Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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I Pray Watch Over Them

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves. 


Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky. 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires. 

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–


in the shadow of the rainfall, 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —

but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore 

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 38 years ago…

We pray those from whom we are parted are loved as we have loved.

I know God will watch over all these reunions;
He knows the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.

I will see you soon enough, sweet one. Soon enough.

photo by Kate Steensma

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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.

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Go Out and Help Your Dad


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Twenty-six years ago today
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.


This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying,
and returning home forgiven.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what was yet undone was up to us
to finish for you.

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I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Hollowed

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh
winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow
I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?
The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.
~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”

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.
Hollowed.

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.

photo by Andrea Nipges

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