In our six visits to Japan over the past decade, we became more comfortable with what was expected of us as “gaijin” (foreigners) while shopping, traveling, and attempting to communicate when we had neither words nor understanding.
We were always treated with utmost respect and politeness by those we encountered. There would even be an occasional smile or moment of warmth and connection which is remarkable in a city of 38 million people.
Never were we invisible to others – we stood a head taller, and could not disappear in the current and flow of people. Clearly we farm people didn’t fit in a huge city – just as we felt while visiting New York City or Chicago – we were not “of” them or their country, only visitors who would eventually leave and go home.
Yet Japan has left its mark on me and always will – especially in the lives of our grandchildren who are of two close-ally countries despite two very different cultures. The challenge of their mixed-race will be to understand how each forms and shapes who they are and will become.
And always to accept the offer of an umbrella as an act of grace and friendship.
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What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge in blackberry bramble and beech trees, where creatures live without dogma and water moves in patterns more ancient than philosophy. I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders. I don’t speak the language but my body translates best it can, wakening skin and gut, summoning the long kinship we share with everything. ~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from Blackbird
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 great 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”
Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren who live across the ocean, to watch them discover the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit. I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness, there is refuge amid the brambles, there is kinship with what surrounds us, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness, there is rescue when all seems hopeless, there is grace as the old gives way to new.
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And this, then, is the vision of that Heaven of which we have heard, where those who love each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are green, the light a music in the air, and all is unentangled, and all is undismayed. ~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”
…I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake learning how to braid long thin plastic strips into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one, if that’s what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead, and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim, and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor. Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift—not the worn truth that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hand, I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even. ~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”
...I want to thank you truly for the wry smile you set on my lips, a smile as mild as your own; it has saved me pain and grief. And if now I shed a tear for you, and all who wait like you and do not know what they wait for, it does not matter. O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old. Goodbye, dear one, farewell, my sweet mother. ~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”
Mother love is life and light beginning in the dark, as a special secret, until you know without a doubt you will never be just yourself again, tethered forever to another.
~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~
the tangles we make of our lives unravel, straighten and smooth, no dismay over mistakes made
I was created within you – to love my own children fully, fervently, forever and forever – as I was loved by you.
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for. ~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory
I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss. That’s why babies howl at birth, and why the dying so often reach for something only they can apprehend.
At the end they don’t want their hands to be under the covers, and if you should put your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free; and you must honor that desire, and let them pull it free. ~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”
And once, for no special reason, I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab. Everything familiar was receding fast…
Whatever I saw I had already passed… (This must be what life is like at the moment of leaving it.) ~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”
The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.
I too often mistake this world, this existence, as the only light there is, a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness. If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.
Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.
The newborn and the dying know this. They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands. An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds, grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered. The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.
We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark. We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.
In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives. Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.
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My life flows on in endless song Above earth’s lamentation I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn That hails a new creation Through all the tumult and the strife I hear that music ringing It finds an echo in my soul How can I keep from singing? ~Robert Lowry
We recently returned from an out of state visit with two grandsons, ages two and six months. They love being sung to – they rock and bop to melodies and rhythms and then relax to sleep listening to us sing the quiet evening hymns we sang to his father at night.
They will see so much in their lifetimes that we can’t even imagine. Already in their short time on earth there have been plenty of cataclysmic events, and without a doubt, more are in store.
No matter what comes, we pray they will always hear their parents’ and four grandparents’ voices resounding inside their heads when things get rough. The hymns and the prayers said over them will give them calm and confidence in the face of troubles, tumult and strife.
God’s reality and truth are shared with them in songs and words every day, and as they someday raise children of their own, how can they keep from singing that out whenever it is most needed?
This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.
If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).
In His name, may we sing…
My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation. I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
Refrain: No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Love is lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
What though my joys and comforts die, I know my Savior liveth. What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.
I lift mine 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
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing! All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing?
