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.

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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…

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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.

So Then, Live

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil,
sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall,
driving horses,
sweeping,
scouring,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty.
To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance
gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dungfork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
gives him glory too.
He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should.
So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae
photo by Tayler Rae

Thanks in large part to how messily we humans live, this world is a grimy place.  

As an act of worship, we work at cleaning up after ourselves.  Hands that clean toilets, scrub floors, carry bedpans, pick up garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend time every day carrying buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.
It is Grace that comes alongside me, to keep pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary to do it myself.

Let the Mind Take a Photograph

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.
~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn

Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.

When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.

The routine:  loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.

The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.

Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky.  They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.

Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.

Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.

The Farm Goes On

A hill, a farm,
A forest, and a valley.
Half a hill plowed, half woods.
A forest valley and a valley field.

Sun passes over;
Two solstices a year
Cow in the pasture
Sometimes deer

A farmhouse built of wood.
A forest built on bones.
The high field, hawks
The low field, crows

Wren in the brambles
Frogs in the creek
Hot in summer
Cold in snow

The woods fade and pass.
The farm goes on.
The farm quits and fails
The woods creep down

Stocks fall you can’t sell corn
Big frost and tree-mice starve
Who wins who cares?
The woods have time.
The farmer has heirs.

~“Map” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain.

We have now passed from the season when our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  In June, the cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  During the summer months, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with! 

I yearn for the coming dark rainy days to hide inside with a book. 

Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call our names, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be prepared for winter.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially.  The fences always need fixing. 

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 35 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.

And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We’ve raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.

We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.

A Farmer of Dreams

Each day I go into the fields 
to see what is growing
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing, everything needs to be done.

A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend.

A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.

~W. D. Ehrhart, from “The Farmer” in Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War

This time of year our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  The cherry orchard blossoms have yielded fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  By mid-June, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with! 

Yet today I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book even when the lawnmower and weed whacker call my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles take over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially. 

The fences always need fixing.  The old hay barn is falling down and needing to be resurrected.  The weather is becoming iffy with rain in the forecast so we may not have anything but junk hay in the barn this winter in a year when hay will cost a premium.  For a decade now we have stopped breeding our Haflinger horses as even the demand for well bred horses is not robust enough to justify bringing more into the world.

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We spent many years dreaming about our farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 30 year old hand me down truck with almost 250,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming and a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits (even the occasional cougar, lynx and bear!) would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.

And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good beef and horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and enjoy hearing dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard.

It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.

We are blessed with one another, with the continuing sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.

Suds in the Sink

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

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

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 brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…