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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The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

Go north a dozen years
on a road overgrown with vines
to find the days after you were born.
Flowers remembered their colors and trees
were frothy and the hospital was


behind us now, its brick indifference
forgotten by our car mirrors. You were
revealed to me: tiny, delicate,
your head smelling of some other world.
Turn right after the circular room


where I kept my books and right again
past the crib where you did not sleep
and you will find the window where
I held you that morning
when you opened your eyes. They were


blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate
they would later become. You were gazing
into the world: at our walls,
my red cup, my sleepless hair and though
I’m told you could not focus, and you


no longer remember, we were seeing
one another after seasons of darkness.

~Faith Shearin, “Sight” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: All the Tumult and the Strife

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
~Robert Lowry

We recently returned from an out of state visit with two grandsons, ages two and six months. They love being sung to – they rock and bop to melodies and rhythms and then relax to sleep listening to us sing the quiet evening hymns we sang to his father at night.

They will see so much in their lifetimes that we can’t even imagine. Already in their short time on earth there have been plenty of cataclysmic events, and without a doubt, more are in store.

No matter what comes, we pray they will always hear their parents’ and four grandparents’ voices resounding inside their heads when things get rough. The hymns and the prayers said over them will give them calm and confidence in the face of troubles, tumult and strife.

God’s reality and truth are shared with them in songs and words every day, and as they someday raise children of their own, how can they keep from singing that out whenever it is most needed?

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Refrain:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heav’n and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die,
I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.

I lift mine eyes the cloud grows thin
I see the blue above it
And day by day this pathway smooths
Since first I learned to love it

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing?

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What Did I Know?

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
teaching us the importance of being steadfast,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life
and we did.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and care for livestock,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together for meals,
and never miss a Sunday
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold
that can overwhelm and freeze
a family’s heart and soul.

What did I know? What did I know?
Too little then,
so much more now
yet still – never enough.

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Saved By a Snow Storm

“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….”
~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager

May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night
twenty nine years ago, but still no labor came as it should.
Already a week overdue post-Christmas,
you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready.
Then as the wind blew more wicked
and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts,
the roads became more impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.

So your dad and I tried,
concerned about your stillness and my advanced age,
worried about being stranded on the farm far from town.
So a neighbor came to stay with your brothers overnight,
we headed down the road
and our car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness,
our tires spinning, whining against the snow.
Another neighbor’s earth mover dug us out to freedom.

You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard,
we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital,
your heartbeat checked out steady, all seemed fine.

I slept not at all.

The morning’s sun glistened off sculptured snow as
your heart ominously slowed.
You and I were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed.
You beat even more slowly,
threatening to let loose your tenuous grip on life.

The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble.
The doctor, grim faced, announced
delivery must happen quickly,
taking you now, hoping we were not too late.
I was rolled, numbed, stunned,
clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes,
not wanting to see the bustle around me,
trying not to hear the shouted orders,
the tension in the voices,
the quiet at the moment of opening
when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry,
a welcomed song of life uninterrupted.
Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb,
to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room,
your first vocal solo brought applause
from the surrounding audience who admired your purplish pink skin,
your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight,
then blinking open, wondering and wondrous,
emerging and saved from a storm within and without.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch
before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly,
your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.
I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.

If no snow storm had come,
you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb,
no longer nurtured by my aging and failing placenta,
cut off from what you needed to stay alive.
There would have been only our soft weeping,
knowing what could have been if we had only known,
if God had provided a sign to go for help.

So you were saved by a providential storm
and dug out from a drift:
I celebrate when I hear your voice singing,
and when your students love you as their teacher,
knowing you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts,
all because of blowing snow.

My annual retelling of the most remarkable day of my life when our daughter Eleanor (“Lea”) Sarah Gibson was born, hale and hearty because the good Lord sent a snow and wind storm to blow us into the hospital in time to save her. She is now married to her true love Brian who is another gift sent from the Lord; someday their hope for parenthood will come true for them as well.

The Safety of the Thicket

He loved to ask his mother questions. It was the pleasantest thing for him to ask a question and then to hear what answer his mother would give. Bambi was never surprised that question after question should come into his mind continually and without effort. 

Sometimes he felt very sure that his mother was not giving him a complete answer, was intentionally not telling him all she knew.  For then there would remain in him such a lively curiosity, such suspicion, mysteriously and joyously flashing through him, such anticipation, that he would become anxious and happy at the same time, and grow silent.
~Felix Salten from Bambi

A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death—
And then the Brake is still!
~Emily Dickinson from “165″

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion,  music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a new clump of spring grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
the safest place where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

Then the gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for his sake.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

My mama took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie 
for years.

Those cries
still echo
in my ears
every time someone hunts and shoots
to kill the innocent.

