Strangers Hoping to Meet

A bookstore is for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good––that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
     Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street,
     Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet.

~Garrison Keillor from “November”

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen

I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
~ninth century Irish monk from “Pangur Ban”

Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. That left too little opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.

Now in semi-retirement, I’m trying to rectify that deficit, spending wonderful hours reading books I feel immersed within. As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet these authors in real life, or to interact with them on line. They have become friends on the page as well as in my life. What a miracle of the modern age!

I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. It is a joy to find new friends through my words!

In the summer of 2013, Dan and I wrapped up our Ireland trip with one day in Dublin before flying home. I wasn’t sure I could take in one more thing into my overwhelmed brain but am grateful Dan gently led me to the exhibit of the Book of Kells at Trinity College along with the incredible library right above it.

I needed to see the amazing things of which man is capable. My weariness was paltry compared to the immense effort of these dedicated writers and artists.

The Book of Kells is an intricately illustrated copy of the Gospels from the ninth century, meticulously decorated by Irish monks with quill pens and the finest of brushes. Two original pages are on display at the library and the brief look one is allowed scarcely does justice to the painstaking detail contained in every letter and design.

Upstairs, is the “Long Room” of 200,000 antiquarian books dating back centuries, lined by busts of writers and philosophers. It is inspiring to think of the millions of hours of illuminated thought contained within those leather bindings.

The written word is precious but so transient on earth; it takes preservationist specialists to keep these ancient books from crumbling to dust, lost forever to future generations.

The original Word is even more precious, lasting forever in the hearts and minds of men, and exists everlasting sitting at the right hand of God, never to disintegrate to dust. He is the inspiration for the intricate beauty of the illustrated Gospels we saw that day.

God is the ultimate source of wisdom for civilization’s greatest writers and poets. He alone has turned darkness into light even in man’s most desperate hours. Our weariness dissipates along with the shadows.

God is no stranger to us – He meets us in His Word and our reading is our ladder to Him. In that meeting, we are forever His.

Finally meeting Diana Gabaldon after a long correspondence with her on line
Village Books – Lynden, Washington – our local independent bookstore

A Garland of Melancholy

The melon shades of leaves
will soon rust and fall gently
to layers of rest and forgetting,
like sunken poems, unusual love,
and grave silence after the crows.


The black walnut tree trembles down
its mysterious spheres to sleep darkly,
to pulse with memory of heartwood.


Old roses are paling with grace
in this air of ruining tomorrows.
Autumn again, and all the years
twisting a garland of melancholy.

~Tim Buck, “Autumn” from VerseWrights Journal

The beauty around me is dying. It becomes harder to find vibrance and life in my surroundings in the volatility of deep autumn: a high wind warning is on the horizon in a few hours and we face a long winter as the uncontrolled pandemic continues unabated.

Those facts alone are enough to make me wander about the farm feeling melancholic. Even more than the loss of mere leaves and the fading of blooms is the reality of so many afflicted and infected people whose season for dying will come too soon.

Woe to us who are more concerned about our inconvenience and discomfort today than the months of ruined tomorrows for millions.

Lest it be forgotten in our bitterness – the promise of healing and renewal is also on the horizon.

May I listen for the pulse deep within the heartwood of each person with whom I have differences; my love for them must not fade nor wither but grow more graceful, more forgiving, more vibrant and beautiful by the day.

How is Your Life?

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.


Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?


It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.


Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.


I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”

Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.

So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.

So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?

I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?

When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.

Please tell me how you are.

The List

Last night we ended up on the couch
trying to remember
all of the friends who had died so far,

and this morning I wrote them down
in alphabetical order
on the flip side of a shopping list
you had left on the kitchen table.

So many of them had been swept away
as if by a hand from the sky,
it was good to recall them,
I was thinking
under the cold lights of a supermarket
as I guided a cart with a wobbly wheel
up and down the long strident aisles.

I was on the lookout for blueberries,
English muffins, linguini, heavy cream,
light bulbs, apples, Canadian bacon,
and whatever else was on the list,
which I managed to keep grocery side up,

until I had passed through the electric doors,
where I stopped to realize,
as I turned the list over,
that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea
as well as the bananas and the bread.

It was pouring by then,
spilling, as they say in Ireland,
people splashing across the lot to their cars.
And that is when I set out,
walking slowly and precisely,
a soaking-wet man
bearing bags of groceries,
walking as if in a procession honoring the dead.

I felt I owed this to Terry,
who was such a strong painter,
for almost forgetting him
and to all the others who had formed
a circle around him on the screen in my head.

I was walking more slowly now
in the presence of the compassion
the dead were extending to a comrade,

plus I was in no hurry to return
to the kitchen, where I would have to tell you
all about Terry and the bananas and the bread.

~Billy Collins “Downpour”

Since the count began, the list of those who have died expands every day in media headlines and increases by the hour on websites dedicated to COVID tracking – –

–only there are no names. We don’t list the names of those who have been lost.

