The Edge of Morning

Horse Team by Edvard Munch
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn
Black chimney builds into the quiet sky
Its curling pile to crumble silently.
Far out to the westward on the edge of morn,
The slender misty city towers up-borne
Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue;
And yonder on those northern hills, the hue
Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.

And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs
With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main
Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain,
Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze,
Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team,
With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam.

~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
photo by Josh Scholten

The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.

Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.

We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.

We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.

For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.

And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.

No fossil fuel necessary back then.
No exhaust other than steaming nostrils
and a pile of manure here or there.

We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.

Now Let’s Eat


Here we sit as evening falls
Like old horses in their stalls.
Thank you, Father, that you bless
Us with food and an address
And the comfort of your hand
In this great and blessed land.
Look around at each dear face,
Keep each one in your good grace.
We think of those who went before,
And wish we could have loved them more.
Grant to us a cheerful heart,
Knowing we must soon depart
To that far land to be with them.
And now let’s eat. Praise God. Amen.
~Gary Johnson “Table Grace”

The world begins at a kitchen table. No Matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
~Joy Harjo “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

Our life revolves around the table, whether at home or at church.

This is where we hang out late into the evening,
and begin the day before dawn.

This is where prayers happen,
the meals happen,
the arguments happen.
This is where we listen to, understand and love each other.

This is where we share what we have and eat and are fed and
this is where God provides for us daily.

One of the hardest parts of the pandemic
is that the virus finds people who sing and talk together around a table,
and who take off their masks to eat together.
Truly this Enemy has found a way to keep people away from one another,
caring for one another and being nourished together.

We think of those who went before
and wish that we could have loved them more.

Let us love one another now, while we can, when we can,
and we shall feast together later.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Amen and Amen.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious…

…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…


I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
    my whole cock-eyed life  –
    what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”

During the COVID-19 quarantine, we’ve chosen to shop at small locally owned markets in our rural county rather than the large chain groceries we usually frequent. They are less busy, more personal and desperately need the business. As we walk in, we are greeted with “hi kids, let me know if I can help you find anything!” – there is something nice about two gray heads being called “kids” because in our hearts, we still are – see below.

Yesterday, the market cashier/manager noticed a cane that had been left in one of the aisles and said “oh, Harry must have left his cane behind again, I guess he won’t get too far without it so I’ll leave it right here by the door for when he comes to get it.”

You wanna go where everybody knows your name…

These stores make me think of the rural markets only a couple miles from where I grew up in two different communities in Washington state.  These were the stores that often provided the basic provisions for farm families like ours, as well as an informal community gathering spot.  In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, it’s called Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”

It still wasn’t that unusual in the fifties and sixties for a rural “mom and pop” operation to have a small grocery store in the front part of their refurbished home, often with a single gas pump sitting in the front yard.   The store had a reversible sign in the front window that said OPEN from dawn to dusk, unless the store owner needed a shower or a nap.  When you’d walk through the creaky front screen door, it slammed behind you with a bang, automatically notifying the store owner in the back of the house a customer had arrived.   They knew us by name, knew what our typical purchases would be, and always enjoyed a chat to catch up on the neighborhood news.  It meant a cup of tea or some pretty powerful coffee for mom and a stick of chewing gum for the kids.

There was always a cork board for flyer postings, with hand written notices of the latest community events, plus “for sale”, “for free”, or “lost” items.  There might be a polaroid picture of “Tinkerbelle — looking for our lost cat, children can’t stop crying” , or a hastily scribbled note from a harried mother  “seeking a mother’s helper to do laundry and ironing”,  or  “free puppies–take your choice.”  This was “Craig’s List” before Craig was born.

Sitting at the intersection of farm roads, corner stores were a natural outlet for local produce to be sold, from fresh eggs to seasonal berries and fruit, to pumpkins and squash piled up in the front yard in the fall.  Some store owners even did their own butchering and meat cutting before regulations made it too difficult to meet government standards.

The “bread and butter” for a store to thrive and stay in business was just that: they supplied the basic staples that families might need in a pinch– cornflakes and cheerios, loaves of Wonder bread and milk, bags of sugar and flour, toilet paper and wieners, Crisco for a pie crust or a cube of butter for baking cookies, Elmer’s Glue, scotch tape and construction paper for rainy day art projects.  Children were frequently sent on errands to the corner store on foot, or on their bicycles, or occasionally on their horses to get some immediately needed missing item.

