Something Went Wrong

age nine

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” 
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. 

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state.
I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.

Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

A Few Tears at the End of the Year

Let us step outside for a moment
As the sun breaks through clouds
And shines on wet new fallen snow,
And breathe the new air.
So much has died that had to die this year.

Let us step outside for a moment.
It is all there
Only we have been slow to arrive
At a way of seeing it.
Unless the gentle inherit the earth
There will be no earth.
~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”

photo by Nate Gibson

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner
from Beyond Words

I don’t pay close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes when I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out from my tears the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and where I am to be next, so I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.

It mostly has to do with spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays. It is about reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that letting-go part.

We urged and encouraged our children to go where their hearts told them they are needed and called to be, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm.

I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I’m granted the years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren.   They release a fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.

A wise and precious friend once told me that “our tears are God’s tears; to be bereft is the only way to become one with God.

So no kleenex needed with these tears.

I’ll let them flow as I let them go.

Heading Home

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.
~G. K. Chesterton

Those who know me, know I don’t care much for traveling. I prefer to stay home, but a near second best is heading home from where I’ve been.

Home can seem elusive and just out of reach for much of our lives. It may not feel we truly belong in any one place in this modern era of constant transitions and transfers. I’m a prime example of a truly ambivalent home body.

In high school, I could not plan a get-away from my home town fast enough, opting to go to college two states away.  Once I was away, I was hopelessly home-and-heartsick.   Miserable, I decided to come back home and go to school there instead.

Once back under my parents’ roof, my homesickness abated but the heartsick continued, having nothing to do with where I ate and slept.  I wasn’t at home inside myself.   It took time and various attempts at geographic cures to settle in and accept who I always had been.

Those who do move away often cast aspersions at people who never wander far from home.  The homebodies are seen as provincial, stuck in a rut, unenlightened and hopelessly small-town.  Yet later in life as the wanderers have a tendency to move back home, the stay-at-homers become solid friends and neighbors.   Remarkably, they often have become the pillars and life blood of a community.  They have slogged through long hours of keeping a place going when others left.

I did end up doing my share of wandering yet still sympathized with those who decided to stay put. I returned home by settling only a few miles from the stomping grounds of my homesteading great-grandparents, at once backwoods and backwater. Cast aspersions welcomed.

Now I get back home by mostly staying home. It takes something major, like a son spending the last decade teaching in Japan, now married with two children, to lure me away from my corner of the world once or twice a year. Getting away for a far away visit becomes a bigger effort as we get older, and coming back home is so bittersweet when hugging those loved ones goodbye. That is exactly what happened earlier today, as we sit at Narita airport waiting for our flight home.

I simply remember the assurance expressed so simply by Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd,
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

Home so sweet. We all long for it, sometimes with our hearts breaking, wherever it may be.

What Every Girl Wants

I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.
~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”

I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic.  “We’ll see,”  he said.  “We will see what we can do.”

So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.

When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

Fifty four years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu.  He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid.  I’ll never forget.

We Lean Lest We Fall

Today we both fell.

Eventually balance moves
out of us into the world;
it’s the pull of rabbits
grazing on the lawn
as we talk, the slow talk
of where and when,
determining what
and who we will become
as we age.

We admire the new plants
and the rings of mulch you made,
we praise the rabbits eating

the weeds’ sweet yellow flowers.

Behind our words the days
serve each other as mother,
father, cook, builder, and fixer;
these float like the clouds
beyond the trees.

It is a simple life, now,
children grown, our living made
and saved, our years our own,
husband and wife,

but in our daily stride, the one
that rises with the sun,
the chosen pride,
we lean on our other selves,
lest we fall
into a consuming fire
and lose it all.
~Richard Maxson, “Otherwise” from  Searching for Arkansas

Our days are slower now, less rush, more reading and writing, walking and sitting, taking it all in and wondering what comes next.

I slowly adapt to not hurrying to work every other day, looking to you to see how I should parcel out each moment. Should I stay busy cleaning, sorting, giving away, simplifying our possessions so our children someday won’t have to? Or should I find some other kind of service off the farm to feel worthy of each new day, each new breath?

It is an unfamiliar phase, this facing a day with no agenda and no appointments. What comes next is uncertain, as it always has been but I didn’t pay attention before.

So I lean lest I fall. I breathe lest I forget how.

Even Brighter Lights

Dear Ben,

It was gray and drizzly the November 15 you were born thirty one years ago, very much like today’s gray drizzle.

November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy.  The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

Yet you changed November for us that day.  You brought sunshine to our lives once again.  You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family.  You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.

And you married another bright light and now you shine together with a new little bright light of your own in your lives.

I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.

November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.

Love,

Mom and Dad

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.