Go Out and Help Your Dad


It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.


Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself


to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took


so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him


home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—


all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,


help your father, but this
was work we could not do.


He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Twenty-six years ago today
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.


This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying,
and returning home forgiven.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what was yet undone was up to us
to finish for you.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:


Mostly Dead

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.
Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well,

with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do –
Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
~William Goldman – the wisdom of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride

You who believe,
and you who sometimes believe

and sometimes don’t believe much of anything,
and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.

You happy ones
and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.

You who know where you’re going and how to get there
and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him

is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives
closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live
and even of ourselves.
~Frederick Buechner -Originally published in Secrets in the Dark

May I not settle for being slightly alive or mostly dead –

I want to be fully alive
to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
and even the wild beauty and miracle of myself~~

I have known what it is to doubt,
to be discouraged, defeated, and grieved.

It is part of the package:
shadows appear when the Sun is the brightest and hottest.
I have no doubt the Sun exists, especially after the last few days.

So I must “get up!” even if I don’t know where to go next.

And then I will believe
~truly believe~
I am created to be mostly and absolutely alive this day and every day.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

The Reddening Light

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”
from The Singing

Oh little one
who was to have been born this week in June
thirty eight years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon.

Gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing soundlessly into a thicket:
so long ago it makes me question
if you were real,
until my heart clenches again at the memory.

But you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee this time,
but stay to find out.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

A new book from Barnstorming – available for order here

The Delicate Sadness of Dusk

The talkative guest has gone,
and we sit in the yard
saying nothing. The slender moon
comes over the peak of the barn.

The air is damp, and dense
with the scent of honeysuckle. . . .
The last clever story has been told
and answered with laughter.

With my sleeping self I met
my obligations, but now I am aware
of the silence, and your affection,
and the delicate sadness of dusk.
~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems

As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:

There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.

This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.

It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.

The Heart as a Secret Garden

Buttercup’s heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high.

Buttercup: We’ll never survive.
Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.

Westley: Hear this now. I will always come for you.
Buttercup: But how can you be sure?
Westley: This is true love. You think this happens every day?

************************

Westley: “I told you I would always come for you. Why didn’t you wait for me?”
Buttercup: “Well… you were dead.”
Westley: “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”
Buttercup: “I will never doubt again.”
Westley: “There will never be a need.”

That day, she was amazed to discover
that when he was saying “As you wish”,
what he meant was, “I love you.”
And even more amazing was the day

she realized she truly loved him back.
~William Golding, above quotes from The Princess Bride

How was I ever blessed to find just such a farm boy?
A farm boy who says “I love you” in many ways every day,
as the walls of my secret garden heart come tumbling down…

buttercup pony

A new book from Barnstorming – more information about ordering here:

A Girl from the Palouse

My mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, was born 101 years ago today in the lonely isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington. She drew her first breath in a two story white house located down a long poplar-lined lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills.

She attended a one room school house until 8th grade, located a mile away in the rural countryside, then moved in with her grandmother “in town” in Rosalia to attend high school, seeing her parents only a couple times a month.

It was a childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart – her only sibling, an older brother, was busy helping their father on the farm. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

She nearly died at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her life-long, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith, letting go at age 88 after fracturing a femur, breaking her will to continue to live.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the wheat farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation after their divorce years later, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying until the last few months. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she gave up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became much more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight-laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected at times but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

Elna Schmitz playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A new book available from Barnstorming — more information here

Each One Knows What the Other Knows

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.
~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”

Over our multiple decades together, the more often we see others who sat together on the porches of their lives, and one has now already gone through that darkened doorway, bidding Goodnight.

The other remains sitting alone for a time.

We know what the other knows in our one mind together: we don’t know who will bid Goodnight before the other and who will sit on for awhile.

But we know it is okay either way because this is how it is and how it is meant to be. This is why we treasure up each porch-sitting, breathing the fresh evening air together, sighing wordlessly together, knowing, and not knowing, what will come next.

A new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Opening for the Sun

The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.
~Louise Glück “The Red Poppy”

What would poppies tell me if they could speak?

They would remind me that my existence is solely dependent on my Creator God who made me from dust, just like a seed. My color and fullness and growth is due to His sun and His rain and His breath blowing life and soul into me.

So I open slowly, eager to be known, to be loved and to love until the fire shining in the heart of me is like His fire, reflecting His glory.

And so I will shatter here — yet I know there is more. Even my God planted himself here, opening up His beauty, thrived, then died here, and raised from the dark here.

God shatters so I can thrive and flourish, to be ready to open again.

Forever and ever.

A new book from Barnstorming available for order here.