It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

The Reddening Light

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”
from The Singing

Oh little one
who was to have been born this week in June
thirty eight years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon.

Gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing soundlessly into a thicket:
so long ago it makes me question
if you were real,
until my heart clenches again at the memory.

But you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee this time,
but stay to find out.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

In the lull of evening, your son nested in your arms
becomes heavier and with a sigh his body
sloughs off its weight like an anchor into deep sleep,
until his small breath is the only thing that exists.

And as you move the slow dance through the dim hall
to his bedroom and bow down to deliver his sleeping form,
arms parting, each muscle defining its arc and release—
you remember the feeling of childhood,

traveling beneath a full moon,
your mother’s unmistakable laugh, a field of wild grass,
windows open and the night rushing in
as headlights trace wands of light across your face—

there was a narrative you were braiding,
meanings you wanted to pluck from the air,
but the touch of a hand eased it from your brow
and with each stroke you waded further

into the certainty of knowing your sleeping form
would be ushered by good and true arms
into the calm ocean that is your bed.
 — Alexandra Lytton Regalado, “The T’ai Chi of Putting a Sleeping Child to Bed” author of Matria

Each of those countless nights of a child wakening,
each of the hundreds of hours of lulling them in the moonlit dark,
leading them back to the soft forgiveness of sleep.

I remember the moves of that hypnotic dance,
a head nestled snug into my neck,
their chest pressed into mine,
our hearts beating in synchrony
as if they were still inside.

Even when our sleep was spare and our rest was sparse,
those night times rocking in unison
were worth every waking moment, trusting
we’re in this together, no matter what,
no matter how long.

We’re in this together.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:


Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

A new book from Barnstorming – available for order here

A Girl from the Palouse

My mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, was born 101 years ago today in the lonely isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington. She drew her first breath in a two story white house located down a long poplar-lined lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills.

She attended a one room school house until 8th grade, located a mile away in the rural countryside, then moved in with her grandmother “in town” in Rosalia to attend high school, seeing her parents only a couple times a month.

It was a childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart – her only sibling, an older brother, was busy helping their father on the farm. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

She nearly died at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her life-long, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith, letting go at age 88 after fracturing a femur, breaking her will to continue to live.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the wheat farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation after their divorce years later, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying until the last few months. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she gave up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became much more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight-laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected at times but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

Elna Schmitz playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A new book available from Barnstorming — more information here

Licked to Its Feet

When we reach the field
she is still eating
the heads of yellow flowers
and pollen has turned her whiskers
gold. Lady,
her stomach bulges out,
the ribs have grown wide.
We wait,
our bare feet dangling
in the horse trough,
warm water
where goldfish brush
our smooth ankles.
We wait
while the liquid breaks
down Lady’s dark legs
and that slick wet colt
like a black tadpole
darts out
beginning at once
to sprout legs.
She licks it to its feet,
the membrane still there,
red, transparent
the sun coming up shines through,
the sky turns bright with morning
and the land
with pollen blowing off the corn,
land that will always own us,
everywhere it is red.

~Linda Hogan, “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” from Red Clay.

First,
her fluid
flows in subtle stream
then
gushes in sudden drench.
Soaking, saturating,
precipitating
inevitability.
No longer cushioned
slick sliding forward
following the rich river
downstream to freedom.

The smell of birth
clings to shoes, clothes, hands
as soaked in soupy brine
I reach to embrace new life
sliding toward me.

I too was caught once;
three times emptied into other hands,
my babies wet on my chest
their slippery skin
under my lips
so salty sweet

In a moment’s scent
the rush of life returns;
now only barn or field birthings
yet still as sweet and rich.
I carry the smell of damp foal fur
with me all day to
recall from whence I came.
I floated once
and will float free someday again.

Leaving the Wilderness: The Worst We Can Do

In a daring and beautiful creative reversal,
God takes the worse we can do to Him
and turns it into the very best He can do for us.
~Malcolm Guite from The Word in the Wilderness

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Isaiah 52: 13-15

When I was wounded
whether by God, the devil, or myself
—I don’t know yet which—
it was seeing the sparrows again
and clumps of clover, after three days,
that told me I hadn’t died.
When I was young,
all it took were those sparrows,
those lush little leaves,
for me to sing praises,
dedicate operas to the Lord.
But a dog who’s been beaten
is slow to go back to barking
and making a fuss over his owner
—an animal, not a person
like me who can ask:
Why do you beat me?
Which is why, despite the sparrows and the clover,
a subtle shadow still hovers over my spirit.
May whoever hurt me, forgive me.
~Adelia Prado “Divine Wrath” translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson

Emmet Till’s mother
speaking over the radio

She tells in a comforting voice
what it was like to touch her dead boy’s face,

how she’d lingered and traced
the broken jaw, the crushed eyes–

the face that badly beaten, disfigured—
before confirming his identity.

