Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.

The Face of a Frog

I miss the friendship with the pine tree and the birds
that I had when I was ten.
And it has been forever since I pushed my head
under the wild silk skirt of the waterfall.

The big rock on the shore was the skull of a dead king
whose name we could almost remember.
Under the rooty bank you could dimly see
the bunk beds of the turtles.

Nobody I know mentions these things anymore.
It’s as if their memories have been seized, erased, and relocated
among flowcharts and complex dinner-party calendars.

Now I want to turn and run back the other way,
barefoot into the underbrush,
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.

Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and

I tilt up the roof
to look at the face of the frog.
~Tony Hoagland, from “Nature” Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

I grew up on a small farm with several acres of woodland. It was my near-daily retreat until I left for college: I walked among twittering birds, skittering wild bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, busy ant hills and trails, blowing leaves, swimming tadpoles, falling nuts, waving wildflowers, large firs, pines, cottonwoods, maples and alder trees.

I had a favorite “secret” spot sitting perched on a stump where a large rock provided a favorite warm sunning spot for salamanders. They and I would make eye contact and ponder what the other was thinking.

It was where I felt closest to Creation, more so than the house I slept in with my family, the busy classrooms, the dentist office and retirement home where I worked.

Only our church sanctuary was such a thin place with a “can almost touch the hem of God” reality.

At college I searched for a place as private, as quiet, as serene, as full of the voices of creation – nothing ever matched the woods of my childhood home. I gave up as I lived a decade in the city and almost forgot what a familiar woods felt like.

I’ve come close again on this farm we’ve stewarded for thirty years, but the constant distractions are much greater now than when I was a child. I can’t empty out my head and heart as completely to receive the gifts of the field and trees and woodlands. I have greater worries, bigger responsibilities, places to go, people to see, things to do, a shorter timeline to get what I want to accomplish done …

Perhaps the time will come again to simply gaze into the eyes of a fellow creature, and invite them in with a head and heart ready to receive what they and our Creator have to give.


The Ordinary Stuff of Earth Manifest

Passing down this story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is not merely, or mainly, an exercise in cognition. Nor is it a divinely inspired game of telephone, where we simply whisper a message to the next generation through the ages.

Inevitably the story comes to us through ordinary people over dinner tables, at work, in songs, through worship, conflict, failure, repentance, ritual, liturgy, art, work and family. Christianity is something we believe, but it is also a practice. Central to our practice is what Christians call sacraments, where the mysteries of faith are manifest through the ordinary stuff of earth—water and skin, bread and teeth.

~Tish Harrison Warren from “True Story”

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

schizomeno—meaning in Greek “ripped open.” It occurs twice in the Gospels: once when the temple veil is torn the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The other is when “the heavens opened” upon Christ’s baptism. But they didn’t just “open.” They were ripped open. God broke into history with a voice and an act of salvation unlike any other. 

To study the Bible with people of faith is to see it not only as an object of academic or antiquarian interest but also as a living word, a source of intellectual challenge, inspiration, comfort, uncomfortable ambiguities, and endless insights for people who gather in willingness to accept what seems to be God’s invitation: Wrestle with this. Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.
~Marilyn McEntyre from “Choosing Church”

Ripped open to allow access – that is what God has done to enter into this ordinary stuff of earth, and giving us access to Him.

I enter the church sanctuary every Sunday to be reminded of this wrestling match we have with ourselves, with each other, with the every day ordinary stuff, with the living Word of God. None of this is easy and it isn’t meant to be. We must work for understanding and struggle for contentment.

I keep going back – gladly, knowing my guilt, eager to be transformed – not only because I choose to be in church, but because He chose to invite me there.

Adazzle Dim

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Pied Beauty”

The unconventional and unnoticed beauty,
freckled, spare and strange–
helps me feel beautiful too. 
The interplay of light and shadow
within every moment of our existence,
some moments darker than others,
some brilliant and dazzling.

I try to find the sweet and sour,
knowing I’m capturing my own dappled essence – 
a reflection of the Fathering that loves us
even in our fickleness,
who possibly could know how?

There is no perfection outside of Him;
His reflected beauty has no uniformity.
We give Him glory in our imperfection,
the defects and blemishes which
only He can make whole.
Who knows why He does this?
Yet He does.

Glory be.

Wondering About the Wild Lands

He found himself wondering at times, especially in the Autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself ‘Perhaps I shall cross the river myself one day.’ To which the other half of his mind always replied ‘Not yet.’
~J.R.R. Tolkien — Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings

When you live in Whatcom County, as we do, it is possible to cross the river (several times) over 90 minutes of two lane highway switchbacks to arrive in these wild lands, breathless and overcome by their majesty.

Visions of mountains from our dreams become an overwhelming 360 degree reality, nearly reachable if I stretch out my hand.

God touches every square inch of earth as if He owns the place, but these square inches are particularly marked by His artistry.  It is a place to feel awed by His magnificence.

I am left to wonder about the wild lands, much like Tolkien’s Frodo, pondering what bridges God is building to bring us back home to Him.

The Full Ripe of Berrytime

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

~Galway Kinnell “Blackberry Eating”

“In that year, 1914, we lived on the farm
And the relatives lived with us.
A banner year for wild blackberries
Dad was crazy about wild blackberries
No berries like that now.

