A Sweetness Ripening

Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know…
Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.
~Wendell Berry from “Ripening”

My husband and I have walked our country road together many times on warm late summer evenings, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows, much like the walks we took together forty one years ago when we were newly married. Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first bought to leave the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings. 

The seedling trees my husband planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured.  The fences have fallen after 38 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, geese, chickens and cows lived. But today, on our 41st wedding anniversary, the house is getting new siding and windows, a fresh coat of paint, and the inside is being updated.

In a few weeks, our oldest son and his family, having concluded their mission work in Japan, will move in. There is such sweetness knowing the first home we owned together will now house our grandchildren.

Our children were raised on this road and they strolled these same steps with us many times, before flying far away for their life’s work. My husband and I have continued to walk together, just the two of us, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair has turned white and we are going to seed when it was only yesterday we were so young.

Indeed we ripen before we’re feeling ready. It is bitter sweetness relinquishing the youth we once knew, to face a future we can never know.

It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells.  But we are not the same as we were, having progressed to a fruitfulness intended all along.

We are ripening and readying, our seed flying with the wind.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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An Arch of Colored Light

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
~Lord Byron

But mark! what arch of varied hue
  From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
  The Rainbow in the cloud.

How bright its glory! there behold
  The emerald’s verdant rays,
The topaz blends its hue of gold
  With the deep ruby’s blaze.

Yet not alone to charm thy sight
  Was given the vision fair;–
Gaze on that arch of colored light,
  And read God’s mercy there.

~Felicia Hemans from “The Rainbow”

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I bring to the page or screen is intangible yet so very real.

I will keep reaching for rainbows, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever. It does feel like I’m clutching at a moment in time moving through my fingers.

I witnessed this Sabbath rainbow last night from our farm, standing with two of our very young grandchildren, hoping they would remember it enough to describe it to our someday great-grandchildren. Perhaps they will even read my words and know how much it mattered to me that they experience such beauty and promise.

I want them to always remember: in the beginning was the Word, and we are created by the same Author who writes incredible rainbows across the sky.

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A Calliope Cadence

those lovely horses,
that galloped me,


moving the world,
piston push and pull,


into the past—dream to
where? there, when


the clouds swayed by
then trees, as a tire


swing swung
me under—rope groan.


now, the brass beam,
holds my bent face,


calliope cadence—O
where have I been?
~Richard Maxson “Carousel at Seventy”

Under its canopy, in the shade it casts,
turns a world with painted horses,
all from a land that lingers a while
before it disappears.
Some, it’s true, are harnessed to a wagon,
but all have valor in their eyes.
A fierce red lion leaps among them,
and here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

Even a stag appears, straight from the forest,
except for the saddle he wears, and,
buckled on it, a small boy in blue.

And a boy in white rides the lion,
gripping it with small clenched hands,
while the lion flashes teeth and tongue.

And here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

And riding past on charging horses come girls,
bright-eyed, almost too old now for this children’s play.
With the horses rising under them,
they are looking up and off to what awaits.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Jardin de Luxembourg”

You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.
~William D. Tammeus

As a child, I could not resist a ride on a carousel, waving each time I came round.  Decades later, I can not resist standing and watching a carousel, waving back at whoever waves at me.

It is a world that turns and turns without going anywhere, except in the imaginations of the riders who fly higher, leap farther, jump huge gaps, race fastest. For them, it becomes a world that goes anywhere and everywhere. 

The swirl of surroundings and magic of music raises each child up, up, speeding faster and faster to catch whatever may await them. Then the world slows, settling and settling until each waving child becomes the stationary waving adult who stands their ground faithfully waiting — remembering how going round and round without going anywhere was the most wonderful feeling in the ever turning world.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round In the circle game

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him, Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet just to slow the circles down

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”

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As Much Serenity As Yearning

Last night I walked the woods
lit by the final moon of the month.
Days don’t count here
beneath the centuries-old pines
where my grandmother took her solace
on hard farm days, passing up
the washboard or jam-making
for the eternal whooshing
of the forest as much serenity
as yearning.
~Dave Malone, “Walk in the Woods” from Tornado Drill

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black.

My husband and I met in the late 70’s while we were both in graduate school in Seattle, living over 100 miles away from our grandparents’ farms farther north in Washington. We lived farther still from my grandparents’ wheat farm in Eastern Washington and his grandparents’ hog farm in Minnesota. One of our first conversations together, the one that told me I needed to get to know this man better, was about wanting to move back to work on the land. We were both descended from peasant immigrants from the British Isles, Holland and Germany – farming was in our DNA, the land remained under our fingernails even as we sat for endless hours studying in law school and medical school classes.

