We Couldn’t Do Anything


Yesterday our children, playing
in a tree, watched as the tiniest bird
fell from above them,
where it belonged,
to land below them,
where it did not.
The dog, animal and eager,
stepped on the bird, then
lowered his head. Our daughter
screamed, hauled him back,
then cupped her trembling hands
around the trembling bird,
Its one wing stretched and bent.
Our son ran inside, obedient
to our daughter’s instructions.
I was in the shower, useless.
You found a shoebox, sheltered the bird,
helped our children find leaves and twigs,
perched the box in the tree. At supper,
we prayed for the bird while its mother
visited the shoebox,
her beak full. She fretted
and fluttered. She couldn’t do anything,
and we couldn’t do anything,
and after supper, we found the trowel.
Dust to dust,
I said.
O how I longed to gather you,
you said, as a mother hen gathers
her young beneath her wings.
Our son pushed a stick into the soft earth.
Our daughter told him not to push too far.

~Shea Tuttle “After reading our daughter’s poem” from Image Journal

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~Emily Dickinson

I have known the helplessness of watching life ebb away from a living creature and not be able to do a thing to change what is happening.

As a teenage nurse aide in a rest home for the elderly, I saw much of dying over those years before going to medical school – some deaths were anticipated and some unexpected. What was most apparent to me in that setting is that my primary role was to be a caring witness and comforter. I could not change what was happening but I could be there, not leaving my patients to die alone. I hoped that I was useful in some way.

Later, when I worked as a physician in a hospital, there were certainly things we would do to respond to a sudden cardiac event, and it was very dramatic to see someone’s pulse restored and stabilized due to our intervention. But more often than not, what we could do wouldn’t change the reality – dying still happened and we were gathered to witness the end. We often left the bedside feeling useless.

Now I have grandchildren who are learning about death through observing the natural cycles of animals living and dying on our farm. They discover a dead bird or vole on the ground; they were aware one of our elderly horses recently died. They are aware our beloved farm dogs are aging and so are grandma and grandpa.

Children naturally ask “why?” and we do our best to explain there is always hope and comfort, even when physical bodies are dust in the ground, marked by a stick or stone or only a memory.

It is “Hope” that sings alive within us, even when we’re naked and featherless, even if we fall far from the nest we were born to. We are caught and safe under our Savior’s wings for the rest of eternity, never to be “just dust” again.

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Taking Time to Talk

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~Robert Frost “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost.

Conversations these days often take place asynchronously – text messages back and forth, voicemails, instant messages, emails – all composed and sent when most convenient so not necessarily as time-responsive as they could be.

Chatting over a fence, or on a front porch or even over the phone just doesn’t happen easily any more, especially during the pandemic years of avoiding face-to-face encounters.

Even more unusual is taking time during the work day to talk. Interruptions leading to setting aside the computer mouse or the stethoscope or the hoe can be challenging when there are only so many hours in the day.

I’m really terrible at conversation because I’ve always been shy and awkward at small talk. It’s all good when it is part of my work in an exam room, but to be honest, I don’t make time to go out to coffee with someone, or meet over a meal, or even enjoy a spontaneous visit while out for a walk or the grocery store. I’d rather be washing dishes at our weekly church potlucks.

And I’m missing out on an opportunity to love and be loved. Forgive me, friends, for my reticent nature.

The next time someone shouts at me “Howdy!” – I won’t just wave and keep on with whatever business I’m doing. I’ll stop, set aside my work tools and come over to chat. Putting two heads together in conversation is what our life and language is all about

Howdy back at you!

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Doomed to Rebirth

You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts that separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.

Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran
Or the trenched features of an agèd man.

Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

~Richard Wilbur “A Black Birch in Winter”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
~Robert Frost “Birches”

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

The poet understands as we (and trees) age, we are no longer smooth on the surface, developing cracks and furrows, a flaking and peeling skin surrounding a steadfast trunk. Yet we still grow, even if not as recognizable in our old skin – our innards are still working, in particular enhancing a “greater girth.” (!)

