If You Were Here

How I loved those spiky suns,
rooted stubborn as childhood

in the grass, tough as the farmer’s
big-headed children—the mats
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.
How sturdy they were and how
slowly they turned themselves
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars
barely visible by day, pale
cerebrums clinging to life
on tough green stems.   Like you.
Like you, in the end.   If you were here,
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show
how beautiful a thing can be
a breath will tear away.
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother”

Vigil at my mother’s bedside
(for Elna)

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 the next breath
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

He Sees Us As We Are: Weary of Routine

Because children have abounding vitality,
because they are in spirit fierce and free,
therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, “Do it again”;
and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun;
and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;
it may be that God makes every daisy separately,
but has never got tired of making them.
It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old,
and our Father is younger than we.

~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

To an infant, nothing is monotonous — it is all so new.  The routine of the day is very simple and reassuring: sleep, wake, cry, nurse, clean up, gaze out at the world, turn on the smiles –repeat.

The routine becomes more complex as we age until it no longer resembles a routine, if we can help it. We don’t bother getting up to watch the sun rise yet again and don’t notice the sun set once more.

Weary as we may be with routine, our continual search for the next new thing costs us in time and energy.   We age every time we sigh with boredom or turn away from the mundane and everyday, becoming less and less like our younger purer selves.

Who among us exults in monotony and celebrates predictability and enjoys repetition, whether it is sunrise or sunset or an infinite number of daisies?

God does on our behalf as He sees our short attention spans.  He remains consistent, persistent and insistent because we are no longer are.

Do it again, God.  Please, please do it again.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Will You Come and Follow Me” (The Summons) by John Bell from the album God Never Sleeps

The Lyrics:
Will you come and follow me 
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let me name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare.
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do this as such unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

A Prayer Under This Sky

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill “Winter: Tonight: Sunset”
from While We’ve Still Got Feet

If I don’t remember, each day, no matter how things feel, no matter how tired or distracted I am, no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick:

it is up to me to distill my very existence down to this one moment of beauty that will never come again.

One breath, one blink, one pause, one whispered word: thanks.

No Sky Lovelier

Than these November skies
Is no sky lovelier. The clouds are deep;
Into their grey the subtle spies
Of colour creep,
Changing that high austerity to delight,
Till ev’n the leaden interfolds are bright.
And, where the cloud breaks, faint far azure peers
Ere a thin flushing cloud again
Shuts up that loveliness, or shares.
The huge great clouds move slowly, gently, as
Reluctant the quick sun should shine in vain,
Holding in bright caprice their rain.
And when of colours none,
Not rose, nor amber, nor the scarce late green,
Is truly seen, —
In all the myriad grey,
In silver height and dusky deep, remain
The loveliest,
Faint purple flushes of the unvanquished sun.
~John Freeman November Skies

The austerity of November:
we are not yet distracted by the holiday lights of December so must depend upon the light show from the sky. I failed to rouse myself for the predicted northern lights in the middle of the night but sunrise comes at a civilized 7:30 AM. I’m too often buried deep in clinic when the lights dim at sunset before 4:30 PM.

Late November skies reward with subtlety and nuance, like people ripening with age — beauty is found amid myriad gray, the folds and lines shining with remembered light and depth.

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.

The Shape of Shapelessness

I want to be like water, go low where there
is least resistance, loll in the vestibules
of leaks, the flaws of casks, painlessly pool
around rocks, unworried about which part
of me splits off. I want to flow, drop
by drop, with crown-shaped splatters, hang
like a spangled globule on the oily feather
of a bird, jewel-like in the sun, or be flung

in diamond-crested shakes by a wet dog.
Let me be of a piece, the shape of shape-
lessness, like my airy partner, the fog.
Let me forget I’m caught in the trap
of a body, that abyss of bone and blood
inside my skin where I founder, drowning.

~Enid Shomer, “Shoreless” from This Close To the Earth

I’m of an age where I try not to look at my shape in the mirror too often. My reflection reminds me too much of the ravages of time and faltering self-discipline. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.

I was a skinny kid, so much so that my mother despaired of ever “fattening me up” with visits to the doctor and recommendations of high calorie supplements to add “meat to my bones.” I didn’t mind this plumping up at all, having been teased mercilessly at grade school that I was “Polebean Polis”. My overweight grandmother just shook her head at my mother and told me more than once about how skinny she was too as a kid and “look at me now.”