You know Kitsap County was logged before
The turn of the century—it was easiest of all,
Close to water, virgin timber,

When I was a kid walking about in the
Stumpland, wherever you’d go a skidroad
Puncheon, all overgrown.
We went up one like that, fighting our way through
To its end near the top of a hill:
For some reason wild blackberries
Grew best there. We took off one morning
Right after milking: rode the horses
To a valley we’d been to once before
Hunting berries, and hitched the horses.
About a quarter mile up the old road
We found the full ripe of berrytime—
And with only two pails—so we
Went back home, got Mother and Ruth,
And filled lots of pails. Mother sent letters
To all the relatives in Seattle:
Effie, Aunt Lucy, Bill Moore,
Forrest, Edna, six or eight, they all came
Out to the farm, and we didn’t take pails
Then: we took copper clothes-boilers,
Wash-tubs, buckets, and all went picking.
We were canning for three days.”
~ Gary Snyder “6” from Myths and Texts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries~
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Aurora Leigh”

All I wanted was a few blackberries.

I admit my objective was just to pick enough for cobbler for today’s noon dinner after church, oblivious to God burning in the bushes towering over me, around me, snagging me at every opportunity.  If I had given it more thought, I would have realized the reaching vines hooking my arms and legs were hardly subtle.  The thorns ripped at my skin, leaving me bloody and smarting.  The fruit itself stained my hands purple, making them look freshly bruised.  I crushed fat vines underfoot, trampling and stomping with my muck boots in order to dive deeper into the bushes.  Webs were everywhere, with spiders crawling up my arms and dropping down into my hair.  I managed to kick up one hornet’s nest so I called it quits.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, so blinded to all the clues crammed in every nook and cranny of every bush.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, trampling on holy ground with well-protected feet, unwilling to be barefoot and tenderly vulnerable.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, the lure of black gold plucked at the cost of rips and scratches and tears.

What I got was burned by a bush…

and a few blackberries for today’s crammed-with-heaven cobbler.

To Leave Something Behind

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,
my grandfather said.
A child or a book or a painting
or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made.
Or a garden planted.
Something your hand touched some way
so your soul has somewhere to go when you die,
and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted,
you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said,
so long as you change something
from the way it was before you touched it
into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.
The difference between the man who just cuts lawns
and a real gardener is in the touching, he said.
The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all;
the gardener will be there a lifetime.
~Ray Bradbury from Fahrenheit 451

Esther Meyer, nearly 92, photo taken by a granddaughter
Esther’s hands – photo by Donna Meyer
photo by Danielle Meyer Miljevic

At last the entire family stood, like people seeing someone off at the rail station, waiting in the room.

“Well,” said Great-grandma, “there I am, I’m not humble, so it’s nice seeing you standing around my bed. Now next week there’s late gardening and closet-cleaning and clothes-buying for the children to do. And since that part of me is called, for convenience, Great-grandma, won’t be here to step it along, those other parts of me called Uncle Bert and Leo and Tom and Douglas, and all the other names, will have to take over, each to his own.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Somewhere a door closed quietly.

… she saw it shaping in her mind quietly, and with serenity like a sea moving along and endless and self-refreshing shore.

Downstairs, she thought, they are polishing the silver, and rummaging the cellar, and dusting in the halls. She could hear them living all through the house.

“It’s all right,” whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. “Like everything else in this life, it’s fitting.”

And the sea moved her back down the shore.
~Ray Bradbury “Great-Grandmother” from Dandelion Wine

Esther learned young how to work and she never forgot, still working up until the last few days of her long life.

Today she is sweeping up, wiping down counters and washing the dishes in a corner of heaven, after baking cookies and putting a soup on to simmer, to be sure everyone up there is well-fed and feels welcome.

She grew up on a remote farm in South Dakota where survival meant the whole family pitched in to help. When she married Pete and headed west to Washington, the work never let up: six sons, a small farm, a construction business to help manage, working as a caretaker privately and in a nursing home, taking on the mission of coordinating a large Sunday School ministry in our small church back over fifty years ago and never leaving.

Esther touched everything and everyone in this life, leaving a bit of herself behind in all of us. She’ll stay plenty busy in the next life.

She was Wiser Lake Chapel for over half her life, along with her husband Pete who passed from chronic leukemia over a decade ago. Their son Wes took on many of Pete’s carpentry and building maintenance duties at church, but then he too lost a fight with acute leukemia.

Esther persevered despite these heartbreaking losses, a tenacious testament to the power of the Spirit in one woman’s life. She had more artificial joints in her body than her own joints, some replaced twice. Her heart tried to fail any number of times, most recently after a trip to Europe she made earlier this year, by herself, to visit her missionary son. She never stopped driving. She never stopped walking even though every step took immense effort paid in pain. She came to every church service, morning and night and mid-week, usually with something fresh-baked in her hand. If soup was needed for a meal on short notice, she could make it happen in an hour from what she stored away in her freezer. She was a self-appointed clean-up crew, wheeling her walker from table to sink to counter to trash can and back again.

Every new great-grandbaby and every new Chapel baby had a hand-made Esther quilt, complete with her hand-painted pictures and the details of the birthday and birthweight printed on it. She made hundreds over her lifetime.

Esther’s family is a large exuberant and glory-filled group of sons and daughter-in-laws and grands and great-grands who reflect who she and Pete were to them, to our church and the greater community. They are a legacy left on earth, to keep up the good work and gratitude-filled worship, to never ever give up, no matter how tough life can be.

Thank you, Esther, for changing us all so profoundly we won’t ever be the same as we were before you touched us; you left us all so much better than before. Now I believe we all are just a little bit like you.

And most of all, thanks for 90-plus years of your loving labor on the Lord’s behalf. The soup is on the stove in memory of you.