We Are No Longer Alone: Just a Few More Weary Days

Today is my mother’s birthday,
but she’s not here to celebrate
by opening a flowery card
or looking calmly out a window.

If my mother were alive,
she’d be 114 years old,
and I am guessing neither of us
would be enjoying her birthday very much.

Mother, I would love to see you again
to take you shopping or to sit
in your sunny apartment with a pot of tea,
but it wouldn’t be the same at 114.

And I’m no prize either,
almost 20 years older than the last time
you saw me sitting by your deathbed.
Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal.

It must have been frigid that morning
in the hour just before dawn
on your first December 1st
at the family farm a hundred miles north of Toronto
.

Happy Birthday, anyway. Happy Birthday to you.
~Billy Collins from “December 1”

December 1st is not my mother’s birthday but it was her death day eleven years ago.

Yet it felt a bit like a birth.

The call came from the care center about 5:30 AM on the Monday after Thanksgiving on a frozen morning: her breathing had changed, it wasn’t long now until she’d be gone.

My daughter and I quickly dressed and went out into bleak darkness to make the ten minute drive to where she lay. Mom had been wearily living since a femur fracture 9 months earlier on a cruel April 1st morning. Everything changed for her at 87 years of active living. These nine months had been her gestation time to transition to a new life. It occurred to me she was about to be born in her long-awaited long-feared transition to death.

Her room was darkened except for the multicolored lights on the table top artificial Christmas tree I had brought her a few days earlier. It cast colorful shadows onto the walls and the white bedspread on her hospital bed. It even made her look like she had color to her cheeks where there actually was none.

There was no one home.

She had already left, flown away while we drove the few miles to come to her. There was no reaching her now. Her skin was cooling, her face hollowed by the lack of effort, her body stilled and sunken.

I could not weep at that point – it was time for her to leave us behind. She was so very tired, so very weary, so very ready for heaven. And I, weary too, felt much like yesterday’s oatmeal, something she actually very much loved during your life, cooking up a big batch, enough to last several days.

I know Mom is no longer settling for yesterday’s oatmeal. I know she is eating well, sleeping soundly and her cheeks are full of color. I know she knows the glory of rebirth thanks to her Savior, flown to a land where joy will never end.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Happy December 1st Birthday to you.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away

~Albert Brumley

God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What Every Girl Wants

I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.
~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”

I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic.  “We’ll see,”  he said.  “We will see what we can do.”

So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.

When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

Fifty four years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu.  He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid.  I’ll never forget.

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.

The Face of a Frog

I miss the friendship with the pine tree and the birds
that I had when I was ten.
And it has been forever since I pushed my head
under the wild silk skirt of the waterfall.

The big rock on the shore was the skull of a dead king
whose name we could almost remember.
Under the rooty bank you could dimly see
the bunk beds of the turtles.

Nobody I know mentions these things anymore.
It’s as if their memories have been seized, erased, and relocated
among flowcharts and complex dinner-party calendars.

Now I want to turn and run back the other way,
barefoot into the underbrush,
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.

Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and

I tilt up the roof
to look at the face of the frog.
~Tony Hoagland, from “Nature” Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

I grew up on a small farm with several acres of woodland. It was my near-daily retreat until I left for college: I walked among twittering birds, skittering wild bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, busy ant hills and trails, blowing leaves, swimming tadpoles, falling nuts, waving wildflowers, large firs, pines, cottonwoods, maples and alder trees.

I had a favorite “secret” spot sitting perched on a stump where a large rock provided a favorite warm sunning spot for salamanders. They and I would make eye contact and ponder what the other was thinking.

It was where I felt closest to Creation, more so than the house I slept in with my family, the busy classrooms, the dentist office and retirement home where I worked.

Only our church sanctuary was such a thin place with a “can almost touch the hem of God” reality.

At college I searched for a place as private, as quiet, as serene, as full of the voices of creation – nothing ever matched the woods of my childhood home. I gave up as I lived a decade in the city and almost forgot what a familiar woods felt like.