Or perhaps they were sent to the corner store with a list just to get them out of their mothers’ hair.

The motivation for kids to make the store trip was the reward of a cold soda pop or an ice cream bar in the summer, hot chocolate with a marshmallow in the winter, and a carefully selected variety of treats from the bulk candy bins.  I had a particular affinity for multicolored jawbreakers and red licorice whips.

The store my mother frequented in the tiny hamlet of East Stanwood, Washington had pretty much everything she needed, and the shopkeeper always had a fresh cookie for my brother and me.  We often brought extra eggs from our flock that mom would bring in for credit, but our raw Guernsey cow milk could not be sold through the store so was sold directly to our neighbors instead.

Once we moved to a rural neighborhood outside Olympia, Washington, the local corner store was at the “otherwise nothin’ happening” corner of Libby Road and Ames Huntley Road, almost three miles away from our little farm on Friendly Grove Road.  It was a long walk, though an easy bike ride along narrow country roads.  We kids could usually think of a good excuse at least twice a week during the summer to make that trek to the store and stock up.  My older sister would ride her horse to the store, using a telephone pole as a hitching post while she shopped.

On our visits to family in Japan, there are plenty of small family-owned corner markets in the huge cities, each with their own flavor and personality matching their owners. It’s good to see the persistence in the U.S. of small local markets that actually sell produce, not just convenience store beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.  With the emphasis to “eat local” and county farmers marketing and selling their own produce, there are more of these now in our area. 

Just a few miles from us is a market owned by an East Indian family and has an eclectic combination of curries, chili peppers, and all kinds of spices and ethnic ingredients sought by our local Hispanic and Indian farm neighbors. 

There is an orchard nearby that has opened a store not only marketing their boxes of apples, but also sells cider, frozen apple pies ready to bake and home ground honey peanut butter.  

We have local dairies producing their own homogenized pasteurized milk and ice cream, others making and selling cheese, some that raise grass fed organic beef and lamb, as well as heritage breed pork and turkeys. This time of year there are lots of end-of-the-driveway vegetable and flower stands as farmers sell their wares on the honor system, with the money going into a lock box right there by the road.

It almost feels like going home again.  When I walk into a small market, it is tempting to think of pulling up a chair next to a wood burning stove, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the neighborhood news. That can’t happen with social distancing, but my hope is to help these markets survive for when, someday, we can sit and visit and learn each others’ names and stories.

photo by Starla Smit

The Healing Power of a Church Potluck

The church, I think, is God’s way of saying,
“What I have in the pot is yours,
and what I have is a group of misfits
whom you need more than you know
and who need you more than they know.” 

“Take, and eat,” he says,
“and take, and eat,
until the day, and it is coming,
that you knock on my door.
I will open it, and you will see me face to face.”

He is preparing a table.
He will welcome us in.
Jesus will be there, smiling and holy,
holding out a green bean casserole.
And at that moment, what we say, what we think, and what we believe will be the same:
“I didn’t know how badly I needed this.”
~Jeremy Clive Huggins from “The Church Potluck”

Perhaps a celebration at the end of a long cold winter month
Possibly a need of respite from a month of dieting
Likely a response to bad headline news day after day:
A potlatch, a potluck, a communion of comfort food.

What to bring? What soothes stomach and heart?

Macaroni and cheese, with drizzled bread cubes on top
Beef stew chuck-a-block with vegetables and potatoes
Buckets of fried chicken
Greenbean casserole
Meat loaf topped with ketchup
Tossed Caesar salad
Tator tots drizzled with cheese
Jello and ham buns

Home made bread, steaming, soft
Whole chocolate milk
And ice cream sundaes

Nothing expensive
Or extravagant
Or requiring going into debt to pay.

A fitting ending to a Sabbath of worship,
After meeting for prayer and hymns and the Word;
When times get tough, when we feel all alone,
When we drown in discouragement.

This is time for connecting congregation and community,
For huddling against life’s storm
Forgetting our worries for a time
And sharing God’s comfort food, all together, misfits that we are,
Smiling to know — we all badly needed this.

