Way Out Beyond Us

My father would lift me
to the ceiling in his big hands
and ask, 
How’s the weather up there?
And it was good, the weather
of being in his hands, his breath
of scotch and cigarettes, his face
smiling from the world below.
O daddy, was the lullaby I sang
back down to him as he stood on earth,
my great, white-shirted father, home
from work, his gold wristwatch
and wedding band gleaming
as he held me above him
for as long as he could,
before his strength failed
down there in the world I find myself
standing in tonight, my little boy
looking down from his flight
below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,
his eyes wide and already staring
into the distance beyond the man
asking him again and again,
How’s the weather up there?
~George Bilgere “Weather”.

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”

Deep in one of our closets is an old film reel of me about 16 months old sitting securely held by my father on his shoulders. I am bursting out with giggles as he repeatedly bends forward, dipping this head and shoulders down. I tip forward, looking like I am about to fall off, and when he stands back up straight, my mouth becomes a large O and I can almost remember the tummy tickle I feel. I want him to do it again and again, taking me to the edge of falling off and then bringing me back from the brink.

My father was a tall man, so being swept up onto his shoulders felt a bit like I was touching heaven.

It was as he was dying 24 years ago this week that I realized again how tall he was — his feet kept hitting the foot panel of the hospital bed my mother had requested for their home. We cushioned his feet with padding so he wouldn’t get abrasions even though he would never stand on them again, no longer towering over us.

His helplessness in dying was startling – this man who could build anything and accomplish whatever he set his mind to was unable to subdue his cancer. Our father, who was so self-sufficient he rarely asked for help, did not know how to ask for help now.

So we did what we could when we could tell he was uncomfortable, which wasn’t often. He didn’t say much, even though there was much we could have been saying. We didn’t reminisce. We didn’t laugh and joke together. We just were there, taking shifts catching naps on the couch so we could be available if he called out, which he never did.

This man:
who had grown up dirt poor,
fought hard with his alcoholic father
left abruptly to go to college – the first in his family –
then called to war for three years in the South Pacific.

This man:
who had raised a family on a small farm while he was a teacher,
then a supervisor, then a desk worker.

This man:
who left our family to marry another woman
but returned after a decade to ask forgiveness.

This man:
who died in a house he had built completely himself,
without assistance, from the ground up.

He didn’t need our help – he who had held tightly to us and brought us back from the brink when we went too far – he had been on the brink himself and was rescued, coming back humbled.

No question the weather is fine for him up there. I have no doubt.

Where Gloom and Brightness Meet

In the grey summer garden I shall find you 
With day-break and the morning hills behind you. 
There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings; 
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings. 
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep: 
And I shall know the sense of life re-born 
From dreams into the mystery of morn 
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there 
Till that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are 
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star. 
~Siegfried Sassoon “Idyll”

Sixty five years ago today was a difficult day for my mother and me. She remembered it was a particularly hot July 4 with the garden coming on gangbusters and she having quite a time keeping up with summer farm chores. With three weeks to go in her pregnancy, her puffy legs were aching and she wasn’t sleeping well.

She just wanted to be done gestating, with the planned C section scheduled a few days before my due date of August 1.

She and my dad and my sister had waited eight long years for this pregnancy, having given up hope, having already chosen an infant boy to adopt, the papers signed and waiting on the court for the final approval. They were ready to bring him home when she discovered she was pregnant and the adoption agency gave him to another family.

I’ve always wondered where that little boy ended up, his life trajectory suddenly changed by my conception. I feel some accountability.

Every subsequent July 4, my mother would tell me about July 4, 1954 when I was curled upside down inside her impatiently kicking her ribs in my attempts to stretch, hiccuping when she tried to nap, and dozing as she cooked the picnic meal they took to eat while waiting for the local fireworks show to start.

As I grew up, she would remind me when I cringed and covered my ears as fireworks shells boomed overhead, that I leapt startled inside her with each explosion. She wondered if I might jump right out of her, so she held onto her belly tight, trying to calm and reassure me. Perhaps I was justifiably fearful about what chaos was booming on the outside, as I remained inside until the doctor opened Mom up three weeks later.

Now I know I am meant for quieter things, greeting the mystery of each morning with as much calm as I can muster. I still cringe and jump at fireworks and recognize I was blessed to be born to a family who wanted me and waited for me.

May there come a day when every baby knows such a blessing.

A Shimmering Dusk

Evening, and all the birds
In a chorus of shimmering sound
Are easing their hearts of joy
For miles around.

The air is blue and sweet,
The few first stars are white,–
Oh let me like the birds
Sing before night.
~Sara Teasdale “Dusk in June”

photo by Nate Gibson

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground. 
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth. 
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder

wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
~James Agee “Sure on this Shining Night”

photo by Nate Gibson

It is high summer holding the earth now;
our hearts whole and healed in a shimmering dusk.

