Washing Dishes By Hand

Even the mundane task of washing dishes by hand is an example of the small tasks and personal activities that once filled people’s daily lives with a sense of achievement.
~B.F. Skinner, behavioral psychologist

She rarely made us do it—we’d clear the table instead—
so my sister and I teased that some day
we’d train our children right and not end up like her,
after every meal stuck with red knuckles,
a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us:
gummy plates in water greasy
and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.                               
Or did she guard her place at the window?
Not wanting to give up the gloss of the magnolia,
the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder.
First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.
~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women

I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.

What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?

Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?

No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.

The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.

Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.

It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the scrubbing sponges, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…

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Your Licorice Nose

Something about that nose,
round as a licorice gumdrop
and massively inquiring.

It brings the world to him,
the lowdown on facts
denied to us.

He knows the rabbit
has been in the garden and where
the interloper has traveled.

He knows who has wandered
through the neighborhood and
can sniff out the bad guys.

He would like to get a whiff of you.
He has an inside track and will know
more about you than you can imagine.

But for now, he has other concerns.
The cat got into my pen and is making me
nervous, so let me out now please.

~Lois Edstrom “Homer” from Almanac of Quiet Days

As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass
~Billy Collins “A Dog on his Master”

Oh, Homer, dog of my heart, when I open the gate to your pen to set you free for farm chores, you race after your corgi buddy Sam who must get to the cat food bowl before you, but then you stop mid-run, each time, and circle back to me to say hello, thank you, jumping high enough to put that licorice gumdrop nose in my glove as a greeting, so I can stroke your furry brow without bending down. You jump one, two, three times – for those three pats on the head (I think you can count) – and then you are off again running, having greeted your human with respect and affection.

You watch me do chores with your nose in the straw, checking out the smells of the day – I work at the cleaning and feeding the ponies as the barn cat embarrasses you with her attention. You wait patiently, connecting your brown eyes to my gray eyes when you want my attention. You are listening carefully for those words that mean you can race back to your pen for breakfast – “All done!”

We speak the same language, you and I. Your eyes and your nose tell me all I need to know about what you are thinking.

And I have no doubt whatsoever you read my thoughts completely.

More poems and photos in this book, available to order here:

Pull Open the Barn Doors

I like farming.
I like the work.
I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. 
It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. 
I now suspect that if we work with machines
the world will seem to us to be a machine,
but if we work with living creatures
the world will appear to us as a living creature. 
That’s what I’ve spent my life doing,

trying to create an authentic grounds for hope.
~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor

The barn is old, and very old,
But not a place of spectral fear.
Cobwebs and dust and speckling sun
Come to old buildings every one.
Long since they made their dwelling here,
And here you may behold


Nothing but simple wane and change;
Your tread will wake no ghost, your voice
Will fall on silence undeterred.
No phantom wailing will be heard,
Only the farm’s blithe cheerful noise;
The barn is old, not strange.

~Edward Blunden from “The Barn”

When we pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as our grandfathers did
over a hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandfathers once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandfathers did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
some born on this farm
three long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

Click on this link for a typical barn moment: https://www.facebook.com/707166118/videos/10156035185231119/

Lyrics:

This is a barn and I know it’s haunted
The corn rattles and the shadows move
It’s just the way, it’s just the way I’m feeling
I want to lie down in a field of rain

This is a river and I pray for the bottom
Some kind of measure of the way things change
I’ve been stuck in the middle of a slow storm, counting the days, love

I know we’re in the dark, and the cold comes
Through the very cracks that let the light through
Bring me something back from that sunny coast, and keep us, moving on

These are the shadowlands, I’ve known them
And I think it’s going to be the long way down
But I’ll be the tiny flame, that you carry around, around, around

I know we’re in the dark, and the cold comes
Through the very cracks that let the light through
Bring me something back from that sunny coast, and keep us, moving on

This is a blessing and I don’t date doubt it
We built a boat out of willow trees
We caught the moonlight, like a mirror
Shine right through to the best of me
Shine right through to the best of me
We’ve been living in abandoned houses
Sometimes we’re tending to abandoned fields
It’s just the way it’s just the way I’m feeling
I want to wake up with the sun in my head
~Chris Pureka

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Mucking About

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day
the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning, it feels as though it could be

the day before or a year ago or a year before that.
With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out, and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.
Time all but stops.
But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts,

and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

He <the professor> asked
what I made of the other Oxford students
so I told him:
They were okay, but they were all very similar…
they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies,
and they thought they would always win.
But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.

He asked me what could be done about it.
I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year
to do some dead-end job
like working in a chicken processing plant
or spreading muck with a tractor.
It would do more good than a gap year in Peru. 

He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty.
It wasn’t meant to be funny.

~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life
(how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)

For well over thirty years, my husband and I have spent about an hour a day shoveling manure out of numerous horse stalls and I’m a better person for it. The last few weeks of sub-freezing snow/icy weather while running low on trucked-in supplies of shavings and straw bedding has been a particular character-building experience. It feels like everything, myself included, is in a process of decomposition.