Maybe if there were names of over one million people around the globe that the virus has hastened to take from us, somehow it would matter more. Maybe if we witnessed the suffering that accompanied each case, we would understand this is more than “just like the flu.”

I’ve seen the flu kill the young and healthy, so hearing that comparison doesn’t comfort me or cause me to wave this off as something that will pass as soon as the election results are tallied. Even some health care workers are remarkably nonchalant and dismissive of the virus. I simply don’t understand: after decades of pandemic planning in my work as a medical director/health officer, this is the situation we all dreaded could happen, but knew we needed to be ready for.

I don’t want to see anyone else added to a list that is far longer than it ever should have been and growing by the day. Yet the tallies rise because our very own behavior, modeled from the very top of government, is responsible.

Will anyone someday build a monument listing the names of those who died in this pandemic? No, because there is nothing noble about dying of a virus and the list would be far too long. There is nothing noble about failing to protect others in the name of protecting my own individual liberty and civil rights.

So I wear the mask and so should you. It just might keep me or you or someone we love from being just another number on the list.

Life is The Mystery

All men die. Not all men really live.
~William Wallace

Life — the temptation is always to reduce it to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is THE mystery.

After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. “It is life.”

Have you wept at anything during the past year?
Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
Have you thought seriously about the fact
that someday you are going to die?

More often than not,
do you really listen when people are speaking to you,
instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?


Is there anybody you know in whose place,
if one of you had to suffer great pain,
you would volunteer yourself?


If your answer to all or most of these questions is no,
the chances are that you’re dead.

~Frederick Buechner from  Listen to Your Life

I like mysteries if they are neatly solved between two book covers or contained within 90 minutes on a TV show.

Mysteries that don’t neatly resolve? Not so much. The uncertainty and unknowns can be paralyzing.

I am gifted the opportunity to witness miracles every day and the mystery is that I don’t often recognize them. I’m too “in my own head” to see.

If I weep, which I do more often than is comfortable to admit, am I weeping for something other than myself? If I listen, which I like to think I do well in my profession, but not as well in my personal life, do I really hear the perspective from another life and world view? If I become aware of someone’s suffering, am I willing to become uncomfortable myself to ease another’s pain?

I am being tested in these days of disrupted routines and potential threats to my health and well-being. Do I hunker down defensively or reach out unselfishly to make the best of the days that are left to me?

The mystery of when I will die can’t be solved until that moment comes, and I can’t be paralyzed by that unknown. But the everyday miracles of life are large and small and grand and plentiful and hidden in plain sight. I want to live every moment as their witness.

I Wonder What I Owe

At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and sifts through the golden woods.

The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers

with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep

my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging

how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?

Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nests of stars

on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.
~Joyce Sutphen “On the Shortest Days” from Modern Love & Other Myths.

While spending my day at my desk talking to faces on a screen,
as I will today and every day,
the names and stories and symptoms change every half hour.
I sometimes glance up and out my window to the world beyond,
concerned not to break eye contact.

I want to say:
don’t you know this darkness surrounding you won’t last,
while this day is fading
you can turn on the light that you were given
to find your way out of this.

I wonder if I owe it to you to tell you
when I was young and afraid and away from home
I didn’t believe the light was there either,
or it wouldn’t turn on, or it burned out so I
I felt swallowed by the darkness.

Then someone gave me a ladder to climb out
and lit my light so I could see where I was going.

Here I am now,
handing you a working light and a sturdy ladder
and telling you how to use them.



Stumbling in His Wake

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp
Benjamin Janicki of Sedro Woolley raking hay with his team of Oberlanders

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. © MoonPath Press, 2016.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
Field with Plowing Farmers by Vincent Van Gogh

My father did field work with horses when he was young and honestly — he hated every moment of it. He badly wanted a tractor though his father could never afford one, so the draft horses were their meal ticket, swerving around the large stumps on a farm that would never produce enough to sustain the family.

My father wanted more when he grew up. For him, it wasn’t about the rhythms of the seasons or his relationship with the horses, or the romance of the soil turning over to be planted. It was hard sweaty frustrating often futile work.

He didn’t welcome my interest in horses but he still supported me. He loaned me the seed money that got us started with a small breeding herd of Haflinger horses and he had advice for us when we asked but not unless we asked. He built stalls in our barn and fashioned hefty metal stall closures and helped in whatever way he could with the handy skills he had learned growing up on a farm that never could succeed.

As a child, I had stumbled after my dad in the figurative furrows he plowed ahead of me, always leading me to pursue something better. He reminded me regularly that I could do whatever I set my mind to, like setting the wing of the plow and eyeing the straight line, mapping the course ahead. And I did, largely because of his encouragement during the 60’s when most girls didn’t hear that from their daddies. Instead it was usually angry bored moms who became the voices who pushed their daughters to dig deeper and plow stronger. Not my mom.

My dad’s encouragemnt still echoes in my mind. He gave me momentum in the furrow. He is still there behind me, ready to steady me when I stumble.