I weep for wonder that we have this time,
at this place, singing under these stars.

May we live sure that on another shining night,
sometime, we know not when, we know not how,
we will all be together again.

Amen and Amen.

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…

To Be Wild and Perfect

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises, 
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace, 
white and pink —

and all day
under the shifty wind, 
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies, 
and tip their fragrance to the air, 
and rise, 
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness 
gladly and lightly, 
and there it is again — 
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open. 
Do you love this world? 
Do you cherish your humble and silky life? 
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, 
and softly, 
and exclaiming of their dearness, 
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, 
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?
~Mary Oliver 
from New And Selected Poems 

It is not about love or sacrifice,
nothing vestal or sacred. The light
comes from an open window,
and perhaps a breeze too that
has caused the white peony to
drop three delicately curved
petals on the red jacquard.
They cast purple shadows. The
eye must seek them out, must
avert itself from the ceaseless
action in the midst of other
objects: a runcible spoon, a
quill, a tankard, two ripe quince.
Athena Kildegaard, “Still Life with Beating Heart” from Ventriloquy

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human

heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,

and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.
In the darkening June evening

I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
~Jane Kenyon “Peonies at Dusk”

At the end of May, I bring our peonies to the graves
of those from whom I came,
to lay one after another exuberant head
upon each headstone,
a moment of connection between those in the ground
and me standing above, acknowledging its thin space before one more humble and silky life shatters
and becomes nothing,
its petals perfectly
scattered, lush and trembling,
to the wind.

A Forgotten Light

twilightbarn

keepthelighton

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

 

 

My favorite thing about walking up from the barn at night is looking at the lights glowing in our house, knowing the lives that have thrived there, even though each child has flown away to distant cities.

There is love there as we have rediscovered our “alone” life together.

There are still future years there, as many as God grants us to stay on the farm. It is home and it is light and if all it takes is a walk from a dark barn to remind me, I’ll leave the lights on in the barn at night more often.

 

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The Way the Wind Blows

Snow is falling today and more wind is forecast tomorrow.

It is a cold wind, whether coming from the north, chilling our bones as various weather fronts meet and clash overhead and we feel dumped on.

Another cold wind of reality is blowing through America right now as well, and not just on our farm.

There is considerable turmoil as Americans struggle with the increased need to “pay as you go” rather than “borrow for what you desire”.  The debt load for young adults is climbing, especially student loans and mortgages. Fewer older people have any significant savings for retirement.

Our parents were Great-Depression era children, so my husband and I heard plenty of stories convincing us never to reach beyond our means.  My grandmother moved her three young children 20 miles away from home in order to cook morning, noon and night in a large boarding house, grateful for the work that allowed her to feed her family. It also meant separation from their jobless, depressed and often intoxicated father for weeks at a time.  She told stories of making sandwiches to feed hobos who knocked on the kitchen door, hoping for a hand out, and after sitting briefly on the back steps eating what she could offer from left over scraps, they would be on their way again, walking on down the muddy road, hoping somewhere farther along there may be another handout or perhaps a day’s work.   Even in her time of trouble, my grandmother could find blessing in the fact she and her children had a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in (all in one room) and food to fill their stomachs.  There were always people worse off and she wasn’t one of them.

My grandmother never lived comfortably, by her own choice, after that experience.  She could never trust that tomorrow things would be as plentiful as today, so she rarely rested, never borrowed, always saved even the tiniest scrap of food, of cloth, of wood, as it could always prove useful someday.   My father learned from those uncertain days of his childhood and never borrowed to buy a car or a piece of furniture or an appliance.   It had to be cash, or it was simply not his to purchase, so he never coveted what he did not have money to buy outright.

So we, the next generation, were raised that way.  Even so, borrowing began with loans for college but still working three jobs while maintaining good grades.  But then there was borrowing for that first care and to buy a house. 

But with grandma’s and dad’s stories fresh in our minds, we knew we couldn’t start that slippery slope of borrowing to take vacations or buy  the latest and greatest stuff or build the bigger house.   So we didn’t.

We have lived simply, driving our vehicles past 200,000 miles, continuing to harvest and preserve from the garden, using our appliances past the 25 year mark. And we’ve been content and happy.

Happiness isn’t stuff.  It isn’t big houses.  It isn’t brand new cars or the latest gadgets.

It’s being under the same roof as a family, striving together and loving each other.  It is taking care of friends when they need help.  It is reaching out to the stranger in our midst who has less than we have.

The wind is pointing us back to the values we had long forgotten as we got much too comfortable.   It takes a storm to find that true contentment can rest only within our hearts.