Decomposing Standards

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day

the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning,

it feels as though it could be
the day before or a year ago
or a year before that.

With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out,
and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.

Time all but stops.

But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.

I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.

Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right?
Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.

There is a lesson here in the manure pile.
There must be a pony buried here somewhere.
And there is.

We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.

We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.

So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.

At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.

Stalking the Gaps Together

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The gaps are the thing.
The gaps are the spirit’s one home,
the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean
that the spirit can discover itself like a once-blind man unbound.
The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower

to see the back parts of God;
they are fissures between mountains

and cells the wind lances through,
the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery.


Go up into the gaps.
If you can find them;
they shift and vanish too.
Stalk the gaps.
Squeak into a gap in the soil,
turn, and unlock
—more than a maple—
a universe.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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I think there is a yawning gaping separation threatening us right now.

I feel a fissuring gap in my life. People who have eaten at our table, shared our home, who we have worshiped alongside – are now estranged, no longer trusting. This separation is buoyed by the chill wind of politics blowing bitterly where once there was warmth and nurture and caring.

We disagree.

We no longer understand one another. We no longer listen to one another.
The argument has become more important than the connection.

How can we even allow these gaps between us to develop?
How do we fill these fissures with enough of ourselves
so something new and vital can grow?
How can we stalk the gaps together, knowing how we are all exposed?

Not one of us has the corner on the Truth; if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we cower together for safety in the cracks of this world, watching helplessly as the backside of God passes by too holy for us to gaze upon. He places us there together for our own good. I see you there alongside me.

We are weak together. We are dependent together. We need each other.

Only His Word – nothing else –
can fill the open gaping hollow between us.
His Grace is great enough
to fill every hole
bridge every gap
bring hope to the hopeless
plant seeds for the future
and restore us wholly to each other.

Let it be so. Oh please let it be.

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Hanging Out

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Continue reading “Hanging Out”

Great Expanses

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Not the midnight sun exactly, or endless summer,
just that extra hour holding steady, western
horizon stable, as though shadows won’t lengthen
when in August you can outrun the night
or feel as though you do, latitude in your favor,

North of Sioux City, the sky widens into South Dakota,
turn west and you will think you could see all the way
to Wyoming, and if you drive long enough you will,
crossing the Missouri River, the bluffs gentle,
then the grasslands, the turnoffs for reservations.

As dusk approaches, you may pass a stone house,
long deserted, a star carved over the door, a small pond,
wind stirring over it even now, forming a second thought,
a space you will carry within your speech,
your soul stirred by these great expanses.
~Jane Hoogestraat “At the Edge of a Time Zone” from Border States.

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We have spent long hours in the past week traveling on the great expanses of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho plains. It is a marvel to see so far in every direction yet to feel you are barely moving at 80 miles an hour. The extra hour gained at the edge of a time zone is pure gravy of gifted time.

This is challenging land on which people eke out a living. We have seen a cowboy and herding dog flanking a few dozen Angus cattle alongside the freeway. We’ve seen huge combines kicking up dust clouds as they thresh fields of grain. There are 150 year old remnants of barns and buildings, barely standing against the constant winds and harsh weather.

While we now cross the plains in a day or two, native people and wagon train pioneers spent months by foot or horse, many never managing to reach their destination.

These expanses echo with those lost lives of previous centuries, not to forget hundreds of thousands of bison that also once grazed these basins.

We’ll return to the land of rain and green and ubiquitous trees today. But the great expanses of the plains always enlarge my vision of who lives and works within this vast country.

My heart swells in gratitude with the view of such an endless horizon.

abandoned schoolhouse (now collapsed) near Rapalje, Montana

Bequeathing What We Never Owned To Begin With

The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.

His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.

He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts

a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,

a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.

He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.

But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee

seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters

a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

~Raymond Byrnes “Personal Effects” from Waters Deep

We’ve seen families break apart over the distribution of the possessions of the deceased. There can be hurt feelings, resentment over perceived slights, arguments over who cared most and who cared least.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen with our parents’ belongings. There had been a slow giving away process as their health failed and they needed to move from larger spaces to smaller spaces. Even so, no one was eager to take care of the things that had no particular monetary or sentimental value. We still have boxes and boxes of household and personal items sitting unopened in storage on our farm for over a decade. Each summer I think I’ll start the sorting process but I don’t. My intentions are good but my follow-through is weak.

So my husband and I have said to each other and our children that we don’t want to leave behind stuff which ultimately has little meaning in a generation or two. We need now to do the work it takes to make sure we honor that promise.

There is so much we would rather bequeath than just stuff we own. It can’t be stored in boxes or outlined in our wills: these are precious possessions that don’t take up space. Instead, we bequeath our love of simple everyday blessings, while passing down our faith in God to future generations.

May our memories be kept alive through stories about the people we tried to be in this life, told to our grandchildren and their children, with much humor and a few tears – that would be the very best legacy of all.

In Our Hollowness

There is a day that comes when you realize
you can’t bake enough bread
to make things turn out right, no matter
how many times you read Little House on the Prairie
to your children. There aren’t enough
quart jars to fill with tomatoes
or translucent slices of pear to keep you
from feeling unproductive. There is no bonfire
that burns orange enough in the chill October night
to keep your mind from following the lonesome
howls and yips of the coyotes concealed
by darkness in the harvested cornfield
just beyond the circle of your fire.

And when you step away from your family and fire,
into the dark pasture and tip your head back,
feel the whole black bowl of sky
with its icy prickles of stars, its swath of Milky Way,
settle over you, you know that no one
and everyone is just this alone on the Earth
though most keep themselves distracted enough
not to notice. In your hollowness
you open your arms to God because no one else
is enough to fill them. Eternity
passes between and no one knows this but you.

The hum of their conversation, the whole world, talking.
When it is time, you turn, grasp the woodcart’s handle,
pull it, bumping behind you across the frosty grass,
up the hill to the house, where you
step inside cubes of light, and begin to do ordinary things,
hang up coats, open and close drawers,
rinse hot chocolate from mugs. And you are still
separate, but no longer grieving bread.
~Daye Phillippo “Bread” from The Exponent. Vol. 124 – No 75 (May 3, 2010)

Try as I might, there aren’t enough chores to do, nor meals to make, nor pictures to take or words to write to distract me from the emptiness that can hit in the middle of the night. We each try to find our own way to make the world feel right and good, to give us a sense of purpose for getting up each morning.

Yet life can be harsh. I hear regularly from my patients who fight a futile struggle with pointlessness. Hours, days and years are hollow without loving and meaningful relationships with each other, but especially with our Creator.

My work here is simple: to find meaning in routine and the rhythm of the seasons with a desire to leave behind something that will last longer than I will. In those moments of feeling hollowed-out, I am reminded that God-shaped hole is just as He created it. God knows exactly what I need— I rise like leavened bread becoming more than I could ever be without Him.

The ordinary in me is filled by the extraordinary.

Fragrance of the Promises

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above

Let the heavens falter
Let the earth proclaim
Come healing of the altar
Come healing of the name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb
~Leonard Cohen “Come healing”

We are all in need of healing, none more so than those who have been affected by the pandemic, either dealing themselves with the illness and its long-lasting effects, or grieving the untimely loss of family and friends.

There is need for healing in relationships, either because of too much proximity or not nearly enough due to quarantine.

There is need for a sense of purpose without a schedule of regular employment or schooling to occupy our days.

There is need for healing for the wrongs we do, intentionally or unintentionally.

Our hardships are meager compared to the plagues of the past but they are nevertheless real and undeserved, so we pray for relief, we pray for grace and mercy, we pray for healing of mind, body and spirit.

Even a tiny blue forget-me-not blossom reminds us: we need to seek the fragrance of promises made and harvest the fruit of promises kept.

God does not make promises to please us, like a politician in an election year. He keeps promises because He knows we need to believe they will happen according to His plan— He forgets-us-not because we are the troubled dust upon which He has blown sweet and fragrant breath.

His True Beauty

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

stained glass from Meyers Studio, Munich 1899

A farmer died yesterday yet his harvest will live on.

