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” fromThe 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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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.
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We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. ~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Twenty-six years ago today we watched at your bedside as you labored, readying yourself to die and we could not help except to be there while we watched you move farther away from us.
This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:
harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses, harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father, harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods, harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs, harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage, harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, harder than returning home so changed there were no words, harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family, harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power, harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent, harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house, harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying, and returning home forgiven.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you, taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.
So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe, we knew your hard work was complete and what was yet undone was up to us to finish for you.
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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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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.
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They disappear with friends near age 11. We lose them to baseball and tennis, garage bands, slumber parties, stages where they rehearse for the future, ripen in a tangle of love knots. With our artificial knees and hips we move into the back seats of their lives, obscure as dust behind our wrinkles, and sigh as we add the loss of them to our growing list of the missing.
Sometimes they come back, carting memories of sugar cookies and sandy beaches, memories of how we sided with them in their wars with parents, sided with them even as they slid out of our laps into the arms of others.
Sometimes they come back and hold onto our hands as if they were the thin strings of helium balloons about to drift off.
~Olivia Stiffler “Grandchildren”, from Otherwise, We Are Safe
Spending a few precious days with a grandchild who lives far away just whets the appetite for wanting more time. These are such short years before they are off to their own lives, leaving their grandparents (and parents) behind.
So when they take my hand, my heart melts, knowing I hold on loosely, knowing I must, someday, somehow, let go.
And before I do, they will come back to hold my hand loosely, knowing they need to let me go.
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.
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
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. ~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy
To an infant, nothing is monotonous — it is all so new. The routine of the day is very simple and reassuring: sleep, wake, cry, nurse, clean up, gaze out at the world, turn on the smiles –repeat.
The routine becomes more complex as we age until it no longer resembles a routine, if we can help it. We don’t bother getting up to watch the sun rise yet again and don’t notice the sun set once more. We truly flounder in the wilderness of our own making.
Weary as we may be with routine, our continual search for the next new thing costs us in time and energy. We age every time we sigh with boredom or turn away from the mundane and everyday, becoming less and less like our younger purer selves.
Who among us exults in monotony and celebrates predictability and enjoys repetition, whether it is sunrise or sunset or an infinite number of daisies?
God does. He sees our short attention spans. He alone remains consistent, persistent and insistent because we need someone to lead us out of our wilderness.
Do it again, God. Please — please do it again.
My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation. I hear the real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging
Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing? While though the tempest round me roars, I know the truth, it liveth. And though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing? I Lift my eyes. The cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it. And day by day, this pathway smooths, since first I learned to love it.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, I hear the music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? How Can I Keep from singing? Keep Singing.
Will you come and follow me If I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know And never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, Will you let me name be known, Will you let my life be grown In you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind If I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind And never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare Should your life attract or scare. Will you let me answer prayer In you and you in me?
Will you let the blinded see If I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free And never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, And do this as such unseen, And admit to what I mean In you and you in me?
Will you love the “you” you hide If I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside And never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found To reshape the world around, Through my sight and touch and sound In you and you in me?
Lord, your summons echoes true When you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you And never be the same. In your company I’ll go Where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow In you and you in me.