Our farm’s twin birch trees have had some rough winters, having been bent double in a previous ice storm. One has not survived the trauma – the other continues to struggle. There are times when these flexible trees can bear no more bending despite their strength and perseverance.

As I am no longer a swinger of birches (and in truth, never was), I hope instead for the “finished wisdom in shriveled skin” of the aging tree. I admire how the birches renew themselves each spring, not giving up hope despite everything they have been through. They keep reaching higher up to the sky, while a slender branch just might touch the hem of heaven oh so gently.

1. See the lovely birch in the meadow,
Curly leaves all dancing when the wind blows.
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows,
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows.

2. Oh, my little tree, I need branches,
For the silver flutes I need branches.
Loo-lee-loo, three branches,
Loo-lee-loo, three branches.

3. From another birch I will make now,
I will make a tingling balalaika.
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika,
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika.

4. When I play my new balalaika,
I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree,
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree.

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Just Keep Going

In winter the steep lane
is often icy
one in four, and today
it brings me
to my hands and
dodgy knees

absurd under trees
tall as the sky
a mile or two to go

I crawl for a while
then scrabble
to my feet but stay low,

young old man
I stop at a dry
stone wall then step

up
atop
a stile

owl call
far city
constellation

then down
to a field
that might be snow

nothing to do
but keep going
~Peter Sansom “In Winter the Steep Lane”

When faced with navigating an icy path ahead of me, I am rendered helpless. An icy path on a slope is even more intimidating.

Our farm is located on a hill, which is wonderful 50+ weeks out of the year, but in winter during arctic wind flow days, plus rain or sleet, it becomes a skating rink on an incline. Even the best traction devices won’t keep me on my feet.

I’m thankful my husband has much better balance than I do, but even the last ice storm was even too much for him. We don’t have much choice but to slide and crawl to our barnyard destination to complete our chores. It is exceedingly humbling to be brought to our knees, but that has always been the best position for sorely needed prayer and petition.

We pray to keep our aging bones intact.
We pray to keep our backs and noggins functional.
We pray for the thaw to come soon.

Despite an unsure landing for each footstep, there is nothing to do but keep going.
So we do.

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An Ordinary Night

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

~Billy Collins “I Ask You”

I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected
~Mary Oliver  from “Everything”

Some days, my search for new words and images runs dry, especially in mid-winter when a chill wind is blowing and inhospitable. I seek indoor comfort more than inspiration. I am content sitting in a warm kitchen with other’s words running through my ears and over my tongue.

I feel kinship with the amaryllis bulb that has been on my kitchen table for the past month, as it enjoys the warmth in its soil pot and occasional drink of water. It started out as such a plain-looking bulb, so dry, so underwhelming in every respect. Once the stem started emerging from its plain-jane cocoon, I watched it grow taller each day. Last week it burst open, wearing its heart on its sleeve, comically cheerful at this drab time of year. I appreciate its effort at bringing summer right into my kitchen and my heart; I get a bit drab and cranky myself without the reminder that winter is not forever.

So I allow myself to drink deeply from a cup of astonishment, even on an ordinary night in an ordinary kitchen on an ordinary very cold end-of-January evening.

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An Unexpected January Light

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household,
work-place, or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number
of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I stop, take a deep breath,
sense the earth’s roundness
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to a moment of manna
falling from the sky.

Sometimes it is as plain and gray
as I am, but at times,
a fire is lit from above and beneath,
igniting the sky, overwhelming me.

I am swept away by light and shadow,
transfixed and transformed,
forever grateful to be fed
by heavenly bread broken over my head.

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Making Something Happen Every Day

There in the attic of forgotten shapes
(Old coats in plastic, hat boxes, fur capes
Amongst the smells of mothballs and cigars),
I saw the doll house of our early years,
With which my mother and my aunt had played,
And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:
The little beds, the tin-foil looking glass,
Bookcases stamped in ink upon the walls,
Mismatched chairs where sat the jointed dolls,
The clock whose face, no larger than a dime,
Had, for all these years, kept the same time.
I remembered how we set the resin food
Atop a table of stained balsa wood,
The shiny turkey hollow to the tap,
The cherry pie baked in a bottle cap.
Now it is time to go to sleep, we spoke,
Parroting the talk of older folk,
And laid the dolls out fully-clothed in bed
After their teeth were brushed, and prayers were said,
And flipped the switch on the low-wattage sun.
But in the night we’d have something break in,
Kidnap the baby or purloin the pie —
A tiger, maybe, or a passer by —
Just to make something happen, to move the story.
The dolls awoke, alarmed, took inventory.
If we made something happen every day,
Or night, it was the game we knew to play,
Not realizing then how lives accrue,
With interest, the smallest things we do.