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when my father had been dead a week I woke with his voice in my ear I sat up in bed and held my breath and stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
if he called again I would put on my coat and galoshes ~Donald Hall “White Apples”
She skimmed the yellow water like a moth, Trailing her feet across the shallow stream; She saw the berries, paused and sampled them Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth. Light in the air, she fluttered up the path, So delicate to shun the leaves and damp, Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp To find her stray child, or the moon, or both. Even before she reached the empty house, She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose, Followed a bee where apples blew like snow; And then, forgetting what she wanted there, Too full of blossom and green light to care, She hurried to the ground, and slipped below. ~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems
I saw my grandma’s ghost once.
She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.
She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever. She married too young to an abusive alcoholic, lost her first child to lymphoma at age 8 before treatment was possible and took her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.
But there was grace too. The marriage somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety – after his sudden death sitting in church, Grandma’s faith never wavered. Her garden soil yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, her children and grandchildren welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.
She was busy planning her first overseas trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.
I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.
Her funeral was unbearable as I had never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.
Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.
I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.
Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”
She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:
“I want you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”
She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.
She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.
She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.
You’re in a better place I’ve heard a thousand times And at least a thousand times I’ve rejoiced for you
But the reason why I’m broken The reason why I cry Is how long must I wait to be with you
I close my eyes and I see your face If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place Lord, won’t you give me strength To make it through somehow I’ve never been more homesick than now
Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know But, even if you showed me The hurt would be the same Cause I’m still here so far away from home
In Christ, there are no goodbyes And in Christ, there is no end
So I’ll hold onto Jesus With all that I have To see you again To see you again
And I close my eyes and I see your face If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place Lord, won’t you give me strength To make it through somehow
Won’t you give me strength To make it through somehow Won’t you give me strength To make it through somehow I’ve never been more homesick than now ~Millard Bart Marshall
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The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown. ~Wendell Berry from “Poetry and Marriage” in Standing By Words
Our vows to one another forty years ago today:
Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.
I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.
I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.
I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.
I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
(our wedding vows for our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church — the last line adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”)
Sometimes our life reminds me of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing and in that opening a house, an orchard and garden, comfortable shades, and flowers red and yellow in the sun, a pattern made in the light for the light to return to. The forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day after day, the dark richer than the light and more blessed, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in.
…Marriage… joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity. ~Wendell Berry from Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community
We married in our Seattle church with our pastor officiating, with a small group of family and friends as witnesses.
It was a wedding created by two frugal people with little to spend – I sewed my dress and Dan’s shirt from muslin, we grew our own flowers, our families helped potluck the lunch afterward and our tiered carrot cake was made by a friend.
Yet our vows to one another were not frugal and held nothing back. They were extravagant and comprehensive, coming from our hearts and spirits. The music we asked our amazing organist to play (versions below) inspired us by its simplicity and complexity – very much like the families that raised us and the God we worship.
Our vows have taken us from the city to the countryside, to the raising and rejoicing in three amazing children (each of whom wrote movingly to us today) and now four grandchildren. We served more than forty years as a public-employed attorney and physician, have laid down those responsibilities, and picked up the tools of farm and garden along with church and community service for as long as we are able.
We treasure each day of living together in faithfulness, respect, compassion and hope – knowing that how we love and find joy in one another mirrors how God loves and revels in His people.
We are praying for many more days to fill us with what endures.
A pot of red lentils simmers on the kitchen stove. All afternoon dense kernels surrender to the fertile juices, their tender bellies swelling with delight.
In the yard we plant rhubarb, cauliflower, and artichokes, cupping wet earth over tubers, our labor the germ of later sustenance and renewal.
Across the field the sound of a baby crying as we carry in the last carrots, whorls of butter lettuce, a basket of red potatoes.
I want to remember us this way— late September sun streaming through the window, bread loaves and golden bunches of grapes on the table, spoonfuls of hot soup rising to our lips, filling us with what endures. ~Peter Pereira from “A Pot of Red Lentils”
Here are versions of the organ music we selected for prelude, processional, recessional and postlude
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.
A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:
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.
A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here: