Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

The Abundance of This Place

Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light.
~Wendell Berry from “A Vision”

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same;

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.

~Léonie Adams from “Country Summer”

Most of the work on our farm involves the ground – whether plowing, seeding, fertilizing, mowing, harvesting – this soil lives and breathes as much as we creatures who walk over it and the plants which arise rooted to it.

Yes, there must be light. Yes, there must be moisture. Yes, there must be teeming worms and microbes deep within the dirt, digesting and aerating and thriving, leaving behind needed nutrients as they live and die.

And yes, we all become dust again, hopefully returning to the ground more than we have taken.

As I watch our rusty-coated horses graze on the stubble of these slopes and valleys, I’m reminded it is a sacrament to live in such abundance. We all started in a Garden until we desired something more, and knowing our mistake, we keep striving to return.

So this land teems with memories: of the rhythms and cycles of the seasons, of the songs and stories of peoples who have lived here for generation after generation.

Eventually we will find our way back to the abundant soil.

The Warmness of Clover Breath

It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath.
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

However you may come, 
You’ll see it suddenly
Lie open to the light
Amid the woods: a farm
Little enough to see
Or call across—cornfield,

Hayfield, and pasture, clear
As if remembered, dreamed
And yearned for long ago,
Neat as a blossom now
With all the pastures mowed
And the dew fresh upon it,
Bird music all around.
That is the vision, seen
As on a Sabbath walk:
The possibility
Of human life whose terms
Are Heaven’s and this earth’s.

The land must have its Sabbath
Or take it when we starve.
The ground is mellow now,
Friable and porous: rich.
Mid-August is the time
To sow this field in clover
And grass, to cut for hay
Two years, pasture a while,
And then return to corn.

This way you come to know
That something moves in time
That time does not contain.
For by this timely work
You keep yourself alive
As you came into time,
And as you’ll leave: God’s dust,
God’s breath, a little Light.

~Wendell Berry from The Farm

Farming is daily work outside of time – the labor of this day is the care for the eternal. There is a timelessness about summer: about preparing and planting and preserving, this cycle of living and dying repeating through generations. We, as our many great great grandparents did, must become God’s dust yet again.

So I’m reminded, walking through the pasture’s clover patch, of all the ways to become seed and soil for the next generation. For a blossom that appears so plain and goes so unnoticed during its life, it dies back, enfolding upon itself, with character and color and drama, each a bit differently from its neighbor.

Just like us.

Perhaps it is the breath of clover we should remember at the last; God’s own breath comes to us disguised in so many ways as we walk this ground. Inhale deeply of Him and remember we too are made fruits of His eternal labor.

A Bright Sadness: Ashes and Dust

The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.
~T.S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday”

My people, what have I done to you?
Micah 6:3

And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.

~Louis Untermeyer from “Ash Wednesday”

The Word
Who was given
within and for the world
reaches out to us unstilled
dwelling in darkness–
O people,
His loved children
who turn away,
only our ashes remain.
His touch ignites
us to light again,
His blood has
spilled across the sky.

VERSE 1 
It is Ash Wednesday’s early morn. 
The old, the young, the newly born 
Await the mark of Adam’s dust 
To seal their wills in Jesus’ trust. 

VERSE 2 
Prepared to walk the Lenten trail 
They face death’s dark and shadowed vale. 
Rememb’ring Christ who led the way 
They bravely march beneath his sway. 

VERSE 3 
You came from dust and dust would be 
Without the Great Son’s victory. 
The gift is free yet must be claimed 
By goodness lived and evil tamed. 

VERSE 4 
It is Ash Wednesday’s early morn. 
The old, the young, the newly born 
Await the mark of Adam’s dust 
To seal their wills in Jesus’ trust.

from Lent, released February 1, 2019 
Written by Nelson Koscheski (BMI), Ryan Flanigan (BMI); © 2018 



Both Stone and Star

sunrise101515

 

 

darkhedges2

 

 

sunset1112161

 

 

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke  “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy

 

 

oaklane1011184

 

 

eveningoctfield2

 

 

We are born with one hand still grasping tight to the star-studded heaven from which we came, still dusty from creation.  The other hand grabs hold of whatever it finds here on earth and won’t let go, whether the riches of relationship or the coldness of stone.

It can take decades, but our firm hold on heaven loosens so that we forget the dusty origins of our miraculous being.  We forget Who made us and why.

We can’t decide, tangled up in the threads of life:  dust of earth, stone heart?  Or dust of stars, child of Heaven?

We are daily reminded by the Light which clothes us in new colors – early in the morning as it crests the eastern hills and late as it descends in the west.  Heaven still reaches down once again to grasp our hand, making sure we know the way home.

 

 

oaklane1011182

 

 

darkhedgesantique

The Benevolence of Water Washing Dust

rainyhydrangea2

 

rainyapple6

 

rainstrawberryleaf

 

Even at noon the house is dark.
In my room under the eaves
I hear the steady benevolence
of water washing dust
raised by the haying
from porch and car and garden
and purified, as if tonsured.

The grass resolves to grow again,
receiving the rain to that end,
but my disordered soul thirsts
after something it cannot name.
~Jane Kenyon from “August Rain, After Haying”

 

sunriserainbow3

 

steptoe3

 

A long-awaited string of rainy days have arrived and like the ground and plants, I look skyward letting the clouds drip on me and I am washed of dust.

Will I restore like the brown and dying blade of grass, turning green and lush in a matter of days?

Is there enough benevolence from the sky to cleanse and settle the grime, and still yield more harvest of food and fodder?  Will this replenish my soul enough that I can resolve to grow again?

I thirst for what I cannot name.  The mystery is, I’m filled, left dripping and ready.

 

rainchard2

 

goldcherrytomatorai

 

sunrise97184

 

raincornhair2

 

rainapple3

 

 

Dusty

steptoe3

 

God – the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us,
to live for all time like us, as a servant of the soil.

I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.

~Daniel J. Stulac from Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

 

eveningfields

 

butte9

 

What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” 
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

 

eveningshadows6418

 

rainyfield92017

 

This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell its significance.

Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into the plainest of ash.

And I am plainest of the plain.

 

castlebutte

 

kryptonsun2