And then she compares his face to
the face of Jesus, dying on the cross.

This mother says no, she’d not recognize
her Lord, for he was beaten far, far worse

than the son she loved with all her heart.
For, she said, she could still discern her son’s curved earlobe,

but the face of Christ
was beaten to death by the whole world.
~Richard Jones “The Face” from Between Midnight and Dawn

Too many people today continue to be crushed, disfigured, beaten and left for dead–

for taking a stand, or being the wrong color, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe, or simply being different enough to trigger distrust and hatred.

And so it was with our Lord. He walked into the hornet’s nest of Jerusalem fully knowing such an overwhelming attack was coming.

Crushed, broken and delivered into His Father’s arms as His mother wept over Him.

Yet He took the worst that could be done to Him and turned it into the best that He could do for us. We are stung forever by His Love.

Waiting in Wilderness: Not Quite Ready Yet

In the cemetery
a mile away
from where we used to live,
my aunts and mother
my father and uncles lie
in two long rows,
almost the way
they used to sit around
the long planked table
at family dinners.
And walking beside
the graves today, down
one straight path
and up the next,
I don’t feel sad, exactly,
just left out a bit,
as if they kept
from me the kind
of grown-up secret
they used to share
back then, something
I’m not quite ready yet
to learn.
~Linda Pastan “Unveiling” from Carnival Evening

Some family gatherings can wait. I don’t feel ready yet to learn what they all now know posthumously, in their tidy rows in peaceful settings. I feel some curiosity as I wander among them, realizing my invitation is coming, most likely before I wish to receive it.

I nod to one and then another, greeting them as I used to when we gathered around the same dinner table. To those I never met but share DNA, I introduce myself, hoping to make a good impression.

They still have their secrets, as they always had. And I try not to ask too many questions. No, not yet.

“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.
Psalm 55:6

other side of the same stone

Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly awayI’ll fly away, oh, Glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly awayJust a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly awayI’ll fly away, oh, Glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly awayYeah, when I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away

The Feeling of Being Watched

We must have known,
Even as we reached
Down to touch them
Where we’d found them
 
Shut-eyed and trembling
Under a straw bale
In the haymow, that
She would move them
 
That night under cover
Of darkness, and that
By finding them
We were making certain
 
We wouldn’t see them again
Until we saw them
Crouching under the pickup
Like sullen teens, having gone
 
As wild by then as they’d gone
Still in her mouth that night
She made a decision
Any mother might make
 
Upon guessing the intentions
Of the state: to go and to
Go now, taking everything
You love between your teeth.
~Austin Smith “Cat Moving Kittens”

I’ve never known a farm cat who doesn’t hold something back in their loyalty to their human. They are never “all in” like a dog who lavishes love without thought or hesitation.

Cats live at a bit of a remove here, particularly if they grew up without being regularly handled and cuddled.

I don’t mind our barn cats’ autonomy and self-sufficiency as they need those characteristics when they live independently outside rather than as part of furniture in the house with us. They must view the rest of the world with some suspicion and caution, viewing things from afar with their keen eyes rather than leaping in without thinking.

As I go about my day on the farm, moving from shed to barn to garage to house, I have the distinct feeling of being watched. The reality is — they could run this place on their own if they needed to — and they do.

photo by Nate Gibson

Take Her Hand

She wakes to gray.
No words to guide the way
toward son. His unfamiliar face seems kind
enough. She nods hello. Just yesterday
she knew his eyes, but now?

This morning’s mind
welcomes the past but not the day. She was
someone: woman who woke at 3:00 to sing
her restless son to sleep, his calm her cause
for celebration. Today the dawn brings

no clarity, yet still the stranger comes
and draws her curtains wide. She thinks outside
is where she left her life: daughters, a son
who meet sunrise without her. Look, the light

is brighter now. The kind man helps her stand.
To see the morning sun, she takes his hand.
~Marjorie Maddox “Alzheimer Aubade”

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.