Wheeled to a mountainous pile in our barnyard,  our daily collection of manure happily composts year round, becoming rich fertilizer in a matter of months through a crucible-like heating process of organic chemistry, bacteria and earthworms.  Nothing mankind has achieved quite matches the drama of useless and basically disgusting stuff transforming into the essential elements needed for productive growth and survival.   This is a metaphor I can <ahem> happily muck about in.

I’m in awe, every day, at being part of this process — in many ways a far more tangible improvement to the state of the world than anything else I manage to accomplish every day.  The horses, major contributors that they are, act underwhelmed by my enthusiasm.  I guess some miracles are relative, depending on one’s perspective, but if the horses understood that the grass they contentedly eat in the pasture, or the hay they munch on during the winter months, was grown thanks to their carefully recycled waste products, they might be more impressed.

Their nonchalance about the daily mucking routine is understandable.  If they are outside, they probably don’t notice their beds are clean when they return to the stalls at night.  If they are inside during the heavy rain days, they feel duty-bound to be in our faces as we move about their stall, toting a pitchfork and pushing a wheelbarrow.  I’m a source of constant amusement as they nose my jacket pockets for treats that I never carry, as they beg for scratches on their unreachable itchy spots, and as they attempt to overturn an almost full load, just to see balls of manure roll to all corners of the stall like breaking a rack of billiard balls in a game of pool.

Good thing I’m a patient person always seeking an object lesson in whatever I see or do ~ mucking out stalls every day helps me tolerate the proverbial muck I encounter every day off the farm.  And spending an hour a day getting dirty in the real stuff somehow makes the virtual manure less noxious. 

Everyone should be spending time daily mucking out;
I think the world would generally be a better place.

Wally, our former stallion, now gelded, discovered a way to make my life easier rather than complicating it.  He hauled a rubber tub into his stall from his paddock, by tossing it into the air with his teeth and throwing it, and it finally settled against one wall.  Then he began to consistently pile his manure, with precise aim, right in the tub.  I didn’t ask him to do this.  It had never occurred to me.  I hadn’t even thought it was possible for a horse to house train himself.  But there it is, proof that some horses prefer neat and tidy rather than the whirlwind eggbeater approach to manure distribution.  After a day of his manure pile plopping, it is actually too heavy for me to pick up and dump into the wheelbarrow all in one tub load, but it takes 1/4 of the time to clean his stall than the others, and he spares all this bedding.

What a guy.  He provides me unending inspiration in how to keep my own personal muck concentrated rather than spreading it about,  contaminating the rest of the world.

Now, once I teach him to put the seat back down when he’s done, he’s welcome to move into the house…

teaching my city nephews how to muck out a stall
Wally’s purposeful pile

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Bowl of Frozen Tears

Something has descended
like feathered prophecy.
Someone has offered the world
a bowl of frozen tears,

has traced the veins and edges
of leaves with furred ink.
The grass is stiff as the strings
of a lute.

And, day by day, the tiny windows
crack their cardboard frames
seizing the frail light. The sun,
moving through

these waxy squares, undiminished
as a word passing
from mind to speech.
Every breath a birth,

a stir of floating limbs within me.
I stay up late and waken early
to feel beneath my feet
the silence coming.
~Anya Silver “Advent, First Frost”

When I am weary,
putting one foot in front of the other
in the humble chores of the barn,
feeling so cold at times, I no longer
remember this was
once sweaty summer work ~
now my hands ache in an arctic wind
that shows no mercy.

Yet I know respite will come,
refuge is near, salvation is imminent.
Each breath I breathe a cloud of hope.

I will remember what our good God
has prepared for us in such a place as this,
what He has done to come down to dwell with us,
melting our frozen tears,
aching in silence alongside us.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day

In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town

But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep

To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind

The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid

Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day

Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.
~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century

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Starting the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new shipment of this book is arriving soon – you can order here:

The Redeemed World

You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone
for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises,
burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled
midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.

You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace
spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines.
And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death,
you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,

hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum
through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve,
or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.

So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble
inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place—
and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet.

~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.

We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.

All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.

It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.

And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…

If you enjoy Barnstorming posts like this, you’ll enjoy this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Pause for the Parable

Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
~Malcolm Muggeridge

Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.

If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.

You Are My Sunshine

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 go to bed long after the sun sets.

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, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. 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 our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as 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.

So Much Better

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line,
With a gray-brown wooden clothes pin.
~Jane Kenyon “The Clothespin”

I get easily overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done:
a full day of telehealth computer visits with patients from home but all the usual household and farm tasks waiting for me –grass to mow, flower beds to weed, garden to plant, fences to fix, manure to haul, animals to brush out — the list is endless and there are never enough hours in the day.  

So of course, I moan and whine and write about it.

Or I can set to work, tackling one thing at a time.  A simple task is accomplished, and then another, like hanging clothes on the line: this one is done, and now this one, pinned and hanging to freshen, renewed, in the spring breezes.

At the end of the day, I pull them down, bury my face in them and breathe deeply, knowing how much better I am than before I began.

So much better.