Grandma was right, particularly considering the challenges of post-childbirth and post-menopause. It takes lots of effort to keep from becoming “shapeless” when everything conspires to loosen, round out, sag, wrinkle and droop.

I like the thought that my shape is softened by the “fog” and water of time passing. I may not have the silhouette I used to have, or the firmness of muscle, nor can you easily count my ribs, but this is no trap I inhabit. It is merely temporary housing.

And that is enough shape for me.

But Nothing Can Stopper Time

the golden hour of the clock of the year. Everything that can run
to fruit has already done so: round apples, oval plums, bottom-heavy
pears, black walnuts and hickory nuts annealed in their shells,
the woodchuck with his overcoat of fat. Flowers that were once bright
as a box of crayons are now seed heads and thistle down. All the feathery grasses shine in the slanted light. It’s time to bring in the lawn chairs and wind chimes, time to draw the drapes against the wind, time to hunker down. Summer’s fruits are preserved in syrup, but nothing can stopper time. No way to seal it in wax or amber; it slides though our hands like a rope of silk. At night, the moon’s restless searchlight sweeps across the sky.
~Barbara Crooker “And Now it’s October” from Small Rain.

…but I do try to stopper time.
I try every day
not to suspend it or render it frozen,
but like summer flower and fruit that withers,
to preserve any sweet moment for sampling
through stored words
or pictures
in the midst of my days of winter.
I roll it around on my tongue,
its heady fragrance
becoming today’s lyrical shared moment,
unstoppered,
perpetual
and always intoxicating.

Stop What I Am Doing Right Now

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a dry bed of leaves  
without a sound,

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere,
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make

or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

~David Whyte, from River Flow: New & Selected Poems

I remind myself how brief this all is.

How fleeting are the years when I look in the mirror and realize how much is past and how much remains – who knows how little?

How many questions remain unanswered but even more unasked?

This morning, as every Sabbath,
I sit silent in a pew of worship,
humbled and overwhelmed by the question
“what is my only comfort?”
but even more so by the answer:

I am not my own
but belong body and soul
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ
.

A question and answer that can make or unmake a life
that patiently waits for me
and will never go away.

photo by Barb Hoelle


All Beauty Withered

Season of ripening fruit and seeds, depart;
There is no harvest ripening in the heart.

Bring the frost that strikes the dahlias down
In one cruel night. The blackened buds, the brown
And wilted heads, the crippled stems, we crave –
All beauty withered, crumbling to the grave.
Wind, strip off the leaves, and harden, ground,
Till in your frozen crust no break is found.

Then only, when man’s inner world is one
With barren earth and branches bared to bone,
Then only can the heart begin to know
The seeds of hope asleep beneath the snow;
Then only can the chastened spirit tap
The hidden faith still pulsing in the sap.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“No Harvest Ripening

Things on the farm are slowing down and withering; it is the natural way of October for all to fall to the ground to become soil again.

I know it doesn’t mean the end – there is still the vital seed and sap that lies dormant, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge, resurrect and live again.

I know this too about myself. Yet the dying-time-of-year doesn’t get easier as I age. It only becomes more real-time and vivid. The colors fade, the skin wrinkles and dries, the fruit falls unused and softening.

Our beauty, so evident only a short time ago, thrives inward, ready to rise again when called.

A Wink of Eyes and Hoof Prints

The neighbor’s horses idle
under the roof
of their three-sided shelter,
looking out at the rain.

Sometimes
one or another
will fade into the shadows
in the corner, maybe
to eat, or drink.

Still, the others stand,
blowing out their warm
breaths. Rain rattles
on the metal roof.

Their hoof prints
in the corral
open gray eyes to the sky,
and wink each time
another drop falls in.
~Jennifer Gray

The September rains have returned and will stay awhile. We, especially the horses, sigh with relief, as flies no longer crawl over their faces all day seeking a watery eye to drink from. With no flies around, there are also no longer birds tickling pony backs looking for a meal.

Our Haflingers prefer to graze under open gray skies not bothering to seek cover during the day; their mountain coats provide adequate insulation in a rain squall. Darkness descends earlier and earlier so I go out in the evening to find them standing waiting at the gate, ready for an invitation to come into the barn.

Their eyes are heavy, blinking with sleep; outside their muddy hoofprints fill with rain overnight.

It is a peaceful time for us no-longer-young ponies and farmers. We wink and nod together, ready for rain, ready for the night.