Never Got Wet

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
~Ada Limón “The Raincoat”

When I was 13, I grew too quickly. My spine developed a thoracic scoliosis (curvature) — after inspecting my back as I bent over to touch my toes, my pediatrician referred me to a pediatric orthopedic specialist an hour away from my home town.

The question was whether I would need to have a metal rod surgically placed along my spine to prevent it from more misalignment or whether I would need to wear a back brace like a turtle. The least intervention would be physical therapy to try to keep my back and abdominal muscles as strong as possible to limit the curvature.

Since my father didn’t have much flexibility in his work schedule, my mother had to drive me to the “big city” for my appointments – as a nervous driver, she did it only because she knew it was necessary to get the medical opinion needed. She asked me to read aloud to her from whatever book I was reading at the time – I don’t think she listened closely but I think she knew it would keep me occupied while she navigated traffic.

At first, we went every three months for new xrays. The orthopedist would draw on my bare back and on my spine xrays with a black marker, calculating my curves and angles with his protractor, watching for a trend of worsening as I grew taller. He reassured us that I hadn’t yet reached a critical level of deviation requiring more aggressive treatment.

Eventually my growth rate slowed down and the specialist dismissed me from further visits, wishing me well. He told me I would certainly be somewhat “crooked” for the rest of my life, and it would inevitably worsen in my later years. I continued to visit PT for regular visits; my mom would patiently wait in the car as I sweated my way through the regimen.

The orthopedist was right about the curvature of my aging spine. I am not only a couple inches shorter now, but my rib cage and chest wall is asymmetric affecting my ability to stand up totally straight. Just last week, I had an xray of my collar bones as even those joints have developed wear and tear changes. I consider being crooked a small price to pay for avoiding a serious surgery or a miserable brace as a teenager.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the commitment my mother made to make sure I got the care I needed, even if it meant great inconvenience in her life, even if she was awake at night worried about the outcome of the appointments, even if the financial burden was significant for my family. She, like so many parents with children with significant medical or psychological challenges, gave up her wants and wishes to make sure I received what I needed. As a kid, I just assumed that’s what a mom does. Later, as a mom myself, I realized it is what moms do, but often at significant personal cost. As a physician, I saw many young people whose parents couldn’t make the commitment to see they got the care they needed, and it showed.

I was one blessed by parents who did what their kids needed to thrive.

My mom constantly offered me her raincoat so I wouldn’t get wet. Meanwhile she was being drenched.

Thank you, Mom, for making sure I was covered by your love. I still am.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

Only Here and Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day,
as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter,
tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods,

doing the last of the fall mowing,
pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…


when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…


when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—
then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind,
the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why
I so seldom find this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.

I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

Struggling to Remember

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

~Billy Collins “Forgetfulness”

It happens more often than I like to admit.

I have a name on the tip of my tongue, but it fails to form as if it has somehow faded into the mists of a morning fog, only barely discernible to me. Sometimes only the first letter remains to haunt me until the light of day finally burns off the fog and my synapses start to click again.

I actually subscribe to a daily app to exercise my memory and listening ability, including vocabulary and math skills but I realize the best exercise is actually using those brain muscles in real life like I use my arms out in the barn scooping poop every day. My brain knows when it is just a game under the pressure of a time limit vs. a high stakes situation of remembering the correct dosage of a medication in a critical clinical scenario – just like my muscles know there is a difference between a repetitive weight machine in the gym vs. pushing a heavy wheelbarrow uphill against the wind in muddy footing.

I think my brain’s memory capacity is an intricately woven web of connections that get stretched and battered over time. Each dropped connection is gone forever so I’m trying to treat it gently, hold on to and cherish the memories I never want to lose in the fog, and allow the minor forgettable stuff to float away without regrets.

After all, today will become tomorrow’s memory to store away for keeps so I need to do some serious house cleaning to make room…

Note cards with original artwork from our farm will be gifted to you for a $50 donation, information here
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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 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, from Iron String

I thought I had forgotten how to wake to the sound of a child’s voice in the night. I thought I wouldn’t remember how to gently open their bedroom door, entering their darkness from my own darkness, discerning what was distressing them, sensing how to soothe them back to slumber, wondering if I might sing or pray the words they needed to hear, bringing a blossoming peace and stillness to their night.

And then our son’s family arrived two months ago from thousands of miles away, to stay until they could settle in their own place, and I remembered my nights were never meant to be mine alone. As a child, I had so many night-wakenings that I’m sure my mother despaired that I would ever sleep through the night. She would come when I called, sitting beside my bed, rubbing my back until I forgot what woke me in the first place. She was patient and caring despite her own weariness, sleep problems and worriedness. She loved me and forgave me for needing her presence in the night, so her nights were never her own.

I too responded with compassion when my own children called out in the night. I woke regularly to phone calls from hospitals and patients during forty years of medical practice and listened and answered questions with grace and understanding. And now, for a time, I’m on call again, remembering the sweetness of being loved when the dark fears of the night need the light and promise of a new day coming, if only just a few hours away.

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Things That Could Have Happened, But Didn’t

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

When I was five, my father,
who loved me, ran me over
with a medium-sized farm tractor.