Our Wings Ruffled

Birds afloat in air’s current,
sacred breath?  No, not breath of God,
it seems, but God
the air enveloping the whole
globe of being.
It’s we who breathe, in, out, in, in the sacred,
leaves astir, our wings
rising, ruffled — but only the saints
take flight.  We cower
in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
on branches close to the nest.  The wind
marks the passage of holy ones riding
that ocean of air.  Slowly their wake
reaches us, rocks us.
But storms or still, 
numb or poised in attention,
we inhale, exhale, inhale,
encompassed, encompassed.
~Denise Levertov “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

God reminds us when we are at our most anxious and needy:
He cares for the birds and feeds them, lifts their wings in the wind and their feathered down keeps them warm. He gives them air to ride upon and air to breathe.

If them, then He cherishes us as well.

We too breathe in, breathe out, ruffled and fluffed, surrounded by the air we need and the air that lifts us. Lacking down, it is His breath keeping us warm.

Encompassed.

The Art of Showing Up

peonyshower
pears1
grapes2
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”

 

dandydew

lettinggo11

Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it.  Showing up with food you’ve made yourself is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food;  bringing along a cake is simply the icing.

This is a good reminder that as a doctor, my usefulness is completely dependent on others’ suffering. No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job.

If only.
What a world that would be.
And then I can still be a mom even if there is no more doctor work:

….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake…

 

 

dandydew5

Berry Bonanza

photo by Nate Gibsonphoto by Nate Gibson

We live in the middle of bountiful berries this time of year just as sweet cherries are disappearing from the orchard.  Strawberries just finished a few weeks ago, raspberries have been strong for almost three weeks and the blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the evergreen and Himalaya wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  Local currants are shiny and glistening.  There are a few cranberry bogs in the area too, but they have weeks to go before they are ripe. It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with most of them growing in our own back yard.

redcurrantsThere are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little thimble shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more interesting than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that are ripening on gentle winding vines right now at the edges of the woods and fences, as well as in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

mountainblackberriesAs a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with woodlands and meadows with both wild and domesticated berry bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s,  to their low pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many blueberry fields,  the local market is flooded and the price per pound has dropped considerably.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and the bushes would yield blue gold for him for a very long time, even if some years will be low price years.

As a fellow farmer, I appreciated his willingness to hold out through the rough times.  He beamed with pride about the perfection of his crop, plentiful as it was.   My tastebuds agree:  this was the perfect berry 48 years ago in my backyard, and some things thankfully never change.

But then perfection can come in many colors…

raspberries

Apple Peel Breezes

photo by Josh Scholten

“The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Chrysanthemums.
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.”
~John Updike in “September”

Radiant Plums

And somehow Hallie thrived anyway–the blossom of our family, like one of those miraculous fruit trees that taps into an invisible vein of nurture and bears radiant bushels of plums while the trees around it merely go on living.
~Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Dreams

There is a plum tree on our farm that is so plain and unassuming most of the year that I nearly forget that it is there.  It is a bit off by itself away from the other fruit trees; I have to make a point of paying attention to it otherwise it just blends into the scenery.

Despite not being noticed or having any special care, this tree thrives.  In the spring it is one of the first to bud out into a cloud of white blossoms with a faint sweet scent.  Every summer it is a coin toss whether it will decide to bear fruit or not.  Some years–not at all, not a single plum.  Other years, like this one, it is positively glowing with plum harvest– each a golden oval with a pink blush.   These plums are extraordinarily honey flavored and juicy, a pleasure to eat right off the tree if you don’t mind getting past a bitter skin and an even more bitter pit inside.   This is a beauty with a bite.  I think the tree secretly grins when it sees puckering taking place all around it.

This tree is a lot like some people I know:  most of the time barely noticeable, hanging on the periphery,  fairly reserved and unobtrusive.  But when roots go deep and the nourishment is substantial,  they bear fruit, no doing things half-way.   The feast is plentiful and abundant, the meal glorious despite the hint of sour.  Maybe it is even more glorious because of the hint of sour.

If “tucker” describes a great down-home meal, then being “plum tuckered” sounds positively wonderful.

But I suspect plum tuckered is really about what happens after picking and preserving hundreds of these radiant gems.

It’s time for bed.  I’m both kinds of plum tuckered.