Arnie and his wife Gretchen hadn’t farmed in a few years, if you consider farming only as the raising of dairy heifers and the milking of cows. But farming is so much more if you consider their other harvest work: sharing the produce from a beautiful garden, his volunteering in the community bringing Meals on Wheels to the home bound, transporting people to church who would never make it otherwise, and an unfailing smile and greeting at church when paying special attention to anyone he had never seen before. He wanted them to know how welcome they were.

When he wasn’t running a dairy farm, Arnie harvested people. He exchanged his tractor for an SUV which made it easy to fold up and stow a wheelchair whenever needed. He traded in his hoe for a handshake, his farmer’s cap for a promise to show up to do whatever no one else would do.

He looked for those who were struggling to keep going, who had run out of fuel and were discouraged, their hope being battered by the storms of life. Arnie searched for the light hidden within and became a reigniting fire himself, even when his own illness overwhelmed him. He helped push back darkness with a sparkle and shine reflected from the Light he kept illuminated deep within himself.

His walk with God was a thing of true beauty, like multi-colored windows of faith that reflect our Savior. Arnie became a sanctuary bathed in the glow of a powerful inner light.

A farmer has gone home, but his harvest left behind is bountiful beyond imagining. It sparkles and shines; we’ll miss that welcoming smile until that day he greets us once again at heaven’s gates.

The Storm Inside and Out

Beneath our clothes, our reputations, our pretensions,
beneath our religion or lack of it,
we are all vulnerable both to the storm without
and to the storm within.
~Frederick Buechner – from Telling the Truth

We are so complicit and compliant
in pleasant and peaceful appearance,
sitting in silence allowing
our inner storm to stay well hidden;
if called and compelled to face wrongs boldly,
the tempest can no longer be contained.
Silence in the face of evil
must itself be shattered,
even the rocks will cry out,
as our storm spills forth
speaking the truth.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We all are feeling the unpredictability of the state of the climate all around us:

heavy damaging winds, devastating hale storms, thunder and lightening, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud, horrible forest fires.

Protests, violence, conspiracy theories, people distrusting and disrespecting others, name-calling, and plenty of deafening silence.

And inside my own cranium:

words that fly out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire of the state of the world today.

I have no excuse for acting like moody March, October, December and August within a span of a few hours. I should not be so easily forgiven or unburdened. I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storms inside and outside blow over.

But in the midst of all the extremes, while the pandemic, the climate change, the racial injustice storms keep raging, a miracle is wrought:
it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.

God cries too. His wept tears light the sky in a promise of forgiveness while we tear each other apart.
He assures us: this storm too will pass.

He assures us because He knows all too well our desperate need for it.

A Simple Field

Field with Wheat Stacks – Van Gogh

He fell in love with a simple field
of wheat, and I’ve felt this way, too;
melted, like a pool of mint chip
ice cream, foolishly in love,
even though we know
how it turns out in the end:
snicked by the scythe, burnt
in the furnace of the August
sun, threshed, separated, kernel
from chaff. But right now,
it’s spring, and the wheat aligns
in orderly rows: Yellow green.
Snap pea. Sage. Celadon.
His brush strokes pile on,
wave after wave, as the haystacks
liquefy, slide off the canvas,
roll on down to the sea.

~Barbara Crooker “Field with Wheat Stacks” from Les Fauves.

Wheat Field with Sheaves -Vincent Van Gogh
Sheaves of Wheat in a Field –Vincent Van Gogh
Ears of Wheat – Van Gogh 1890

There is nothing here but wheat, no blade
too slight for his attention: long swaying
brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows,
the hopefulness of early spring. All grass
is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no
gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms,
no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers
roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight.
His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental
concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded
into the underpainting. He let the wind play
through the stems like a violin, turning the surface
liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents.
No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from Les Fauves

I continually fall in love with the fields in my world – I’m unable to take my eyes off them as they green up in the spring, as they wave in the breeze in June, as they turn into gold in August.

Each day brings a change to record and remember.

The colors pile on, one after another after another until it all must be cut short, harvested, stored and consumed, leaving behind the raw shorn remnants.

Yet in stubble is the memory of something that was once truly grand and beautiful and will be again.

Even stubble in a simple field reminds me of what is yet to come.