I was lucky though; I tripped
and slipped into a small depression,
which caused the wheels to tread

lightly on my leg, which had already
been broken (when I was three)
by a big dog, who liked to play rough,

and when I was nine, I fell
from the second-floor balcony
onto the cement by the back steps,

and as I went down I saw my life go by
and thought: “This is exactly how
Wiley Coyote feels, every time!”

Luckily, I mostly landed on my feet,
and only had to go on crutches
for a few months in the fifth grade—

and shortly after that, my father,
against his better judgment,
bought the horse I’d wanted for so long.

All the rest of my luck has to do
with highways and ice—things that
could have happened, but didn’t.
~Joyce Sutphen, “My Luck” from First Words

at twenty

I understand catastrophic thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies
play out real-time in the palm of my hand
and I feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to first think disastrously.
That is what I have done for a living:
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do every morning~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did …
even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never left on our own to deal with it.



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Loved with a Perfect Love

The grace of God means something like:
“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
~Frederick Buechner from Wishful Thinking

photo by Nate Gibson

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name;
you are mine.


When you walk through the waters,
I’ll be with you;
you will never sink beneath the waves.
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.
When the fear of loneliness is looming,
then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of a stranger,
remember you are precious in my eyes.
You are mine, O my child,
I am your Father,
and I love you with a perfect love.
~Gerard Markland “Do Not Be Afraid”

Most days I depend on discovering beauty
in the most unexpected places.
I am always looking for it.

But when the unexpected terrible happens–
crushes, bleeds and fractures me,
and beauty appears to hide its face,
what I fear most is that
I’ll not ever see beauty in the world again.

We are told in scripture:
the Words written
again and again and again,
-365 times in total-
once for every day of the year:

if only I can truly believe them,
if only I can reassure others so
they reach out and take them to heart

He is here, with us, in this broken world-
do not be afraid
do not be afraid
do not be afraid

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A Voice Like No Other

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to know love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our flowing tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing whatsoever to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
this world without form and void is made whole again.

photo by Nate Gibson

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Being a Needy Sheep

I am a sheep
and I like it
because the grass
I lie down in
feels good and the still
waters are restful and right
there if I’m thirsty
and though some valleys
are very chilly there is a long
rod that prods me so I
direct my hooves
the right way
though today
I’m trying hard
to sit at a table
because it’s expected
required really
and my enemies—
it turns out I have enemies—
are watching me eat and
spill my drink
but I don’t worry because
all my enemies do
is watch and I know
I’m safe if I will
just do my best
as I sit on this chair
that wobbles a bit
in the grass
on the side of a hill.
~Sally Fisher “Here in the Psalm” from Good Question

On the surface, a sheep’s life looks pretty easy – grazing in beautiful pastoral settings, blending in as a member of a flock, with the primary job being prolific in wool and lamb production.

Sounds pretty swell, all in all.

Yet it can be a hard-scrabble existence with not enough food or water in rocky terrain that is steep and tough to traverse. The wool coat can be incredibly burdensome and hooves can get too long or too short.

And the enemies: there are plenty of those just ready to pounce, eager to pick off the too young or too old or anyone just not paying attention. That’s why a Shepherd is so critical to our survival because they pay attention to the threats and the needs and defend the defenseless.

I’ve been labeled a sheep for unquestioningly following directions given to me, blending in, and appreciating the wisdom of the proper Shepherd. I don’t consider being considered a sheep an insult. I know I don’t know everything, nor am I capable of finding everything I need when I need it and I’m certainly not strong enough to fend off my worst enemies.

Though life often feels like I’m sitting in a wobbly chair at a table on uneven ground, I keep my balance. I am looking at a feast being readied for me at great risk to the shepherd. For that, I am immensely grateful as surely goodness and mercy will follow and sit alongside me, sharing this meal together forever.

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The Salt Water Cure

The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
~Mary Oliver “I Go Down to the Shore”

photo by Nate Gibson

…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has getting older.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place. These days, it is most often in church, while singing favorite hymns, but I can cry just about anywhere.

These days, simply reading the headlines warrants weeping.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition – my only excuse and I’m sticking to that story.

A few years ago I read about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witnessed many tears every day in my clinical practice, usually not tears of joy.  These were tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients would describe having a “break down” by which they meant uncontrollable crying.  It was one of the first-mentioned symptoms they wanted relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and I remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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As the Sky Broke Open

The clouds had made a crimson crown
Above the mountains high.
The stormy sun was going down
In a stormy sky.
Why did you let your eyes so rest on me,
And hold your breath between?
In all the ages this can never be
As if it had not been.
~Mary Elizabeth Coleridge “A Moment”

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears . . .

Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.

~Jean Toomer “Storm Ending”

A thunderstorm swirled above us last night as we finished our farm chores, dropping noisy raindrops and then passing until the next cloud rolled over and dumped some more. I climbed to the top of our hill and looked out at a busted-up sky trying to mend itself. It was trying to zip itself together again but once fractured, it was broken forever, pouring gold rays of sunbeams like honey onto the landscape.

In that moment of broken sky, I was doused in a Light that breathed golden breath on me, reminding me not to forget:
He is here.

God does not leave us comfortless in the storms of our lives so be not afraid. He is still here in the morning.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

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