I’m glad he led me down his plow line, and all these years later, he still follows me and isn’t going away.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
Dan driving our first Haflinger team – brother and sister Hans and Greta

Thank you once again to Joel deWaard, local farmer and photographer, who has graciously shared his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

The Rain Comes Down

The world is changed.
I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth.
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was, is lost

For none now live who remember it.
~J.R.R. Tolkien Galadriel’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Rings

There trudges one to a merry-making
      With a sturdy swing,
   On whom the rain comes down.

To fetch the saving medicament
      Is another bent,
   On whom the rain comes down.

One slowly drives his herd to the stall
      Ere ill befall,
   On whom the rain comes down.

This bears his missives of life and death
      With quickening breath,
   On whom the rain comes down.

One watches for signals of wreck or war
      From the hill afar,
   On whom the rain comes down.

No care if he gain a shelter or none,
      Unhired moves on,
   On whom the rain comes down.

And another knows nought of its chilling fall
      Upon him at all,
   On whom the rain comes down.

~Thomas Hardy “An Autumn Rain-scene”(1904)

The rain has returned, now six months into a changed world. The rain blows, raging against the windows and puddling in the low spots, sparing nothing and no one.

It drenches all and everyone – none of us immune from the cleansing: whether missing the joy of sweet fellowship, whether bearing urgent messages or administering badly needed medication, whether trudging through the day’s chores, whether unemployed and praying for work, whether bearing witness to ongoing divisive conflict and tragedy, or whether the rain falls chill upon those newly lying still and silent beneath the soil.

In our universal soaking, may we look at one another with a renewed compassion. Each one of us deserves a warm and comforting toweling off, being buffed and fluffed so we’re ready to face what comes next.

You first.

Because You Matter to Me…

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
~Emily Dickinson

So if there is any encouragement in Christ,
any comfort from love,

any participation in the Spirit,
any affection and sympathy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind,
having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
…. in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests,
but also to the interests of others.
~Philippians 2: 1-4

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling
to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness,
with patience,
bearing with one another in love,
eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4: 1-3

By wearing a mask…

If I can stop one person from infection,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease another’s worry,
Though masking goes against the grain,
Or help a divided country be
Restored to health again,
I shall not live in vain.

I wear a mask because you matter to me…

The Wobble in the Voice

I don’t know if you ever saw a doubt.
In fact, I doubt you did.
They’re shape shifting little shadows
and they’re more than often hid.


You could hear them on the whirling winds,
that whistled through the farm.
You could feel them in your stomach
or brush the goosebumps of your arm.


You’d hear them giggling in the corners,
in the darkness of the night.
They’re the wobble in the voice
that claims that things will be all right.


And the little doubts got larger,
until they no longer hid in holes.
They now lived out amongst them
and they slipped into their souls.


I know good times are coming back.
I know the sun will rise.
I know the hard earth soon will soften,
and plants will bloom before our eyes.

There will be colour in the meadows
and the river will unfreeze.
But if we’re to move beyond this moment
then these fiendish doubts must leave.

We need hopeful stories more than ever,
we should tell them till we’re blue.
We should tell them till we look outside
and see that they’ve come true.

And the doubts that wreak such havoc,
they were nowhere to be seen.
And the fear they’d brought forth with them
felt so much like a dream.

So remember, little sister,
take courage with you when you sleep.
For tomorrow we might all need it,
for the little doubts that creep.

~Tomos Roberts from “Doubts that Creep”

These days doubt is more epidemic than the COVID virus.

No one trusts anyone to tell the truth any longer and truth itself is up for grabs. Experts are suspect, while government agencies and their spokespersons surely must be part of a larger conspiracy.

It’s an “every man for himself” attitude with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

You can see where doubts leave us: we end up in a wintry forsaken place that looks, feels and frankly, is hopeless.

The most recent weeks have been difficult as most students start school at home again rather than in classrooms and no one is happy about it. Churches have been meeting online or outside and will need to make a difficult transition to limited indoor worship services that won’t feel familiar. Businesses continue to suffer the effects of people having less income to spend, and unwillingness to spend on anything but essentials.

A pandemic virus wreaks havoc with society but stories sowing doubts and mistrust are far more damaging. Rather than working together for solutions, we as a society have become more divided and divisive than ever.

When I speak with those whose well-being I care deeply about, yet who don’t trust my opinion or any medical opinion for that matter, my voice wobbles with concern. If I, as a caring friend and physician for forty years can’t be trusted, then whom will they trust?

A virus doesn’t give a rip what our politics are – it is an equal-opportunity opportunist seeking which cell to invade next. “Going viral” is yet another real life lesson in exponential multiplication, whether a packet of RNA or a social media meme or youtube link sowing mistrust and discord as it is shared millions of times and spreads with our help and consent.

We can’t allow creeping doubts to metastasize into a hopelessness cancer that is terminal.

We need hopeful stories, now more than ever. We need to take courage with us when we lay ourselves down to sleep, and dream the dreams of a better day on the horizon. We need truth that is not up for grabs to the highest bidder but is steadfast, transparent and … true.

Until then, we all should keep our masks on to stop the spread and protect others. It surely can’t hurt.