Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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Making Us Even

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”

...I want to thank you
truly for the wry smile you set
on my lips, a smile as mild as your own;
it has saved me pain and grief.
And if now I shed a tear for you,
and all who wait like you and do not know
what they wait for, it does not matter.
O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old.
Goodbye, dear one, farewell,

my sweet mother.
~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”

Mother love is life and light
beginning in the dark, as a special secret,
until you know without a doubt
you will never be just yourself again,
tethered forever to another.

~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~

the tangles we make of our lives
unravel, straighten and smooth,
no dismay over mistakes made

I was created within you –
to love my own children fully, fervently,
forever and forever –
as I was loved by you.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: God Magnified


These still December mornings…
Outside everything’s tinted rose, grape, turquoise,
silver–the stones by the path, the skin of the sun

on the pond ice, at the night the aureola of
a pregnant moon, like me, iridescent,
almost full term with light.

~
Luci Shaw from “Advent Visitation in Accompanied by Angels

And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord”…
Luke 1:46

The Incarnation allows us
to see and hear and touch
what before we could only glimpse
in a pillar of smoke,
a tabernacle,
a burning bush,
a still small voice.

God becomes magnified in the manger
with unmistakable clarity and focus.
He is remarkably tangible:
rocked and fed,
comforted when crying,
cleansed when soiled,
mourned when dying.

What was once remote is now up close,
magnified like a setting moon
so huge on the horizon at dawn.

He has settled among us
as He becomes us.

Softly the light is stealing, sweetly a maiden sings
ever wakeful, ever wistful
watching faithfully, thankfully, tenderly
her king of kings

My soul doth magnify, doth magnify the Lord
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour
Mary sang to Jesus, softly the Lady sings,
I will love you, I will serve you, make my lullaby
glorify, magnify the King of Kings
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby
~Andrew Carter

1. Magnificat, anima mea, Dominum
My soul doth magnify the Lord

2. et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo, salutari meo.
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

3. Quia respexit humilitatem ancillæ suæ: ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
For he hath regarded: the lowliness of his handmaiden: for behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.

4. Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius,
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name,

5. et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
and his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.

6. Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui. He hath showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

7. Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek;

8. esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes.
he hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

9. Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiæ suæ,
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,

10. sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in sæcula.
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.

11. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost:

12. sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen. as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: No Longer Homeless

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 thirteen 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: the nurse gently said 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 existing since a femur fracture 9 months earlier on a cruel April 1st morning. Everything changed for her at 87 years of being active at home. It was the beginning of the end for her, unable to care for herself at home.

These nine months had been her gestation time to transition to a new life. It occurred to me as I drove – she was about to be born in her long-awaited yet 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 her life, cooking up a big batch a couple times a week, enough to last several days.

I knew, seeing what was left of her there in that bed, Mom was no longer settling for yesterday’s oatmeal and no longer homeless. I knew she now she was present for a feast, would never suffer insomnia again, would no longer be fearful of dying, that her cheeks would be forever full of color.

I knew she had a new beginning: the glory of rebirth thanks to her Savior who had gently taken her by the hand to a land where joy would 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

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

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

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

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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Waves on Waves

I haven’t yet been able to find words—
a sentence for what happens when I brush
my daughter’s hair and divide into thirds
enough hair for a family of four
(one barber said, the rare one I trusted).
Honeycomb-colored braid, she’s out the door
for school (green coat, pink backpack), and rushing
right on time, little Virgo, to the bus.
One-woman-show with harmonies, alone—
amazed, bowed down (deep inhale) O the joy
contained in waves on waves: a shimmering song
my daughter’s hair sings as she floats
each afternoon high up into a tree.
Against the clouds she climbs, far beyond me.
~Megan Buchanan “My Daughter’s Hair”, from Clothesline Religion

She was born with the announcement from the doctor: “we have a bunch of red hair here on this little lady!”

Then as a little girl her hair was straight as could be, until one day she woke up with hints of waves and ringlets which eventually became a virtual thicket of auburn tresses.

No longer could I quickly comb through her hair or even trust myself with scissors. Instead I stood back in awe, with my thin straight hair, marveling at how this could happen to a child of mine. This was her daddy’s hair.

Her amazing mane is but one part of who this remarkable woman has become, these endless waves, yet it is only the surface of a strong light that dwells richly within her. Now, as a teacher of 10 year olds, she floats among children who someday will transform overnight as she did. She is part of determining who they will become, her effect on them like a wave upon wave upon wave.

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It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

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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.

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The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

In the lull of evening, your son nested in your arms
becomes heavier and with a sigh his body
sloughs off its weight like an anchor into deep sleep,
until his small breath is the only thing that exists.

And as you move the slow dance through the dim hall
to his bedroom and bow down to deliver his sleeping form,
arms parting, each muscle defining its arc and release—
you remember the feeling of childhood,

traveling beneath a full moon,
your mother’s unmistakable laugh, a field of wild grass,
windows open and the night rushing in
as headlights trace wands of light across your face—

there was a narrative you were braiding,
meanings you wanted to pluck from the air,
but the touch of a hand eased it from your brow
and with each stroke you waded further

into the certainty of knowing your sleeping form
would be ushered by good and true arms
into the calm ocean that is your bed.
 — Alexandra Lytton Regalado, “The T’ai Chi of Putting a Sleeping Child to Bed” author of Matria

Each of those countless nights of a child wakening,
each of the hundreds of hours of lulling them in the moonlit dark,
leading them back to the soft forgiveness of sleep.

I remember the moves of that hypnotic dance,
a head nestled snug into my neck,
their chest pressed into mine,
our hearts beating in synchrony
as if they were still inside.

Even when our sleep was spare and our rest was sparse,
those night times rocking in unison
were worth every waking moment, trusting
we’re in this together, no matter what,
no matter how long.

We’re in this together.

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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

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

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