~A.E. Stallings “The Doll House”

I was born with a severe imagination deficiency. I could not create my way out of a paper bag, much less make up a story. This never seemed like much of an impediment since I am quite content dealing with the daily challenges of real life. I married someone with a similar world view and we both thrived in our banal and mundane world.

Then we had children. Children born with intact and active imaginations. Children with imaginary friends, and monsters under the bed and a world outside our front door that I didn’t recognize. And they have grown up to have children with wild imaginings too.

Our old doll house is a pretty tame place to exercise excessive levels of creativity, with characters and furniture to move around, conversations to overhear and conflicts to resolve. So I watch grandchildren make something happen in their world while I continue to make sense of the world I was born into.

Their stories become interest accrued on lives well-composed and imagined. Even when a giant troll comes and knocks over all the furniture – there is no need for real life earthquakes in their created-reality.

And so it goes…

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When One’s Ramble is Over

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad,
and with no uncertain voice;
talked of warm kitchens,
of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings,
of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings,
when one’s ramble was over
and slippered feet were propped on the fender;
of the purring of contented cats,
and the twitter of sleepy canaries.
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel. One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, in time traveling mode. I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything just as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells. Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen full of rising breakfast rolls, roasting turkey is my mother’s chaotic kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during those years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training.

The newly born wet fur of my foals in the barn carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own. My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, mint, lemon verbena take me back to lazy breezes wafting through open bedroom windows in my childhood home. And of course the richness of petrichor: the fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell after a dry spell.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit available would include my most favorite farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn,  I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then to remind me of all I’m grateful for. 

I’ll breathe deeply of those memories that speak to me through scents — with no uncertain voice.

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Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and return to the house long after the sun sets. They need a positive outlook to keep going – knowing there is sunshine somewhere even when the skies are gray, their fingers are aching from the cold, and their back hurts.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, with both parents working on and off the farm. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And one of our favorite songs to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” a song originally written about a horse named “Sunshine.

For the farmer and the rest of us, it is the Sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

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Standing Together in One Body

Because I know tomorrow
his faithful gelding heart will be broken
when the spotted mare is trailered and driven away,
I come today to take him for a gallop on Diaz Ridge.

Returning, he will whinny for his love.
Ancient, spavined,
her white parts red with hill-dust,
her red parts whitened with the same, she never answers.

But today, when I turn him loose at the hill-gate
with the taste of chewed oat on his tongue
and the saddle-sweat rinsed off with water,
I know he will canter, however tired,
whinnying wildly up the ridge’s near side,
and I know he will find her.

He will be filled with the sureness of horses
whose bellies are grain-filled,
whose long-ribbed loneliness
can be scratched into no-longer-lonely.

His long teeth on her withers,
her rough-coated spots will grow damp and wild.
Her long teeth on his withers,
his oiled-teakwood smoothness will grow damp and wild.
Their shadows’ chiasmus will fleck and fill with flies,
the eight marks of their fortune stamp and then cancel the earth.
From ear-flick to tail-switch, they stand in one body.
No luck is as boundless as theirs.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Love of Aged Horses”

Is there anything as wonderful as a good friend?

Someone who doesn’t mind if you are getting long in the tooth and fluffy around the waist and getting white around the whiskers?

Someone who will listen to your most trivial troubles and nod and understand even if they really don’t?

Someone who will fix you up when you are hurt and celebrate when you are happy?

Someone who knows exactly where your itches are that need scratching, even if it means a mouthful of hair?

We all need at least one. We all need to be one for at least one other.

Isn’t it good to know? You’ve got a friend in me…

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