I’ve come close again on this farm we’ve stewarded for thirty years, but the constant distractions are much greater now than when I was a child. I can’t empty out my head and heart as completely to receive the gifts of the field and trees and woodlands. I have greater worries, bigger responsibilities, places to go, people to see, things to do, a shorter timeline to get what I want to accomplish done …

Perhaps the time will come again to simply gaze into the eyes of a fellow creature, and invite them in with a head and heart ready to receive what they and our Creator have to give.


The Full Ripe of Berrytime

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

~Galway Kinnell “Blackberry Eating”

“In that year, 1914, we lived on the farm
And the relatives lived with us.
A banner year for wild blackberries
Dad was crazy about wild blackberries
No berries like that now.

You know Kitsap County was logged before
The turn of the century—it was easiest of all,
Close to water, virgin timber,

When I was a kid walking about in the
Stumpland, wherever you’d go a skidroad
Puncheon, all overgrown.
We went up one like that, fighting our way through
To its end near the top of a hill:
For some reason wild blackberries
Grew best there. We took off one morning
Right after milking: rode the horses
To a valley we’d been to once before
Hunting berries, and hitched the horses.
About a quarter mile up the old road
We found the full ripe of berrytime—
And with only two pails—so we
Went back home, got Mother and Ruth,
And filled lots of pails. Mother sent letters
To all the relatives in Seattle:
Effie, Aunt Lucy, Bill Moore,
Forrest, Edna, six or eight, they all came
Out to the farm, and we didn’t take pails
Then: we took copper clothes-boilers,
Wash-tubs, buckets, and all went picking.
We were canning for three days.”
~ Gary Snyder “6” from Myths and Texts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries~
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Aurora Leigh”

All I wanted was a few blackberries.

I admit my objective was just to pick enough for cobbler for today’s noon dinner after church, oblivious to God burning in the bushes towering over me, around me, snagging me at every opportunity.  If I had given it more thought, I would have realized the reaching vines hooking my arms and legs were hardly subtle.  The thorns ripped at my skin, leaving me bloody and smarting.  The fruit itself stained my hands purple, making them look freshly bruised.  I crushed fat vines underfoot, trampling and stomping with my muck boots in order to dive deeper into the bushes.  Webs were everywhere, with spiders crawling up my arms and dropping down into my hair.  I managed to kick up one hornet’s nest so I called it quits.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, so blinded to all the clues crammed in every nook and cranny of every bush.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, trampling on holy ground with well-protected feet, unwilling to be barefoot and tenderly vulnerable.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, the lure of black gold plucked at the cost of rips and scratches and tears.

What I got was burned by a bush…

and a few blackberries for today’s crammed-with-heaven cobbler.

A Holy Day

Holy as a day is spent
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, and the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Shower heads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With bits of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent


Holy is the familiar room
And quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all my fear
Like autumn leaves made of earth and air
For the summer came and the summer went
As holy as a day is spent


Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
And the empty page, and the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
And with grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings ‘providence’
As holy as a day is spent
~Carrie Newcomer “Holy as a Day Is Spent “

If the New York Times says “Something Special is Happening in Rural America,” then of course, it must be true. But those of us out in the hinterlands have known the truth about the quieter life for decades. The pace is slower, the space is greater, the faces are friendlier.

It’s the small things that matter on a daily basis. Being in the center of things doesn’t matter.

Give me a home where the clouds and cows roam, where laundry is line-dried and there is no traffic noise.

Holy is the day today….and every day.

The Road Winds Uphill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

~Christina Rossetti “Up-Hill”

It is a comfort to sleep in our own bed after being away for a week. We drove uphill much of yesterday through numerous mountain passes, but then when we descended back into western Washington as darkness descended, we were greeted by the familiar landscape of home.

This life of ours can be a weary and sometimes perilous journey. There are times when it is so dark we’re not sure we can see the road, much less where it is headed or when and where we may be able to rest.

Many have gone on before us so that we will not be left stranded, lost and waiting by the roadside. There is a place waiting for wayfarers like us.

The door is flung open – those who are weary are welcomed with open arms. The road uphill points to the best home of all.