Now, my own children are grown,
they have babies of their own,
my mom is gone from this earth,
I can even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I am in my seventh decade, and
there are still places in this world where
mothers and fathers
sons and daughters
grandmothers and grandfathers
sisters and brothers
and babies are hunted down
despite the supposed safety of the thicket~
of the sanctuary, the school, the grocery store, the home,
where we believe we are shielded from violence.

There is innocence no longer,
if there ever was.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Into a Commonwealth of Joy

The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown.
~Wendell Berry from “Poetry and Marriage” in Standing By Words

Our vows to one another forty years ago today:

Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.

I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.

I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.

I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.

I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.

“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

(our wedding vows for our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church — the last line adapted from Thomas Hardy’s  “Far From the Madding Crowd”)

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

We enter, willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.
~Wendell Berry from “A Country of Marriage”

…Marriage… joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God.  From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to heaven and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.
~Wendell Berry from Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

We married in our Seattle church with our pastor officiating, with a small group of family and friends as witnesses.

It was a wedding created by two frugal people with little to spend – I sewed my dress and Dan’s shirt from muslin, we grew our own flowers, our families helped potluck the lunch afterward and our tiered carrot cake was made by a friend.

Yet our vows to one another were not frugal and held nothing back.
They were extravagant and comprehensive, coming from our hearts and spirits. The music we asked our amazing organist to play (versions below) inspired us by its simplicity and complexity – very much like the families that raised us and the God we worship.

Our vows have taken us from the city to the countryside, to the raising and rejoicing in three amazing children (each of whom wrote movingly to us today) and now four grandchildren. We served more than forty years as a public-employed attorney and physician, have laid down those responsibilities, and picked up the tools of farm and garden along with church and community service for as long as we are able.

We treasure each day of living together in faithfulness, respect, compassion and hope – knowing that how we love and find joy in one another mirrors how God loves and revels in His people.

We are praying for many more days to fill us with what endures.

A pot of red lentils
simmers on the kitchen stove.
All afternoon dense kernels
surrender to the fertile
juices, their tender bellies
swelling with delight.

In the yard we plant
rhubarb, cauliflower, and artichokes,
cupping wet earth over tubers,
our labor the germ
of later sustenance and renewal.

Across the field the sound of a baby crying
as we carry in the last carrots,
whorls of butter lettuce,
a basket of red potatoes.

I want to remember us this way—
late September sun streaming through
the window, bread loaves and golden
bunches of grapes on the table,
spoonfuls of hot soup rising
to our lips, filling us
with what endures.
~Peter Pereira from “A Pot of Red Lentils”

Here are versions of the organ music we selected for prelude, processional, recessional and postlude

Missing the Right Things

In your next letter, please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.
When I try to explain where I’m from,
people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,

cows drifting across grass. I interrupt
with barbed wire, wind, harvest air
that reeks of wheat and diesel.

I hope your sleep comes easy now
that you’ve surrendered the upstairs,
hope the sun still lets you drink

one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss
flannel shirts, radios with only
AM stations, but there’s a certain kind

of star I can’t see from where I am—
bright, clear, unconcerned. I need
your recipes for gravy, pie crust,

canned green beans. I’m sending you
the buttons I can’t sew back on.
Please put them in the jar beside your bed.

In your next letter, please send seeds
and feathers, a piece of bone or china
you plowed up last spring. Please
promise I’m missing the right things.

~Carrie Shipers, “In Your Next Letter” from Cause for Concern

For our children (and now their children) who have left the farm, now living far away:

I want to be sure you are missing the right things about this incredible place.

There is so much about a farm that is worrisome, burdensome, back-breaking and unpredictable. Don’t miss those things.

Miss what is breath-taking, awe-inspiring and heart-swelling.

We miss you more than we can ever say, indeed an intensive “missing” that can’t be expressed in words. So I send this to you and you’ll understand.

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:


Leaning In

Sometimes, in the middle of a crowded store on a Saturday
afternoon, my husband will rest his hand
on my neck, or on the soft flesh belted at my waist,
and pull me to him. I understand

his question: Why are we so fortunate
when all around us, friends are falling prey
to divorce and illness? It seems intemperate
to celebrate in a more conspicuous way

so we just stand there, leaning in
to one another, until that moment
of sheer blessedness dissolves and our skin,
which has been touching, cools and relents,

settling back into our separate skeletons
as we head toward Housewares to resume our errands.
~Sue Ellen Thompson, “Leaning In” from The Golden Hour

It never fails to amaze me that after nearly forty years of life together, even in the most mundane moments, I still feel that invisible connection to you no matter where we are. That connection is made visible and tangible in our children and now our grandchildren.

We are blessed to have found each other and to regularly remind ourselves of that. We were meant to be and everything good continues to flow from that.

Soli Deo gloria.

A new book available from Barnstorming – information on how to order here