wonder there as I gape at Him. He’ll count my blemishes and wounds and the number of hooks in my mouth from the times I’ve been caught and escaped, and if He’s not yet ready to take me home, or deems me not yet ready to leave this world, He’ll throw me back rather than throw me away to keep trying to get it right.

He has promised us that.

Rainbows, rainbows, rainbows indeed…

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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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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.