When we married and moved north after buying a small farm, we continued to work full time at desks in town. We’ve never had to depend on this farm for our livelihood, but we have fed our family from the land, bred and raised livestock, and harvested and preserved from a large garden and orchard. It has been a good balance thanks to career opportunities made possible by our education, something our grandparents would have marveled was even possible.

Like our grandparents, we watch in wonder at what the Creator brings to the rhythm of the land each day – the light of the dawn over the fields, the activity of the wild birds and animals in the woods, the life cycles of the farm critters we care for, the glow of the evening sun as night enfolds us when the moon ascends.

We are blessed by the land’s generosity when it is well cared for. Each new day promises another chance to treat it with the love it warrants.

Now forty-some years after that first conversation together about returning to farming, my husband and I hope we never have to leave the land. It brought us together, fed our family, remains imbedded under our fingernails and in our DNA.

Each in our own time, we will settle even deeper.

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With All My Heart

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity

~Louise Erdrich “Advice to Myself”

I am a messy person, coming from a long line of messy people. My paternal grandmother never had a clear kitchen counter, or a dining room table without piles of books and papers, spilling over with knickknacks and half-completed craft projects everywhere. I loved the chaos of her house since the messes left behind by her grandchildren weren’t as noticeable. I always felt at home, as if I was not being constantly monitored as a potential mess about to happen.

During this past (very hot) week, in our own home some sixty years later, we have grown from two residents to twelve with a lovely reunion of our children and grandchildren after four years of living far-flung and unable to gather. With four children under six years of age together, our house became even more of a whirlwind than it ordinarily is. I took no photos to demonstrate this, but trust me, the floor was covered with all manner of organic and inorganic matter most of the time. This was bliss, as long as I didn’t step on something sharp or suspiciously slimy in my bare feet.

The biggest surprise was a very early morning, about 4:30 AM, when the house was still dark and quiet except for our ten month old grandson who had not adapted yet to our time zone, so was up early for his breakfast. As I tiptoed quietly into my <very messy chaotic> kitchen to retrieve something, I noticed a good sized dust bunny on the linoleum floor and bent down to pick it up to toss in the trash can. To my surprise, it leaped away from my fingers!

It kept jumping away and when my eyes finally focused in the early morning light, I realized it wasn’t an escaping dust bunny, but a tree frog covered in dust fuzz from my less than tidy floor. It must have come in the house from the perpetually open front door and hidden under a piece of furniture, being transformed into a furry froggy Frankenstein.

I caught it and carried it outside into the morning dawn, setting it free into the chaos of the world outside, rather than coping inside with my insufficient housekeeping. No, I didn’t think to get a photo. Oh, well. Some things you just have to take on faith.

After all, my heart has been leaping and rejoicing all week to have our family under one roof for a brief few days and whether the house was clean was simply a secondary concern. It actually is not a concern at all.

You can’t clean out a mama’s heart; it carries so much over the years that may need sweeping and scrubbing, but this was not the week to worry about it. My worth is not in what I own or how pristine I keep things, but in the depth of my commitment to those who I am given the privilege to know and love.

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Go Help Your Dad

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

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”

Pouring the sidewalk by hand
Grouting the tile perimeter
In the very bottom, installing a drain
The best dive ever…

Nearly twenty-seven years ago
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 only 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 of cancer,
and returning home asking for forgiveness.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination
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 you left undone was up to us
to finish for you.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

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.

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.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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An Umbrella Collapsed

fallen sakura petals in Tokyo (photo by Nate Gibson)

A man sweeps with vigorous strokes
petals stuck to the street.


A grey sky hovers so close;
it finally touches my face.


Instantly umbrellas float over commuters,
I walk in a current of skirt and suits, gaijin.


One face nears. She stops and holds out her umbrella
so insistently I accept,


then try to give it back, but she pulls up her hood
and disappears like a pebble dropped into a puddle.


I kept this umbrella
collapsed, this story in the folded


fan of my tongue until now:
I raise its spokes, its flower-patterned nylon


above a squall of self-loathing, I take cover
in that moment—her wrist still kindling my sleeve

~Julia Shipley, “Tokyo, Near Ueno Station” from Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry

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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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

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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Making Us Even

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.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.